Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog

Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog

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Monday, February 15, 2010

The Factory Model of Education, Technocracy, and the Free School Movement

The American free school movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s (1, 2) arose as a rebellion against the oppressive authoritarianism of state-run education, that is, the top-down, coercive, follow-the-rules and -rubrics mentality that dictates from on high what has to be done in the classroom. Various writers have referred to this authoritarian system, among other terms, as a technocracy and a “factory model” of education.

That is to say that business and capitalism usually take the blame for the authoritarianism. The last thing that free school advocates would propose is a free market in education. Yet there is much to be admired in the work of the founders of free schools: their emphasis, in particular, on decentralized organization and catering to the needs and interests of the child. Democratic management of the schools, which no doubt empowers the children, may or may not flourish in a free-market system.

The notion of free schools goes back at least to the work of a young Leo Tolstoy (1, 2), who disliked the rigidity and sterility of the European schools. The proponents of the idea, however, are mistaken about the role of business and capitalism in producing the authoritarian atmosphere they are rejecting. The factory model of education, for example, has a badly misunderstood history. Some say that the entire American public education system, dating from its beginnings in the 1840s, was modeled on the factory system.  Students, it is said, are products produced assembly-line style, then sold to the highest bidder in the labor market.*

The factory model, however, is an early twentieth-century phenomenon, coexistent with the rise of progressive education but not an essential characteristic of it. Labor productivity and efficiency were the focus of so-called scientific management (1, 2). These ideas—many of them needed at the time, as management of any kind was not well understood as a skill or taught—were transferred to the administration of public schools.

The problem was (and is) that public schools are bureaucratic, top-down, coercive institutions. Businesses are not. Businesses operating in a free market have a built-in measure of efficiency: profit earned through customer satisfaction. Bureaucracies measure their success by reference to the higher authorities in government who set the rules, laws, and budget. That is the source of the authoritarian atmosphere of public education. The factory model is bad analogy. The product of education is knowledge, values, and skills; the students are paying customers.

Technocracy was a movement in the 1930s that advocated using scientists and engineers to run government (and, therefore, the control and regulation of business). It gave us the phrase “social engineering.” The free school movement of the 1960s brought the term back to refer to the authoritarian nature of public education. This is not incorrect because technocracy is a species of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, whether expert scientists and engineers or not, call the shots over their subordinates. It is unfortunate that the free school advocates do not see the connection between technocracy or bureaucracy and governmental coercion. It is only the free market that would fully allow them to pursue their goals without further authoritarian influence from outside.

Indeed, John Holt did come to the conclusion that the only valid form of education safe from corrupting influences is home schooling, an autarchic withdrawal from the world at large. Holt never did advocate, nor would have advocated, capitalism. Other free schoolers think that their model of small, decentralized child-centered schools should become the model of public education, replacing the current authoritarian behemoths. They fail to see that any cooperation with the coercive apparatus of bureaucratic government requires compliance to rules and laws. Even charter schools that supposedly are freed from some of those rules still succumb to political football tossing and regulation. Many fail to maintain their original missions (1, 2).

The upshot of schooling is that schools are not factories that produce goods. They are high-traffic service firms analogous to entertainment businesses. Some entertainment companies, such as concert halls and sports stadiums, provide their services to thousands of people at one time. Others provide individual services, one customer at a time. There is no reason to assume that a free market in education would not provide its services on a similar scale. The methods of delivery would be the lecture and the tutorial. Customers would be free to choose which services, as described, in combination, or in other variations, they would like to buy. The market would decide. No authority would oversee, control, or regulate.

*I have heard college professors refer to their students as work in progress. When the students graduate, they are finished goods. A better description of environmental determinism—the molding of the child’s clay mind by an outside authority—could not be given. Hopefully, such professorial comments are bad metaphor, rather than serious descriptions.

Friday, January 22, 2010

“You Can Get It in the Book”

Many years ago, while being interviewed by a dean for an academic position, I became engaged in a discussion of the philosophy of education. The dean tossed out as if it were self-evident: “The lecture has been obsolete for 500 years, since the invention of the printing press. Students can read the book.” His assumption was that lectures were needed in the pre-printing press era when books were rare and expensive, but not today when they are plentiful.

While it is true that with careful reading and study one can “get it in the book,” this neglects differences between written and oral presentations, between reading and speaking. These differences give rise to the true benefit of the lecture and explain why it has not died out in 500 years.

