Factory Farming, Factory Schools

Factory farms, like this essay, have the aim of cramming as much as possible into as small a space as possible.

As you might have guessed from my previous post, these past few years I’ve been delving into the essays of Wendell Berry. A good deal of his collection Citizenship Papers—especially the essays “The Whole Horse” and “Stupidity in Concentration”—focuses Berry’s insight and eloquence on the subject of factory farming and the essential differences between the industrialism that drives it and an agrarianism that represents a more humane, healthier, sustainable alternative.

Well, if you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you also know that as an advocate of Sudbury schooling for the past 17 years, I’ve devoted a good portion of my life to furthering humane, healthy, sustainable education. At some point in my recent reading, a powerful déjà vu came over me as I saw in Berry’s indictment of industrial farming strong echoes of industrial education—the model that’s informed our schools since the Industrial Revolution, in which factory-like schools process children en masse, the assembly line replaced by the classroom and instruction following an increasingly standardized curriculum. In fact, I was surprised I hadn’t made this connection earlier.

To understand these animal factories, we need to keep in mind three principles: confinement, concentration, and separation.

Now before I go any further, I must acknowledge that indicting conventional education as a model, as a system, is not to argue that only bad things happen there, that educators are always doing awful things and that students experience nothing but abuse. I am aware that likening schools to factory farms is an extreme analogy. However, I must also point out that, as a former high school teacher, I find sufficient substance in the comparison, more than enough parallels, to make me more than a little uneasy.

For example, conventional/industrial education absolutely practices those three principles of confinement, concentration, and separation. Students nearly everywhere are confined throughout the school day, not only within their buildings but within specified classrooms (unless they’ve managed to secure a hall pass, something that to most adults is but a vague memory). They are concentrated in bunches as large as two dozen or more, and they are also separated from other people of varying ages.

Under these conditions, the natural development of the young is carefully directed, if not manipulated—often with the best intentions, to be sure, but according to adult ideas of what young people need, not based in trust of their powerful, innate curiosity and drive to mastery. Thus, it can come as no surprise that the growth of many young people might be distorted and limited.

The animal factory becomes a breeding ground for treatment-resistant pathogens, exactly as large-field monocultures become breeding grounds for pesticide-resistent pests.

The global economists advocate a world-government-by-economic-bureaucracy, which would destroy local adaptation everywhere by ignoring the uniqueness of every place…[They] are the great centralizers of our time.

Concentration, confinement, and separation—the centralization of education—necessarily create or exacerbate negative conditions just as surely in schools as in agriculture. Individual differences, the uniqueness of each child, are not given the central role they deserve, while the logistics and bureaucracy of a large-scale, top-down system too often interfere with learning. Whereas industrial farming depends on massive infusions of chemicals and the extensive use of fossil fuels, industrial education is weighed down by administrative inefficiencies and an over-reliance on testing.

Meanwhile, the target population of schools—that is to say, the student—is disempowered in the name of their own education by adults acting “for their own good.” And lo and behold, disempowered students tend to react as disempowered people everywhere do, by rebelling, resisting, going underground and/or engaging in bullying of those even less powerful. When someone’s rights to freedom of thought, movement, and association are not respected, it’s only natural that that person might fail to develop a respectful attitude.

What, then, is the countervailing idea by which we might correct the industrial idea? We will not have to look hard to find it, for there is only one, and that is agrarianism.

The conflict that exists can be resolved only on the basis of a common understanding of good practice. Here again we need to foster and study working models.

Berry grounds his vision of agrarianism in decentralized efforts to work in harmony with nature, to respect local uniqueness and the community that supports it. In fact, his call “to foster and study working models” explains concisely and aptly why I left conventional schooling for the Sudbury model: to create a template for what is possible and desirable in education.

