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A Model T Education: Public Schooling on the Assembly Line

Why are we holding the assembly line up as a paragon for public education?

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Friedman did not just propose a set of education policies, but rather, a fundamentally different way of thinking about, and discussing education.  His use of corporate language – “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “consumer” – encourages the reader to imagine schools in terms of the private sector, of corporations, or “factories,” as cognitive linguist George Lakoff observes.  A business has a primary goal of pleasing the consumer, of keeping costs low, of driving in revenue, and as a result, ultimately making money.  Its goal is not to enrich the public good, but rather, the private entity.  However, as Lakoff argues  “Education is about more than making money. It is about coming to know the world, about learning to think critically, and about developing the capacity to create new knowledge, new social institutions, and new kinds of businesses.” Of course, education serves a critical economic function, but it also serves to enrich culture, our morals, our quality of life, and our democracy – and to view education as a business, as a private service rather than a public good, is to strip it of these critical values.

Therein is the most potent symptom of Friedman’s education philosophy: in framing education as a business, G.E.R.M. reduces the incredibly complex, rich vibrant and human process of education into a mechanized production line, with goals of “efficiency” and “productivity” replacing learning, growth, creativity, community, and democracy. [iii]

By framing education as an assembly-line, Merrow – like many reporters – lays the foundation for schools to actually become assembly-lines (Indeed, many schools, as I found in talking to an anonymous middle-school teacher in Washington D.C. for a graphic report The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum are already on the assembly-line). And with GERM “reform” policies like No Child Left Behind and its sequel Race to the Top, Ford-like standardization is the goal – not just of tests, but of students and teachers themselves, who become interchangeable, not unlike parts on a Model T.

Mass-production is a problem for education  – indeed, it is now the problem .  Our schools are not factories, and our children are not products to be mass-produced.  Any real effort at reform will not look backwards to the assembly-line, a century-old system that reduces the humanity of our children and teachers, which strives to fit the human into the form of the standardized system; rather, any real improvement of our public education will look forward, to ways we can acknowledge and enhance the humanity of those that participate in the noble journey of learning. [iv]


[i] The PBS NewsHour is underwritten by a billionaire industrialist policy engine The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who have been the primary movers in pushing GERM policies.  In a further conflict of interest, almost every director of the school featured in Merrow’s report has direct ties to the Gates Foundation, and a star-studded fundraiser for the school was at a Microsoft store.  In other words, the Gates Foundation helped fund a report for a school they are actively supporting.  For documentation, see my essay “A Retro-Rocket Ship to the Future: Corporate Education Reform Takes Off in Silicon Valley.”

[ii] For more information on Taylor, see Nicholas Carr’s seminal essay “ Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. July/August 2008.

[iii] For much more, see Adam Bessie. “GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.

[iv] For the greater implications of an assembly-line education, see Paul Thomas “Clones, Assembly Line Capitalism, and Wage Slaves.” National Education Policy Center.  December 11 th 2012.

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