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Education or Widgetry?

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It struck me as I reflected on 20+ years of home-education, that the extent of the ‘widgitisation’ of our lives is so much more pervasive than we ever really appreciate. A fair bit of my earlier naive research career in academia pushed the idea that industrialisation, of buildings in this case, was entirely beneficial to society. I have since changed my mind.

In some ways that is ironic, because privately my wife and I were very opposed to the ‘industrialisation’ of our family life. We had decided when our first-born was around 4 or 5 years-old that we would home-educate our children. The motivations are myriad, but essentially we wanted a counter-cultural Christian, classical-based education for them. The development of the whole person – soul and mind. No-one could possibly have a greater interest in their souls and persons than we did. It became increasingly obvious to us that schooling was an industrialised indoctrination factory. A place to produce indistinguishable, yet malleable widgets. As one author eloquently describes it, “[conventional schooling] is a modern and slavish approach to training mere workers for an institutionalised and crony-capitalist society”. Education, in our minds, was mentoring a soul for eternity. And all children will be ‘mentored’ by someone; the issue is by whom?

An analogy

It got me thinking, how far can we stretch the analogy of school and factory? I must add, the notion that our conventional schooling system is an industrialised system, is neither new, nor mine. As with all analogies it requires sweeping generalisations, but it warrants a revisit given what has transpired over the past few years. Why did the academics, intellectuals and professionals not resist? Why did the general populace appear to act in unison? To a large extent it starts at school. The analogy starts with an overview of production; particularly craft versus mass factory-based approaches.

Craft production generally describes manufacturing systems undertaken by skilled craftsmen who ply their trade by hand, with or without the use of tools. They are highly skilled having been mentored by masters of the previous generation. Their processes are generally precise and focussed on quality. Their work is flexible, allowing them to create bespoke, tailored products for an individual customer. They may have assistance through apprentices, labourers, and subcontractors which enables some division of the process for improved quality and efficiency. The tradesman generally gets to know his material and an element of ‘art’ and creativity customise the outcome. Skill and care are their trademark. But they can be slow, and their products may have stylistic eccentricities.

Contrasting this is industrialisation and mass production. Mass production was not ‘discovered’ with the industrial revolution, but it was certainly refined and codified, and then applied to almost every form of product. The distinctive attributes of this approach are its economies of scale, division of labour, efficient use of resources, product uniformity and meticulous process design to name a few. Unlike craft production, a vast amount of effort is expended designing both the product to be manufactured and process by which they are to be made. The high volume and rates of production demand careful planning as both product and process are intricately co-dependent. The impressive efficiencies and yields of mass production systems are very seductive.

With this attraction almost everything appears to have been turned into a product to be mass produced – whether physical or abstract. “If you have industrialisation, everything looks like a product to be mass produced”. There is no doubt that quality of life has been enormously improved through industrialisation, bringing endless products and services within reach of almost everyone. Life is undeniably much easier. And yet – something has been lost. It has been carelessly (or purposely) applied in areas to which it may not belong – food, medicine, and education to name a few.

School as factory

A variety of political, social and economic reasons created the need, and demand for, mass-education in 19th century Western Europe. Its adoption spread far and wide, in some instances made compulsory by the state and in others its regulation arose more organically. For the sake of analogy, these precursors and drivers for mass education are simplified to emphasise that a regulating body is required to implement and manage such a system. Continuing the analogy, mass schooling has all the hallmarks of a mass production system – the need for high volumes of products at a constant rate. However, one cannot run an efficient industrialised system with an array of diverse products in a disorderly bespoke manner. A model product must be established to be reproduced. The power to wield intergenerational influence over society by designing this production system has not been lost on the politically astute. This then begs three questions: what is to be produced (the product), who is going to produce them (the industrialist) and how are they to be produced (the factories)?

The state has assumed the role of industrialist and consequently designer of the model product (the student). Product-design, in manufacturing terms, determines the specifications of the product – it’s durability, functional performance, and aesthetic. As industrialist, the state sets the parameters that determine the principal features of the product – what the standard finished student will look like and be. The dies are cast for the factory workstations (subjects) and employed to stamp out the widgets (standard student). Once cast, the dies produce indistinguishable widgets with great efficiency. The modern school by its very nature is designed for efficiency and conformity. More significantly, the state shapes and administers the specifications of the curricula; establishes what is and what is not knowledge and truth and consequently defines history, truth, culture, freedom, and morality. It is precisely why children emerge from schools entirely captive to the latest cultural and ideological trends. They have been separated from their families, institutionalised and conformed to be widgets in the machine, destined to obediently consume whatever products and services are dictated by the powers that profit.

The associated process usually co-emerges with the development of the product design. The specifications of the product and its need for mass application provide the framework for designing the process (curriculum). The factory (school) contains a fixed set of workstations (subjects) with a set throughput that needs to be maintained. There are no options outside of the rigid workstations and their fixed relationships. The workstation operators (teachers) struggle along trying to maintain the integrity and flowrate of their workstations. The mundane, repetitive, over-audited nature of the task inevitably resulting in their motivation levels approximating those of matchstick makers. There is no latitude to minister to the delicate character, or stimulate the inquisitive mind, or motivate the introvert. Workstations cannot, nor are designed to, cope with variety. This carefully designed process is only capable of producing homogenous outcomes that override any nuances within those on the production line.

Modern mass production systems make some attempts to cater for individuality. There are a plethora of options in the purchase of a new car for instance. But in reality, they are often minor variations on the theme when one looks under the bonnet. Or buying a new house from a volume builder. There is the illusion of individuality, but the resultant houses are no more unique than the different colour glazing on a shelf of doughnuts. So it is with schools. Some are expensive with grand buildings, lush grounds and innumerable optional extras. While others approximate grey, prison-like camps with no offer of luxury add-ons. Despite their appearances, the underlying production approaches are identical – one in a clean, modern factory producing high grade shiny widgets, the other a dirty factory with cheaper more abundant versions of the same widget.