Two other public figures draw a direct connection between a humane, empowering education and what Berry calls an agrarian approach. In a public talk last September at Alpine Valley School, James Marcus Bach (author of Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar) likened parenting to raising a plant, with the added wrinkle that you don’t know for quite a while just what kind of plant you’ve got on your hands. Maybe you’re a watermelon dad and you wonder why your kid doesn’t act too watermelon-y until you finally discover he’s a tomato—the point here being that you have to respect the unique nature of each child and accept the fact that forcing an ill-fitting environment on that child can’t end very well.

Rather, an agrarian model fosters conditions conducive to growth and lets individual plants do what they innately knows how to do: mature and thrive. In a powerful 2008 Ted talk, Sir Ken Robinson explicitly calls for a new educational metaphor. Around the 13:20 mark, he states that

we have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model based on linearity and conformity and batching people…to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process, and you cannot predict the outcome of human development—all you can do is, like a farmer, create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish. So when we look at reforming education and transforming it, it isn’t like cloning a system…it’s about customizing to your circumstances and personalizing education to the people you’re actually teaching.

Again, my intent is not to say that conventional schooling, our prevailing, industrial model, is a pit of evil tantamount to, or even worse than, factory farming. Yet for all the good being done (or at least attempted) there, I see it vastly overshadowed by systemic values and structures that are neither humane, nor healthy, nor sustainable. I see unnecessary suffering and ineffective learning on a mind-boggling scale that leaves me wondering why we haven’t yet transformed the way we do education.

Why do we persist as a culture in applying industrial principles and systems to living things? When will we realize that the problems of conventional education pose a threat to our children and their future—our future, the future of all we know and hold dear—that calls for unceasing, unrelenting efforts to create something better?




Filed under Sudbury

4 responses to “Factory Farming, Factory Schools

  1. Yes! Although some kids may not flourish even in a metaphorically agrarian model. The metaphor for them may be forests, prairies, savannahs, mountain ranges. I’d love it if we could see education as we see larger systems present in nature. Here’s a quote from my book:

    “Modeling education on the natural world is more viable. After all, we are living natural systems ourselves. What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems? Cross-pollination, diversity, self-assembly, interdependence, adaption, balance, and the undeniable tendency toward beauty. Such principles sustain and enhance life. They can form a living system of education as well. All we need to add are the very human needs for meaning and love.”

    • Thanks for the comment and quote, Laura! I was looking for a way to reference your work (and others’) in the original post, but it quickly ran up against (and passed) my usual scope/length. I agree, “natural” is the crux. I think the draw with the agrarian metaphor is that we humans have a unique relation to, or role, in the natural world, given our freedom of choice and the degree of our impact on the other components of this interdependent web. Regardless, a holistic/systems approach would go a long way toward ensuring our mutual thriving and overall sustainability.

  2. Pingback: In or Out? | Write Learning

  3. It seems mass-institutionalization is working to dominate every sphere of society, from birth to death. Hospitals, daycare centers, schools, prisons, corporations, nursing homes. You can live a long life these days and never be without an institutional affiliation or identity.

    As far as modeling schools after nature goes, the way forward isn’t coming up with some institutional paradigm that mimics natural processes, but to merge more authentically with the vocabulary of “nature” itself. Quick – picture a school ….. Do you see a building full of children … or do you see a “school” along the lines of a “school of fish”?

    We need schools of children – self-organized, running together (figuratively and literally) as they see fit (seek fitness) – exploring their world within a dynamic, evolving human cultural landscape. If this sounds crazy, scary, or “unrealistic”, keep in mind that this is the way kids lived in human cultures for thousands and millions of years before Civilization came about. It’s how we evolved to allow for the emergence of civilization in the first place. It’s also the inevitable future (if our species is to survive) since institutionalization is inherently unsustainable (largely because it cuts off access to evolutionary processes, which invariably ends in “lock-in” and eventually extinction).

    Interesting fact:

    In hunter-gatherer days, children learned “toilet training” from other children, not adults. How would society have to be re-arranged to accommodate that in today’s world?

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