Deindustrializing ourselves

You know how you read an idea that catches your attention and suddenly it’s everywhere? That’s how it’s been these past couple of weeks after reading William Bridges’s ideas on the effects of industrialization on work. In an earlier post I summarize his argument that what we define today as a “job” is an relatively recent artifact of the industrial revolution, which fundamentally changed our relationship to work by parceling it out as very specific tasks through the division of labor, and training workers to perform those same tasks mechanically day after day, according to the rhythm of the factory clock, rather than the needs of the moment or the season. Since this past weekend, I’ve encountered this idea twice more in relation to work and education.

I started reading Jefferey Eugenides’s Middlesex, which is partly set in the Detroit of Henry Ford, who perfected the assembly line process enabling the mass production of automobiles (and, eventually, just about everything else). The narrator’s grandfather, a Greek immigrant, got his first American job in Ford’s factory, and the novel captures well just how alien this form of labor was to everyone:

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds. (Eugenides 95)

To lure workers back and retain them, Ford famously instituted the five-dollar workday, which in the novel also hooks Lefty Stephanides into factory work. His job is so basic, so specific, that he is able to train for it in seventeen minutes and immediately assume a place in the production line. The passage that follows conveys the repetitive and, paradoxically, isolating nature of his job:

Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curing around the factory, through its clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors—the carburetor, the distributor, the intake manifold—and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, huge spindles pound steam-powered fists. No one says a word. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. The camshaft circles around the floor until a hand reaches up to take it down and attach it to the engine block, growing increasingly eccentric now with swooshes of pipe and the plumage of fan blades. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. While other workers screw in the air filter (seventeen seconds) and put on the flywheel. At which point the engine is finished and the last man sends it soaring away… (95-6)

Each laborer is a discrete unit in the overall operation, and he is expected to master only a single task. This way they remain easily replaceable. Lefty learns very quickly that despite the lip service given to efficiency, any improvements on his part to speed up the process messes up the timing of the rest of the line, since all the workers measure out their day in precise increments calculated down to a matter of seconds.

At the time, Ford was paying twice the going rate for wage workers, forcing other industrialists to raise their wages as well. And despite his company’s intrusions into the personal lives of his workers, he must have thought he was bettering their lives by keeping them gainfully employed and also by helping immigrants assimilate into mainstream American culture.

But we also have to ask ourselves at what cost to the workers? What are the psychological effects of working on a job that is designed so it can be filled by just about any able-bodied person, rather than one that speaks to your interests and lets you play to your strengths? Furthermore, what are the costs to society to have lost those talents? Those questions are particularly immediate to me because my husband and I have relatives in and from Michigan who have, at some point in their lives, worked for the auto industry. One of them once told me that he got his job at the GM assembly line because he felt the need to support his new family right after the war. I know he has done his own cost-benefit analysis and has worked out a rationale for remaining there till he retired just a couple of years ago, but he confessed that he was quite surprised that he ended up being a “blue collar” worker, having gone to college and gotten a degree in marketing and communications. Now, he is a man who is full of ideas and creative solutions to problems, and he also has a wonderful way with putting people at ease and immediately befriending them. He does find outlets for expressing himself in his hobbies, social activities, and community service, but I can’t help but wonder what he could have accomplished professionally, had he stepped out of the factory.

With all this already weighing heavily on my mind, this morning I rewatched RSA‘s animation of Sir Ken Robinson‘s talk on changing education paradigms (via a reader’s blog):

There is so much to unpack in the talk, but I will limit my comments a single point: how Robinson reminds us that public schooling, like the notion of the discrete 9-to-5 job, is a product of the industrial revolution. Hence, the division of learning into disciplines, the school day into “periods” marked by bells, and of children by grade level. What strikes most of us as logical appears to him entirely counter-intuitive. Why, he asks, do we categorize children by the year of their birth, when anyone who has ever been acquainted with more than one child knows that children of identical ages perform at differing levels of ability depending on the subject area, the teaching style, or even the time of day?

The talk challenges us to rethink what education would look like if we deindustrialized it and let our individual differences lead the way. I’ve long been convinced that part of the solution lies in the interdisciplinary thematic approach to curriculum building. You see this frequently in colleges, where courses are often cross-listed so a seminar on race might bring together scientific research with history and literature. This can be done for students at any level. I have a friend, for example, who is homeschooling preschoolers, and she recently did a unit on bats that integrated science with geography and art. Cross-disciplinary teaching would demand that our teachers be trained differently than they are now. They would either have to be comfortable teaching more than one discipline, and/or they would have to be able to work intimately with other teachers in the thematic unit.

What does your deindustrialized school look like?

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