PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION II: Breaking Rocks and the School Regime

What are schools for?  Throughout American history, schools have been processing & containment units.  As Michael Katz wrote over forty years ago, public schools have always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”  If a student came from a wealthy family, the school trained that student to be wealthy.  If a student came from a poor family, or from a beleaguered ethnic minority, schools trained him to remain poor and put upon.

This has been done in big ways and in small.  On a social scale, this has been done by keeping African Americans segregated into underfunded schools.  Before the Brown decision in 1954, this was done explicitly and legally.  At some point since then, it has shifted to being done as a result of social segregation.  Poor people live clustered in poor areas.  Their schools are funded by property taxes on property that is not worth much, from people who do not have much money to give.  As a recent U.S. Department of Education study noted, schools with poorer students tend to pay their teachers less, likely because those schools hire the least-experienced teachers.  Once those teachers get a few years of experience under their belts, they tend to migrate to schools where the students come from more affluent families.  In other words, the poorest schools get the newest teachers.  The most experienced teachers serve the more affluent schools.  Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule.  Many teachers choose to remain in less affluent schools, but it is hard to resist the siren call of a more affluent school or district.

At the human level, this has been done by maintaining dictatorships in every classroom.  Teachers have remained authoritative figures, imposing the cruelties and absurdities of a biased society directly onto its young members.  There is no simple accident in the fact that schools and classrooms get more dictatorial as the students tend to get poorer and darker-skinned.  It is a direct result of the fact that school is used to impose society’s injustices on the young.  For those who benefit from a privileged role in society, the yoke is light, easy to wear, even comfortable and flattering.  They can have classrooms in which the teacher divests his authority and encourages the students themselves to take over.  But for those who are at the bottom of the economic scale, classroom practice becomes an obvious imposition of an unpleasant and unwilling obedience on students who have no good reason for complying.

It ought not to be a surprise that high-school completion rates match very closely to socio-economic status.  As schools become more and more like prisons, students will naturally view them more and more as unpleasant impositions.  As soon as students can get away, they will.  But even for those who remain in school, there are plenty of ways to avoid engagement with the educational regime.  In order to have any sort of meaning, education must be a process in which teachers, administrators, students, and families agree on the importance of the process.  Students don’t necessarily have to enjoy practicing math tables or reading about the Boston Massacre.  But they do need to buy into the notion that school is a place where they can and will do tasks that, in the end, have some meaning for the students themselves.  If they do not, then no amount of imposed authority will be able to force them to learn.

Consider this analogy: there is obviously an enormous difference between working out at a gym with a personal trainer and working on a chain gang breaking rocks.  With a personal trainer, a person has willingly engaged in this enterprise.  Despite the difficulty of the tasks assigned, the person willingly puts himself or herself through the routines.  No surprise: he or she has signed up for this kind of work.  Not that he or she won’t gripe or try to avoid the hardest parts of the workouts.  But in the end, a person working with a personal trainer agrees on the purpose and function of the training.  He or she is much more likely to work hard at it, even if he or she doesn’t like it.

That is very different from the imposition of physical labor as a regime of external punishment.  A person sentenced to such hard labor will not embrace the work.  He or she may be forced to make the motions, but he or she will never go beyond the absolute minimum of effort.  The two experiences are worlds apart.  Yet, in some ways, they are the same.  Both workers are being pushed to work hard.  Both are being pushed to work harder than they would work on their own.  Yet working at a gym with a personal trainer is understood as a privilege, a luxury even.  While working breaking rocks is a punishment.

The educational implications are obvious.  In schools for poorer kids, there is often a perception that students and families have not bought into the process.  Instead of opening up the school regime to encourage student and family buy-in, the depressing American tradition has been to impose sterner discipline and harsher authoritarian structures in order to force students to accept their roles as learners.

That is exactly the wrong approach.  It encourages students to see the schools as an entirely punitive institution, one that can and must be evaded or fought against.  For some students, that means leaving school at the earliest opportunity.  For those who remain, it means putting forth the absolute minimum required effort.  Learning can’t happen that way.  And the proof is seen in test scores and academic achievement measures.  When such scores are low, policy makers respond by saying students must require greater supervision, less intellectual and physical freedom, and a harsher, more demanding environment.  They push for military-style discipline, uniforms, and classroom pedagogies that devolve into teacher-led chants.

Such responses might be effective if students really were sentenced to punitive physical labor.  But in schools, real results can only come out of increased student embrace of their learning.


Further reading: Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform (Teachers College Press, 1968); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited (Longman, 1989).

Leave a comment


  1. Could new teachers also bring new ideas, challenging a “status” quo approach to teaching and learning in schools understood to be poorer, in terms of socio-economic class?

  2. Jon,
    I think the difference one caring adult can make in any school is limitless and unmeasurable. What will it mean for a student if he or she knows that there is one (or five, or ten) adults at a school that know him or her as an individual? How much more effective will schools be, no matter what resource level they operate with, if students feel that adults at the school care about them? It makes an enormous difference.
    However, in terms of enacting effective progressive pedagogy in classrooms, I am deeply pessimistic about the difference just one teacher can make. In my opinion, the heart of progressive pedagogy is an investment of authentic authority in the hands of students. That means giving students a real say in the activities, assessments, and goals of classroom life. It does NOT mean divesting teachers of authority. The goal must be to shift the teacher from prison guard to personal trainer.
    With those issues of authority at the heart of progressive pedagogy, the amount that can be accomplished by isolated teachers is minimal. In a school culture that treats students as inmates, any attempt to devolve classroom authority into students’ hands will be taken by those students as an opportunity to subvert, disrupt, or at least avoid the school regime.
    Don’t get me wrong; I am optimistic about the possibilties of real progressive change. But I think it must be done on a larger scale. Schools, departments, and districts need to work together to make such things happen.
    What do you think?

  1. PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION IIb: Bumps in the Road « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: