“Melting Pot” loves “Mechanical Child”

Melting Pot (1908) poster

Origins of Team Machine meme in K-12 education

Did you know, or can you imagine, a time when child labor in factories was legal and tolerated? In England this occurred between 1750 and 1833.

Child labor in textile factories was originally a “Progressive” idea. How? Why? Child factory labor solved multiple problems in the 1700s:

- Idle children playing barefoot in the streets (public education was not even an idea until Pestalozzi in 1800),

- Safety, kidnapping concerns for all and especially unattended children,

- Health, disease and contagion issues of slum living,

- Children could do simple useful factory work. Cheaper labor helped factory owners and gave families more income.

the first UK rural textile mills were built (1769) and child apprentices were hired as primary workers ~ From: Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution https://eh.net/encyclopedia/child-labor-during-the-british-industrial-revolution/

“The campaign against child labour culminated in two important pieces of legislation — the Factory Act (1833) and the Mines Act (1842). The Factory Act prohibited employing children younger than nine years of age; and, limited the hours children between nine and 13 could work.” — Wikipedia

In 2018, Mr. Google tells me all “child labor” pages online are 100% against children working in factories.

What’s behind-under this evolution is how the meme of “childhood” evolved in mainstream Western culture.

To Learn More on Child Labor in the US

A History of Child Labor | Scholastic ~ https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/history-child-labor/

Is it worth knowing the History of Childhood?

In conventional and Waldorf teacher training colleges, K-12 teacher trainees learn about the history of teaching. What gets skipped over is the history of childhood. Between 1990–2005 or later, factory-style K-12 schools had a mania for machine-scorable multiple choice testing. This was pretty close to child-labor — of the liberal-intellectual kind. Unresolved lack of understanding of the nature of childhood returned to say, “The main thing which was learned from earlier child labor fads was — not much was learned.” Those who don’t know their own history, are doomed to repeat it.

The history of childhood has been a topic of interest to iNtuitive Feelers in social history, since the highly influential book, Centuries of Childhood, published by French historian Philippe Ariès in 1960. He argued “childhood” [as we know it today] is a concept created by modern society [no earlier than 1900] and progressively humanized and expanded on, from many angles, 1910–2017. ~ Wikipedia

I believe the following book is more read today, The History of Childhood by Lloyd deMause (1974), recommended to those interested.

The Melting Pot

The history of childhood resonates strongly with the history of the “melting pot” theory of immigrant assimilation.

If other nations give the USA its tired, poor and hungry, exactly how, by what method, do we assimilate new immigrants and their children into harmonious, productive, happy citizens?

The pro- and con- of the “melting pot” theory comes in exactly how, by what method, do we to assimilate diverse and divergent ethnic and racial immigrants, under the banner of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty?

Maybe you know already: K-12 ed was the method chosen by city, state and national elected officials. It wasn’t ideal. More thoughtful persons recognized “one size to fit them all; one culture to fit all peoples,” was bound to have unintended, unexpected consequences. Still, this is the best the powers that be could imagine at the time.

Team Machine K-12 education, “Mechanical Child” education, was supported by the optimistic “Melting Pot” metaphor, assimilation methods enforced formally by city and school bureaucrats.

The exact phrase “melting pot” came into general usage in the United States after it was used as a metaphor describing a fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. The 1908 play of the same name suggests this. “ … The melting pot metaphor is often used to describe the assimilation of immigrants into the United States by way of K-12 education and related social services. The melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s.[2][3] ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melting_pot

I believe a literal melting pot is for scraps of soft metals to be melted together so the aggregate can be formed into new utensils, often eating utensils, a technique from pre-Christian times. The metaphor caught the public’s imagination because of the many analogies between melting assorted, different metals; and, assimilating diverse immigrants into the “national fabric” — to switch metaphors.

Consider — scrap of different metal is hard, resistant to change and will not on its own “assimilate” or even associate significantly with scraps of different metals, even when adjacent and “living” side by side. What’s to be done? You apply great heat, an intensity of experience, such as uniform K-12 education. At the end, all the different metals have formed a single homogeneous alloy with manifold potential practical and productive uses.

