The Perils of Industry
America’s current system of education is in peril. If we can surpass or eliminate the industrialized mindset that the educational system has been built upon since the nineteenth century, we can once again realize the true nature of education – the acquisition of knowledge and skills needed for the betterment of ourselves and our society. As it stands now, the method of education is part of a hierarchical system, where the most useful subjects for work and those which will amass the most wealth are emphasized over all else. President Obama’s latest plea for education reform brought the call for an increase in funding for math and sciences. Granted, this will provide our country with the necessary skills to better compete internationally in an increasingly technologically focused world, however, what this call lacks is an emphasis on the cultivation of critical thinking which is only found in the humanities. The academic disciplines of philosophy, literature, history, and the arts which have for centuries been the key to the progression of our civilization are becoming merely supplementary to the insular approach toward the expansion of capital. This is most troubling because what we are taught is inevitably what we will become.
The persistent problem is that our industrial society continues to marginalize the system of education, placing focus not on intellectual growth, individual thought or intellectual stimulation but quantifiable results. A mold has been cast whereby “success” in terms of an individual’s education is measured not by knowledge attained but by the calculable results. Without the humanities, students are taught to simply task instead of analyze; to ask how and to never question why. The American education system is effectively producing a nation of employees, who are more eager to earn a vocational skill to achieve a certain lifestyle status than to become creative and critically thinking citizens.
The current cause of our peril stems from the methods imposed by the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution. As nations began to industrialize and factories began to grow, so to did the demand for a specialized workforce that was able to keep up with the demands of an ever advancing industry. It was seen as such an imperative to sustainable growth that education become industrially focused for specialized labor needs as well as being available to large segments of the population. Meeting these needs were the school leaders, who were impressed with the industrial model of efficiency and how quickly products were produced. The thought then became: If a model such as this could be applied to education, then university profits would be able to grow at the rate of industry. School systems began to adapt the processes of industry, thereby producing ready-made “products” able to meet the standards of labor. Students were inspired to follow direction and to comply with authority in hopes of achieving the goal for developing a more professional competence, so that they could be happily employed. Thus, the perpetual growth of industry sparked the need for specialized labor education.
While ideal for economic prosperity, the current method of education founded upon industrial needs is not conducive to fervent intellectual stimulation. The residual effects of industrialization can be seen as marginalizing the system of education so much so that the only education worth valuing is one which affects the bottom line. The subjects of math and science are currently seen to outweigh those in the arts and humanities because of their economic value. American education has become a system where very many brilliant people are weaned away from their talents. Subjects like art, music and philosophy are frowned upon because they don’t possess qualities which contribute to economic gain. Our educational system, and more importantly our society, consistently revolve around an economic orthodoxy, where education is almost exclusively about Gross Domestic Product. We have molded education to meet a new model of “success” that is focused on concrete and easily understood results that are able to be quickly adapted in the business world. Inspection of our current method of education reveals that it closely resembles an assembly line. Reflection on this method exposes that it has become all about conformity: Teaching people how to task and educating them in batches, instead of a pursuit of individual talents. Our societal devotion to economic prosperity, buttressed by unfettered competition for commerce and employment, has created a willful blindness to the notions of human flourishing. The uncompromising hegemony of industry has instituted the justification for career training based upon a notion of fitting people to operate as cogs in a machine.
A major concern emanating from a system that teaches tasks instead of palpable understanding is that we are actively producing a nation of laborers, divorced from the creative process and at a loss for civic responsibilities. Education should be used to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our own way in the world. However, most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests because they are bombarded with the importance of obtaining a marketable quality to accommodate an industrious society. Students are lost in modern education due to its stifling trap of original thought. Perhaps that is the intention, for our leaders don’t want critically thinking citizens who may start asking uncomfortable questions about the status quo. The supreme focus, the alpha and omega, of educational policy in the country is jobs, not intellectual stimulation. As a society we have come to focus education on concrete and easily learned material with its observable results, but wisdom is not corporeal. Institutions of higher learning are valued not because they can provide a catalyst for revolutionary thought, “but because they can help revitalize our nation’s economy and educate and train the next generation of Americans to meet the challenges of global competition.”* Students have come to regard their education as either useless or as a form of currency, where good grades are seen as a form of intellectual booty. Thus, education becomes a vehicle toward a desired lifestyle and not a modifier of the mind. The industrialization of education has created a culture where people seek to become “educated” merely for economic gain and admission into certain circles of society. However, this is not education, it is the result of an industrial effort to mold society into believing that wealth trumps wisdom.
