On What’s Wrong With Education and How to Fix It



Welcome to the insert philosophy here podcast. Inserting the principles of philosophy into real life.

The last week of August and the first week of September is when students across the United States, Canada, and most European countries go back to school. There’s no overestimating the importance of education for a person to grow as an individual and to be assimilated into society and become a contributing member to it. Yet while few people would say that education is unimportant, most people would probably say that education isn’t as good as it can be or should be.

I have taught at colleges and universities since 1998. That doesn’t mean that I know everything about education, but between all those years of teaching, and of course, being a student K through 12, bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD, I’ve developed some opinions, at least educated opinions, no pun intended, about what’s wrong with education and how it can be better.

The Problem — The Assembly Line

I think there are two main reasons why education isn’t better than it could be and should be. The first one is what’s known derisively as the factory model of education. It’s the system of education that most people are used to. Most people have grown up in it.

It was instituted first in Prussia, which later became Germany, in around the 1830s. In the 1840s it spread to the United States, thanks mostly to the author Horace Mann, who discovered this way of educating in Prussia and brought it back first to Massachusetts, then it spread throughout the entity of the United States.

At its heart, the idea is that everyone should be educated. That wasn’t an entirely original idea, but what the Prussians instituted and what Horace Mann brought over from Prussia, is the idea that education should be systematized and homogenized.

That we have public funding for education is clearly a very good thing. But how we do that is to make sure that all students are put into grades of the same age, taught by a single teacher in a small room. The goal of education is, as Horace Mann put it, to simply create a tolerant, civilized society.

His ideal, which was actually quite common in the middle of the 1800s, was that if we treat everyone exactly the same, they will be properly assimilated into society. A common education will build a common sense of national and social identity.

The Prussians were very good at that. Hegel was their inspiration for that. Hegel said that things happened to us. And going back way, way back to Plato, actually, is this idea that you simply fill a person with the proper ideas, the proper knowledge, then they will all turn out more or less the same. The sameness that we want is, as Mann said, a tolerant, civilized society. Students will become contributing members to society. We can count on this because we’ve created them all the same. It’s a nice enough egalitarian model.

So for over 160 years in the United States, and very similar things happened in the United Kingdom as well, we have had this system of the factory model. Schools are factories that are designed to produce product and that product is a good citizen.

The factory model label is very apt, because just like a factory that produces material products, personalization isn’t the issue. You don’t want variation. There’s a whole industry all about making sure of quality control of products such that they all come out to be virtually exactly the same or as exactly the same as we can possibly make them. And the same is true for the factory model of education — we are producing little students.

The factory model label is also fitting because this system does little more for a student than prepare them for work in the factory — homogenized human beings for homogenized industrial roles. It’s no coincidence that this system emerged at a time, the 1830s, 1840s, when the second industrial revolution was in full force.

What society needed, or what it thought it needed, more than anything else was good little workers, and that’s what the factory model produces. Education is a factory that produces homogenized little workers.

Obviously, filling people with basic values, norms, and knowledge so that they can be functional both vocationally and as citizens is important. The problem is that that’s mostly all that education has ever been, because public education, education for the masses, is the factory model of producing the mass product of good basic workers and citizens. If you want more than that, public school isn’t and hasn’t been the option for you.

Now, the rich, of course, could afford to send their children to better schools that do better things, but obviously, that is out of the reach of most people. Although, to be fair, that there was publicly funded education, that education then became part of your right as a citizen, that was a huge liberal advance and I’m not downplaying that at all.

The problem is we haven’t advanced beyond that. We continue to use the factory model of education with its rigid schedules, its rigid curriculum, it’s test-based methodology, as though that’s what education is.

The Problem — The Educational Split

The second problem for education was pointed out by James T. Kloppenberg in his essay James’s Pragmatism and American Culture. I will read for you this quote from him, because I think it really nails the second problem with education, he says.

When school systems consolidated, when some children were channeled into more academic and others into vocational tracks, when professionalizing educators increasingly monopolized decisions about methods and curricula and spawned a distinct class of administrators. And especially when taxpayers decided they would prefer to buy bigger cars, and houses for themselves instead of paying for smaller classes and better compensated teachers for their children, almost all the characteristics necessary for pragmatist education vanished.

Whenever I hear complaints about how, oh, education isn’t good enough (and I agree with that critique), I think of that quote.

