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Why Did America‘s Wealthiest Capitalist Reform Schools to Serve Corporate Interests?

If you‘ve ever wondered why today‘s conventional school system seems so focused on order, conformity and job skills rather than creativity and critical thinking, the history provides answers. When America experienced massive industrialization between 1870 and 1920, captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller Sr. saw the opportunity to reshape education to suit corporate needs through a utilitarian school model.

As the founder of Standard Oil and the richest man in America controlling nearly 2% of the entire U.S. GDP, Rockefeller possessed the wealth and power to transform schools into a corporate workforce development system. Let‘s explore Rockefeller‘s motivations, methods and longterm impacts on the nation‘s classrooms.

Rockefeller Reformed Schools to Provide Trained Workers

By 1880, America had the factories, resources and technological innovations in place for massive industrial expansion. But a shortage of workers skilled to operate machinery and follow instructions hampered growth.

Rockefeller himself had trouble finding dependable and punctual labor for his industries. Seeing an opportunity, he set out to shape schools into institutions for practical training rather than traditional book learning.

As Rockefeller said himself: "I believe we should give people schools that will teach them not the old ideals, but the new real truths of life." He meant the "truths" of industrial capitalism.

Funding Research to Develop Rockefeller‘s Corporate Philosophy of Education

Beginning in the 1880s, Rockefeller donated over $180 million (over $5 billion today) specifically to reshape education to serve industrial capitalism‘s needs through a new utilitarian school model.

He founded entire academic departments, funded large-scale studies experimenting with vocational training methods, and used his philanthropy network to steer other industrialists‘ donations, impacting millions of students.

For example, Rockefeller spent over $250,000 financing the Flexner Report which restructured medical training toward practical hospital experience. He bankrolled $300,000 toward developing standardized testing which sorted the workforce based on obedience and job skills. Rockefeller also funded pilot high schools like Joliet Township specifically to train students for local corporations.

"I impart practical knowledge – the knowledge that has a direct bearing on the daily lives and interests of the pupils," Rockefeller said regarding his funding directives. He actively molded curriculum to serve corporate requirements rather than classical liberal arts education.

Consolidating Control Over Education

Beyond curriculum, Rockefeller also focused heavily on administrative control over schools. Whereas previously 50,000 localized school boards oversaw education, Rockefeller spent upwards of $15 million to lobby governments for school consolidation. This centralized control into fewer districts made it easier for corporations to directing policy.

Reflecting on the efficacy of tactics like bankrolling the U.S. Congressional education committee and financing pro-consolidation propaganda campaigns, one of Rockefeller‘s foundation directors remarked:

"In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands."

They succeeded. By 1920 Rockefeller‘s contributions concentrated 150,000 school boards into fewer than 15,000. His model legislation and lobbying served as templates guiding similar policies across the nation.

Shaping Curriculum to Focus on Corporate Needs

With enhanced centralized control, Rockefeller Foundation grants rapidly overhauled curriculum to emphasize vocational education serving corporations – especially in poorer regions where recipients depended heavily on charity funds.

New York‘s Hampton Institute is one example. Hampton trustees required junior high students take courses on "practical mechanics" over humanities and pushed to replace history, economics and government classes with accounting, typing and industry-partnered stenography courses.

Within 20 years schools went from offering no typing and steno courses to over 20 dedicated vocational teachers training thousands of students like factory personnel. Rockefeller‘s role in these stark changes is undeniable after examining primary sources like Hampton budget records. His "gifts" came with corporate strings attached.

Compulsory School Attendance as a Means of Social Control

While reshaping schools to feed industry, Rockefeller also focused on getting more kids into these corporately designed classrooms through compulsory attendance. Consolidation enhanced large industry‘s lobbying influence over legislation.

So when Rockefeller threw his full weight behind promoting forced attendance laws from 1890 to 1920, he simultaneously grew corporate power over childhood. Making school compulsory meant Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists could reach more children with their philosophy.

Educators like John Taylor Gatto describe Rockefeller‘s compulsory schooling crusade as a naked "power grab" over communities. Data shows attendance increased 400% during this period as childhood‘s landscape dramatically shifted toward conformity-oriented factory-model schools.

Lasting Impacts: Rockefeller‘s Corporate Philosophy Still Shapes Schools in 2022

Nearly every aspect of today‘s conventional school system reflects Rockefeller‘s corporate philosophy designed to systemically shape America‘s next generation of workers and consumers in service of early 20th century industry.

We still measure school quality largely by graduates‘ corporate job placement. Standardized testing uses tactics pioneered by Rockefeller funds to rank willingness to follow instructions – not creativity. Compulsion remains forcefully embedded. Humanities decay as vocational programs thrive.

Few connect these traits back to their capitalist origin because Rockefeller‘s education reforms got quickly codified as cultural norms in less than a generation 100 years ago. But now you know the heavily industrial-biased historical forces underpinning many components of today‘s education system.

The billionaires of 2022 like Bill Gates pursue similar tactics – using philanthropic giving to fund corporate-aligned education reform initiatives as Rockefeller once did. Critics argue schools should open student minds to think independently rather than train minds toward obedience. A healthy democracy relies on actively engaged citizens.

Understanding origins hopefully restores focus on what outcomes we collectively want from education for the next generation. With history as our guide, we can have authentic conversations about needed realignment to today‘s quickly evolving needs so schools adequately prepare students rather than just serve stale corporate workforce demands from a century ago.