The acquisition of knowledge, regardless of content, is useless if not inspected by the introspective mind. Content temporarily learned by the student is altogether useless if it is not retained because nothing is drawn from it due to its lack of substantive meaning. If no meaningful questions are asked, there can be no growth in real understanding and in a sense education becomes strictly utilitarian, more aligned with vocational training. No matter where one looks, the purpose of vocation appears to be similar: “[The] vocational is at the bottom of a hierarchy of knowledge and value, it is a stream of learning available to the ‘lower achiever’, it is governed in a paternalistic way with highly circumscribed degrees of freedom over contents and process, it is legitimated solely in industrial and other utilitarian terms, rather than in the connections among different kinds of meaning-making, and it is preserved for occupations of lower status.”* If I were taught that fire is hot but fail to apply this knowledge or wonder what causes the heat, others would rightly think I was a fool. Maintaining the mind in such a narrow train of thought is to welcome ignorance and it is in times of change that the learners will inherit the world while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to master a world that no longer exists. Therefore if one wishes to pick from the tree of knowledge by choosing to participate in a college education, eat its fruit by engaging in the humanities and other thought provoking areas, otherwise the fruit serves no purpose but to putrefy the air.
Until the problems of education are cast as a civic rather than an economic problem, the system will continue to have a pejorative effect on the future talents and minds of our society. Modern education is one that divorces students from their individual interests and instead pushes them toward subjects of monetary worth. It has become necessary to establish an environment of education where ideas and beliefs are exchanged in order to counteract the current arena of formal instruction which inhibits the critical thinking and creative processes. Regardless of a student’s age, education should not be viewed as filling an empty vessel with prescriptively rigid material, but rather as an experience in cultivation, just as one waters a flower to help it grow. The current method needs to be challenged to do more than merely train people to fit into the industrial process. All specialized vocational training should be conducted by the employer, while the curriculum of elementary education through the university level should be wholly liberal and essentially provide the same sense of stimulation for all. Although, in light of the wide ranging abilities and aptitudes with which the school will indefinitely have to encounter, curriculum should be tailored to different children in different ways. A greater emphasis will need to be placed on project work, focused on the benefits of discovery. When one learns by doing, they are both mentally and physically internalizing the experience, just as those who had originally made the discovery, and because of the experience and thought involved, the result is more profound. In addition, there will be a need to eliminate the hierarchy of subjects; the elevation of some disciplines over others only reinforces a situation of the outmoded assumptions of industrialism which offends the principles of diversity. Equal contributions from the arts, sciences, humanities, languages, and math are all central qualifiers to achieving a thorough education.
An educational system revolving around industrial profit will only hinder future generations from enjoying our foundational liberties and keep them from exploring their individual talents. With an emphasis that does no more than fit people to a limited task within an industry, it is this process that becomes as stultifying as the job itself. Such an education in which the focus is based on training an individual do to a particular task within the narrow means of producing a material good, instead of the development of the self or the betterment of society, is not an education at all. Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The access to a liberally based education is a fundamental need to prepare a free people to make good use of their freedom and expand upon their talents. If we were to ask the founding fathers – those who created this country as a bastion of revolutionary thought – whether education should be vocational, they would most surely say that the only vocation with which one should be concerned is the common human calling; the pursuit of happiness. They would regard placing an emphasis on educating people for vocational purposes as the training of slaves, not the education of the free, for no real craftsmanship or skill is demanded. The division of labor which limits people to performing a few simple operations makes them simply an appendage of the industrial process and never an asset. The balance between personal and civic, between private gratification and public duty has been skewed in our educational system and needs to be redressed. The intellectual currency afforded by education should allow for more than the ability to function as part of a larger process and instead allow us to think critically, create actively and pursue our individual happiness. While distinct in its individuality, happiness is a personal endeavor which should align itself with the true nature of education, enabling a person to become a unique part of society, not merely a manifestation of it.
* Stevenson, J. (2005) The Centrality Of Vocational Education and Training’. In Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 57/3, pp. 335-354.
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