School of the Robber Baron: How Carnegie Still Rules Education from the Grave


March 19, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals

clock-507You may not know this but your life has been measured in something called Carnegie Units–at least the k-12/college part of your life that you spent with your butt in a chair.

The Carnegie Unit (CU) was introduced in 1906 as a means of standardizing American education. 120 hours of secondary instruction over a year’s time equaled one CU (meeting 4 or 5 times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year, earned one credit).

And it’s ruled over us ever since.

Our kids start out as five-year-old CU contractors. They meet their requirements and move onto the next level—whether it’s a two-week unit, a marking period, a semester, or a year. They move through elementary, middle-school, junior and senior high, then start again as freshmen and on they go, one unit, credit, course, degree at a time.

It’s all very linear, just like steel and railroads and assembly lines. And just like these innovations of the Industrial Revolution, the CU comes to us straight from the head of a robber baron.

So why would Andrew Carnegie care about standardizing educational hours and credits? He was a steel mogul, right?

Yes, he was a steel mogul, but he was also a philanthropist and world-peace visionary. He was a progressive, and as such believed that the same efforts that built his steel empire could be applied to the vast, unorganized market that was American education. He found a way of producing a functional, predictable, uniform product called skilled labor. And schools have been churning out skilled labor ever since. The innovative, individualistic, entrepreneurial, get-out-of-the-way-and-let-me-do-it American is now only a caricature of an earlier age (yes, thankfully, there are exceptions, but that’s a far cry from being exceptional). Carnegie has unwittingly turned us into time-clock punchers.

How did it happen?

Carnegie wasn’t the first to notice the chaos of post-secondary entrance requirements, but he was the most aggressive in trying to bring order out of it. He made his TIAA-CREF pension program for public universities conditional upon their adopting his CU. If you wanted his services (and everyone did), then you played along. Secondary schools follow the universities’ lead automatically, so eventually the idea trickled down to all levels. His efforts forced us to think about education at the post-secondary level in the quantified particulars of time.

And we’ve never stopped thinking that way.

Question: How do you get through high school?

Answer: you spend 4 years there, and then you graduate.

Question: How do you get a bachelor’s degree?

Answer: You spend 4 years in college, and then you’ve got yourself a BA.

4 years is the answer.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear this? – Associate degree

2 years, right?

Education is time.

And for over a hundred years we’ve been training each generation to attach themselves, kindergarten through retirement, to time-driven institutions. When their formal CU requirements are fully met and they matriculate into the world, the next question is Where can I start punching a time card?

The Carnegie Unit has so monopolized the discussion about what education entails that we can’t think without it, and we can’t think around it. While everyone—educators, administrators, legislatures, the public—cries out reform! reform! we all still want to see it done within the century-old framework of credits and seat time.

Time, in little measurable units, is the educational air we breathe. We can’t imagine life without it.

And here’s the ironic rub: even if some genius (and there are many of them working on this) does see past these deep presuppositions and figures out a new way of doing things, we won’t accept it unless we can all do it, equally, with equal resources, at equal pacing, with equal consequences good and bad.

We won’t touch it unless we can control it, and we can’t control unless we can standardize it.

Andrew Carnegie has taught us well.

2 thoughts on “School of the Robber Baron: How Carnegie Still Rules Education from the Grave

  1. See the email says:

    We’re just getting them ready for work: a job as a time-for-money trade off.

  2. bradcharlesbeals says:

    Yes, but it’s a low target.

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