The average rate of reading with comprehension by an adult is about 250-300 words per minute. The average speaking speed of politicians is 120-25 words per minute, and CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite spoke at the exact rate per minute of 124 words. Casual conversation is often faster, but the point about the lecture is that formal oral presentations are delivered at half the rate, or less, of the average reading speed.

This means that less information can be presented orally in one minute than what can be read in the same amount of time. Less information in an oral presentation means essentialization. A lecture that essentializes a text makes it easier for the listener to grasp the main points of the written content. With the main points in hand, the listener can then pursue a more detailed study of the written material without first having to read at length to separate the essential from the nonessential. The advantage of the lecture is its efficiency; it saves time.

Whether the speaker deliberately essentializes the presentation or not, the listener hears it as essentialized, as important. The detail in the text is understood as detail. This means that it matters what gets selected as essential in the oral presentation. It makes the difference between good, bad, and indifferent lectures.

The efficiency of the lecture, of course, can also be achieved in conversation with an expert or mentor. The real advantage of the lecture is its ability to broadcast large amounts of essentialized material to many listeners at one time. Does this mean that everyone in the audience learns and digests the material in exactly the same way, one hundred percent? Hardly.

The comprehension and learning of listeners to a lecturer is exactly analogous to the comprehension and appreciation of listeners to a string quartet concert. One member of the quartet’s audience might be tone deaf. The next might be a professional violinist from another group who frequently plays the same pieces as those being performed on stage. Similarly, some students in my classes come in with D-’s in their prerequisite courses. Others come in with A’s. Most are somewhere in between. Audience members—of lectures and string quartet concerts—take away from the experience what they want, and are able, to take away.

Fine tuning may or may not be desired. In education, it usually is, which is why Jacques Barzun declared, “A lecture is a sizing of the canvas in broad strokes. The fine brush
and palette knife must be used close up to finish the work of art” [1] and why Gilbert Highet argued that the only two methods of teaching are the lecture and tutorial [2].

The purpose and value of the lecture is mass communication. The purpose and value of the tutorial is personal communication and individual attention. Though some, perhaps many, of a lecturer’s audience may not absorb everything the lecturer intended, a few listeners may be motivated to study the subject in more detail, just as concertgoers may be stimulated to buy CD’s of the works performed and listen to them many times over in order to learn them thoroughly.

The lecture is part of the division of labor in education. The tutorial is the other part.

1. Teacher in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954), 39.
2. The Art of Teaching (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), chapter 3.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Education in One Lesson

Unjustly neglected, difficult-to-find, and significantly influential on my own work, The Real Academic Community and The Rational Alternative by Thomas L. Johnson is a kind of “education in one lesson.” Like Henry Hazlitt’s gem on economics, Johnson’s begins with the lesson and then illustrates it abundantly throughout the remaining chapters.

The lesson? That schools today (and since antiquity) are institutions not of learning, but of authoritarianism. Force and fear reign supreme. Administrators and instructors “are the authority figures who must be obeyed in every respect, and students, who are the ‘peasants’ in this establishment, must try in every way to please those who rule over them.” In short, students “must please the schools, colleges or universities, instead of these institutions having to please the students.” The power of the book is in its illustrations of the lesson and in the free-market alternative that Johnson proposes.

From the primary and secondary school level:

Discipline. The authoritarian setting, says Johnson, works against the possibility of order in the classroom. Students are forced to be there by law, directly in the lower grades and indirectly in the higher, by the hampering of a free market through regulation. As a result, “almost everything in the classroom is done by means of orders and threats.” The students are ordered to perform certain tasks and threatened with low or failing grades if they don’t comply. Cornered rats—and prisoners—rebel when squeezed too hard. Schools are scholastic prisons and teachers are the guards and wardens paid to keep order.

Drugs. In the authoritarian climate of today’s schools, where the “customers” are not permitted to pursue their own interests, boredom, resentment, confusion, and low self-esteem frequently result. Drugs are seen by some students as a way to relieve their feelings of hopelessness.

Violence. “Force is the hallmark of any authoritarian establishment whether this be a state or an institution. And wherever there is force there will always be acts of violence. They are inevitable companions.”

Cheating. Anyone who has been through today’s school system knows that knowledge is not what is being marketed. “Students, recognizing that good grades and a diploma are what is really valuable to them, will often not hesitate to cheat in order to obtain these primary ‘goods’ which the teachers and schools are really selling.”

