[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
A formal education system reveals much about the predominant values and goals of a society. The content and structure of the curriculum, school day, and examinations betray a vision of the kind of individual the system wishes to cultivate—rewarding certain attitudes, abilities and ideas, whilst punishing others.
Typically, a society does not have a single vision of what its individuals should be like. The hierarchical structure of a society, to be perpetuated, requires individuals with different expectations, degrees of confidence, and levels of understanding. Consequently, a society’s education system invariably reflects and serves this hierarchy. Like a casting director, it assigns everyone their roles in society’s production. Class inequality is perpetuated and consolidated in a significant way by the multi-tiered education system that is enforced, often invisibly, along economic lines. Possibly the most important function of each tier of the education system is to provide, implicitly or explicitly, a rationale for the degree of power a given class is entitled to expect. Students are taught to adapt to the inequities and pathologies of a class-divided society. An adapted person is an educated person. In capitalist societies three broad classes and their permitted degrees of expectations have been identified and can be characterised in the following way.
The vast majority of the population—once dubbed “the bewildered herd” by the political commentator Walter Lippman—must be taught to accept their subordinate position as natural and unavoidable. They are denied the power to make decisions of any significance. Consequently, their work cannot be creative, only mechanical—often prescribed in great detail. They must be led to believe they have failed the system, rather than that the system has failed them. They are schooled in obedience. The professional/coordinator class must be taught to internalise the ideology of the upper class so they can be trusted to carry out politically delicate tasks requiring interpretation and creativity without supervision on a daily basis, and in novel and challenging situations. Complete internalisation, at least in the professional sphere, of their superior’s ideology renders them qualified. They are schooled in ideological malleability. The upper class must be provided with a rationale for the inequalities in society, and for their privileged position within it: “the bewildered herd”, it must be believed, depends on the insight and understanding of the upper class to manage their affairs. (Another common self-serving, post-rationalisation, of course, is the notion that though poverty and inequality are regrettable, there is no alternative.) The upper class is schooled in the exercise and consolidation of power.
To understand the logic underlying an education system, one must first attempt to understand the needs of the society in which it is embedded. Historically, due to the great inequalities of power and wealth that have saturated Western society, systems of schooling—they really should not be called systems of education—have been used as tools of oppression and control by a tiny minority of the population. A distinct illustration of this dynamic can be found in a report by the Carnegie Commission on Education (and also in a similar report published by the Trilateral Commission) which investigated, with the U.S. government, what “went wrong” during the tumultuous period of the 1960s. Their conclusion was that the “bewildered herd” had been receiving too much education. Such excessive education had conveyed to the student generation of the 1960s the strange notion that they were qualified and important enough to have a say in how society was run. The solution, of course, was to reduce the high expectations of participation induced by such a lavish education. In a putative democracy in which coercion of the body is unviable, those with ambitions of dominance must instead attempt to control the mind. A totalitarian state may crush dissent and opposition with blunt force. A democratic state must use more ‘sophisticated’ methods to achieve similar results. Such methods are today observable in the hidden curriculum that lies beneath the irrelevancies of the lower tiers of today’s educational hierarchy.
As we are unable to extricate a system of education from the society it functions to serve, reimagining educational institutions cannot be completely separated from the task of reimagining society in general. For, as we have noted, the needs and predominant values of a society will determine the aims and methods of its educational institutions. In short, such institutions do not exist in isolation—their survival depends on a reservoir of support from the culture they are immersed in. For these proposed alternatives to be considered viable, then, it must be assumed that comparable changes in the rest of society are possible—changes that would create a society receptive to the sorts of individuals that a new system of education might produce.
Whatever improvements may in time be won for society, to consolidate and perpetuate such a situation, each generation must possess the tools necessary to protect the values and institutions that make such a society possible. The threats of war, oppression, inequality and exploitation are forever present. Education provides the means to transfer the lessons and tools necessary for success in this perpetual struggle. This essay will focus primarily on those features that are judged to explicitly serve this purpose. This is a rather narrow focus and admittedly ignores important educational issues that ought to be considered elsewhere.
What should be the aim of an education system? To maximise freedom by equalising imbalances of power is one formulation. To render the role of the educator redundant by cultivating the tools necessary for self-education is another. Or, we might say, simply to facilitate individual autonomy. All these answers are pointing to similar things. That is to say, it is not up to an educator to decide on the ultimate goal of another’s education. The legitimate ambitions of educators can only extend to bringing about a state of affairs in which a student possesses the requisite tools to direct his or her own education—to producing a student whose curiosity has been fed, whose critical faculties have been honed: a student with the confidence to follow a syllabus of his or her own making, hungry to ask and seek answers to his or her own questions.
