Is the factory model a myth?

Chris McNutt
August 10, 2018
And this has bled into our current schools — we’re centered around control, using a traditional structure to tell children what to do, how to do it, and then expect the same uniform result.

This week we invited Jennifer Binis to our podcast. We came in contact after Jennifer messaged us on our usage of imagery conveying schools serving as “factories” to train children into serving authority. This led to some back-and-forth on Twitter - which is probably the worst medium for any form of dialogue. Therefore, we decided to meet up and share our views.

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(our poorly drawn interpretation of the factory model)

Much of our podcast, which you can listen to here, seemed to run in circles and perhaps confuse more than clarify. I respect Jennifer and the goals she’s pushing toward and we “agreed to disagree” at the end. Throughout I felt like we had the same point, just different means of getting there — but I wanted to outline my thoughts in writing, both to organize and make clear. All the following is written from my perspective — so be sure to listen to the podcast to hear both sides!

It’s my view that the factory model did — and still continues to — exist in the United States. At its core, the model refers to the creation of a standardized, ubiquitous model which trains students to listen to instructions and overall, be submissive to authority. Notably, the factory model isn’t all of education history — there’s obviously way more that occurred. Rather, this is an in-depth look at a particular narrative that took hold.

In long form, there’s much more context. The factory model doesn’t necessarily mean that every person is trained to work “in a factory” (although this was the case for many regions in the Industrial Revolution — where this system was placed on a massive scale). It’s a representation of white male capitalist imperialists who wanted obedience and compliance from citizens. Standardization would be infused with capitalism to create the ultimate workforce. And this has bled into our current schools — we’re centered around control, using a traditional structure to tell children what to do, how to do it, and then expect the same uniform result. In general, very few institutions have made changes toward progressive thought, despite pockets of teachers and some alternative schools.

To say that the factory model doesn’t exist has three major problems:

  1. It ignores the explicit pursuits of capitalist/liberalism/neoliberalism influence on education.
  2. It implies that reformers of the past have been successful in changing the trends of compliance-training in schools.
  3. It overlooks the historical record and influence of industry.

The factory model narrative tends to begin when Horace Mann travels to Prussia and is astonished by their systems of order, control, and engagement — bringing these ideas back to Massachusetts and pushing for their integration into the beginnings of the compulsory education system. Interestingly, Mann was aware that Prussian education had been criticized for the exact things the model is today, but he rejected this was happening. In response to an English magazine’s editorial attacking the Prussian doctrine, Mann explicitly argued against their claims, which were the following:

“…the whole plan of education in Prussia, as being not only designed to produce, but as actually producing, a spirit of blind acquiescence to arbitrary power, in things spiritual as well as temporal, — as being, in fine, a system of education adapted to enslave, and not to enfranchise, the human mind.” — Seventh Annual Report of Horace Mann, 1843

Particularly, Mann was impressed by the system organization. For example, he states,

“They are uniformly divided into class-rooms, and an entire room is appropriated to each class; so that there is no interruption of one class by another. But the rooms themselves are small in every dimension, excepting the distance between the scholars’ seats and the floor.” — Seventh Annual Report of Horace Mann, 1843

As Mann returns to the United States, he reports his findings and shares similar thoughts in his biweekly published Common School Journal:

“A report comes to you that a man has failed in business. Examine his affairs; ten to one, you will find them in utter confusion. He had no order, no system; and, of course, he knew not where he was, but what he possessed, or what he was doing. Order is essential in all business; in none more so than in keeping school.” — The Common School Journal Vol. 2 1843

It’s not that Mann wanted students to work in industry. In fact, his main goal was to promote economic equity (for white males). However, as standardization was introduced to our free market system — it became readily apparent that business principles would be integrated. In fact, business principles had already began to circulate. This was documented by Alonzo Potter in the mid 1800s, when he stated the purpose of public education was,

“To make men (a) more industrious (b) more active and systematic…more economical, as producers and preservers of property.” Later he said, “The most certain means of developing the industrial resources of a country, and promoting its growth and prosperity.” (Burman, 1983)

Furthermore, John Kingsbury — a popular author at the time who would best be compared to Doug Lemov (“Teach Like a Champion”), wrote in Lectures on the Failures of Teaching that,

“Teachers ought to possess sufficient knowledge of business affairs, to give them influence with practical men.” (Burman, 1983)

