“Industrial-era education” as rhetorical whipping boy

I am starting a local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Metaphors. Part of my motivation is the release of another Dan Brown novel. But it didn’t hurt my motivation to read the awful thumbnail history in Arthur Levine’s column this week on teachers unions.

Teachers’ unions are under siege nationwide…. What’s caused the uproar is that the world is changing. America is moving from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. The two economies differ dramatically in their expectations for schools and teachers…. Industrial societies focus on common processes, epitomized by the assembly line. Our schools—products of the industrial age—rely on such processes… Herein lies the cause of current conflicts with teachers’ unions. They, like schools, are products of the industrial era.

How many errors?

  • Chronology: teachers unionized after World War II, concentrated in the 1960s and 1970s during the shift  in the economy from manufacturing to domination by service occupations.
  • Category: education is the epitome of the service economy… with all its flaws. Teachers unionized during a large shift of union organizing towards service industries. Teaching happened to be one of them.
  • Rhetoric: Levine uses the typical crutch of global competition as the driver behind economic change. But most of our economy is still selling things and services to ourselves, inside the country.1

Worst is Levine’s dismissive catchphrase industrial era. “Industrial-era education” is the convenient whipping boy for everyone from Jeb Bush to Cathy Davidson, commonly used for one of two rhetorical purposes:

  • Claiming that schools are obsolete in the brand-new world of spanking-clean robots that do all our work for us or would if we would just learn how to program them correctly. 
  • Claiming that schools are rigid, dehumanizing institutions.

The term “industrial-era education” is thus a rhetorical gesture, not generally a serious historical claim. A few do make serious historical claims, such as Cathy Davidson, and I have elsewhere explained why I think she is in error on the history. Levine’s use is more clearly an ahistorical foil that assumes, damnit, schools should be getting with the program and not being left behind in the Brave New World which is inevitable and thus must be accommodated because you will be assimilated, and resistance is futile. It is Borg Policy Logic.


  1. A more accurate reading of globalization’s impact on the U.S. in the late 20th century is the fact that it enabled us to shift from selling more things to each other, before the shift of manufacturing overseas, to selling more services to each other, after the shift. []