As there is no impartial way to impart information, be you journalist or lecturer, it is impossible to simply “facilitate autonomy” without leaving, impressed on your student, a mark bearing your own conceptual or ideological footprint. Impartiality is unattainable. Selecting and omitting facts is inextricable from the process of teaching or presenting information of any sort. And of course there is no universal criteria for such selection and omission. The criteria used for making such decisions, then, reveals our bias, our partiality. It is inevitable that the values held dear by a teacher will dictate what material is presented. One way out of this apparent problem, drawing on the Freirean tradition of pedagogy, is to problematise the conundrum. That is, to present this riddle to the student, to make one’s biases explicit, and to highlight the pitfalls of the teacher/student dynamic and, in doing so, undermine one’s own authority as a teacher. Such an approach would, I believe, complement a participatory vision of society.
If present and future gains in society are to be protected and improved upon, it would be wise to also include the following educational aims. Firstly, to instil in each individual the idea that the fight for noble ideals must be renewed with each generation—that complacency is a discreet invitation to oppression. And, lastly, to create an education system that is not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself. The very process of learning and teaching should be a cherished one—a privilege for both student and teacher. The transference of hard won knowledge and the facilitation of individual flourishing are perhaps best described as acts of love.
The division of subject matter, though apparently a natural and neutral phenomenon—at least to the students who have experienced no other system—is, in fact, neither. The world does not offer itself to us carved up into disconnected disciplines. This dissection is imposed on the world, not extracted from it, by the architects of our education. For pragmatic reasons the division of subject matter may often be necessary, but the form that this division takes serves different interests. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the ruling class has its interests served by the current compartmentalisation of subject matter.
Students are not given the tools to understand the problems they observe in their society and the world at large. Where students should see connections they are taught to see disciplinary boundaries. There is one particular method by which disciplinary boundaries are reinforced that is particularly insidious and is exemplified as much in the work of writers on the Left as it is anywhere else. For this reason I think it deserves special mention.
It should be uncontroversial to state that writers write to communicate. It should be, but it is not. Reading the often abstruse, oblique and obscure work that is produced by many a respected intellectual, one is forced to hypothesise other plausible motives for putting pen to paper, for clearly communication is not high on the agenda. The pompous academese and the needless jargon that saturate many of our valuable disciplines act as a barrier to communication, a class divider, a “keep out” sign for the uninitiated—essentially, a way of consolidating hierarchy and privilege (it can also function, of course, as a way to conceal, and compensate for, the lack of substance a piece contains). This form of elitism goes counter to the egalitarian and participatory ideals that the Left ostensibly holds so dear. As these trends are, at least in part, rooted in ubiquitous schooling practices it seems appropriate to give them a mention here. By wrapping powerful ideas up in esoteric language, writers on the Left ostracise and alienate the very people they must reach if their desire for significant societal changes is to be realised. A principle both to advocate in the classroom, as much as to adopt in our work, is, as Einstein once put it, to “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. To conclude this point, a vision of a better education system would be remiss if it did not state that students ought to be rewarded and encouraged for clarity and simplicity of expression, rather than for successfully adopting and repeating a specialised jargon. (Of course in certain areas, especially with technical subjects, learning a specialised language is essential for understanding the subject—this point only applies to those subjects whose meaning is obscured rather than clarified by such jargon.)
To sever connections between subjects, rather than build them, leads to confusion and bewilderment. A confused populace is a vulnerable populace, one unable to identify the source of their woes and effect change. The ubiquitous evils of poverty, racism, and war, for instance, are rooted in a panoply of causal factors ranging from the psychological, political and economic, to the historical, philosophical and sociological. To understand such problems, let alone attempt to provide solutions, requires a holistic cross-disciplinary approach. Such an approach is precluded by a curriculum that emphasises strict specialisation, isolating rather than relating its subjects (this is not an argument against specialisation per se, but simply an argument for the value of a holistic, cross-disciplinary approach to education). Such specialists make an easy transition to subordinate professionals, often unable, or perhaps simply reluctant, to transcend or question the wider ramifications of their narrow discipline.
