Thursday, May 3, 2012

Educating Factory Workers, Circa 2012

Public education was created in America to educate factory workers to a minimum standard; as the Industrial Revolution swept across the country, pushing rural families into cities to find work, factory owners found that people couldn't follow basic instructions to work in a factory or on an assembly line. Thus, the birth of public education for all.

American education hasn't changed much since then, even as the Industrial Revolution has given way to the Technological Revolution. Robots do most of the assembly now, so what is needed are skilled, educated innovators, the kind of learner that is not being cultivated in public school.

So what are schools doing? Changing the way they teach? Encouraging creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking (coincidentally, all of the skills that the Chinese are now encouraging in their schools)?


Last night we watched the ABC Nightly News series "Bringing America Back." If you are not familiar, it is a series of reports that asks Americans what they are doing to support manufacturing and small business in America; families have committed to buying only American-made products and services.

Last night featured a small town in New York; Malta lobbied hard for a large company to bring its factory to their town, and won. As part of their commitment to the factory, the seventeen high schools in Malta promised to aim their programs at educating factory workers, stepping backwards into the early 20th century.

Don't get me wrong: people need to work, and this factory will employ 1,600 by the end of the year.

I find it ironic, though, that we are back to educating factory workers. Many of the jobs in the factory will be done by robots, but workers are needed to monitor and clean equipment, as well as perform other specific functions. There is not much in the way of innovation or creativity, but it is steady, stable (hopefully) employment. Which is good, as these small towns that court large factories are putting all of their educational eggs in one basket.

Detroit, anyone? Pittsburgh? What happens when the factory leaves? What happens to the employees who were trained specifically for one job and lack the broader skills necessary to move to another industry or field (problem-solving, collaboration, etc)?

This will be an interesting story to follow, one that will play out over several years. I have said before that we continue to educate factory workers, and now we are bringing factories back to employ our factory workers. Cogs in the wheel. This is a massive step backwards, even as it is positive in the short term.

I hope I am wrong.

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