The melting pot is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous. This is a metaphor for different class, race and ethnic “elements” “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture ~ unknown source

I see the Melting Pot ideal evolving and becoming the more exaggerated and pernicious “Mechanical child” meme of the 1950s-1960s. Only since about 2005 has the goal of standardized testing to measure perfection in children begun to be rolled back.

The USA experienced several major waves of immigration, multiple waves, over 100 years or more, of immigrants coming to escape starvation; and, in hopes of greater economic opportunity. Most pertinent to K-12 education is the wave between 1880 to 1920.

Between 1850 and 1930, about five million Germans migrated to the United States, peaking between 1881 and 1885 when a million Germans settled primarily in the Midwest.

Between 1820 and 1930, 3.5 million British and 4.5 million Irish entered America. Before 1845 most Irish immigrants were Protestants. After 1845, Irish Catholics began arriving in large numbers, largely driven by the Great Famine.[26]

After 1880 larger steam-powered oceangoing ships replaced sailing ships. This resulted in lower fares and greater immigrant mobility. Meanwhile, farming improvements in Southern Europe and the Russian Empire created surplus labor. Young people between the ages of 15 to 30 were predominant among newcomers.

This wave of migration, constituting a third immigration episode in US history, may be better referred to as a “flood” of immigrants. Nearly 25 million Europeans made the long trip. Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others speaking Slavic languages made up the bulk of this migration. 2.5 to 4 million Jews were among them …

The problem of how to socialize the flood of immigrants was taken up by academics in the 1880s and by elites in general in the 1890s.

The urban destinations of millions of immigrants, and antipathy towards foreigners, led to the emergence of a second wave of organized xenophobia. By the 1890s, many Americans, particularly from the ranks of the well-off, white, and native-born, considered immigration to pose a serious danger to the nation’s health and security ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_immigration_to_the_United_States

The alternative to child factory workers, public factory-style K-12 education, did not exist, as we know it today in urban areas, until the 1880s.

The Prussian K-12 model

USA K-12 education was based on 1880s Prussian schools; at the time, when Horace Mann visited them, considered the best in the world. The Kaiser’s schools, modeled on the techniques of factory production, turned idle children playing barefoot in the streets into useful factory workers, a ‘wonderful solution’ to several serious problems. Children could be “saved” from growing up amongst the dangers of city streets.

Right here we see how child factory worker and factory style K-12 schools are connected. In the minds of adults of the time, in each scenario, the children are interchangeable.

How does this evolve? After WW I, more and better factory-style schools are built. Now children are expected to attend schools thru Grade Six or Grade Eight. After, they go back to work on the farm or into a factory.

In other words, the “mechanical child” metaphor is a continuation, an evolution of the “melting pot” metaphor. “One size fits all” and ‘exploitation of natural resources,’ in this case, children.

Team Machine factory-style K-12 ed After WW II

In the 1950s-1960s, college graduates and returning army veterans were to conform and become “the man in the gray flannel suit” and “IBM company men” all dressed in white short-sleeved shirts, ties and no jacket. It is these early IBM geeks who invented and popularized the plastic pocket pencil-pen holder of geekdom fame.

1950s sameness and homogenization was widely accepted in the name of “prosperity” and “peace.”

1950s sameness and homogenization was exactly what the 1950s Beats and the original Mad Magazine comic books pushed back against so brilliantly.

Waldorf ed 1919–1960 stood apart from Team Machine education. The 1970s-1980s popularity of Montessori, home-schooling, child-run Summerhill schools, etc. all came later, after the success of Waldorf in the US, first in NYC, then in Hawaii, then in Los Angeles.

Team Machine as money-in-K-12 politics

Since the 1880s, especially in federal and state governments, K-12 ed policy has been steered towards whichever slogans-jargon have the most money and influence behind them.

This is why conventional USA K-12 education policy since 1950 is 90% or more, a history of fads, fashions, competing jargon and sloganeering.

In the 1990s, ‘making our K-12 schools look good by way of test scores’ became a major political football for legislators and candidates running for local and state-wide offices. Why? Money became more and more influential in politics. Political candidates wanted objective criteria of their competence for higher office. What sweet candy you can offer you voters, how your policies and programs are raising test scores; and, how your opponents are not?

