Gary Gagliardi Note: This article is inspired by the work of Maj. Donald E. Vandergriff’s in his book, Raising the Bar, Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War.)
The original concepts of traditional strategy were not so much forgotten as buried. We think of strategy today as planning because linear thinking is what we have been taught for several generations in school. This didn’t happen by accident. Education by the Factory and for the Factory During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the power of organization reach its peak and this had a direct impact on the nature of education. This period gave rise to what is now known as the progressive period (1880-1920) of education.
The educational ideas of this period were based upon Frederick Taylor’s theories of managing workers. His training focused on production efficiency by breaking down complex production tasks into a sequence of simple, standardized steps. Taylor transformed industrial production, but being based on linear determinism, his ideas treated people as unthinking cogs in a machine. Every action was pre-defined to increase efficiency. Taylor’s system was consciously adopted by the emerging educational establishment.
Elwood Cubberly, a turn-of the century historian, wrote that schools should be run like factories. Teachers were the factory workers. The students were the raw material to be turned into the product. The product must meet the specifications of the needs of the 20th century. This thinking coincided with a large influx of farmers and immigrants into cities. These students needed not only knowledge but new habits in every area of life.
Building a New Social Order The following modern era (1920-present) of education began with the introduction of “modern” psychology to education. The main impact of psychology was the increased emphasis on testing, but this psychological trend didn’t stop with testing. Extending the “raw material into products” factory view, education began to see its role as molding minds. Schools were divided into grade levels following the production model.
In 1924, George Counts (1889-1974) publish The Principles of Education with J. Crosby Chapman, emphasizing the philosophy of John Dewey (1859–1952), which had an explicit social “planning” objective. This lead Counts to write “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” which set the philosophy that has since guided education. Just as individual decision-making was devalued by deterministic movement, education in how to make good decisions, the very basis of tradition strategy, was also devalued.
Education gradually abandoned teaching classical values, which focused on the ultimate purpose and value of each individual life (as part of a divine plan) to focus on “social values.” The role of free will and the idea of each person controlling their own destiny was downplayed as students were taught social responsibility.
The “sky is the limit” Horatio Alger American dream that drove the age of invention and exploration was replaced with the teaching of social limits. In this factory model of civilization, only outlaws didn’t conform to these limits. This made the freedom of being an outlaw much more appealing. A Giant Social Factory This “school as factory” view was set in cement with the subsequent growth in the size of educational institutions and their establishment in government bureaucracy.
The linear aspect of the process–moving a growing number of student through the grade levels in as predictable way as possible–was how success is measured today. Teachers, seeing themselves as factory workers, naturally unionized and established more and more formal work rules. The social role of the institution became entangled in politics. Choosing textbooks and designing tests are now political issues.
During this period, the spiritual and religious ideals that inspired the prior period of discovery was replaced by secular and materialistic viewpoints more suitable to the factory. The resulting system is one of the least adaptive organizations on earth, suitable only for teaching the linear system of thinking on which it is based. Young people could see the trap in a linear worldview that the adults could not. The straight-line predictability of a linear world was a dull life, devoid of the challenge and excitement of adaptive living. Linear thinking exchanged the promise of infinite possibility with the predictably of safety and security.
The counter-culture reaction was the result, but the counter culture did not offer any new view of individual progress. Instead, it saw freedom only as a focus on personal gratification. But as the outlaws (“hoods,” “gangstas”), pleasure seekers (“hippies,” “druggies”) and nihilists (“punks,” “goths”) rejected the idea of progress, the world was recreated by the only group that was left who still believed in future progress was the geeks, the science nerds, and the “freedom fighters” inspired by Martin Luther King.
To the degree that society has made progress, we live in the world created by the dreams of these groups. Again, as predicted by Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago in his identification of size as a strategic weakness, the growth of our linear system of education has sown the seeds of its own destruction. Just as as the education factory was born out of assembly-line thinking, the new educational model based is based on network thinking. Unlike the linear view of education, the adaptive view is that you learn skills as you need them. While childhood education is still locked by law into the linear model, people are increasingly taking responsibility for their own education, looking for models and ideas that they can use to improve their everyday lives.