At the college level, Johnson has this to say:

Degrees. “It is because institutions of learning give out diplomas or grant degrees that they operate in an authoritarian manner. It is because the students must please the teachers and professors, as well as the institutions, in their attempt to ‘win’ the certificates of graduation that allows the schools, colleges and universities to be the dictatorial institutions that they are. . . . The professor orders the students to perform certain tasks—read certain assignments, write specific papers or reports, give designated oral presentations, etc.—and the students either follow these orders, or else.” Professors hold the degree up for ransom and their red ink pens are their guns.

Student Government. Why does it exist? Because students “realized that matters were often in need of change at the college or university and so they decided to band together in the attempt to see what they could do to bring about the desired changes.” In a free market, dissatisfied customers can stimulate change in a supplying business rather quickly, or else a new one will soon be on the scene to meet the needs of the dissatisfied buyers. But schools are not free enterprises. “All student government could really do was to petition, that is to beg, the administration or Board for favors—like changes in rigid social rules—that would make life at a bit more bearable.”

Academic Freedom and Tenure. Similar to the plight of students in an authoritarian climate, professors organized to protect themselves against administrations. They demanded and got the privilege of lifetime employment and the license to say and write whatever they please (as long as it is consistent with state or administration dogma). In a free market, employees who disagree with their employers simply leave and go elsewhere, and perhaps start their own businesses. Education, however, is not a business; there is nowhere for the professors to go.

Titles and Robes. Johnson discusses other issues, such as honor systems, academic and social probation, dress codes, hazing, and school spirit. His crowning achievement, however, is his comment on titles and robes.

“But what do titles signify?” asks Johnson, titles such as “Doctor” and “Dean.” He answers:

Titles signify power, prestige and authority, and they have always been used to instill fear in others—to con others into thinking that the titled personage is someone special and better than others who must be looked up to and obeyed. . . . Titles . . . are almost always found where there is some degree of tyranny.

How about academic regalia—

all those Medieval robes, caps and hoods? . . . It is true that certain businesses do have their employees dressed in similar outfits, or many businesses have a particular character, like a clown, dressed in a certain way and acting as a representative or symbol of the business. But one does not find, as one does in the academic community, a group of academic “clowns”—the professors, administrators, and board members—dressed in Medieval clerical garb forming and marching in academic processions that look almost identical to religious processions. . . .

Titles and robes are always found wherever one group of people is trying to lord it over another group of people. Kings and dictators get themselves up in fancy costumes and demand that they be called by an array of titles. Military and academic personnel do the same. But not businessmen. They do not, and cannot, lord it over customers. They must win the favor of customers by demonstrating their talent and ability. Talents and robes are of no help in a rational and healthy business environment.

The rational alternative to this forceful, fearful authoritarianism is a free market of educational businesses—”private, profit-making and openly competing enterprises that are only selling instruction, not grades and degrees. . . . There would be no entrance requirements and no prerequisites. . . . There would be no grades and no diplomas or certificates.” The customers would evaluate the sellers much as is done in free-market businesses today. Teachers, the peddlers of knowledge and ideas, would not evaluate the customers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Education and the Rent Control Model of Monopoly

Education in the United States today is a monopoly, as is the supply of rental apartments in many cities. Monopoly[1] is the restriction of a portion of a market for the exclusive use of certain select sellers at the expense of other sellers who are forbidden entrance into these markets. It is a government-granted privilege.

The delivery of first class mail is the most obvious privilege granted to the US Postal Service. When teenage entrepreneurs have attempted to compete with the post office, they have been ruthlessly put out of business by the feds. But monopoly does not have to be a single seller. It can be a monopoly of the many, as occurs in occupational licensing where the goal is to restrict supply in order to increase prices and therefore income for those who are granted the license.

In government-run monopolies, such as education, the goal is to keep price low and the supply widely available. Inefficiencies that result from the top-down, non-market focus of bureaucratic management in turn lead to high costs that are subsidized by the government. The effect is to freeze out private-sector competition—if it is legal in the first place to compete with the government-run schools. In some countries it is not. If a private-sector system of schools is allowed to exist, the costs of private education often require a quite high price.[2] This is what we have today in the United States and it is analogous to the rent control markets in such cities as New York and Berkeley and Santa Monica, California. The only difference is that the controlled apartment buildings are privately owned. City housing removes the need to call the comparison analogous.

