In this problematic book, Kirsten Olson argues not only that the ‘factory model’ of education is ineffective and even injurious to students, but that it is incapable of producing the kind of creative minds that our contemporary American workforce demands. Underlying her thesis is the notion that the emotion of joy, specifically the “joy of learning,” is the single most essential component to education, and that the experience of joy has been lost in the soul-crushing, day to day routine of America’s schools. Old School Culture, as Olson defines it, “is a set of old-fashioned ideas and attitudes in school that construct teaching as hierarchical, learning as passive, and the bureaucratic structures of school as about adults, not kids.”
Olson makes some very strong claims, accusations, and generalizations, which normally would require a foundation of objective evidence to support. If Olson had prepared a court case in which she sought to convict the public school system of wounding its students, however, her case would rest predominantly on personal anecdotes and circumstantial evidence. Her interviewees, some of whom had been out of school for decades, would parade up to the witness stand to tell their stories of being wounded by school, as well as their road to recovery. Then, dramatically, Olson would take the stand as an expert witness, telling about her work as a school consultant and how she observed the attitudes of students in many different types of classroom environments, and how, in non-traditional school settings, “learners” respond in an entirely positive way. This black-and-white portrayal should raise a red flag in the mind of any critical reader.
Olson draws broad generalizations about the American education system based on roughly two dozen interviews, which is hardly even a statistically significant sample. In one of the few times she does cite a survey, the data does not support her conclusion. In the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement she cites at the beginning of Chapter 9, 70.5 percent of the respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement “I care about my school,” and 72 percent agree or strongly agree with the statement “I am engaged in school.” In one of the responses Olson chose to include, only 31 percent of high school students said they have virtually no interaction with teachers on a day to day basis. That means 69 percent do. Yet she concludes that this survey “indicate[s] that a vast majority of high school students dislike their course material and have inadequate interactions with teachers, and a third of students sit in classrooms every day in which they feel completely unseen and unengaged.”
None of this is to suggest that Olson does not offer any useful criticism or propose some thought-provoking alternatives in Wounded by School, but there are serious problems with her work. Even when it comes to alternative educational models, she leaves out the one that has existed alongside the factory model for nearly a century: the Montessori Method. According to one website, “Montessori practice is always up-to-date and dynamic because observation and the meeting of needs is continual and specific for each child. When physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs are met children glow with excitement and a drive to play and work with enthusiasm, to learn, and to create. They exhibit a desire to teach, help, and care for others and for their environment.”
Those are all qualities that Olson claimed are not being promoted by our current school system, yet she only mentions Maria Montessori in a single footnote. This omission is even more glaring because the method is practiced in around 5,000 schools in the United States. Why would Olson ignore the most widespread alternative education model in the United States today?
Ultimately, the purpose of K-12 education—hand in hand with parents, friends, and social and religious organizations—is to help a child survive and flourish when they reach adulthood. But a school is only one small piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, the individual must decide what he or she will take out of his or her own educational experience. In the mad rush to create the best employees for the 21st Century workplace, nurture un-wounded, happy technocrats, or “produce the kinds of minds and thinking that society really needs” (whatever that means), we forget that there are many ways of obtaining knowledge, and the school is just one means to that end—not the end in itself.