This idea of splitting academic and vocational education builds on the factory model. It’s really just saying, “okay, now we have two product lines.” We have the academic product line where a small number of students are trained to go to university and get at least some sort of higher degree, and we have the vocational product where we’re producing little workers.

The split into these two product lines, academic and vocational, is an old one, and it’s not entirely without merit. Some people don’t want to study philosophy. I know it’s a terrible thought, but it’s true. Some people don’t want to do science. Some people don’t want to become mathematicians. Some people want to just simply learn a trade and work at that trade, and there is absolute honor and value in people who want to take the vocational track.

I’ve had the distinct privilege of teaching at community colleges earlier in my career as a professor. And I do mean it’s a privilege, because one of the things that I really enjoyed about teaching at community colleges is that you meet people who are getting a higher education mostly in that sense of the vocational track. I would teach classes on philosophy and religion and critical thinking, and down the hall was where you learned how to repair air conditioners and furnaces. And that’s wonderful. That’s a beautiful thing.

Unfortunately, some of my colleagues still look down upon the community college system where people can get a higher education where they can learn about a trade and philosophy, and they diminish that. They ridicule that. And it’s far too prevalent that if an educator does get a full-time professorship at a Community College, their career advancement is done. That’s a dead end job as far as academia is concerned.

The other problem is that this split between the vocational track and the academic track is continuing to widen. More and more you hear that one shouldn’t bother with academic courses. One doesn’t need to learn about sociology or anthropology or philosophy or any of those fluffy, social liberal arts sort of things. They just need to be … well … go back to the factory model. You are simply there to learn how to do a trade and become a good citizen and a good little worker.

Kloppenberg’s quote also points out another problem about the distinct class of administrators and funding priorities, but I’m going to save that for another podcast in the future because that’s its whole own thing. We are very wrong on our funding priorities and our priorities of how especially higher education is structured, but I want to keep talking about this factory model and the two tracks of the factory model and what the solution is.

The Solution — Jane Addams

There is a solution and it’s been out there for quite some time. That solution was started in around 1900 to 1910 by two people, Jane Addams and Thomas Dewey.

Jane Addams, if you’ve heard of her at all, you’ve heard of her only as a social reformer, a social activist. But she was a philosopher. Sexism has reduced her role to simply being a radical activist who founded Hull House. She did, of course, found Hull House in 1889. It was her experiences running Hull House as a home for marginalized people, where they could learn about life and become better people, that was the laboratory through which she and other people, including Thomas Dewey, learned new ideas about how to educate people.

Addams and Dewey were both pragmatists. That’s the same pragmatism in which William James, who Kloppenberg wrote about, was involved. Addams was a teacher at the University of Chicago Extension Division and Thomas Dewey was a full professor at the University of Chicago. The reason why their status was different was, of course, sexism. In the early 20th century, women didn’t have the vote. Women were not considered full-class citizens.

In her philosophical work, Addams focused on the interchanges between theory and practice, and between activities and perspectives. What she wanted to understand was how different people have different standpoints. You can have all the theory in the world, but no matter how rational your theory, it cannot tell us what people perceive and who they are. The practice of asking people about their experiences and activities and listening to their answers will tell us much more. That approach, that methodology, was very influential in the formation of American sociology.

Addams’s scholarly work is in keeping with her strong ethical conviction that society cannot claim progress unless all social classes are benefiting. She calls for lateral progress, by which she means social gains held in common by society as a whole. This was in contradistinction to the prevailing practice then, and sadly still now, of focusing on the achievements of the rich and famous — thinking that the large successes of a few proves a society is progressing.

To achieve this lateral progress for all of society, Jane Addams says in her book Democracy and Social Ethics, published in 1902, we must not speculate on what is good and ethical, but act in concrete ways that care for other people. That means a social democracy in which we listen to people, in which people are continually looking out for each other and the good of the community.

Education, then, to bring about social democracy and lateral progress, must be participatory, must be something where we listen to the students, we understand the students, and this is a reflection of how she thinks society should be in all its aspects. Society is obliged to understand what the working class poor are experiencing and develop means to improve their lot.

Education, obviously, is a very important aspect of that. To emancipate the working class, we don’t need Marxist revolution, we need constructive solutions.

The Solution — John Dewey

John Dewey, was a very close friend of Jane Addams and very much inspired by her, and he fully admitted his debt to Jane Addams. He wrote as much in the dedication of his books. But of course she’s a woman, she doesn’t matter, so we’ve forgotten about her.