Since campaigners for state office had abandoned truly human values as talking points, they were left to compete over not-very-meaningful statistics. Thus was born high-stakes testing, high-stakes for legislators, unnatural pressure on teachers and their children.

Money in politics in the early 2000s teamed up with testing corporations, to have a destructive effect on K-12 ed. GW Bush’s “No child Left Behind” was a Regressive attempt to outsource ed policy to private corporations for private corporate profit. Between 2001–2005 district, state and federal policy makers were especially enamored of:

- the perfect bilingual program,

- the perfect reading program (perfect balance of textbook, workbook, core lit, workbooks, phonics and creative writing,

- the perfect math program: the perfect balance of self-directed and teacher-directed learning,

- the perfect tests and perfect testing method,

- the perfect statistics and academic standards,

- the perfect — well, you get the idea.

At least a large fraction of working classroom teachers did NOT share these aims. I’m aware of no actual poll numbers.

I left the K-12 work scene in 2007. I’m happy to see the topic of high-stakes testing has moved in a Progressive direction. In 2017, Mr. Google has 50,000 pages for: news for “high stakes testing” in K-12 schools education. Of the top 11 Google results, 10 or maybe all 11 are ANTI-high-stakes testing. For example:

[Jan. 2017:] There has been some testing reform progress made in the last year or so. State and federal officials finally began to acknowledge a grassroots movement by parents, educators, students and activists, who have protested the excessive and harmful use of high-stakes standardized tests. As part of this movement, hundreds of thousands of students “opted out” of mandated high-stakes standardized tests, with more than 20 percent of students in New York State doing so in each of the last two years. …


The problem with testing young human beings is, they are not much like cattle, who can be “graded.” Children evolve in a gentle upward spiral; they individuate over time.

Holistic ideas and methods have only been widely public since 1970; and only then in mostly rhetorical form, not manifested as brick-and-mortar schools — except Classic Waldorf.

For me, Team Human is K-12 Muslim whole-child schools, Black Heritage whole-child schools, Latino holistic schools, Japanese holistic schools, etc.

Good evidence this is possible is the strikingly international success of Classic Waldorf-methods schools, the most whole-brained, most ecumenical schools most people ever encounter or hear of. In the 1980s-1990s, reports came in yearly, where a first Waldorf school was successfully initiated in an entirely new culture. The Waldorf 100 film updates this international adoption trend.

End of the school-to-factory pipeline

Between 1750s-1980s, factory work was a practical, workable goal for a large fraction of Western adults.

Starting in the 1980s, in response to corporate and REgressive money, Washington DC abandoned most restraints on USA companies moving and hiring workers overseas. US factory jobs shrank, the beginning of the end of high-school-to-factory-work as a stable pipeline in the USA.

Starting with the Romantics, artists had always predicted an unhappy ending to Faustian bargains with tech.

The Romantic rebellion probably reached its artistic apotheosis in Franenstein (first book publication 1818) and Metropolis (from a novel but the 1927 film is more accessible and famous) “…a German expressionist epic science-fiction drama film, directed by Fritz Lang. Scripted by Thea von Harbou, with collaboration from Lang himself…” ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolis_(1927_film)

Artists and poets foresaw-predicted the costs of excessive factory-ization on our capacity of free choice and building local communities worthy of our affection.

The Third Great Awakening in the USA (1855–1900) had some clear ideas for new social forms needed for the majority; such as intentional communities anchored by manufacture of tangible goods. Unfortunately EQ was too weak among too many to realize more than a few, temporary, throw-forward bricks-and-mortar communities.

In the late 1980s, people like me on Team Whole Child felt secure about the value of whole-child ed; still, starting new shools; and then, keepoing them running according to the original idealistic impulses, is very hard work. Around 1998 AWSNA coined itself, “No longer the best-kept secret in education.” WE knew we were correct in our theory. The phrase suggests the insecurity we felt insecure about the durability and survivability of Waldorf methods in the mainstream marketplace of ideas.

