We’ve been hearing that argument about public schools in the U.S. being modeled on factories more and more lately. You’ve likely heard it; it’s summed up in the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!” The idea is that grade schools were meant to run like factories, brutalizing students by making them sit in rows and raise their hands to talk and move when a bell rang, all so they would be good factory workers. And we, sadly, continue to run them this way today.
Where to start. First, factory workers in the early 20th century did not need to know how to read or write or do arithmetic, so why would future factory workers go to school at all?
Next, children worked in factories at ages as young as four years old, so there was no going to school first, working in a factory on graduation. (See our post Why was there child labor in America?)
Last, factories and child labor within them were established long before the 20th-century version of public school education was created.
So let’s look at U.S. public schools at the turn of the 20th century. These are the sort of images we find of them:
These schools developed in our early 20th century cities. It’s not how schools in America have always been (the cherished one-room country schoolhouse was the norm). When immigration to the U.S. increased exponentially in the 1910s, we suddenly had millions of children in cities, and most of them had parents who wanted at least some of them to go to school. Sending all of one’s children to school, not just the eldest son or smartest boy, was possible for the first time in America because school was free. If the parents were both working and didn’t need their children to work, too, all of the children could actually go to school.
So because we were—and still are—the only nation on Earth to promise a free public school education to all, we built big schools with lots of big classrooms and put lots of desks in them. How else could a teacher manage a class of 30-40 students? And since classes had to be big to educate everyone, there had to be rules like raising your hand to talk and sitting still and moving only when the bell rang or it would be chaos. It wasn’t to mimic factories. It was the only way at the time to educate everyone. Some big-city tenement blocks in the 1920s had 500+ kids living on them—just one block! The hundreds of neighborhood schools that were built to educate them all had to operate a little like machines just to get all their students through.
To try to shame present-day American schools for still following this pattern, to a certain extent, is ridiculous. First, most grade schools have abandoned sitting in rows at desks all day to allow students to work in small groups, have “rug time”, and other ways of moving around during the day. To a lesser extent, many junior high and high schools do this as well. It’s been a long time since most American students sat down in the morning, got up at lunch, sat down after it, then got up to go home. (In fact, students today are the ones who don’t get recess—a once-standard part of the American school day.)
And another reason it’s unfair to shame the U.S. is that one reason we still have rows of desks is that we are still one of the few nations trying to educate all. To compare us, as is always done, with Finland or Singapore is crazy. Those are small, racially and ethnically homogenous states with no vast income inequalities. It’s easy to teach students who all start at the same place and have the same background and language. And in most of the world, education stops for most children after grade school; in those nations where it continues, by the time students reach the equivalent of U.S. high school, they are divided into students who are going on to college and those who aren’t, and they are educated separately and pretty unequally. The test scores that Finland and Singapore present to the world are just from their college-bound students.
But that’s not how we are. We still try to educate everyone, no matter the differences in race, income, language, ethnicity, and learning ability. We fail. But we still try. It’s still our goal. So any solution we come up with has to work for our situation, which is unique in the world.
Can we change our public schools to make them better? Are there better ideas out there than rows of desks? Yes. But to Prince Ea and all the others, we say reform all you want, but don’t tell people that American schools were developed by evil heartless people to indoctrinate and crush children when it was completely the other way around.
(That said, we liked Prince Ea’s video debunking the concept of race, which is indeed completely made up and not real.)