EDUCATION; OUTLINE OF A RADICALLY CRITICAL VIEW.
Based on Chapter from The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books, 1995. The argument has also previously been published in "Towards an ecological philosophy of education", Discourse, 10, 2, April 1990, 92-117.
Following is a brief list of some of the essential themes documented at length in the radical education literature. The central theme is that our present educational institutions are predominantly geared to the reproduction of industrial, affluent, consumer society.
The Selection Function.
o School prepares and selects people for jobs in the production system. It provides the certificates that are the main determinants of where people end up in the competition for jobs.
o Our higher educational institutions select and train the technocrats and scientists who will devote themselves to developing and promoting new products.
o Educational credentials are perhaps the most important of all factors Iegitimising and stabilising industrial society. People accept their very unequal positions because they think that these are deserved and legitimate in view of their educational achievements. People must work for years in schools to pass many exams in subjects most of them have no interest in and subjects which have little to do with the jobs they want to enter. Those who achieve access to the most desirable jobs then have no doubt that after all that work they deserve their privileges and that those who failed don't. This views is just as firmly held by those who didn't succeed. Everyone knows that the main key success is doing well at school.
It seems economically rational and just that those with more "brains" do better at school and get higher credentials and therefore are allowed to enter higher paying jobs. Yet virtually all the evidence I have seen indicates that determining job and social placement according to educational achievement is in general not very valid. There is much evidence from many studies going back decades showing that in general a person's performance at school is not a good indication of how well he or she will do at anything else, including jobs, sport, courses, or success in professional life or business, or in life in general. In some cases it is of some validity as a predictor, but in general the correlations are very low or insignificant. (Trainer 1990; Berg 1970; Bowles and Gintis 1976).
"... The better educated employees are not generally more productive, and in some cases are less productive, among samples of factory workers, maintenance men, department store clerks, technicians, secretaries, bank tellers, engineers, industrial research scientists, military personnel and federal civil service employees." (Collins, 1971).
"School grades appear to have no predictive validity as far as eminence is concerned; i.e, in public life, scientific or business achievement". (Blum, 1978, 78).
"Most studies of the relation between high school grades and economic success have found negligible correlations." (Jencks, 1972: 186).
"Researchers have in fact had great difficulty demonstrating that grades in school are related to any other behaviours of importance - other than doing well on aptitude tests." (McClelland, 1974: 166).
The evidence does not apply only to low level jobs. Hoyt reviewed over 40 studies on the predictive validity of college grades and concluded that'... college grades show little or no relationship to any measures of adult accomplishment' (Klug, 1977, 20).
Even the predictive value of the Higher School Certificate for performance at university is not very good; e.g., correlations of .4 are common. Many who do well on the HSC do not do well at university, and many who dont do well on the H SC would succeed at university. Do we get the best doctors by only taking into Medical School those in the top 1% or so of the HSC distribution? How many people would be good kindergarten teachers but cant enter because they dont have the HSC?
This is one of the greatest myths our society suffers. Almost everyone thinks good performance at school means a person is more 'brainy" and should have access to higher jobs and social privileges. Consequently the enormous "educational", system which makes us all spend at least ten years learning mostly material and skills we will make little or no reference to after school is seen to be valid. It cannot be justified in terms of the development or selection of the skills needed to perform adequately in present society.
Although those who staff the system probably do not intend it or realise it, the main selection functions the educational system performs are licensing and legitimising; i.e., getting people to accept the positions they end up with in competitive industrial-consumer society.
All people leave the educational system with a credential determined by how far they went. This functions as a licence to enter a particular job or course. If you do not have the HSC there are many things you cannot enter, no matter how well you could in fact do them. In most cases the licences are more or less invalid and unjustifiable. It is as if we allowed all the tall people to go to university but said short people can only enter for trade training. Yet the licensing system is accepted. People accept the allocation, access and exclusion determined by how well they went at school, because everyone thinks this indicates "brains", competence or capacity to do the job or course. Thus the social selection process is legitimised. People do not have to be forced to accept rotten jobs and life chances. Those who fail at school accept a life of poor income or unemployment because they too believe they do not deserve any better because they didnt do very well at school.