To combat this tendency, rather than cloaking our disciplines in neutral apolitical titles, one option is to dissect the amorphous reality we are faced with in a way that serves our immediate concerns and needs, that is, in short, to make our subjects directly relevant. For instance, we might place “Peace Studies”, “Identity Formation”, “Democracy Studies”, “Freedom Studies”, “Authority Studies” or “Propaganda Studies” alongside more traditional subjects.
In a class such as Peace Studies, a student might investigate the methods governments have used to persuade, cajole and scare people into supporting war. He or she might look at the economic incentives of war; how war serves certain interests in society while sacrificing others, or how the media is often complicit in war crimes, securing consent for violence via omission and deceit. A student may consider the ethics of violent international interventions or the psychological reactions that make people vulnerable to certain forms of control. They might also study the lives of people who have fought for peace: their reasons for doing so, the methods they used, and the successes and failures they enjoyed and endured. To study the world in this way, then, a student must acquaint themselves with, and perceive the links between, history, politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, the media, literature and no doubt many other areas, all with a distinct goal, or bias, in mind: to understand the obstacles to peace so as to more effectively overcome them. Such a bias ought to be the responsibility of an intellectual, rather than something to be ashamed of, as is too often the case. As Howard Zinn writes, specifically considering the responsibility of the historian:
“…in a world where children are still not safe from starvation or bombs, should not the historian thrust himself and his writing into history, on behalf of goals in which he deeply believes? Are we historians not humans first, and scholars because of that? …my point is not to approach history with preconceived answers, but preconceived questions. I assume accuracy is a prerequisite, but history is not praiseworthy for having merely achieved that.”
There is no one right way, no one neutral or objective way, to study the world. And so we need not apologise if our dissection of reality into manageable chunks, ripe for study, reflect the values and aspirations we hold dear. The millions of children studying subjects that will never be of any use to them are a testament to a system that engenders and welcomes confusion and apathy–a system that obscures the world, rather than reveals it. Too many children pass through their schooling bewildered and bored, rather than stimulated and inspired—compelled to study, if at all, by the threat of failing an exam, rather than by a hunger to discover. This mode of schooling serves the status quo by disempowering people, robbing them of the sense that they might have something valuable to contribute, and undermining the nagging suspicion that these subjects might have a value beyond the grade they can confer.
The innately political character of each subject should be identified early on. By this I mean explicitly identifying how each subject is part of a wider political struggle. In studying history, for instance, it ought to be shown early on how history can be used as both a weapon of oppression and as a tool of liberation. This understanding is more valuable than any particular historical fact or event. To reveal the true subversive character of history is to illustrate the power of Orwell’s pithy epigram:
"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
To link the study of history to the fight against poverty, war, and famine today, and to the attainment of freedom, peace and democracy in the future, ought to be considered the single most important task of the historian and teacher. And what is true of the study of history is also true of many other, if not all, subjects.
The study of identity formation could also serve, in a number of ways, the goals and ideals of a participatory society and particularly complement the efforts of an education system aiming to facilitate autonomy—the following is a summary of what this subject might constitute. Countless people have killed, been killed, and died in the name of some arbitrary label inherited at birth. These labels provide the foundations for various forms of prejudice—any future society would do well to ameliorate the power these labels have over the way we think about ourselves and each other. I am referring, primarily, to religious and national labels.
To study the process of identity formation, to be made aware of the arbitrary forces that shape each of our identities, can go some way to undermining the influence of these forces, or at least to beginning the important process of questioning our influences. The dangerous inclinations exhibited, or perhaps more accurately cultivated, towards patriotism in countries around the globe, for instance, ought to provide ample motivation for studies of the sort commended here.
The study of identity formation might involve thought experiments, a study of genetic and environmental influences, an investigation into the ancient nature/nurture debate, or the reading of relevant literature and biographies, among other things.
The underlying rationale for such a course of study may be articulated in the following way: as children we lack the capacity to assess ideas and beliefs in a rational way; seeking evidence to support or refute proposed ideas is not an option. As a result, we are vulnerable as children to any ideas and beliefs—we might adopt Richard Dawkins’ term and call them “memes”—that are endorsed by those we trust. Such beliefs may resonate with us emotionally, though lacking any basis in fact. Consequently, as they are able to bypass the few cognitive defences we have as a child, these memes become a part of who we are without our having any say. If our aim of autonomy is sincere, therefore, when our cognitive faculties mature and strengthen it seems necessary that we focus them not merely on ideas that challenge our now comfortable identity and established loyalties—as too often is the case—but rather on the very process that moulded our identity and generated such loyalties. Such an exercise would go some way to disclosing the irrationality of racism, patriotism and much religious belief, and to ameliorating the conflicts they give rise to.
