Arne Duncan’s History Lesson to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT): Elevating the Teaching Profession? Part 2

In this part we will look at the historical rise of the factory school, industrialization and the new capitalist relations of power and how they configured both the ideological and material reality of teaching and learning.

Education at the end of the American Civil War in 1865

The end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the immediate years that followed brought unbridled economic growth and development to this country. New scientific and technological developments fueled the expansion of markets and shaped a deeply changing United States. More and more Americans began to live in large urban centers, migrating from the countryside at alarming numbers, which led to the increased development and expansion of cities. Coupled with immigration, the increased urbanization and industrialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to a rapid growth of U.S. industry and a new concentration of economic power in the hands of emerging industrialists, titans and corporations – it was the Gilded Age of the Carnegies, Vanderbilt’s, Melons, Rockefellers, to name just a few.

Immigration helped the political and cultural landscape of the country in the late 1800s as larger urban centers were not only growing, but for the first time they were growing with people other than white Anglos.1 Capital required cheap labor and immigration served, as it does now, to offer capital protection from paying high salaries. One thing that Duncan is correct about is that along with this rapid industrial growth there was a need to assimilate the newly arriving immigrants into the melting pot of “mainstream” American life much as the captains of industry say the necessity is now. An obvious and logical forum for this assimilation was the public school. Work in urban centers during this time in history was largely relegated to industrial factory work, so the first public schools in the United States would resemble the factory as well. There were bells to sound the beginning of classes, desks were bolted to the floor in regimented rows, strict discipline was maintained, and there was a rigidly and hierarchically imposed social order.2 All of this mirrored the outside economic class structure and emerging consumer which culture grew alongside the new industrialism and the distinct material conditions for capital accumulation.

The costs of building these new factory-type schools were justified in the minds of the public by appeals on the part of capital and their political representatives and titans to the “national interest”. The argument was simple and resembles what we hear and read today: immigrant children were in the United States because the United States needed the labor of their parents to become rich and prosperous. The market rational at the time also argued that educating these children would lead to a positive return on investment, that is, a more productive workforce and a more competitive country. Of course what is left out of the narrative is that the labor of immigrants was needed for a few elites to become rich and prosperous off the unconscionable working conditions of workers at the time. This was a time when child labor was not only condoned but harnessed as part of capital’s business plans, as was the burgeoning immigration. The late 1800’s saw the continuous migration of Chinese workers into the US, for example.

One leading educational reformer at the time, Ellwood Cubberley, wrote in 1916:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.3

This could have been written today and sounds so much like the corporate chatter heard among the contemporary ruling elites. Education, we are told, is to be wedded to the needs of the economic realities of capitalism, be it cybernetic, financial or industrial.

Yet although the message sounds much the same today, the reality of late stage capitalism or what is also called neo-liberalism, is that unlike in the past, less and less Americans are now needed for the capitalist class to exploit surplus labor as more and more work has been outsourced overseas where costs of labor are cheaper, surplus value higher and regulations often non-existent. Today much of the need is not simply training a new immigrant class, though it is this, it is also about using schools to contain or shelve what is more and more a disposable population of children who are generally poor and minority youth of color who face more and more a deracinated, militarized and carceral culture of fear and surveillance. The regimentation and housing of disposable populations is now part of educational policy.

If the public school represented the factory in the early part of the 1900’s, the students themselves were little more than the raw material or objects of production; they were products to be fashioned by the public school system and those who labored in them. In the emerging modern public schools of the United States, children, especially immigrant children, were to be trained to follow directions and routines, learn proper English, and develop rudimentary “basic skills” such as reading, mathematics, and writing. Schooling, in a sense, developed as a center for socialization and indoctrination as the United States entered the industrial era.

Now of course, the new literacy is “key stroking,” “learning English,” and learning to manage and traverse the new communication systems and data systems necessary for capitalist production. Routines still need to be followed and a docile work force is still necessary, but the routines have changed, as the forces of production have transformed; the docility necessary is now imposed management of self, far too often by the use of fear, force, surveillance and monitoring practices and technologies within schools.