What Dewey developed, partly inspired by Jane Addams and of course by the other pragmatist scholars like William James, is what he called “instrumentalism.” Knowledge is an instrument, a tool, and the human activity of education and learning is the activity of developing and using beliefs as tools or instruments for solving problems, and, if needed, altering our environment to meet our needs and desires.

So, Dewey’s primary aim was to reform education to help students develop problem-solving skills — instruments to solve problems. Dewey said that in schools, students are too often seen as theoretical spectators who are under the instruction of experts.

Well, this is the factory model of education. You bring them into the classroom, you sit them down, you have the teacher teach at them, and the students just absorb and regurgitate back what they have learned, and they do.

Dewey criticized this very strongly. He said that all of academia and all of education is not perceiving and appreciating the uniqueness of individuals. Individual people have an infinite diversity of active tendencies, and Dewey says that education and society as a whole must account for this.

Dewey, again, similar to Jane Addams, thought that education is best when it is active involvement, when we’re listening to students, when students themselves are not passively just seeing and hearing and repeating back what they have seen and heard.

Central to Dewey’s educational reforms was the need to get away from rote memorization of facts and instead adopt processes of open inquiry — critical thinking. Good education, Dewey thought, teaches individuals how to solve problems and engage better with their society and environment.

Students, therefore, need to be active questioners. They need to be hands-on in both practices and dialogue. That’s why, he said, discussion is a very important part of education, and students need to be able to ask questions of their teachers, discuss among themselves, and discover truths for themselves, be allowed to think for themselves.

Dewey was proposing this over 100 years ago, but sadly, some educators, perhaps most educators, including those with advanced degrees, still insist on the factory model of education — teaching to the test, treating students as passive vessels to be force fed facts that they must memorize and regurgitate back to receive a grade. We produce little workers, even in academia, even in philosophy. You come in, you have your mind filled, regurgitate back, get your diploma, bye.

Education still has not achieved the dream of Addams and Dewey to see education as a learning process of problem solving and creative thinking.

The Solution — Paulo Freire

Inspired by Thomas Dewey was the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. He was concerned for those who suffered in the poorer communities of his native Brazil. The problem of illiteracy was huge. Over 60% of people were illiterate, and he worked with government agencies trying to promote literacy.

He grew to realize that the problem of illiteracy and poverty itself, which were very intertwined, were related to authoritarian attitudes that were deeply ingrained in all aspects of society, even in how parents related to their children, and especially in education.

Like Jane Addams and John Dewey, Freire saw that education is more than learning skills, more than memorizing facts and figures. Education is about people discovering themselves as creative agents and becoming more human. After teaching for years, he went back to school to get his doctorate and learned about the philosophy of social justice, which is also the track that I took, interestingly, not knowing about Freire’s history until after I got my PhD.

But central to Paolo Freire’s social philosophy is his insight that within oppressive dynamics, the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed are diminished. This idea is similar to Hegel and his identification of the master-servant or master-slave dialectic, which gives neither the master nor the slave sufficient recognition to realize themselves as human beings.

Freire thus believed that political and legal reforms were on their own insufficient to change oppressive dynamics. People in all classes had internalized the historically pervasive authoritarian oppression. Jane Addams had similar thoughts. That’s why she talked about the lateral progress — the need for society itself to change. Freire said that everyone has been conditioned to maintain the dynamic of authoritarian oppression, and this includes the oppressed, who have internalized the oppressive structures.

What does all this have to do with education? Well, if everyone is indoctrinated into the dynamic of authoritarian oppression, then it is no surprise that education is also. For Freire, that means the factory model of education, which he calls the “banking model” of education. Remember, the label “factory model” is the derisive criticism, and so the term was developed in the United States. In Brazil, Freire calls it the banking model of education, but he means the same basic idea.

He sets this all out in his 1968 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book I highly recommend. In the book, Freire calls for an overhaul of pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching. He learned a lot about this working as a teacher in the early 1960s. He saw that authoritarianism was deeply ingrained in all aspects of society.

The value of education, for Freire, was not simply being better able to make a living in a profession but rather, empowerment and transformation for an individual and community. Education, he said, is a process. Education, well done, leads to social justice.

The banking model of education, Freire said, was a legacy of colonialism. The traditional dichotomous and authoritarian model of education assumes that experts bestow their gift of knowledge to those who know nothing, just like the colonialists came into a society like Brazil to save the ignorant indigenous people from themselves.

