Children Are Not Interchangeable Cogs

Variations of the picture above have been widely distributed in schools. Education works best, we are told, when all the parts work together. The picture shows three gears arranged in a circle.

If you recall your studies of mechanics, this arrangement cannot possibly work. Imagine the first gear turning clockwise; it would drive the second gear counter-clockwise, which would drive the third gear clockwise, which would drive the first counter-clockwise. But the first gear cannot simultaneously go clockwise and counter-clockwise; this circular gear train would be jammed solid.

It’s sad that an exponent of government schools would so badly mangle a metaphor. But what does the choice of this metaphor tell us? Permit me to speculate: a circle, rather than a linear train of gears, suggests that parents, students, and teachers are in a kind of cooperative dance, ring around the roses.

No part drives the others.  What is missing from this picture? Administrators, politicians, and the political process. That’s a large omission. Ask any teacher; they’ll tell you how important politics is, how often it trumps the best interests of teachers, students, and parents; how the best teachers often must struggle to find ways to work within or to work around the system, in order to do the best they can for the students.

A more important problem, however, is the assumption that participants are mere cogs in an inexorable machine. There is more truth to this analogy than we like to admit. The origins of what we know of as the Prussian Model of Schooling were military; this model of organization was designed by Fichte, in his 1808 Addresses to the German Nation, to produce compliant cannon fodder, soldiers who would march into a barrage of fire when ordered to, “theirs not to reason why. Theirs to do and die.” It was organized as a top-down hierarchy, following the pattern of the military. Parents, teachers, and students were assigned limited roles at the bottom, where students would “learn their place.”

Later, as assembly lines became the norm, industrialists sought a labor force who would do as they were told, without raising too much ruckus. Schools became assembly lines  or pipelines, where children were fed in one end, to be processed and to emerge tightly controlled, compliant, ready to follow orders. Rejects were ejected, or subtly encouraged to self-deport. The rejected ones were labeled as misfits. But often, these “misfits” accomplish great things. Those who start powerful trends, who change our lives, are seldom the compliant ones.

“A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a famous story about young Carl Friedrich Gauss, ordered to add the numbers from 1 to 100 when he was only six years old. Moments later, he presented the answer: 5050. The teacher, instead of recognizing the child’s genius, was outraged; this swift answer did not fit the limited playbook from which the teacher was working.

Gauss had recognized that the hundred numbers could be easily rearranged into 50 pairs, each of which summed to 101. He quickly performed the simple multiplication. He had gone off-script, both in being able to discover that insight, and in being able to do multiplication at such a young age.

These are the rich possibilities which are blocked by pedantic teachers, textbooks and processes, which force children to abdicate responsibility for their own learning, and guide them into a “safe,” predictable, and slow assembly-line. These processes strangle many a holy vine of curiosity in the crib, and replace them with conformist changelings.


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