How would selection be carried out in a satisfactory society? We would happily use any test or credential in so far as it was valid as a predictor, giving it the weight its correlation indicated. This means that few would be given much weight. If you wanted to select a fork lift driver then the best strategy might be simply to try him out on the job.
There would therefore be many jobs and positions for which we would end up with a large number of applicants who we could not rank using any measure with much predictive validity. What they should we do?
The answer is very simple, but unacceptable to most people. We should just use a ballot, i.e., select randomly, giving all an equal chance. In Holland university entrants were selected this way. Those who missed out were given a double chance of selection in the following year. Anyone who missed out then would automatically enter in the third year. Note that we are talking about selection from a pool of applicants that had previously passed whatever entrance tests do validly weed out those unsuited. Middle class people dent not to like the idea of a ballot at all. They want a system that gives advantage to people like ten, who are familiar with academic and literary work, examinations, conformity to boring work situations and to authoritarian relations, and grinding away in bureaucratic, rule-bound situations. They think that anyone who has done all those years of work deserves the reward of access to university,, etc., and they do not like the idea that anyone can come in off the street, even without any schooling, and apply to go to university.
If someone without educational credentials did want to become an engineer we should first apply any tests that are valid, but then start him at his level of competence. If he couldnt even operate a calculator he should start down at that level. If he really wanted to become an engineer he would probably quickly race through all the basics. All the time it would be possible to reject him from the course if and when he showed he was not good enough at things that are crucial.
There is some evidence that if we had access systems of this kind high status courses would not be swamped. Evidently it is not the case that lots of people actually want to be doctors. But, again, if too many applied in relation to the places available, and we had no valid way of saying some should be excluded because they couldnt become good doctors, we should just use the ballot.
The "equality of educational opportunity" trap.
The sociological issue that gets most attention within education is to do with equality of opportunity. Much attention is given to the fact that people from different social classes achieve very differently and the concern is how to help the disadvantaged groups to lift their performance. There are some serious mistakes in this quest.
Firstly in a competitive society that does not provide for all many will fail and become unemployed and excluded. Does it matter much if we manage to get less of the social injustice to fall on say Aborigines or people from Mt. Druitt if we make no difference to the incidence of the injustice. If we help Aborigines to get more HSCs, then more of them will be among the job winners but more of some other group will then not get the jobs the Aboriginals beat them to. All we would have done is even up the experience of injustice across social groups. There is some merit in that, but it is not a very important goal compared with getting rid of injustice, and getting rid of a largely invalid selection process.
Even if we got all kids to leave the educational system with a PhD, that would make no difference whatsoever to the incidence of unemployment. Unemployment is due to structural faults in this society; it is not due to lack of education. It is not that there are enough jobs for all but Aborigines and others do not get them because they havent acquired the necessary skills at school. There are societies that do not have any unemployment. Ours is one of those barbaric societies that does dump some people when factory owners don't want to hire all the workers available. In such a society educating all people, or particular groups to higher levels cant make any difference to the numbers who suffer unemployment, or who end up with rotten jobs.
Even more importantly, to try to increase the rate at which disadvantaged groups achieve higher credentials is to accept the validity of determining social selection by educational credentials. But as has been explained, in many cases this process is not very valid, and in many cases it is of no validity at all. So to work to enable more Aborigines to get the HSC and therefore to get good jobs, is to work to help them pass a test that should not be used, and a test which greatly favours the middle class who are more at home with books, desk work, academic pursuits, tests etc.
The Socialising Function.
o There is a "hidden curriculum"; i.e., we learn many important things about the world by the sheer experience of school life, even though this may not be intended, or even recognised by people who staff schools.
