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Teaching Compliance

In my previous post, I introduced Seth Godin's recent manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). In answering his own question, Godin suggests that school is "for" some purposes that are no longer relevant, and weren't so great to begin with.

Godin argues that we have public schools both to keep kids out of the labor force and to better prepare them for the compliance-oriented jobs they'll fill as adults:

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work--they said they couldn't afford to hire adults. It wasn't until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn't a coincidence--it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they're told.

Compulsory schooling in the US, Godin suggests, is something of a vast plot to make America's undisciplined hordes of young people into compliant workers, in order to meet the needs of wealthy industrialists. Thus, schooling is configured to teach compliance and obedience rather than creativity and initiative.

Over the past century, and especially in the past few decades, the economy has shifted so dramatically that teaching kids to be obedient is counterproductive. Godin writes:

Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some people argue that we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they're told. Even if we could win that race, we'd lose. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you're capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here's the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

I find parts of this line of reasoning to be compelling: certainly, the public school curriculum has not kept up with the times to the extent needed to effectively prepare students to compete in the economy.

But were schools ever explicitly designed to create compliant workers? Godin goes so far as to draw a sharp dichotomy between teaching a rich set of skills and teaching obedience. Is it really impossible to teach obedience and creativity at the same time?

I would argue instead that schools are designed to provide all students with a common foundation on which they can build. Sometimes that "foundation" extends into things that not everyone needs (such as advanced algebra, which few people even in technical fields use on a regular basis), but I can't agree with Godin that we shouldn't be teaching some core curriculum to all kids, and teaching the kinds of behaviors (such as self-control and showing up on time) that tend to lead to success in all walks of life.

If you've read Godin's fantastic book Linchpin, you know that a lot of his thinking about initiative and creativity—and producing the kinds of thinkers and doers today's society needs—is right on target. But how do we change schooling to prepare students for this kind of world?

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