In the post–Civil War United States, market interests and business concerns rapidly permeated public schools, just as they do now. Not only was the curriculum of the public schools immersed in the growth, regulation, and maintenance of urbanization and the rise of industrialization and factory existence under capitalist relations, the schools were also implicated in the development of a modernist conception of knowledge and intelligence.

The same thing is occurring today; capitalists are both interested in controlling the curriculum, as they have been for years, but they also wish to assure that the ‘outputs’ (the students), fall in line with the neo-liberal policies that will govern their lives and from which they will be taught there is no opposition to the system or escape from it. If we examine charter school politics in any depth, for example, we see that this marriage, the marriage between market interests and public education is one of the most controversial aspects of charter school reform and comes at a time when the argument for educational reform is being steered by the same Business Roundtable interests and Chamber of Commerce interests of the past. The only difference: the material forces and relations of capital and the state surrogates such as Arne Duncan who now cleverly carry the same tired message.

Between 1880 and 1920, as the factory-style public school system emerged, so, too did a philosophy which specified that the reality and life of both students and teachers needed to be scientifically oriented and regulated.4 Data systems in the form of standardized tests began during this time period, and mechanisms inherent in the tests were to be the sorting and categorizing apparatuses that would serve to place students on specific curricular tracks, deciding who entered the corridors of power and who did not. This is precisely what Bill Gates is calling for in his Schools for Dummies manual, entitled Tough Choices or Tough Times, which makes specific recommendations for changing public education. Similarly, Race to the Top mandates that states develop data tracking systems to monitor teachers’ efficacies and students’ abilities on standardized tests.

Modern rationalism and specific, Cartesian linear ways of knowing emerged as the measure of intelligence and the new standardized tests, such as the Stanford Binet Test, were designed to calibrate and classify students based on emerging modernist notions of intellectual and social behavior. These instruments of assessment also gave specific direction to teachers as to what they should be doing in their classrooms, how they should organize their time and priorities, and what subjects should be emphasized. As we will see, Race to the Top searches to accomplish the exact same instrumentalization of teachers; but it is now under the rubric of making them “exemplary teachers” engaged in “best practices” working towards becoming “teachers as professionals.”

Flattery is now being employed by the new reformers to garner favor with capitulating unions in an effort to sell the whole insipid mess to both teachers and the public. Duncan, like his boss Obama, is a consummate Machiavellian and sophist as testified to by the piece in American Education as well as his countless public appearances on labor union stages. He sits comfortably with teachers, on or off stage, in his writings and in his rhetoric but make no bones about it, Arne Duncan is little more than a neo-functionalist using the functionalism of industrial capitalism as a platform to announce his arguments and positions and then circle the privatization wagons around what was once a public investment – education.

The Rise of Industrial Capitalism and social functionalism

The mushrooming industrial capitalism of the late 1800s and early 1900s needed schools to preserve, extend, and legitimize the economic relations of capitalist production and the arrival of new forms of unprecedented capitalist accumulation and soaring levels consumption as well. Consequently, during this period, there was the rise and development of an educational philosophy called social functionalism: education organized, implemented, and controlled to meet the functional needs of society’s business and economic interests which included capital production and consumption.

These functional needs became increasingly identified with what was necessary in the workplace and larger growing consumer society, and as we shall see, controversies regarding social functionalism were one of the identical impetuses that encouraged the growth of market based approaches to education like charter schools, the Race to the Top, the call for more rigid and standardized testing, merit pay, the end of teacher tenure and seniority, incentive pay, the surveillance of the “best practices”, and thus the standardization of personality through institutionalized and formulaic schooling. Think about it: one can hardly go a day without hearing about how teachers are simply unequipped to teach and how we must prepare our students for the exigencies of the cybernetic capitalist boom and the competition inscribed by capitalist relations of globalization. There is little talk about childhood experiences, such as reading for pleasure, joy, art, music, schooling as the home of the mind, liberal arts, critical thinking or the humanities when neo-functionalists like Arne Duncan speak. It’s all about competing: competing with other teachers for pay and acknowledgement, competing on tests, competing as a society, competing internationally and competing within social classes.