The structure of schools changed as well. It wasn’t only students having an increasingly narrow-focus on regurgitating knowledge— capitalist methods seeped into managerial practice. In The School and the Schoolmaster, an anonymous New York philanthropist who published the work offered the suggestion to hire female teachers, making education a “cheap system.” (Potter, 1842)

An important point throughout education history is that there was pushback. However, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban explain in Tinkering Toward Utopia, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful in enacting major change:

“ Policy elites — people who managed the economy, who had privileged access to the media and to political officials, who controlled foundations, who were educ. Leaders in the universities and in city and state superintendencies, and who redesigned and led org. of many kinds — gained a disproportionate authority over educational reform. These leaders inside and outside educ. generally shared a common vision of scientific management and a similar blueprint for reorganizing the educ. systems.” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995)

Again, there is no implication that every single school in the 1800s was training people to explicitly work in a factory — rather, most schools had influential businessmen who organized districts for efficiency. Because this model was so intertwined with money, it would make sense that business owners would want well-rounded employees that not only had base knowledge, but were able to obey and follow instructions. This is not far off — and one could argue it is worse — from today. Our school systems are so intertwined with neoliberalist thought that Henry Giroux refers to it as the “military-industrial-academic complex.”

In the second half of the 19th century, we begin to see the workings of a full-fledged factory model. One superintendent exclaims,

“ the due classification and grading of the schools is but the application of labor that prevails in all well-regulated business establishments, whether mechanical, commercial, or otherwise. It is not only the most economical, but without it there can be little progress or prosperity.” — H.C. Hickok, 1862

And to add, an author states,

“The false idea accepts acquisition of knowledge as its aim, culture, and scholarship as its ends…the true idea claims the training of every human power and susceptibility as its aim; an energetic, varied, and joyous activity as its end; and the life of a successful businessman, an influential citizen, of a working Christian.” — Alfred Holbrock, 1872

These records are consistent. The more one explores the process of teacher training, district policy, and publications — the more infused business principles are apparent with educating children. To exemplify:

“The foreman of a factory is required not merely to keep his eye on the operatives, and to report at stated periods how busy they have been, but he is required to inform the stockholders how many kegs of nails have been made….in a given time, and the amount and condition of unfinished material still on hand…If we examined carefully the annual catalogue of any school of high order, we find, that in its make-up it is near akin to the annual report of the factory manager…” — A.L. Wade (A Graduating System for Country Schools), 1881

And finally (my emphasis),

The school is a business institution, created for specific purposes. It should be conducted in all of its management upon the principles of business. Its business is to assist; as being one of the many corporations created and fostered by the State. These ends are served when the attending learners are acquiring sound knowledge in the science and the arts; where they are learning to respect authority; when they are cherishing a proper self-respect; when they are understanding their relations to their peers; when they are establishing the imperative habits demanded by business; when they are founding all their dealings on the general principles of law, morals, and religion.— Seventh Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of California, citing Professor J.H. Hoose (1876)

These are the roots of our systemic model of industry and education. Through the early 1900s, the “efficiency model” proposed by Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific” approach to management promoted a greater loss of humanity in both business and schools that replicated it. As Professor Maduakolam Ireh explains,

“Taylor’s system was swiftly taken up by business and, shortly thereafter, education with several conditions coalescing to spur the quest for scientific management in industry, education, and beyond: economic philosophy of free enterprise and a growing concern over how to design America’s system of schooling for a diverse society undergoing an influx of immigration.” (Ireh, 2016)

There’s no denying that this narrative exists and many others have listed source after source that demonstrates this history — hence why so many great progressive voices refer to industry, factories, and capitalism and their connection to schools, including Angeline Stoll Lillard, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Alfie Kohn, Howard Zinn, Deborah Meier, Edward Krug, Joel Spring, Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, and Ted Dintersmith — among many others.

This leads us to the discussion between Jennifer Binis and I. Central to the debate was the usage of the term “factory model.” In Jennifer’s view, she stated that to use this terminology has many worrisome points, which are the following:

The factory model isn’t true.

