Godin: Schools steal dreams, teach compliance

Seth Godin’s manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), argues that schools are designed to keep kids out of the labor force and train them to be “compliant and productive workers.”

Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence–it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

. . . As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

The economy has changed dramatically, Godin writes. Teaching compliance is counterproductive now.

Justin Baeder takes on Godin’s thesis here and here on Ed Week‘s On Performance blog.

. . . certainly, the public school curriculum has not kept up with the times to the extent needed to effectively prepare students to compete in the economy.

But were schools ever explicitly designed to create compliant workers? Godin goes so far as to draw a sharp dichotomy between teaching a rich set of skills and teaching obedience. Is it really impossible to teach obedience and creativity at the same time?

I’ve heard the schools-as-factories argument before and found it unpersuasive. The average American never has been a factory worker — and few factory workers needed much education until recently. Furthermore, if we’re educating for compliance, we’re doing a lousy job of it.

That said, it’s worth discussing Godin’s ideas on educating leaders.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne, my opinions tend to be less popular with your readers, so I’m sure they won’t be shocked to know that I agree more with Godin than with Baeder. My experience and research (both vast) reveal that a progressive, student-centered approach is better with today’s learners. Teaching obedience is old-school and does nothing more than discourage learning.

    In a student-centered, interactive, technology-rich classroom, there’s no need for obedience, as students are too busy learning to be disruptive.

    • Supersub says:

      Right. There’s no reason to learn obedience…students won’t ever have to obey laws or bosses later on in life. They’ll all be rich entrepreneurs who will be able to afford top lawyers to keep them out of jail.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        As long as we’re clear that we’re educating the kids for their lives among hoi polloi.

        I’m actually with Barnes on this one. I buy the factory-criticism of schools just about 100%.

        Hell, I’m writing my dissertation on it.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Horace Mann wrote specifically about the need to produce adults that were prepared to function in an industrial age. We talked about efficient factory workers many times. It was part of his larger goal. That and producing the “right” kind of citizen.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Horace Mann wrote specifically about the need to produce adults that were prepared to function in an industrial age. We talked about efficient factory workers many times.

            Wow… you knew Horace Mann? That’s awesome.

            ; – )

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Sorry, that We should have been a He.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      The student-centered followers see what they want to see. I’ve taught classes that are arranged in small groups. It is very inefficient, creates social problems and inequities and causes some if not many students to shut down.

  2. I don’t buy the obedience argument whatsoever. Putting lots of teenagers together where they only generally interact with other teenagers probably exacerbates the problem we call adolescence. They learn what it means to be a responsible adult from there ‘experienced’ peers.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      On the other hand, I *also* agree with Connor here — but I don’t see why his critique of how school is handled “as applied” has much to do with a solid critique of how the institution is designed.

  3. Logic seems to indicate that whosoever holds the purse strings (i.e. Federal Government) dictates how children will learn/continue to learn…how do we chage this?

    • Supersub says:

      Vote for someone who wants to abolish the federal DOE.

      • That’s absurd. Shall schools operate solely on local funds? Are you absolutely certain that every community makes absolutely the best choices for all its constituents all the time? You’ve got a lot to learn about public education.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          I’m sorry… but where does *certainty* that the “right” choices are being made come into it?

          What’s wrong with people and/or communities making suboptimal choices?

        • Supersub says:

          First off, there’s still state funding to adjust for local economic differences. With your question regarding making the best choices, you are suggesting that federal politicians and bureaucrats will. Considering the local citizenry will be affected more by poor decisions, yes, they are the best suited to choose.
          And I won’t bother to address your dismissive swipe at the end.

        • In response to an email, here are more fully developed ideas local control:

          Too many Americans have this idealistic belief that all parents always make the best decisions for their kids, so the federal government should just stay out of it. That includes, of course, just sending federal funds and letting local communities do as they see fit. So, what about when the Oakland school district planned to start teaching Ebonics? Only the federal pressure reversed this awful plan. And, consider the idea of social promotion. That has always parent-driven. Parents are reluctant to administer the tough love – and local districts bow to pressures.

          Even the issue of local control of “standards” is problematic. It’s tough to look at any industrialized nation in the world and not conclude that uniform national standards is key to their equity and excellence. And, you speak of the “federal govt” as this single person who is making decisions. But, a stronger central force with many viewpoints – acknowledging all fifty states’ pov – has a greater chance of seeking out best practice than one school board of five people – who most likely have no education background other than having gone to school.