Directly associated with the social functionalism of the schools of yesterday was an excessive preoccupation with the values of productivity, efficiency, and thrift5 , for these were the underlying ideological gatekeepers for capitalism, the values of the system. With the development of the assembly line and specifically the contributions of Frederick Taylor to the new science of business management that was being realized on assembly lines, efficiency, productivity, and speed began to capture the imagination of the American public. Factory work relied on workers who could follow instructions, understand simple directions, and work swiftly to increase production with maximum efficiency. The role of schooling was to inculcate these values and behaviors. Good students would be good workers and good workers would know their place in the larger social order and work to create the material conditions necessary for capital accumulation.

With the small shopkeeper disappearing and corporate power beginning to emerge and firmly grasping the levers of government and the economy, the new industrialist and the industrial tycoon now became the cultural model for a successful person;6 these were the men who were to be looked up to. Industrial production proceeded at levels unheard of in the past, and the power and ideology of industrialized production and its corporate titans became the infatuation and ideology of the United States during this period. Today, Bill Gates, the Walton Family, The Fisher Family (owner of the Gap), Eli Broad, Warren Buffet, and a slew of other philanthro-capitalists and Wall Street financial tycoons work their audience from the imperial stage of managerial control and power, dictating the educational future through both their wealth and their economic largess, much of it ruefully gained through illegal labor practices, sweatshops, monopoly, price fixing, economic and financial accounting schemes and other repugnant methods for “making money” which is then equated with wealth, status and power.

It is hard not to see the parallel between that historical time period and today. Although contemporary production has shifted to technological and service work as the United States enters into the “third wave” or post-industrialism of cybernetics, infatuation with technological tycoons, cybernet billionaires and the ideology of efficiency and “lean” or “just in time” production now dominates the country’s culture and dialogue. School-to-work programs are important aspects of many public schools, and ideas like charter schools, calls for teacher incentive pay or merit pay, and a standardized curriculum under No Child Left Behind have all arisen partly in response to the demands of the new social functionalism and the proclaimed need to prepare students for the exigencies of capitalist production in the twenty-first century. Duncan, although he wishes to hark back to criticisms of the industrial age of factory schools, as we will see, he and his DOE are really the carnival barkers for the same educational reforms, but of course under different auspices. Arne Duncan and his backroom concocted educational policies are not the future we need, but mirrors in so many ways the history he bemoans. That he is so delusional not to see this is especially troubling, for he is cobbling together a new material reality for education, one not in the interest of human development but one in the interest of capital formation and accumulation.

Not only did the industrial age have an impact on the purposes and goals of education, but the social functionalism of the time also affected staffing patterns, curriculum construction, and instructional design (Goodman 1995, 6), just as we see now. What Raymond Callahan referred to as the “cult” of efficiency and productivity had an effect on every aspect of schooling (Callahan 1962). Taylorism, (named for Frederick Taylor, the father of the assembly line) the modern science of business management, was rapidly being implemented in school production. With educational goals being restructured and defined as increasing productivity in schools, in essence the quantity rather than the quality of what students learn, the factory school began to predetermine outcomes and then plan backward to restructure education so that those outcomes could be reached. Bobbitt described this process as early as 1913:

The third grade teacher should bring her pupils up to an average of 26 correct combinations in addition per minute. The fourth grade teacher has the task, during the year that the same pupils are under her care, of increasing their addition speed from an average of 26 combinations per minute to an average of 34 combinations per minute. If she does not bring them up to the standard 34, she has failed to perform her duty in proportion to the deficit; and there is no responsibility beyond the standard.7

Predetermining outcomes and then working backwards from specifically stated learning objectives that could be measured, controlled, and regulated became the language of the modernist’s educational discourse, much like the No Child Left Behind standards of current post-modern capitalism (which Arne Duncan is setting out to institutionalize through Race to the Top) becomes the curtain call for a new super-functionalist approach to teaching and learning. In the past, these functionalist objectives were tied to what was needed or what was divined to be functional in the new industrial society that was emerging. With an “objectives first” approach to education and schooling, curricula underwent unique changes. Now the words have changed but the mission is the same: ‘back to basics’ is the code word for ‘objectives first’, demonstrating how the managerial language may change but the need for order, control and regimentation remain constant.

Educators at during the industrial time obsessed with efficiency and production, but they also believed strongly in the practice of differentiated staffing.8 Knowledge acquisition was fragmented into disciplines and subjects, mirroring the division of labor on the assembly lines in the industrial factories. The conception of education was of course divorced from its execution; the teacher purposely de-skilled and alienated from her work. Thus, as Duncan correctly notes, a fragmented curriculum and “teacher specialists” developed.