This was the main point that Jennifer and I seemingly spoke circles around. In my view, just because the factory model does not include certain elements (e.g. explicitly talking about race or people pushing back against the system) does not mean the narrative is inaccurate. The model is meant to target a very specific idea: the connection of business and schools leading to control/compulsion/compliance. It’s not a “history of education” — it’s demonstrating a particular element of industrial-influenced, en masse compulsory schools, and therefore it intentionally excludes history at certain points. At the same time, I don’t think that most progressive educators when using the factory model believe that schools “looked like factories” as in physical appearance (one could go to an old schoolhouse and recognize this instantaneously) but instead how the curriculum trained its students for factory-style labor. Yes, this has overlap with greater narratives such as assimilation, segregation, and the vast annals of history — but that doesn’t mean that the narrative is incorrect.

In the same vein, the “factory model” is an analogy to the greater narrative that existed and even though it is not literally “the schools have smokestacks and produce steel” — it’s meant as a summative understanding (students were prepared to work and be controlled — which industrialists wanted), similar to how the “banking model” of Paulo Freire doesn’t mean students literally are holding onto coins.

Reformers fought back against this system and they’re not usually spoken about. But I don’t believe this is because they’re being silenced from history — rather it’s due to the factory model being seen as negative — we’re talking about the grandiose problem of economics controlling the system.

The factory model ignores white supremacy.

I agree with this standpoint. To me, the white supremacy of industrialism and imperialism is implied, but there’s no denying that when speaking of this model that educators rarely factor in race or sex. However, I don’t believe that discussing the narrative is mutually exclusive to talking about white supremacy. For example, if I’m talking about the factory model I’m not saying white supremacy did not exist — and vice versa.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the issue of oppression in education — it’s incredibly important — but that doesn’t mean that work done by reformers of the “factory model” is inherently bad. Although some schools who exploit those most vulnerable, such as inner-city “preparatory” charter schools, are the large proponents of the factory model — we still can reenvision what school looks like so we would all prosper.

Certainly when speaking of the model, oppression is mostly ignored — but I don’t think this is meant to silence or hide a particular story. I believe people are focused specifically on the compulsory nature of widespread capitalist principles in education — which sometimes blends with the lenses of assimilation, imperialism, and segregation. Therefore, I think we should explore all narratives and not single out the factory model as incorrect as a singular lens. I consider the model a small branch of greater problems facing our society (racism, sexism, classism.)

The factory model is safe.

I reject this notion entirely. Progressive education is still fringe by most accounts — to really rebel against compulsory obedient work which includes standardized testing, grade systems, and the entire teacher/student relationship, would quickly lead to dismissal. There are many teachers, public school movements, and alternative schools doing great work throughout the country, but the vast majority are traditional. “Innovation” at a typical school is simply doing the factory model better. (what discipline tech tool will encourage compliance?; how can we use iPads for worksheets?; how will we grade people more efficiently?)

I think it’s safe to say that calling it white supremacy is undoubtedly less safe, but that shouldn’t lessen any of the work people are doing. From a practical statement, I would rather invite as many into the fold as possible by explaining this particular narrative, which is gaining traction through easy to read books, professional development organizations, and social media, and then introduce how this relates to a grander story of race, sex, and class. By throwing out the terminology and replacing it with a “less safe” term, we would instantly lose a huge portion of educators who aren’t comfortable yet with that terminology. I recognize this is centering the change of education on white teachers, but in order for realistic change to occur we can’t attack/alienate potential allies or take a step too dramatic. Otherwise, people will naturally dismiss themselves to their bubbles — potentially becoming more divided and self-righteous in their increasingly opposite causes. The factory model can serve as an introduction to the “umbrella” of larger societal problems.

The factory model promotes white male charter school founders.

Sadly, this is true to an extent. Many use the model to attack traditional schools and improve the lives of those well-off. However, a few bad actors shouldn’t imply that everyone who attempts reforms is vile. In the same breath, we wouldn’t assume that mismanaged public schools would imply that all public education must be rejected… Nor would I instantly characterize every white male educator as not having a strong solution for public schools. A critical lens must be taken for any initiative that affects children. Incredible work has been done by those inspired to end the factory model — especially in the vein of democratic education.

And yes, there is an issue with reforms that promote progressive thinking being focused in affluent areas. Again, this doesn’t mean that progressive thought is inherently incorrect or that the model is overwhelmingly for the rich. Many democratic and progressive schools are located in inner-city neighborhoods or were started with the intention of serving low-income students. That being said, the factory-model implications of influxed capitalism also harm progressive movements, as well-intentioned progressive institutions aimed at serving those less fortunate as they become the organizations they fought against. (For example, many Montessori schools which now feature ludicrously high tuition rates.)

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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