In contrast, the craftsman in education would rather seek to educate and order the individual. Working to understand each child’s gifts and weaknesses and thereby formulating an approach suited to the best outcomes for that child. They will slowly craft the formation of the person through tireless hours, filling them with great ideas through great books of the past. Inspire them to develop a vision, a purpose for life and hope for the future. The crafting teacher only has a handful of students in whom they are entirely invested, and thereby adapts and invests uniquely as each child requires. The approach is an intertwining of mentoring, discipling, inspiring, thinking, and exhorting. Like the craftsman, each child is uniquely crafted according to their individual characteristics. It is no different to the raw marble slab or block of wood that is analysed for features and peculiarities before it is carved, or the chisel applied. The process can never be identical for each child. Some require gentle tapping, while others may require more pressure to finally express their best potential. Parents are uniquely endued with the motivation and intuition to lead this immensely important crafting of their children. This can best be achieved by home education, tutoring cooperatives or small parent-led non-government community schools.

Post-school conformity

Although this widgetisation is authored in the schooling system it is perfected in post-school education. There, widgets are refined to diligently work the machine. The bland industrialised tertiary education system then fully and finally conforms and hones the widgets before they are released to the workforce. There, they are captivated by consumerism and caught in an inescapable vortex of work, debt and meaninglessness. They do not question the machine as they no longer possess the ability to do so.

Certificates and diplomas and degrees and PhDs are now the norm. They acknowledge and document one’s journey through the obligatory workstations and various factories but bear little evidence of genuine quality. Quality in tertiary education is designed to cater to the weakest widget and produce a qualification no different to the QC sticker on your average cheap appliance. The system is nonetheless highly efficient and sophisticated in its production of widgets. For instance, it selects the brightest who know how to conform best and provide the ‘right’ answers in the school test, and siphons them off to medicine, or some such prized path of influence and importance. There they can be ultimately tempered and stripped of any vestigial enquiring mind and spat out as cogs for the medical-industrial complex. Likewise, the lawyer, or the scientist, or the teacher, or the engineer, or even the minister of religion.

The days of the pursuit of knowledge and of forming the whole moral person at a university are practically gone. Frank assessments of a student’s understanding of the material, or articulation of their thoughts on great concepts, are long past. Striving to understand and ‘not fail’ has turned into a mentality of entitlement for universally high grades. Consistent with that view is a legitimate insistence on a QC sticker for merely passing through all the requisite workstations. Standardisation and conformity are the very goals of industrialised mass production systems.

Finally, the widgets must be put to work and perform as per their design specification. Professional bodies, unions, employer groups and various regulators happily appoint themselves (with the help of the industrialists) to ‘quality control’ and monitor the widgets for ongoing productivity and conformity. Non-compliant or squeaking widgets are quickly removed and disposed-of by these gatekeepers as they are deemed to function in a manner contrary to ‘accepted practice’. In the early 2020’s the system was stress tested, as any good system should be, in order to identify malfunctioning widgets. The test was decidedly successful and indicated that most widgets worked to specification, although there was a significant minority that were incompatible with the machine.

Taking responsibility

As with all analogies, this too is limited and only provides one view of the link between state control, conformity, and vacuous education. Some schools, and no doubt many teachers, break the mould and invest heavily in their students and inspire hard workers and thinkers and entrepreneurs and risk-takers. Universities around the world still produce a number of exceptional professionals, doctors, thinkers and scientists. But these schools and teachers and universities and graduates and PhDs are few – they are not the norm. Despite the rhetoric of governments in western democracies espousing the high quality and moral superiority of their education systems, the reality is they have become narrow and unyielding. All education indoctrinates – that is its purpose. The issue is what is the substance of that indoctrination.

The state now believes that it alone has the expertise to set curricula and educate our children. Their systems are effective in their goals and touted as the only valid form of education. But they are only in the business of widgetising our children and ultimately creating a society that is bland, morally bankrupt, purposeless, and stripped of individuality and freedom. It is part of the reason we observed mass formation and an apparent all-pervasive inability for most people to think rationally and independently.

Our analogy concurs with conclusions drawn by some historians. It has been argued that formal compulsory education systems significantly contributed to the formation of national identity and the creation of a unified citizenry. Conveniently, “[mass education] makes citizens loyal to the state and obliges them to contribute to large-scale national campaigns such as wars, tax deductions, and voting. Mass education makes people become devoted to a common system of aims and symbols and helps them behave appropriately in various situations” [emphasis added]. Only an exit from the mass schooling system will allow individuals to be raised to truly behave appropriately in various situations.

It is incumbent on parents to take back responsibility for the education of their children. Some things simply cannot, and indeed must not, be industrialised. The education of our children is foremost in that list!

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  • Prof Nick Blismas

    Nick is Professor in the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University in Melbourne. He joined RMIT from Loughborough University (UK) in 2004 after several years post-doctoral work. He worked as project manager in housing and corporate re-imaging prior to commencing an academic career. His main research fields over the years have included design for construction safety; off-site manufacture and housing production. Publications have included industry toolkits, reports and over 70 academic journal and conference publications. He has undertaken research funded directly by industry, Virginia Tech [via NIOSH (US)], AusIndusty and has held 4 ARC grants (Linkage & Discovery). Between 2014 and 2015 he was Director of the Centre for Construction Work Health & Safety Research at RMIT University. He has been a part-time academic since 2016. The response to the pandemic confirmed how freedom of thought and speech had been seriously eroded in research institutions and public discourse. This has prompted him to dedicate time to promoting and restoring freedom in science and research.

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