Children are the peculiar raw material which schools put on their production line. When they arrive at five years old, they are typically illiterate, innumerate, cannot locate themselves in the national order, and believe in the tooth fairy. As one teacher also noted, they are “leaky” in the sense that they excrete various bodily fluids unexpectedly during the day (Kozol 2007, 84). Thirteen years later, virtually all are literate, some can do calculus, and others volunteer to preserve an abstract national order in the military. The few who believe in the tooth fairy are likely to justify their faith with the philosophical reference to Western traditions, and few of them ever leak tears, at least in public. Most importantly, perhaps, as a group, they have come to docilely accept that the moral order is good, and that they too, will reproduce it, completing again that kitschy circle of life described by both Durkheim and The Lion King. Such is a mark of a successful school bureaucracy.
However, keep in mind what the schools started with. The characteristics of the five- and six-year-old child, whom they receive, are the opposite of what the modern employer, university, or nation wants of citizens or adults. Child-development specialists describe the five year olds who schools accept as raw material in terms of psychological and social qualities: Their attention spans are short, eye-hand coordination clumsy, and vocabularies limited. They are likely to break into song spontaneously and cry inappropriately. Their primary social relationships are with their family, and they do not have a concept of belonging to larger social groups, like the nation, company, or work group. Because they are impulsive, they do not know how to wait in line. They lose their temper easily, and are focused on immediate needs and goals. Many cannot tie their own shoes, button their own shirts, or learn when to wipe their noses. Nor can they organize daily tasks without immediate and sustained supervision. This is the raw material that the public schools take and put through that 12- to 13-year process. At the end, the schools produce someone who retail stores and restaurants seek to put behind cash registers to patiently conduct tedious transactions for an eight-hour shift. Factories of course seek them out to operate the modern complex machinery of assembly lines. Universities and colleges are ready to train them further, and militaries are ready to recruit them.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this process of creating adults, which is inherited from nineteenth-century factories, somehow works. After all, the military, universities, and employers all routinely demand a high school diploma as the basic indicator of adult competency. They even demand this qualification before all others. (pp. 16-17)
This is an excerpt from my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. Available from better libraries everywhere, and Amazon.com for too much. (If you can’t afford it, please ask you library to order a copy, and my publisher to issue a lower cost paperback!). Chapter 1 is available on my Academia.edu site, which is here.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.