The hidden curriculum in a school is revealed less by what is said, and more by how things are done. A consistently democratic society would model educational institutions along democratic principles. Today’s schools and colleges, then, provide an instructive insight into the state of our democracy. These strictly authoritarian hierarchical institutions take their inspiration more from a totalitarian state than a democracy. Comparable to unelected autocrats, teachers—who are themselves merely instruments belonging to a system that affords them no independence—control every hour of a student’s day: what they do, often what they wear, and, most importantly, what they think. To ensure complete intellectual conformity, exams are given to evaluate one’s ability and willingness to internalise the proposed ideology. Regurgitation of relevant facts is, therefore, rewarded over originality, passionate engagement, or independent study.
Such measures prepare students for a society in which they have little say over decisions that affect them. It forces them to adapt to a condition of disempowerment, engendering a state of apathy and obedience. Long hours of hard work on meaningless problems that are given no wider social context is good preparation—for those who adapt quickly—for entering, for instance, the ideologically subordinate professional class. The content of a subject is unimportant. Only the probable content of the subject’s exam should command a student’s attention. Early on it is learned by the student that careful attention to a syllabus is rewarded over careful attention to one’s curiosity. The power to direct inquiry within a given subject is guarded closely by its architects. The pressures of passing exams, and the sheer quantity of disconnected, superficial units of information that one is supposed to learn, serve to preclude serious self-study in a given area. Again, this is good preparation for professional life where people will be employed to work on meaningless topics given to them, not on meaningful topics of their choosing.
In a genuinely democratic society, educational institutions would exemplify the principle of participation. At the heart of a participatory society is the commitment to an equalisation of power among the individuals comprising it. The attainment and consolidation of this goal depend on a system of education able to offer each student the opportunity to develop his or her innate potential. There can be no systematic tiers of education in a classless society. Power is equalised by distributing as equally as possible the cultural capital, skills, historical understanding, and opportunities for development that today are allocated along class lines. Within an educational institution, decision making and organizational procedures ought to be democratic in essence, involving, as much as is practically feasible, the participation of the students. (The degree to which this is feasible, for varying ages, will have to be discovered via experimentation.) I would suggest that if all the staff in a school were part of balanced job complexes, and if the students mirrored, in their participation, this mode of work allocation, it would be as good a grounding as any in the principles of a genuinely democratic society.
The status race that characterises a capitalist society begins in its schools. Woven into the fabric of institutional schooling is the concept of competition. Grading systems abound and it is incessantly repeated that a student’s performance in a forthcoming exam may affect their life’s trajectory. It is made explicit that education is a means to gaining an advantage in society’s race. For the race to continue it is imperative that students quickly learn what they should be racing towards. That is, they must have success defined for them. A successful student internalises the idea that they succeed and fail according to the system’s criteria. Underlying all syllabi, and at the heart of educational institutions, then, is the idea of dependence. Our worth, our prospects, our horizons depend on the gatekeepers of our educational establishments. TINA is their chant: there is no alternative. Either we play the game, compete, transcend our natural curiosity, obey authority, remain holistically ignorant or we lose and are kept out. As long as we fight the values of the system we are inhibiting our progress. If we internalise the values, minimise the friction, we will glide through. The price is only our identity. A civilised society would not tolerate such a price. To create a civilised society it must be shown that there are alternatives to the current schooling tradition—better ones. And for these alternatives to appear viable it must be shown that a society capable of hosting such a system of schooling is also possible.
There is much more to say on all of these points. The above observations and suggestions are simply a possible starting point. Thinking more broadly, there may be, for instance, good arguments for eradicating schools as we know them, or at least having children enter into them at a much later age. What the length of a school day or year is, which teaching methodologies should be adopted, and whether any restrictions should be placed on private and religious schools, are all further questions that deserve serious discussion. Perhaps many of these answers, in a participatory democracy, ought to come from the people most affected by these issues: the students, parents and teachers. Or perhaps it could be argued that all of society is ultimately affected by the sort of education each generation receives and so all of society should have a say. As has been said, much will depend on the nature of the changes implemented in the wider society.
It is sobering to contemplate the vast wealth of untapped, unfulfilled human potential that has been systematically blocked by an inhumane schooling system. And yet there is also cause for hope. This becomes clear as soon as we ask: what world might be possible if an education system were created to unlock that potential?