“All They Taught You At School Was How To Be A Good Worker”: Billy Bragg and the ‘Industrial Model’ of Education

What assumptions do you make when you see this picture? How do you know you are right?
All they taught you at school
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself

Billy Bragg

I understand the world through words and music. Lyrics in particular. Situations I am in inspire lyrics to fly through my head. Music reflects the world back to me, and I, in turn, understand the world better.

Two conversations recently inspired this Billy Bragg lyric, penned during Thatcher-era Britain, to jump into my head. Andrew Campbell and others were talking about punk rock- whether it’s an ethos, an attitude, a stance to the world, or even a philosophy in itself, or merely a style of music.

You can see a particularly fiery 1985 (and yes, punk) version of “To Have and To Have Not” here:

Whether “punk” is a coherent movement or not, or just an attitude, we see it in spades in Bragg’s peformance of this song.

The conversation that inspired the lyric to pop into my mind, though, was one of the many we have about whether or not our education systems adhere to an “industrial model” from the 19th century. It goes to the aims and ends of public education — are we just producing “good workers”, or something more? Try Googling “industrial model of education” — you get 475, 000, 000 hits!

I think all of us would say more- a whole lot more. And yet, there’s something just so reductive, and so false for me about the “industrial” metaphor. I don’t think children were ever treated like products, like widgets. In our constant desire for change, I think, we are too reductive and negative about the past. I remember Bible readings (imagine that now?), legends of the “strap”’, and sitting for long periods of time staring at the clock, yes, but I also remember group work, fun projects, being inspired to think creatively, critically, and mathematically a lot of the time.

The common thread? Teachers. Inspiring, creative teachers who do the best they can, within the political and social framework of the times in which they teach. I should know-I am a second generation Ontario teacher.

That’s not to say we don’t have far to go. We do. We simply do. But the rhetorical overreach of dismissing all past education as “industrial” just doesn’t help us. Change over time is generally slow. We’ve been blinded by a few technological gamechangers in the past 15 years, like Facebook. We need to stop to think whether changing that rapidly is even advisable for our education systems that can change on a dime, because they are new, are probably not a good model for education systems built on hundreds of years of wisdom, and physical and social infrastructure.

We don’t need to throw the whole thing out, we just need to keep calmly, patiently, and yes, innovatively making small change wherever we can.

Would Time-Traveller Dewey enjoy spending time in your classroom? Would Socrates? Would your grandmother’s grade 1 teacher? I hope so. They would recognize it as a primarily human endeavour, built on human relationships.

Which brings me back to Bragg’s narrator’s experience of his own education. Was his voice not heard? Did he receive too much training, and not enough education? It seems likely. It would be interesting to know how Bragg feels, 30+ years on, and with Thatcher long gone (and no longer among the living). Was it all bad? Was being a good worker *all* that was taught, or has time given perspective on the lessons learned, both good and bad?

Further, despite all that we were, or were not, taught, we do “fail ourselves”. Systems are big and sometimes unfriendly, if not outright hostile to our own humanity, but we still make our way in the world. The fatalistic narrator in this song probably did too.

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