The privilege granted to the operators of government-run schools consists of far more than the obvious lack of competition. It creates a guild of teachers and administrators who work primarily for the benefit of their own needs and wants, not those of their students. As Adam Smith[3] put it over two hundred years ago, referring to publicly financed higher education:

In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.


The discipline of the colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefits of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students, in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability.

In the privileged comfort of tenure and salary guarantees, most of today’s K-12 and college teachers seldom, if ever, have to face real competition. Opposite the intended goal of a widely available supply, bureaucratic inefficiencies and indifference create large class sizes and shortages of instructors such that students bang down the teachers’ doors begging to get into the classes that are scheduled—not because the students want to learn from the great masters, but because they need the units. Government involvement in education creates a situation in which sellers do not have to do anything to attract customers. Some sellers—the teachers—find the door banging annoying and the students a nuisance. Niceness, cordiality, and, generally, concern for the customers’ needs and wants, as a result, often go out the window. The same is true of rent-controlled apartment house superintendents.

The solution to both education and rental housing is decontrol and privatization. The privatization of the education market and the decontrol and privatization of the rental apartment market would at once increase the supply and variety of schools and rental apartments, because anyone would be free to begin offering these services and would be free to do so at a profit. The disparity between the current private and public sector prices would converge, because the abnormally high prices of the private sector would immediately drop due to the immediately increased supply (or promise of such increase).

In a free market real prices decline over time. As efficiencies and innovations emerge in the newly deregulated education and rental apartment markets, prices—in terms of the number of labor hours required to purchase a unit of the service—would also decline. Customer satisfaction would become the means to earning a profit. Niceness, cordiality, and catering to the needs and wants of the customer, not airs of guild-like smugness and superiority or indifference, would become primary.

1. Chapter 10
2. See “Dozens More Colleges Pass the $50,000 Mark This Year,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1, 2009.
3. Book V, chapter  I, part III, article II

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Primacy of Method

The progressive education goal of teaching students how to think, as opposed to teaching them a particular content, does not mean that content is omitted or ranked third, fourth, or fifth in the hierarchy. It does not even mean that content is ranked second, for as John Dewey put it in one of his occasional business metaphors, subject matter is the working capital of thought. Taken literally, a business is not viable if it does not have working capital. In Dewey’s usage, the metaphor means: no subject matter, no thought.

If learning how to think conceptually—in principles and without a dichotomy between abstractions and concretes—is correctly taught, content must be included to have something to think conceptually about. The key point about primacy of method is that the content does not have to be any particular content or “core curriculum.” This is in contrast to traditional education that puts curriculum first.

This is also not to say that teaching how to think is not a subject matter in its own right. It is. The principles of logical thinking, generalization, application, and the creative process are content that can and should be taught throughout secondary and higher education. The problem is that the progressive movement of the twentieth century never rigorously taught the principles of thinking. In its place it put poorly designed and controlled group projects, a barrage of failed reforms, and often little if any well-organized content.

Nevertheless, the primacy of method, or teaching students how to think well, is the essential distinguishing characteristic of progressive education when it is compared to the traditional or conservative form. Indeed, the aim of the great education reformers in history, beginning with Quintilian and even including the Jesuits, was, as formulated by Rousseau, to see the child as a child, not as a smaller version of the adult. This means in particular to see the child’s mind as a child’s mind, hence the need for specialized techniques to develop young thought processes. It includes being nice to the child and catering to the child’s interests.

“Being nice” can be viewed as symbolic of the progressive emphasis on the “whole child.” The two phrases, however, mean a lot more than the clichéd versions sound. They emphasize, in addition to not physically or mentally punishing the child, the need to be aware of the child’s psychology and to encourage the adoption of life-advancing self-confident premises. The extended meaning of “whole child” is the development of an unobstructed mental and emotional life that produces independent, not just sound, judgment. Content must be there in the child’s brain, but stuffing it or furnishing the “empty vessel” with a prescribed core curriculum is not the primary goal of education. Teaching students sensible decision making (sound judgment) and the ability to perceive facts as facts and, more importantly, especially in the face of opposition, the willingness to act on those facts (independent judgment) is. Content follows, driven by parent and student, not bureaucratic, interest.