Did the whole-child proponents win out over the Team Machine proponents? No. What did happen was the school choice (charters) won out over those school districts which were corrupt collusions between local cities, corporations and teach unions. And then a small but significant fraction of charters adopted whole-child methods; most of these were Waldorf charters.

Parents winning the right to choose which school to send their kids took the wind out of the sails of whole-child school reform efforts. Relative calm prevailed into 2019. Parents voted for the schools they wanted by where they sent their kids (similar to England, I believe). The many fewer calls for school reform came not from vociferous parents. They came from highly paid lobbyists starting charter schools owned by hedge funds. Everyone agrees we can do better than factory style schools of 1880–1980. The main discussion is “how?” As always, the Devil is in the details:

- Can this group of local stakeholders agree on what they want as “better education” — or not?,

- how much will it cost?

- Will it be in my backyard or yours?

Schools which are dismal for kids and teachers are now targeted for sunsetting from several angles, even at the district level. We’re slowly working out the details of a big shift.

A second good piece of evidence is a 2011 Forbes article, “The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education.”

In the excerpt below, you’ll find, from the view of Best Practices in corporate management, old factory-style schools can and should go the way of the dinosaurs.


Steve Denning , CONTRIBUTOR — I write about radical management, leadership, innovation & narrative. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Root cause: factory model of management

To decide what is the single best idea for reforming K-12 education, one needs to figure out what is the biggest problem that the system currently faces. To my mind, the biggest problem is a preoccupation with, and the application of, the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of “the system”, to which the students, the teachers, the parents and the administrators have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.

Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well, even in the few factories that still remain in this country, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either.

But given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “better management” or “stronger management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector?

When the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this type of “management” only makes things worse. It is like medieval doctors trying to cure patients by bloodletting, using leeches, which only made the patients worse.

The in-applicability of these methods is aggravated by the changes in the economy. Not so long ago, we could predict what jobs and careers might be available for children in their adult life. The education system could tell little Freddie or Janet what to study and if he or she mastered that, he or she was set for life. Not any more. We simply don’t know what jobs will be there in twenty years time. Today, apart from a few core skills like reading, writing, math, thinking, imagining and creating, we cannot know what knowledge or skills will be needed when Freddie or Janet grows up.

The best single idea for reforming education

Given this context, I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.

Where does this leave school reformers and Progressive parents? It leaves us with freedom to designate our own new measuring sticks for “better schooling.” Ideally this comes first in local communities of stakeholders; financial means, then support local consensus.

What will our measuring sticks be?

Forest Gump’s metal leg braces

For the original Baby Boomers, the under-25 generation alive in 1958, the dehumanizing, restrictive aspects of Metropolis-style factories and K-12 schools was felt very pointedly. Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were two of many ways youth expressed their discomfort with excessive factory-ization (and general repression of Feeling). See also the 1998 movie, Pleasantville, for a full unpacking of these memes.

A wonderful artistic summary of late 1950s youth rebellion against Metropolis-style factorization appears in the movie, Forest Gump. Forest, wearing metal leg braces for some leg deformity, hears for the first time a car playing a new Elvis or Buddy Holly song. He chases the car and literally runs off his braces. The image expresses the speeding up of unconscious felt by many youngsters in the late 1950s. By 1958 a significant fraction were now strong enuf to shake off and leave behind the recessive, excessively rigid male-mental patterning of 1650–1957.

This grew into the Berkeley college campus free speech riots of 1964.

The youth dance crazes of the Twist, the Watusi; and, the toy fad of Hula Hoop, suggest the Joy which had been repressed in human evolution for a couple centuries. The period 1958–1975 was a breath of fresh air to everyone wishing to give Feeling more equal status with Thinking. The Younger Generations recognized life — and schooling — had been over-controlled, over-mentalized, was one-sidedly left-brained. The more high-quality education an individual consumes, the more practice one has in using both Thinking and Feeling interchangably. Healthy culture is alwasy in the direction of more whole-brainedness. That’s the endgame as Iain McGilchrist (2009, 2022) makes more plain.

1964 healthy K-12 school reform impulses begin in the USA

In 1964 John Holt began to distinguish between “learning” from “schooling” in How Children Fail (1964, revised 1982). On a cassette tape around the publication of his Freedom and Beyond he says:

There are things which schools do teach and teach very emphatically, how learning is schooling and schooling is learning. If you want to learn something, you have to go to school and get somebody called a teacher to teach it to you.

