On the False Myth of “Industrial Era” Education

To quote Sherman Dorn’s “Being careless with education history“:

Fundamentally, it makes no sense to talk about either “the industrial era” or the development of public school systems as a single, coherent phase of national history.

If you think industrialization is the shift of large portions of working people to wage-labor, or the division of labor (away from master-craft production), then the early nineteenth century is your era of early industrialization

Maybe you think industrialization is the development of railroads, monopolies, national general strikes, metastasizing metropolises, and mechanized production. Then you mean the second half of the nineteenth century

Or maybe you think industrialization was assembly-line factories, private-worker unionization supported by federal law, the maturation of marketing techniques and the growth of a consumer economy, major economic crises, the introduction of cars and trucks, the mechanization of agriculture, and brutal, mechanized wars. Then you’re talking about the first half of the twentieth century.

“Industrial era” schooling as foil

Davidson’s misuse of education history irritates me not because it has errors but because it uses a thumbnail version of history as a rhetorical foil for her arguments about what education should be … in this case, instead of what she says is the legacy of education history. Cathy Davidson happens to dislike standardized, multiple-choice testing and a script of schooling revolving around an academic curriculum and a teacher’s authority as a knowledgeable adult. Those with very different views often use the same thumbnail education history as their foil as well. To other folks, the reason why we must have accountability with quantitatively-measured tests is because industrial-era education is not enough for the new, competitive global economy. Different perspectives, same fundamental error.

History is not a storehouse of mythic images from which you can or should draw caricatures to make your point. Well, people often treat it as such, and I expect politicians to use it in that way, but not well-informed fellow faculty.

Interestingly enough,

probably the closest match to “giant factory-like schooling” would be monitorial schools of the early nineteenth century, most commonly associated with Englishman Joseph Lancaster, where one adult would be in charge of up to several hundred students, with the more advanced students as “monitors” of their classmates. American monitorial schools were much larger than almost all of the small factories that existed in the same cities, and they died out long before either mechanized dominance of industry or assembly-line factories.

I’m guilty of using “wanting to evolve education past the industrial era model” to describe my motivation. Need a more nuanced understanding.

Liked that post? Try this one next:

Jordan is a freelance engineer with full-stack chops, and an eye for analytics and growth.


  1. […] academic research, I moved my understanding of the conversation on education from debating the theoretical history of education and ideals of its future, toward identifying the factors which directly affect […]