When parents and students are allowed to determine content by buying and abstaining from buying the services of entrepreneurial teachers who are unhampered by the dictates of educational bureaucrats, a system of progressive education can be fully achieved. It is for this reason that I would describe the theory of concentrated attention and independent judgment detailed in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism as a theory of progressive education without the state. Interference of the state in education—by forcibly dictating what will be learned and how it will be learned, by forcibly expropriating funds from some to pay for the education of others, and by forcibly compelling children to attend school at all—thwarts and destroys the aim of catering to the needs and interests of the child. Only a free market in education that bans the initiation of physical force against parents, students, and entrepreneurs would make it possible for this aim to be accomplished.

Primacy of method means that education is aimed at the development of the mind. A mind well trained in the functions that are its distinctive nature, namely the correct perception and evaluation of the facts of reality and the guidance of behavior based on those correct perceptions and evaluations, is a mind that has been trained in method. It is one that has been taught how to think. Content is acquired and accumulated in the process but it is not primary.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Interest and the Core Curriculum

In discussions of curriculum over the past one hundred or so years, debate has ranged from letting children choose entirely what they want to study, guided only by their interests, to forced memorization of the encyclopedia, usually called the core curriculum. “Memorizing the encyclopedia” might be a harsh characterization, but some die-hard core-curriculum advocates would not object to it.

The question is, when you take the church and state out of education and replace it with a free market, what would the curriculum be? The answer is whatever the market decides, that is, whatever the parents and students decide they want to pay money for. Just like what we find in the automobile market. The parallel question is, what would cars be like if we let the free market decide? Well, we have a (relatively) free market in automobiles today, so we have big cars, small cars, fast ones, expensive ones, cheap ones, etc. We have an enormous variety of cars but most of us do have cars and we manage to get around town and country without much hassle. Actually, with considerable satisfaction. (Those of us who don’t have cars choose other means of transportation, including walking.)

The core curriculum is a one-size-fits-all strategy and assumes that someone—an education czar or panel of education experts—knows what is best for our children. In automobiles, this strategy would give us one design, one engine, one type of tire, interior, color, etc. Maybe a modest variety of styles—two or three at most—but none that the market actually wants, only what the “experts” think they should want. In education, thoughts of letting parents and children choose what they want unleashes panic screams from the core curriculum crowd about how parents will seek out all sorts of weird ideas, or perhaps not educate their children at all, and the children will go for easy A’s and no homework. The assumption guiding the notion of a core curriculum remains that only one institution, the government, can require such a curriculum and that at the point of a gun.

A little history shows that force does not need to be brought into the curriculum debate. Hellenistic Greece is the origin of our current three-part structure broken into primary, secondary, and higher education. Governments in the ancient world rarely interfered with the educational process. Fathers paid teachers to educate their sons. The curriculum? Greeks called it enkyklios paideia or general education. Romans translated it at as artes liberalis or liberal arts. Today, we might also call this an education in western civilization. Higher education in the ancient world split into two factions that we still have to this day: professional education (rhetoric, medicine, law) versus knowledge for its own sake (philosophy). Weird ideas and easy A’s? There were mystery cults but they did not dominate the education system. And there was no grading, examination, or credential system at all. That is a product of the medieval guilds and the rise of modern bureaucracy.

Another assumption of the core curriculum advocates, especially those who would require specific textbooks and lectures on western civilization, is that the students who are coerced to be in those classroom seats would actually read the book and listen to the lectures. It is obvious to anyone who teaches in the present system that many, and sometimes most, do not do this even in elective courses. The coercive, bureaucratic environment of modern education kills interest in all but the strongest, most purpose-driven students.

Let the parents decide. Let the students decide. Summerhill and Sudbury Valley Schools have amply demonstrated how wide-ranging freedom and learning guided by interest can lead to a satisfying education for one’s chosen purpose in life (1, 2, 3, 4). The students’ education in these schools may not match the pristine dictates of the core curriculum advocates, but it does match the students’ needs and wants. That’s what capitalism is all about.

And that brings us to the “weird ideas” that core curriculum advocates fear. The problem is that “weird” depends on who you are talking to. Some fear that atheism might be taught to the young. Others fear that it might be religion. Others fear capitalism and the greedy, selfish profit motive being taught. Still others fear communism will become the core curriculum.

And therein lies the heart of the issue. Core curriculum advocates want to control the minds of the young with their particular ideas. They want their ideas to rule. When enforced by the government, however, there is only one name that can be given to the core curriculum: censorship. It forces out or removes to the margin all other ideas. Students’ and the students’ parents do not get to choose.

Let the market decide.