What has gone wrong, an ever-increasing proportion of people now ask themselves, that “we have no time to stand and stare?” A cult of efficiency, based on the commodification of time, seems to have so pervaded our way of living that we are in danger of losing our natural connection to the beauty and majesty of life1.
Efficiency, in the economic sense meaning the best organisation of all the components of production to respond to the demands of the consumer, at the best possible price, is a relatively new concept. In a very short time it has become the dominant organisational principle, not only of economics but of numerous other areas of human activity. Efficiency, we have persuaded ourselves to believe, is an unqualified good — it’s what life is all about. Or is it?
Actually, it wasn’t always like this. Amongst nomadic peoples, as it was with all our ancestors in hunter-gather times, there was no concept of efficiency. Humans lived in a precarious balance with the environment. If your family killed a gazelle you were happy to share the meat which you couldn’t eat with others. You couldn’t store it. In any case next week you might be dependent on the good fortune and goodwill of a neighbour for a meal. The ancient Greeks also had a definition of efficiency that was subtly different. They spoke of efficiency as a means towards establishing a virtuous state through the combination and utilization of all kinds of human resources so as to work to the benefit of everyone2. Their definition went beyond the role of producers and consumers to consider the impact such procedures might have on everyone else. The Pablo Indians of New Mexico, whenever a new law was being proposed, always required the elders of the tribe to consider what impact such a proposal might have on their descendants, seven generations on from then. We seem to have lost any such long-term perspective.
It was the American engineer, Frederic Winslow Taylor3, who, with his stopwatch and time and motion studies, created the modern definition of efficiency. Taylor was born into a wealthy industrial Baltimore family in 1856. Unlike a privileged English public schoolboy of the time, as soon as his studies were completed his father insisted that he go straight into the family firm, and start at the bottom of the ladder. The young Taylor was apprenticed as a pattern maker, the most demanding of all craft skills, for these were the men who made the machines that others would then have to learn to operate. With all his academic training behind him the young Taylor came “to the astonishing awakening at the end of my six months (in the workshop) that the three other men I had been working with were all much smarter than I was”. Impressed by the extraordinary skill of the craftsmen who seemed able to make almost anything do almost everything, the young Taylor discovered something else; a factory really only needed a few clever people. What it needed instead were large numbers of employees who would do as they were told, with a hundred percent consistency, and work to their maximum capacity for as long as possible. What Taylor observed was the very opposite. American factories were full of consummate craftsmen whose prime motivation was the satisfaction they got out of doing a job well, rather than working as fast as was possible. The craftsman’s love for the work he did, however, got in the way of the profits that people like his father, who owned the factory, believed was their rightful reward for providing the capital that set up the business in the first place. “The primary goal of human labor and thought is efficiency”, Taylor told his father, so we just don’t need many thinking craftsmen.
With such an analysis under his belt Taylor proposed running factories according to tightly defined rule books that left nothing to the worker’s discretion; “You do it my way, by my standards, at the speed I mandate, and in so doing achieve a level of output I ordain, and I’ll pay you handsomely for it, beyond anything you might have imagined. All you have to do is to take orders and give up your way of doing things for mine”4. In other words, Taylor was saying, let me dumb you down and drive you as hard as is humanly possible, and I’ll give you enough money to enjoy your leisure time, but you will lose any sense of directing your own future. All I want is that you don’t think ─ that is the job of the specialist, not the operator. The more successful Taylor was at merging ‘scientific management’5 with industrial processes the more other influential people started to question the appropriate relationship of learning to education. How should an education system be structured? For, as Taylor’s many followers argued, is not education simply a system? Many an unreflective educationalist avidly embraced such thinking, not recognising in this the ghost of the old Monitorial System.
It’s all very straight forward, the advocates of Taylor’s ideas seemed to be saying, once you define what you want. You have to take the mystery out of education, stop messing around with the intangibles, and then we can help you design a perfect system. It sounded so very persuasive, not only to the Americans, but to those officials in late Victorian London who were urgently seeking a cheaper, more cost-effective model of education that would suit the ordinary man ─ the man, it was assumed, who did not need to have any self-esteem. By 1930, so complete was the devastation of craftsmen by all that this implied, that the motto of the Chicago World Fair blandly proclaimed: “Science Finds/Industry Applies/Man Conforms!”6
Thesis 53: 24th August 2006