The "hidden curriculum" of school socialises us to the conditions of work in industrial society, i.e., to the alienated labour imposed by the factory mode of production. We learn to work for a boss and to do what we are told without much say or interest in the purpose of the work. We do not develop the habit of taking collective responsibility for the organisation or control of work, at school or in the factory. We learn to work as individuals. We learn to work for extrinsic rewards, such as the grade and the pay-packet. We do not learn to expect work to be a source of enjoyment or personal growth. Work comes to be seen as quite separate from living, hence the conditions of work in school 'correspond' to the conditions of work in industrial-consumer society (Bowles and Gintis, 1976).
o Schools are intensely authoritarian institutions, probably more so than any other, including prisons. Teachers can accuse, try, judge and punish. Schools are therefore well designed to contribute to the production of authoritarian dispositions and relations. This society functions on such relations. Most firms, institutions and social arrangements, especially our forms of government, are intensely hierarchical and authoritarian. School contributes to the development of authoritarian personalities, and therefore reinforces the polar opposites of the dispositions and skills needed in a conserver society, where the premium is on cooperation, fraternity and equality. Above all, a highly self-sufficient and cooperative conserver society would be characterised by friendliness (in Ivan Illich's terms, "conviviality"), not power relations.
o School puts great emphasis on the importance of success, achievement, getting ahead, rising, beating others and doing well in this world. This reinforces our obsession with being seen to be successful in life, with being promoted, rising in power, wealth and prestige, and therefore in becoming richer and consuming more. It also reinforces the ideology whereby it is in order for those who have succeeded to get bigger rewards.
o Schools help to condition us to accept competition as natural. We are therefore more inclined to endorse a competitive economy, and to strive to be a winner. School pits us in competition with others. (It does also give some experience of cooperation, such as in team sports, but the point is still competing to beat others.)
o School teaches people to be docile, passive conformers. As Illich says, at school we all spend at least a decade learning the role of 'passive consumers of packaged goods and services'. Teachers and other authorities make the decisions, and students learn to do whatever professionals and experts prepare and bring to them. Students usually do not make their own decisions about what they will learn, why, where, how and when. It is therefore not surprising that as adults we allow professionals, bureaucracies, corporations and governments to make the decisions, or that we do very little for ourselves and buy all goods and services, or that we take little responsibility for affairs in our neighbourhood and do not show much concern about wider social issues. All of this is highly functional for an economy which must have the maximum amount of buying and consuming going on. If people made more things for themselves and organised more of their own local services, the GNP would plummet.
o School gets us used to striving as individuals to advance our own welfare. It does not encourage much cooperation and sharing. School therefore reinforces our private lifestyles, which magnify consumption. For example, every house on the block has a lawn mower when two might do for the whole block. Similarly, we do not get together to organise many services, so corporations, professions and bureaucracies provide them, at much higher cost in resources. School experience does not teach us that it is best to work together and help each other to solve problems and improve things cooperatively.
o School encourages us to believe that our affluent way of life is good. We praise high technology, we portray primitive societies as inferior, and we regard our way as the model for the Third World to aspire to.
o The assumptions about the nature of knowledge evident in the syllabuses and practices of our educational institutions reinforce a number of the hidden curriculum effects noted above. Knowledge is regarded as objective rather than relative, and given by or discovered in nature (rather than 'socially constructed'). Hence authority is associated with knowledge. Those who have knowledge are authorities and should be deferred to; those without it are inferior. Becoming knowledgeable is therefore regarded as a process of assimilating the chunks of knowledge that educated people know to be important. From these assumptions it is a short step to authoritarian teacher-pupil relations, deference, coercive attendance and curricula, and the whole syndrome of exams, grades, failure and diplomas.
However, one could begin with the quite different assumption that what is regarded as knowledge in a society is highly problematic (... is astrology knowledge?), and that society defines what is important knowledge (why is physics more important than cooking or painting or hobbies?) One could argue that what passes for knowledge is a matter of social definition and therefore inevitably dependent on subjective perspectives and traditions, preferences, ideologies, and power. (Some argue that knowledge is what the powerful say it is.)
One could also assume that education is best conceived as a process whereby the individual builds personal meaning and adds to his or her capacity to make sense of the world, and that such a process is best directed by the individual's own unfolding needs and interests, not dictated by authorities who claim to know what is important to learn. But it is unlikely that an educational practice based on such assumptions would produce reliable and disciplined factory-fodder, skilled technicians, ravenous consumers or politically passive and compliant "citizens".
o Schools directly and explicitly teach the desirability and truth of many aspects of growth and greed society - for instance, the superiority of the Western/modern societies, the inferiority of primitive cultures, the importance of industrialisation and high technology, the inevitability of competition and the desirability of a competitive economy, the importance of getting ahead, the rightness of allowing the profit motive and the market to determine economic affairs, and above all the desirability of economic growth.
