The End of Industrial Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Just as revolutionaries throughout history have used a catalyst to overturn governments, as a society we must upend our outdated education system through technology. During uncertain times, humanity has the tendency to cling to the tried and true, nothing more so than the Industrial Age schools and universities that have been a staple of our society for 150 years or more. However, the factory model of education that we currently use is a poor match for the Information Age society in which we live. Change is inevitable, and we have the opportunity to take control of this one in order to place the individual student at the center of our education system by leveraging the power of online instruction.

A Concise History of American Education

The American educational system has its roots in 11th Century Europe as the formalization of the monastic model of schooling for those who did not wish to dedicate their lives to the Roman Catholic church. At first open only to the elite, this non-religious mode of education eventually expanded to include grammar schools and spread to the United States with the Puritans. This education stressed a broad-based study of many disciplines and was largely individualized, with private tutors hired for individual children. The leaders of the American independence movement – our Founding Fathers – were educated under this pre-industrial system, heavily influenced by the age of enlightenment. They were broadly educated Renaissance men of science, letters, and law.  Their schooling was undertaken as a means of personal and societal advancement. Early on, laws passed in the New England colonies mandated that schoolmasters be hired for any community with more than 50 families and that Latin schools be established in any town with more than 100 families. The purpose of these schools was to prepare students for the first university established in the New World, Harvard.

The English grammar and Latin school models held sway in the New England Colonies until the 1830’s when Horace Mann made free, universal public education a national issue. In 1852, Massachusetts enacted the first mandatory attendance laws in the country. There is no coincidence that this law came into being in conjunction with the rise of our industry-based economy. By 1882, 16 states had adopted similar laws and the industrialization of American education was in full bloom. Significant changes in how education was enacted began to arise with the Industrial Revolution. Education became a vehicle for training workers to complete specialized tasks within a factory. The factory model was incorporated into education to such an extent that students became little more than raw material to be turned into finished automatons, who silently obeyed the orders of their supervisors and slavishly responded to the ringing of bells like Pavlov’s dogs. As a result, our education system has failed to evolve. Individuals are not differentiated within the system. Each child is expected to complete their education in a set amount of time and by meeting a standard set of requirements (Reigeluth and Garfinkle, 1994). 

With few exceptions, higher education was not free from the influences of the Industrial Revolution. The objectives were slightly different, focusing on training the managers of Industry rather than the workers, and training researchers to find new materials to feed into the engine of progress. Students were inculcated with the industrial virtues of diligence and consumerism while their progress toward the factory floor was measured by the addition of standardized testing during the 20s and 30s.

Our Current Time of Conflict

Times of transition, such as the move from an industrial-based to an information-based society, are marked by conflict as old social norms are replaced by new ones. In the past 30 years, as the industrial era has begun to wane, standardized testing has increasingly been set forth as a solution to the problems with schools. Testing, the theory goes, can be used to monitor progress toward goals. Ironically, standardized tests are now a symptom of the problem, rather than a cure. Standardization is, by definition oppositional to innovative thinking – the hallmark of the Information Age. Efforts such as No Child Left Behind and recent political posturing for imposing standardized measures of learning on higher education are the most recent manifestations of this conflict. We must move away from industry-style standardization at all levels of the educational establishment as a first step toward updating the education system.

The current model of education is failing to apply the one solution that could most help break out of the standardized mold – technology.  Scholars such as Larry Cuban (Oversold and underused, 2001) claim that computers in the classroom have reached a saturation point and are largely unused in education. My own research (Marquis, 2009) revealed, not that computers are underutilized in public schools, but rather that there are significant issues with the educational system itself which make it impossible to use them effectively in the classroom. The emphasis on drill and practice software, rather than creativity inspiring programs, is one way in which the industrial nature of our current educational system works in direct opposition to having students use computers in authentic and creative ways to develop critical thinking skills.

A third site of conflict is online education. There is much debate about whether online learning is a legitimate avenue for learning and if the value of it is comparable to that of the traditional classroom. Online learning does, however provide a unique insight into the conflict between the Industrial Age and the dawning Information Age. Online learning is a clear embodiment of the power of the Information Age. It utilizes the very technology that has led to the demise of the previous age and the distributed, individualized nature of virtual learning is a polar opposite of the mass-production education model. The ways in which online learning directly breaks from industrial tradition will be explored in tomorrow’s post.

Looking Back to See Ahead

A final piece of the societal change puzzle is that individuals often harken back to simpler times and the “tried and true” models that worked so well in the past in an effort to avoid the fear of the unknown that progress represents. These ideals are mainly delusions (see: Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were, for example), and I hope that I am not deluding myself by imagining an educational system that looks back to pre-industrial, or even pre-agricultural society for its inspiration. However, I do believe that, in the case of education, we have moved so far into a model of learning that resembles something out of Brave New World, that a dramatic course correction is necessary. It just so happens that our ancestors had the right idea in making the learner the center of education.

Prior to the industrialization of American education, students learned at their own pace and in ways that inspired them to be creative and innovative problem solvers in any context. Online learning offers a path back toward that model. A model which will lead to the education of a new generation of independent, free-thinkers who can begin to solve the problems of the Information Age rather than to seek hopeless solutions to fixing an outdated system. There are signs of hope, from the Wall Street occupation, to initiatives like, and digital badges – social equality, learning, and education are becoming areas of contention at an unprecedented scale. Given the economic and political uncertainty we live with, anything could happen.



Image: David Castillo Dominici /