The realization of how rigidly expert-driven K-12 ed had been accelerated discussion of quality education (more humanistic, more holistic) among Progressive educators. The realization? A dawning discernment not all “schooling” is quality learning. K-12 schooling is capable of being neither humanistic nor holistic (the Emperor wears no clothes, tho he thinks he does). A dawning realization of what Cultural Creatives did not want in K-12 arose.

A parent-led impulse to reform-improve K-12 schools accelerated with Neil Postman’s 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

I believe Team Human K-12 ed benefits from a nuanced understanding of this period. I wish to emphasize both:

- Expanding the Feeling aspects of life and living (right brain); as well as,

- Emphasize Eugene Schwartz’s 1999 insights of how over-Feeling, undue emphasis on Feeling per se, in isolation and apart from Thinking, led to permissive parenting.

Overly-permissive parenting, was perhaps the equal or superior evil compared to earlier Stern Father disciplinarian parenting. What we want in George Lakoff’s Nurturing Parent is a balance of Thinking and Feeling, flexibility to switch back and forth with children, so clear, solid self-discipline can be modeled; and therefore, imparted to young children. Whatever you model consistently, children will internalize.

The over-Feelers assumed the only solutions were to emphasize Feeling, expand all Feeling aspects of life. Predictably, this led to many failed experiments; including some in K-12. In England, the child-governed Summerhill school was derisively called the “Do as you please school.” I personally was more familiar with Play Mountain Place, in Los Angeles, begun 1949, a K-3 school, inspired by Summerhill. It too was a weak growth, never able to replicate itself elsewhere.

Can you go too far away from the logical and the rational into only Feeling? Yesiree, Bob. Over and over, the following experiments in exaggerated Feeling proved to be unworkable and unsustainable as a modus vivendi for life or K-12 schools:

- Schools where kids pick their own path of learning (sorry Montessori),

- Over-use of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,

- Over-emphasis on touchy-feely, overly permissive (even child-run) K-12 education,

- Adult-run schools where Feeling has unequal and exaggerated dominance over Thinking.

The over-feeling of life proved about as destructive as over-mentalizing life — simply in another direction.

Many, varied K-12 reform experiments in over-feeling did however act as “ice-breakers,” breaking up many stagnant cultural thought-forms (crystalizations). In some areas, this permitted experimental theory and methods with better balance of Feeling and Thinking to emerge, 1985–1995 and on-going.

After Mechanical Child

Q: Looking back, was “Mechanical Child vs. Whole-child” a fair and valid polarity of metaphors?

A: Yes, I think so. The image contrast was useful, for parents, to orient themselves to what they wanted for their children. The image contrast inspired Progressive K-12 teachers to learn and try new Humanistic ideas not taught in their conventional teacher training.

The image contrast was at the heart of alternative and whole-child school efforts and how parent involvement and support were invited.

In 2018 as a teacher training idea, “from Mechanical Child to Whole-child” is not much more than a historical slogan, a T-shirt. Don’t make “Mechanical Child vs. Whole-child” the high point of your school pitch to prospective parents. It may add clarity but it does not inspire.

I wonder if the opposition of “Team Machine vs. Whole-person” is equally valid — and equally out of date in 2018. Even if you yourself become whole, what can you do alone, if the old existing civilization is expiring and a new one has to be built from scratch?

Take a page from George Lakoff’s advice to Democrats — which in 2022 — except for Bernie and AOC — they are still ignoring: voice your deepest, innermost values. Then, share and explain how you make these manifest in method and curriculum and kid activity. This requires knowledge, subtlety and nuance in your rhetoric.

Where are the schools where teachers meet and compete for the privilege of public speaking to parents and prospective parents? Who can present the school in the most engaging and heartfelt manner possible? The winner gets to head the next open house talk for prospective parents.

Hopefully the above suggests some useful language for speaking with parents at various levels of understanding about whole-brain, Team Human education.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bruce Dickson

Bruce Dickson

Health Intuitive, author in Los Angeles, CA