That said, may I point out that we have made the problem worse by the way we habitually “do school?” The great American public school has assumed the shape it has for reasons not often discussed by the public. At the turn of the 20th Century, the big idea man in public education (whose name escapes me) was also a big idea man in the industrial world. He conducted time-and-motion studies regarding factory processes. Then, he started doing the same for (or to) teaching. The dynamic industrializing world of 1910 was the model to imitate, and so schools were made into little factories, and we became obsessed with time-on-task, with highly structured days, with teacher productivity.
But human beings are not cars on an assembly line! How can we apply industrial processes to organic life? Ah, but you forget the factory farm. Our modern public school was designed with the same care and attention as a farrowing house full of little piglets, all in a row. Or a chicken house, with space carefully allotted in order to squeeze the maximum number of birds in each tier. Just look at how we do things: masses of young children are taught to stand in line, to stay quiet, to react to spoken or clapped commands or bells. Desks are arranged in crowded rows, and children are taught to sit in them without wiggling, to ask for permission to speak. There are 18-24 or more children in a tightly-organized room so that we can squeeze the most production out of the teacher (our most expensive asset). When we finally admit that we absolutely do need another adult in the room, we add in a teacher’s aide – a “paraprofessional” who is paid far less in wages and benefits than the (usually) unionized teacher. Management talks endlessly about creativity, but spends all its time reaching for conformity.
And the piglets – er, students? The ones who struggle get a little more help, but not nearly enough. They fall further behind every year. And the really bright ones, the ones who rush ahead? They frequently don’t get the feedback they need, either. And both ends of the spectrum, if they are wiggly, get a fake psycho-label hung on them and their parents are encouraged to get them some medicine to keep them under control: to standardize them, keep them flowing along in the process. The goal is to be someone who is easily handled and responsive to only the stimuli we provide.
The most efficient production model for such a factory farm is the large institution, capable of handling hundreds, even thousands of units, with the minimum amount of worker input per unit. So we build larger and larger schools. We think big means “more opportunities,” but we ignore the psychological effects of overcrowding. And, of course, when diseases and hygiene problems are spreading through society, whole schools deal with it together: influenza, chickenpox, head lice. Comes now COVID-19, and we are suddenly scrambling to figure out how to keep all our precious piglets from getting or spreading the disease. We talk about “social distancing” but the entire American public school is built upon packing people into the minimum amount of space to get the maximum amount of production.
I have said before, considering the psychological effects of overcrowding and the discipline problems of the very large school, that any campus that has over 500 students in it is simply institutional child abuse. It is also an excellent test medium for infectious disease studies. We would be better off if we had more schools with fewer students in each. Instruction would be better, discipline would be better, and they would be – in our current circumstances – much less of a problem to call back into session.