Race to the Top and the Duncan market-based educational policies do the same thing that the predetermined learning outcomes and the measured, controlled and regulated practices of the early industrial schools tried to accomplish. They approach education with “schooling” and then define “schooling” as an objective based approach to learning and assessment where measurable outcomes and targets are what count. By developing national standards under Race to the Top that states must ally with in order to receive any federal funding, Duncan is extorting, pressuring and promulgating the same fragmentation of learning that was evident under industrial conditions of schooling in the US. By allowing tests to be designed by for-profit testing companies that ally their standardized or canned curriculum with the toxic testing regime under NCLB, Duncan is actively encouraging the long historical march of conception divorced from execution, leaving teachers as mere waiters and waitresses responsible for a number of ‘tables of students’ in a privately run and managed restaurant.

The reconfiguration of the school day and the redesign of curriculum during the industrial revolution in the early part of the twentieth century helped shape what we now know as the large, factory-style urban public school and the public school curriculum. During this time many regressive educators called for linking school to work, and this is no different than positions taken by Arne Duncan and many educational policymakers and business leaders today. In the same way that Taylorism and the new science of business administration influenced the conception, execution and organization of schooling during the early twentieth century, contemporary changes in production, consumption, and business management theory continue to exert a tremendous influence on the public school debate today. This, in turn, is reflected in the debate and various think tank claims regarding school choice, teacher unions, standards and assessments and the charter school reform movement. In fact, a whole new market based, corporate double-speak has arisen to describe problems and prescribe solutions in education.

African Americans and the Factory School

Arne Duncan likes to speak of marginalized teachers and students, with his eye on minority constituencies, yet he rarely shows any insight into the problems that plagued and continue to plague racist America and African American educational possibilities. With the emergence of the factory school, it became clear that educating children for the responsibilities associated with public citizenship was to be increasingly sacrificed for the quantitative imperatives of the newly emerging industrial society and capitalist market. The purposes of education were entrenched and deeply connected to the necessities of efficiency and productivity. School administrators at the time even began to think of themselves as “school executives” rather than as educators of children.9 One can liken this to the newly named CEOs of education, as opposed to what were once known as principals. Educational language changed, just as it is changing now, as the vocabulary of business was inseminated into the discussions and eventually adopted to describe education and the role of schools. Duncan is a master in the new rhetoric of managerial doublespeak as are his entrepreneurial cohorts and his philanthropic constituency, the Gates Foundation, Eli Broad, the Walton family, the Fishers to name a few. They talk about “best practices,” “measureable outcomes,” “efficiency,” and “promotion and compensation policies.” Their hot air is symptomatic of a new age of cyber and finance capitalism, perhaps the last stage, and their newly coined parlance finds its origins in the past while it surfaces in a stipulative definition of the future.

Another leading reformer and educational functionalist at the time, much like Arne Duncan, Ellwood Cubberley, asserted a vocabulary of business when expressing the need for educational efficiency and production:

Every manufacturing establishment that turns out a standard product . . . Maintains a force of efficiency experts to study methods of procedure to measure and test the output of its workers. Such men ultimately bring the manufacturing establishment large returns, by introducing improvements in processes and procedure, and in training the workmen to produce larger and better output. . . . In time, it will be possible for any school system to maintain a continuous survey of all of the different phases of its work, through tests made by its corps of efficiency experts, and to detect weak points in its work almost as soon as they appear.10

The rhetoric of the Obama administration’s Department of Education, though in need of historical refitting for our neo-liberal times, is almost identical. Yet the historical reality of the emerging factory school, with its social functionalism and cult of efficiency, produced a quandary for many African American children. The questions at issue that both the black community and the white Anglo community were to wrestle with during this period involved the purposes of education, whom it should serve, who should have access to it, and why. This debate was most evident in the African American community in the decades that followed reconstruction.