This model not only perpetuates oppressive dynamics, Freire says, it is an ineffective method of education. He calls it the banking concept of education or banking concept of knowledge, in that the bank holds the knowledge and people must come to the bank to receive it. The bank of knowledge is separate from the people.

As he said in his book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world itself. A person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others. The individual is a mere spectator, not a creator and recreator. Freire argued that this banking concept of knowledge

perpetuates hierarchies of power, reaffirming the oppressive dynamics of powerful and powerless.

Freire saw the legacy of colonialism in Brazil as an oppressive dynamic that permeated all levels of society, including and perhaps especially, education. Even well-meaning teachers who wish to treat their students as valuable individuals are trapped within a system of education that enforces authoritarian colonial dichotomy.

This may turn some people off as being very radical, and yet is it not true? Not just for a colonized country like Brazil but even in the United States, even in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. What do we see in education, both primary and higher? Education is way too often conducted en masse, with a single lecturer speaking to dozens and sometimes hundreds of students. Students are seen as theoretical spectators under the instruction of experts.

That’s what Freire referred to as the banking concept of knowledge, the banking concept of education. Dewey had criticized education and academia itself as not perceiving the uniqueness of individuals. Freire agrees, because education is never a neutral process, he said. Education, if it presupposes inequality between teacher and student, it will perpetuate that dynamic well beyond the classroom itself.

Education, instead, should presuppose no such thing. It should presuppose that there is no inequality between student and teacher. It will instead enter into a dialogue with students.

Applying the Solution in Real Life

Now obviously that’s an ideal and a difficult reality to bring about. I teach philosophy to non-philosophy major. Obviously, as much as I give them the leave to express their ideas and tell them what I really believe is true: “You are philosophers. Everyone can be a philosopher. Think for yourself!”

Obviously, students don’t know as much about philosophy as a professor, because there would be no point in having teachers if the teacher didn’t know more than the student, but the dynamic of the banking model where you need to come to me, the professor, and I will give you, at my noblesse oblige, knowledge … that’s nonsense. It’s counterproductive.

Of course, all students don’t know as much as their teachers. But students are equal human beings deserving of trust and respect. My job as an educator, and the job of every educator, should be empowering students to learn to think for themselves.

It means seeing education as a process of facilitating practice and critical reflection. This is what Jane Addams said. This is what Thomas Dewey said. This is what Paulo Freire said. Our pedagogy needs to be one that fosters democracy of conversation between people in what they discuss and learn from each other about their own power and agency.

Education is best when it is active involvement, not passive seeing or hearing. Good education teaches individuals how to solve problems and better engage with their society. Not to become good, compliant little workers, but to become active questioners, active learners, and discussion is the most important part of education. Education needs to empower people by raising their consciousness of their situation in life; Freire said that education changes people and people change the world.

Alas, though, Freire’s ideas have been out there for over 50 years, Dewey’s ideas have been out there for nearly 100 years, and Addams’s even before that, education is still dominated by whether you call it the banking model or the factory model. Students are consumers, and students are consumed by education turned into product.

I’m extremely fortunate that I managed to land at a university that is very forward-thinking, that is very open to seeing students as individuals, creative thinkers, people who need to be empowered, not just churned through a system.

There are still some problems, of course. Higher education remains far too much a factory, far too much a commercial product, where what matters is making money off of students. And of course, the best way to keep the money flowing is to just keep the students themselves compliant and happy. But that’s for another podcast episode. Those priorities are wrong because what matters now in higher education is not academic achievement so much as whether the students are having fun. Because if they’re having fun, they’ll stay and keep paying tuition. I would like to say that’s just my cynicism, but it’s the reality of the situation that causes cynicism among many of us in academia.

But to sum up this podcast episode, the factory model of education that is now 160-plus years old in the United States and slightly older in Europe is still hanging on and is still a problem. Until we break out of that model, until we start to fully see students as independent, freethinking individuals, we will be counterproductive in our education. We will not be a society that can be everything that it can be, because our educational system is not everything it should be.

Thank you for listening to the Insert Philosophy Here podcast. Please subscribe and go to InsertPhilosophyHere.com to see my other offerings.

You can support the insert philosophy here project with a donation at https://ko-fi.com/insertphilosophyhere. Thank you for listening and see you next time.


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