The Triumph of American Pragmatism (Common Core, Part 1)

In 1912, the United States Congress began holding a series of hearings into workplace practices introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915).

Taylor had revolutionized American factories, increasing productivity by staggering amounts. Through removing “rule of thumb” practices from the workplace and regimenting production according to the principles of “scientific management”, Taylor enabled managers to run their factories like giant machines.

Known as the “father of time-and-motion studies”, Taylor turned all manual labor into an exact science. His goal was to achieve optimization through measurement and a strict adherence to the purely pragmatic principles of cost-benefit analysis.

Controversy over Taylor’s methods came to a head in 1911 when workers at the Watertown Arsenal decided to go on strike, blaming their discontent on Taylor’s methods. The Watertown strike led to the congressional investigation of 1912. Workers alleged that the new factory reforms – which broke up jobs into a series of micro-processes requiring no skill—were humiliating, dehumanizing and “un-American.”

For those of us who are used to living in a world governed by Taylor’s pragmatic principles, the idea of automated factory labour does not strike us as very strange. But for workers at the Watertown Arsenal, Taylor’s methods struck a blow at the heart of what it meant to be human. Their concerns were encapsulated in Taylor’s own words when he boldly declared, “In the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first.”

Even Taylor’s critics had to acknowledge one thing: his methods worked. Once every job from the largest to the smallest was divided into series of parts and then quantified, factory production soared.

Taylor did more than simply divide work routines into a series of micro-processes. He also quantified time with the newly accessible stop-watches. Like the Grey Gentlemen in Michael Endeor’s fantasy novel Momo, Taylor was plagued by the idea of a time deficit – people spending longer on a task than they needed to. By using watches to keep workers accountable, he ensured that their work would be done as fast as possible, squeezing maximum output out of every worker.

Concerned that humans were being treated as machines, the Congressional committee tasked with investigating Taylor’s work-place practices eventually dismantled the system he had instituted at the Watertown Arsenal. They also barred the principles of “scientific management” from being implemented in government facilities. A few months later the House of Representatives created a law that banned the use of stopwatches in factories.

Despite these setbacks, the overall progress of Taylor’s practices could not be stopped. In the prologue to his biography of Frederick Taylor The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, Robert Kanigel reflected on how Taylor’s methods set the master template for American life down to the present day.

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“Taylor bequeathed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines, women, and men. He helped instill in us the fierce, unholy obsession with time, order, productivity, and efficiency that marks our age….

“Taylor’s ideas had a way of breaking loose from their moorings, drifting with the intellectual currents, and anchoring in unlikely places far downstream.”

One of the places far downstream where Taylor’s methods found anchorage was in the field of education. Throughout the twentieth and twentieth-centuries, principles akin to Taylor’s “scientific management” were applied in the classroom to maximize learning and ensure that no child was wasting his or her time. Indeed, in a series of posts to follow, I will argue that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative are nothing more than a continuation of the radical pragmatism of Frederick Winslow Taylor, applying his principles of cost-benefit analysis to children in the classroom. You can read these posts by clicking on the following links:


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