          The conflict with “local desires” is a problem when they are spending federal money. And we know that schools can’t compete on local money alone. Kids in rural Mississippi would never get the same education as suburban Maryland or Massachusetts. Thus, if schools want the money they need, there is validity to a central idea of “what is better.” We know enough of American history to infer the logic behind the Constitution vs. the Articles of Confederation argument.

          I respect the idea of local control. But the idealism about local control and the fear of federalism is a bit too much for me. I’ve been in education too long – with experience in both public and private, as well as American and Asian systems – to believe that parents and local communities should just be left alone when the education of their children – and the spending of federal money – is the issue.

  4. Cranberry says:

    “Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence…”

    He hasn’t visited a classroom in a long, long time, has he?

  5. GEORGE LARSON says:

    This is Godin’s rant and maybe I should not it so literally

    “Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows ”
    The pictures in the paper of my local schools do not show students sitting in straight rows.

    “The third reason they don’t teach computer science in public school”
    In my high school back in 1969 they were teaching programming. It was acknowledged as a low quality public school too.

    I do not think children are as fragile as he thinks they are.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      George — no students are not as fragile as he thinks. But schools believe it or they would stop social promotion, let kids learn from their mistakes even if it means being held back, having to do a class over (not via credit recovery), get cut from a team, not get a ribbon for coming in 9th etc. I believe government education believes kids are fragile and the people working in the system that let social promotion, etc happen demonstrate by their actions they do to. What a mess…

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I don’t think schools think all–or even most–kids are fragile. However, they don’t want to be in the position of hurting anyone, so if some kids are fragile, well, best to be gentle all around.

        Ironically, this may wind up hurting more people in the long run, e.g., a ninth grader who has been socially promoted is frustrated and angry because he can’t do the work, and then makes it hard for the rest of the class to learn.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Public ed is a bit like the soup with too many cooks. So many competing interests pushing a particular need stretch resources and create an institution with poor focus. The comprehensive school does everything with mediocrity and serves most students poorly. There is a place for comprehensive schools, but many students would benefit from a more focused core (English/Math/Science/History) and than higher quality “elective” options with the electives being more career or speciality focused and not just place/credit fillers.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    It seems obvious to me that keeping kids in classroom settings nearly full time until they’re 18 serves them poorly. Many, many of all types of students would benefit greatly from real world experience whether that’s manual labor, developing a skill, or working as an intern or apprentice at whatever level of competency they’re ready for. In the infinate wisdom of social progressives we made child labor illegal. Too bad. Kids could be getting core academics, work experience, skill training, and some form of wages during those years – to their benefit. Instead they’re stuck in classrooms taking mandated P.E.. “health”, and a plethora of marginally useful electives. boo-hiss.

  7. Lord, what a self-important load of tripe.

    And could the usual suspects stop going on and on about social promotion and its evils? Keerist. Only people deluded enough to think that students could do the work and don’t can possibly pretend that social promotion does anything but acknowledge reality without doing the kid any good at all.

  8. greeneyeshade says:

    For what it’s worth, Diane Ravitch said in “Left Back” that it was possible to have schools that were “academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome” (she says her children attended a private, progressive one) _ but (this is my inference, not hers) it seems to require a cohort of parents like Ravitch, and John Dewey himself, or someone a lot like him, in charge.

  9. I wish people would stop equating a room arrangement that has students sitting in rows with bad teaching. The arrangement of the chairs had nothing to do with it.

    • I agree. Why is an arrangement that allows students to actually see and hear material that is presented considered a negative? Oh – it is because students aren’t supposed to be learning from the one person in the room with more education and life experience than themselves, they are meant to learn from their peers.

  10. Sir Ken Robinson would certainly agree. He’s been arguing for years that our school model is designed to feed a factory system that is no longer relevant. And creativity and innovation is the key, especially for young male students who drop out of a system into which they don’t fit. Certainly, Daniel Pink’s arguments in A Whole New Mind argues this is well.

    Godin’s manifesto is a bit extreme – but his point is not entirely wrong.

  11. I suspect that male students drop out because male behavior and ways of thinking aren’t valued in school. That’s what’s changed since the SAT scores dropped off after 1965.