Note to Tony Wagner, Co-Author of “Most Likely to Succeed”

Below is the text of an email I wrote (and re-wrote, and edited, and re-wrote and changed a bunch) to Tony Wagner about some passages in his book. We had an exchange on Twitter that was mostly about math education but I slid in my strongly held opinions about the history in his book. He was kind enough to offer his email so I could share my thinking in more than 280 characters at a time.

Hello! Thank you for being open to feedback and sharing your email address. And to be sure, this is an issue that’s larger than just your particular book. I wrote this Wikipedia article as a way to try and correct some misperceptions around what’s called the “factory model” or “industrial era” model. The first paragraph includes links to pieces by education historians who speak about the problems with adopting the model described in your book, movie, and in Dintersmith’s book. I’ve highlighted two topics of concern below (Mann and the Committee of Ten) and why it’s so critical to end this idea that schools were created to prepare children for factory jobs. 

The tension – and the frustration that I mentioned in my tweet – is there are entire passages in your book, Most Likely to Succeed that are simply historically inaccurate or misleading. As an example, Frederick Taylor (mentioned on page 25) was three years old when Horace Mann died. They, and their philosophies, did not overlap. More to the point, there is no evidence in Mann’s writing that he was focused on workers or employees; instead, his focus was mostly on “basic citizenship“, as you say. This is most evident in his essay, A Historical View of Education. This is to say: there is no mention of “jobs in a growing industrial economy” in Mann’s writing. In addition, he cited the history of public education in New York State – begun in the late 1700’s – almost as frequently as he mentioned Prussia. 

Page 25 also includes one of the more frustrating examples from your book and movie (and Dintersmith’s book, and Robinson’s video, and Rose’s book, etc. etc.). You use the phrase “assembly-line model of education” (the quotes are yours) without any connection to source, speaker, or context. I’m going to set aside the problem with the paragraph above it (but will offer that there are still at least 5 one room schoolhouses serving students in NYS as of 2019) but must stress how misleading the paragraph on “batch-process” students is to an uniformed reader. I appreciate that you were trying to cover a great deal of ground but this notion of “train[ing] millions of young adults to perform repetitive tasks quickly” simply isn’t supported by the historical record. First, children working in manufacturing wasn’t unusual in the mid-1800’s – there was no reason for educators to advocate preparing children to work as adults in places children already worked. Additionally, at the time of his writing, most student assessment was done via recitation, not writing. So, it’s difficult to contextualize what repetitive tasks you’re referring to. Second, Mann, among many others, were vocal advocates of feminizing the profession. The sentiment was basically women teachers could better coax children towards learning than men. In effect, your book implies Mann helped harden American education while numerous books and historians lay out that, in fact, he played a significant role in softening it. Third, factories of that era weren’t necessarily focused on speed and didn’t look like factories as your readers would think of them. Audrey Watters piece on the “Invented History of the Factory Model” does a good job explaining the difference.  

It’s also worth highlighting that the source you cite regarding Mann, The Prussian-Industrial History of Public Schooling is not authored by an educational historian. This alone is not an issue, but what is great big giant red flag is the reference to James Taylor Gatto in the author’s citation list. There is a great deal to be said about Gatto but the fact he referred to the people Thomas Jefferson enslaved as “employees” should be enough to disqualify him, and by proxy, any source that cites him as a credible source.

Which leads us to Chapter 2 and the Committee of Ten. First, a reader is left to believe the Committee of Ten had authority over American public education. It’s not clear to the reader that the Committee was entirely advisory, and they were describing what was happening and making recommendations based off these observations, not telling school leaders or states what to do. The initial committee work revealed 9 common subjects across American high schools (as well as mention of art, music, physical education, rhetoric, logic, etc.) While they did speak to 5 subjects as a way to organize the school day, the 5 they used as categories are different than those you cite (“math, science, English, history, and foreign languages”, p. 40). In their report (p. 36), they offer:

  1. languages — Latin, Greek, English, German, and French, (and locally Spanish); 
  2. mathematics — algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; 
  3. general history, and the intensive study of special epochs; 
  4. natural history — including descriptive astronomy, meteorology, botany, zoology, physiology, geology, and ethnology; 
  5. physics and chemistry.

On page 43, you speculate about the goals of the Committee of Ten. Taking creative license with historical texts is understandable. I’m unclear, though, why you didn’t provide the reader with the Committee’s actual goals or even source the actual report. A review of the final report shows each committee articulated their rationale for their topic area. These rationales include statements that speak to the opposite of what you claim. Committee members remind schoolmen “It is scarcely necessary to say that the simple memorizing, or the slavish following, of the textbook should be avoided (p. 218)”, or “This [history class] may also be so arranged as to create in the minds of pupils a desire to possess and use books, which will do much to break the monotony of their lives and to cultivate the habit of judicious expenditure” (p. 193) and “[geometry]  possesses remarkable qualifications for quickening and developing creative talent” (p. 115). The members of the Greek committee advocated students read The Odyssey, “as it deals with fairy land, enchantment, and human effort” (p. 79). Meanwhile, in one of the minority reports, an author argues, “The relation between the subjective power and the objective — or subjective — knowledge is inseparable and vital. On any other theory, for general education, we might well consider the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics as valuable as that of physics, and Choctaw as important as Latin” (p. 57)It’s clear the members of the Committee of Ten were being thoughtful, careful, and reflective about what was and should happen in schools. Reducing their work, and the work of the teachers of era to the “1893 Model” misleads readers around the evolution of American education. 

Which leads us to why any of this matters. Your text claims: “It’s shocking that the typical student day in 2015 is eerily similar to what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century” (page 40) and you ask what’s in American education “DNA.” Our exchange on Twitter happened to occur on the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education which to me, is the heart of the matter. One piece that isn’t mentioned in your book or the movie is that Committee of Ten were all white men. They were being thoughtful, careful, and reflective about the education of their sons, maybe their daughters. They were mostly unconcerned with what was happening in the under resourced, understaffed Black schools in the South or with doing anything to setting up the children and grandchildren of previously enslaved people up for successful lives. It’s easy to disprove your statement with regards to content; a typical white, male school day in the early 20th century would have included recitations, Latin, Greek, heading home for lunch, few, if any, married or pregnant women teachers and probably no peers with disabilities. A student from 1900 would be baffled by the American high school of 2000, or 2015. However, what would be shockingly similar would be segregation by race and harm to Native and Indigenous children.

I’d offer that the DNA of our schools is white supremacy and institutional sexism and it appears we lack the collective courage to do anything about it. 

One of the tensions is that we could create schools exactly like what you advocate for and still have deeply segregated, deeply unequal schools. In other words, I’m frustrated by the use of the bad history to set a particular narrative around education while there appears to be a desire to ignore or brush aside the actual history. Every time someone talks about the “factory model,” they’ve centered the conversation on white boys and men, away from the legacy of chattel slavery and the sexism that formed our country. Away from hard truths, towards white-centric narratives that only approximate change. Meanwhile, there is a two-century long history of American education being about men on the outside of the classroom telling women inside the classroom how they need to change. Which isn’t to say change isn’t necessary or that all advocacy is wrong. But rather, we’re repeating patterns, generation after generation.

Another tension is we’re talking about systems – but systems are made up of individuals. While we all do our best to advocate from the position find ourselves, we have different levels of authority and leverage. It’s my sincerest hope that those with voices that carry – such as yourself and Mr. Dintersmith – use them to interrupt patterns, to signal boost the voices of the those, especially women of color, doing the work to change school every day. My thanks for listening and I look forward to future conversations. 

Best wishes – Jenn Binis, host Ed History 101