Contingencies and School Structures: A Short Rant

The publicly funded schools for young people, commonly called K-12 schools in the United States are an example of general purpose schools. Modeled after liberal arts education, we can trace the history of these schools to one-room school houses maintained in villages and towns early in the nation’s history. Ostensibly, these schools were places where students received instruction in the reading, writing, and arithmetic they would need for agrarian and early industrial economies.

In the early part of the 20th century, school expanded to include high school grades. What is hidden in the sterilized narrative of schools is the highly political nature of the institutions. From blatantly racist and sexist practices of limiting attendance to instruction that indoctrinated students into the dominant culture as a way to destroy indigenous cultures, schools have been used to accomplish political goals for generations. To deny this history is to deny the best evidence we have; to deny its continued influence on school organization and governance also denies the best evidence we have.

Regardless of the political motivations for the decisions that are made and the school structures and organizations that are created, decision-makers typically promote their actions as “what is best for children.” Modern high schools, with separate subjects taught by specially trained experts, rotating schedules, tests and other familiar structures are recognized as originating in the early part of the 20th century and were developed to prepare young people and immigrants for jobs in the emerging industrial economy. Of course, they were also developed to occupy adolescents who had been removed from the workforce due to new laws restricting child labor.

Once established, certain practices and structures remain a part of school, and in many cases, they are understood as “natural” parts of school, and “necessary” for students’ success long after the original conditions necessitating the change have faded. High schools the reflect the needs of industrial society continue to follow the fall through spring calendar that met the needs of agrarian economies to have even the youngest children contributing to the productivity of farms.