These, I submit, are the same questions that as Americans we have not answered and seem to not even debate anymore. However, a small managerial elite bent on turning public practices of teaching into private pedagogical practices scripted by standards and inauthentic assessments, is now even more prevalent with the advent of technology. A willing media, when they report at all about education, have fallen comfortably in line with the Duncan/Obama approach to reform which as we will see is so similar to that proposed long ago that even Duncan cannot get historical facts ‘off his shoe’, no matter how he attempts to reframe and misrepresent it.

Two powerful and contrasting African American leaders at the time expressed profoundly different ideas as to the purposes for educating black children. Booker T. Washington stressed the necessity of agrarian and vocational education for African American children. In the spirit of social functionalism, he felt the role of schools was to teach children a trade or useful skill they might use in the larger white-controlled society. An ex-slave, Washington, much like the social functionalists Bobbitt and Cubberley, felt that education should be prepare one for future work. His prescription to blacks in the South is useful to consider for it summed up succinctly his view on education and educational purpose: “Make yourself useful to the south; be honest, be thrifty; cultivate the white man’s friendliness; above all, educate your children and prepare them for the future.”11

W. E. B. DuBois, unlike Washington and his social functionalist contemporaries, felt that the overriding purpose and goal behind the education of African American children was to educate them for full citizenship in American society, not simply for the needs of a segregated and white market civilization. Although Washington stressed economic pragmatism as the chief consideration in defining educational purpose, DuBois argued that African American children should be educated in the tradition of the liberal arts, the necessities of responsible and moral leadership, and participation in democracy. He felt that the role of education “is not to make carpenters out of men, but men out of carpenters.”12 And while Washington believed that African Americans could not achieve full citizenship until they were economically self-sufficient, DuBois believed that education itself was the key to full citizenship, not simply a means to economic self-sufficiency. DuBois declared in 1906: “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.”13

Controversies in the black community over the purposes of education, social functionalism, and the role of culture in schooling are arguably more complex issues today than they were during the time of Washington and DuBois. The Washington-DuBois debates, although heated and controversial at the time, were concerned with the goals of education for African Americans during a time when education was adapting to an emerging industrial society. Similarly, today we see these controversies reflected in the emerging cybernetic revolution as educational goals are debated in a rapidly changing technological and social environment and the role of racism in educational opportunity and access. Similar struggles for access to educational excellence and equal opportunity emerge now, as they did during the Washington-DuBois debates. Reading the words of Arne Duncan in the latest edition of American Education and listening to his buttermilk homilies for higher standards to meet the necessities of capitalism in the 21st century, one would never know it. On the contrary, one would think the role of education is to make carpenters out of men.

  • Read Part 1.
    1. Kincheloe, J. Contextualizing Teaching. New York: Longman, 2000. p. 151. []
    2. Kincheloe, J. p. 152. []
    3. Cubberley, E. Public School Administration: A Statement of the Fundamental Principle Underlying the Organization and Administration of Public Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916. p. 338. []
    4. Kincheloe, J. p. 153. []
    5. Goodman, J. “Change without Difference.” Harvard Educational Review 65:1 (1995). p. 6. []
    6. Huber, R. The American Idea of Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. []
    7. Bobbitt, F. “The Elimination of Waste in Education.” Elementary School Teacher 12 (1912): p. 21-22. []
    8. Goodman, p. 10. []
    9. Callahan, R. E. Education and the Cult of Efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. []
    10. Cubberley, p. 338. []
    11. Perkinson, L. M. “The History of Blacks in Teaching: Growth and Decline within the Profession.” In American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work. Ed. D. Warren. New York: Macmillan, 1989. p. 49. []
    12. DuBois, W. E. B. The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960. Ed. H. Aptheker. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973. p. 52. []
    13. DuBois, p. 53. []
    Danny Weil is a junior college teacher at Allan Hancock College in California where he teaches philosophy. He is a former kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teacher who has written a great deal on education. Read other articles by Danny.

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    1. jcrit said on January 4th, 2010 at 8:26pm #

      This situation is teaching a very hard lesson about the consequences of when progressives compromise ideals for pragmatic reasons. We get this. There is a strong distinction between authority and authoritarianism. You represent the former, and the Race to the Top represents the epitome of the latter. Best practices, indeed. You also might want to review the role of Indian boarding schools as unreserved incubators of the thinly-veiled tyranny of the elitist-predators of American society.

      And thanks.