In the latest issue of Jacobin, Shawn Gude argues that the neoliberal education reform movement, in pushing for standardized testing, privatizations, and union breaking, represents a top-down attempt to implement the industrial techniques of Taylorism in the modern classroom. Standardized testing, score-based individual compensation, and the “dumbing down and narrowing of curricula” are corporate schemes to implant the logic of the factory into public schools. The result is the dehumanization of the American classroom – where education becomes another input in the production process.
Gude’s historical description of Taylorism is dead-on. Just as Gude describes, Taylorism was a keystone of industrial organization: a philosophy of scientific management aimed at mechanizing and regulating manufacturing to maximize worker productivity. The neoliberal project in education “reform” can rightly be compared to Frederick Taylor’s attempt, through careful measurement and readjustment, to regulate the production process and remove what management considered “inefficiencies.” However, Gude leaves us with the implied message that the classroom is just now becoming industrialized. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“There must be comparative uniformity”1
Public schooling in the Anglo-American world only took its current form in terms of pedagogical method, the classroom space, and structural organization in the beginning of the industrial era. The American public school – then, the “common” school – was produced by a constellation of socioeconomic and political concerns prompted by the market revolutions and industrialization in the Northeast.
It was in the post-revolutionary American republic that education was to take on a serious political significance. Statesmen like Benjamin Rush argued that education, first and foremost, would be necessary for producing responsible men who could participate in governance, and women who could raise those men. As lexicographer and teacher Noah Webster wrote in 1788, “[The] school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; moral or social duties… The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities;and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”
Education was not understood primarily as an economic necessity, though it certainly became just that, but as an institution capable of producing a particular moral subjectivity in pupils. Elites concerned themselves with producing obedient, pliable citizens – but it was, despite frequent clashes between parents and school officials, only the ultimate economic utility of this new pedagogy which pushed the population to accept the new model of education.2 A proper disciplinary education, as is the case in the present day, was an economic imperative to fit pupils into the industrial economy.
Antebellum education reform, between the 1820’s and 1850’s, was a continual battle between the monitorial pedagogy of Joseph Lancaster and the Lockean-Pestalozzian influenced pedagogy of Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Catherine Beecher, John Griscom, and many others. As David Hogan argues, the reformers “challenged the reliance of conventional pedagogy on a traditional hierarchy of authority and the use of corporal punishment. On the other hand, they also challenged the reliance of Lancasterian pedagogy on a highly rationalized system of school discipline based on continuous surveillance and impersonal authority.”3 Reforms transformed the impersonal character of the school, at arriving at a pedagogy that “would promote the internalization of authority and develop the conscience and the capacity for what John Locke called “rational obedience” and “self-government.””
In 1800, the Providence School Committee recommended “[schoolmasters] exclude corporal punishment from the schools; and in particular that they never inflict it on Females.”4 In the same period violent beatings were outlawed in the military and prohibited as punishment for crimes against the state.5 This was part of a general trend that saw institutions move toward a subtler application of techniques focused on the body and conscience, aimed primarily at producing subjects capable of “self-discipline.” Teachers were encouraged by the reformers to nurture their students and lead by example, offering themselves up as exemplars of a life of temperance and industry. At the very same time, the Northeast saw the proliferation of “normal schools,” or teacher training colleges, where a modernized pedagogy could be more uniformly imparted.
Reformist classrooms were well-provisioned according to the standards of the time. Henry Barnard hailed one “attractive, convenient, and complete” classroom in Barrington, Rhode Island for its ample heating and cast iron desks. In fact, the standardization of the classroom model led to the development of a distinct and still largely prevalent classroom geography: straight rows of desks, limited horizontal vision and communication for students, maximized vertical observation for teachers, a focus on lecturing, an economical and hierarchical system of grading, and so on and so forth.
Rote tasks – the repetitive discipline of handwriting exercises, or the need to memorize lists of facts – became one of the primary measures of a pupil’s intellectual capability. More pressingly, the body of the student came under increasing discipline: the utility of the uncomfortable classroom setting was precisely its ability to produce subjects capable of limiting bodily movement and focusing on singular tasks with a limited economy of wasted energy. All together, the most successfully socialized pupils were, and are, increasingly disembodied and skilled in a limited series of “intellectual” pursuits.
Technologies of discipline used to more-or-less effectively internalize social norms, despite their often explicitly anti-mercantile aims, produced subjects well-suited to the demands of industrial production and an increasingly bourgeois society. The industry, temperance, and obedience expected of revivalist Christians were, as Max Weber has so famously argued, adapted perfectly to the expansion of a market economy and the encroachment of industrialization upon the social body. As Hogan explains, “the true irony of New England school reform is that for all their fear of a commercialized pedagogy, the affectionate individualism of the New England reformers… promoted the embourgeoisement of American pedagogy just as much as the possessive individualism of Lancasterianism or the hybrid pedagogy of the Boston grammar school masters.”6
It may not surprise us that a classroom organized along the lines of the factory effectively prepared the working class – or shall we say a working class that was just being manufactured – for laboring in a factory setting under dehumanizing conditions with minimized resistance, even when wages were frequently insufficient if they were not already significantly in arrears. We must compare those early abortive attempts at industrialization with the post-reform environment: where laborers had been prepared for their discovered industrial utility, and the serious work of turning a pre-industrial mass into the modern working class had been begun in earnest.7
To be certain, new mechanisms have been injected into the education system: the growing securitization of schools and the criminalization of students, the neoliberal effort to close schools, privatize, and capitalize education, and the ‘Taylorist’ focus on uniform, standardized testing. These developments do not help, or actively worsen students’ educational experience, and have been deliberately targeted at dismantling the teachers’ unions.
But Gude seems to imply that a return to the glory days of union control would largely erase our problems. This is simply not the case. Our educational system still operates largely according to the now-forgotten dictates and desires of reformers from the early 19th century. We live in the shadow of an industrial system of education – one that still echoes in the prevalent desire for more standardization, for a supposedly utilitarian STEM-focused education system, and in fact even down to the organization of individual classrooms and the prevailing paradigms in pedagogy. We have almost completely forgotten that the origin of the modern classroom as a space and technique lies in a distant era. A critique of the education system that fails to address its structural orientation – the production of factory workers, or useful bodies – cannot hope to challenge the parasitic, destructive, and disciplinary norms that have produced the new wave of neoliberal reformism in the American classroom.
Matt Bruenig’s response to Gude’s article was self-consciously circumscribed. He correctly argues that the “problem with [Gude's] argument is that it does not deal with the impact of these proposed methods on students.” Unfortunately, he goes on to assume that a system that harms both teachers and students could not possibly garner any support, aside from phantom “neoliberal conspirators.” Discounting the corporate and political interests in extracting profits from the education system and breaking teachers’ unions, this ignores the central thrust of our argument: the education system reflects the dominant values that govern the socioeconomic structure. Education is the very center of a public industry that produces subjectivity. Those who believe that the values of the industrial era must be left behind fall outside Bruenig’s matrix of possibilities.
To borrow perhaps too obviously, Bruenig is only half right when he chides against “squishy Marxism” — the purpose of the industrial classroom is not to “repress and alienate” workers and teachers, its purpose is to produce them in a particular way. We have serious qualms with a system of education designed, in effect, to produce docile bodies for consumption in the production line. But Gude’s error comes in assuming that this is a new effect of the neoliberal reform-and-privatize movements. The ‘Taylorist’ classroom is rather the intensification of certain techniques of measurement and discipline in a classroom that has, since its inception, always been a mirror of industrialized society.
Bruenig’s alternative to Gude’s historicism, however, is not intrinsically convincing. He suggests a sort of utilitarian calculus whereby the beneficial and detrimental effects of neoliberal education reform are to be weighed, and a proper data-driven solution arrived at. Is this not the same logic that produces the need for perennial testing, for continuous observation, and more importantly, for the creation of a metric of observation that can quantify ‘education’? Are we to be content with producing students who simply regurgitate information on command? Or are we better served envisioning a student who cannot be standardized, a student who looks and behaves more and more like a complete individual? Such a student would defy the very logic under which the industrial classroom operates.
We cannot be satisfied with half-solutions and a backwards gaze. Education demands a conceptual revolution. At the very least, we must abandon the disciplinary impulses and intellectual stagnation of a classroom that is becoming increasingly destructive and has now become totally obsolete.
by Ben Reynolds and Zack Quaratella
1 Horace Mann, Lectures and Annual Reports on Education. 337. (1872)
2 Carl Kaestle, “School Change, Discipline, and the Common School in Early America,” p. 8. (1978)
3 David Hogan, “Modes of Discipline: Affective Individualism and Pedagogical Reform in New England, 1820-1850,” p. 3. (1990)
4 Nathan Jackson, clerk. “School Committee Minutes: 1800-1828.” Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 214, sub group 4.
5 Zack Quaratella, “The Ornament of Human Society,” p. 30. (2013)
6 David Hogan, “Modes of Discipline,” p. 41.
7 Cynthia Shelton, “Labor and Capital in the Early Period of Manufacturing: The Failure of John Nicholson’s Manufacturing Complex, 1793-1797.” (1982) See for an example of the difficulties associated with the dual-problem of ‘pre-industrial work habits’ alongside a skilled labor force that could effectively halt production when the prompt delivery of wages had ceased.