One of the most powerful ideological effects of the "hidden curriculum" is that it teaches us that there is "equality of opportunity"; anyone who has brains and works hard can succeed and get good credentials and a good job. Thus we can all see that this is a just society. Both those who get ahead and those who fail believe they had an equal chance to succeed if they had the ability. Inequality in society is therefore legitimised.
The Educational Function.
Perhaps the most radical criticism is that our current educational systems do
not do much Educating. There is remarkably little interest in this question. It is not researched and there seems to be almost no evidence on it.
The distinction between Education and mere training is crucial here. Our institutions are very good at training people to be competent engineers etc. But how well do schools and universities do things like develop a lasting interest in books, ideas, discussing issues, argument, critical thinking and becoming a wiser person, more able to make sense of the world?
In fact it can be argued that our schools and universities do more educational harm than good, i.e., that they put more people off learning, inquiry, books, ideas, thinking, etc. than they turn on to these pursuits. (See Trainer, 1984.) Think about the typical student who leaves school at the earliest opportunity. To what extent will he or she be likely to read again in future years the sorts of literature studied in English, to write essays or poems for pleasure, to think scientifically, to do maths puzzles and exercises for the fun of it, to study, or to see growth in his or her capacity to make meaning of the world as a primary life goal? Many children have their curiosity and willingness to learn stunted by their experience of normal schooling. Despite our pretence that schools exist to educate, virtually none of the vast quantities of money, time and talent devoted to educational research goes into determining whether or not the experience of school actually increases interest in learning, in Shakespeare or in books, or increases readiness to inquire or take a learning-oriented approach to life.
Education is far more important to a society than mere training. We do not need more engineers to produce more products. We desperately need a far higher level of critical thought, sense, awareness of history and our global situation, etc. It is precisely because we are so deficient on these Educational factors that our society fails to deal satisfactorily with the huge problems it is facing.
The Main Conclusion.
The foregoing is only a list of some of the themes evident in the radical education literature which support the generalisation that existing educational institutions do much to reproduce our unsustainable growth-and-greed society. It is not being implied that these are the only social effects schools have. Nor is it being claimed that schools are so firmly geared to the reproduction of consumer society that they cannot be not be an arena in which a great deal is done to promote transition to a very different sort of society.
The people who staff and administer educational institutions surely do not intend to produce passivity, docile consumers, acceptors of boring work, etc., or otherwise reinforce an oppressive society. Mostly they too are quite unaware of the notion of a "hidden curriculum" and unquestioningly assume that the institutions they run are socially beneficial. It is ironic therefore that in the very institutions that are supposed to be about critical thought almost no critical thought is applied to the claims of the radical educators. Teachers at all levels are highly morally culpable in their failure to think about what they are really doing.
Where is the neo-liberal agenda taking education?
Education is being made to serve the economy even more slavishly than ever before. Governments are cutting their expenditures so non-essentials are less affordable. The resources given to critical studies, arts and humanities are being cut. The educational system has to turn out more technocrats, commerce graduates and lawyers, because increasing business turnover is the supreme goal in an increasingly competitive world. Education must produce the sorts of graduates the business world wants. Students have to become little entrepreneurs, developing skills to market and portfolios to show to employers. The rich can send their children to private schools and hospitals so they are not very concerned about the decline of public facilities, and they dont want to pay tax to support public schools and hospitals they will not be using. Politicians faced with insoluble problems call for more education and training as the answer, so we can become a clever country and conquer more world export markets. Education is increasingly seen as a commodity to be bought by consumers and a factor of production, developing "human capital".
Education is now being targeted by corporations as a vast set of lucrative business opportunities they can move into, to sell courses, materials, training, credentialing, testing etc. In other words it is the next privatisation bonanza. (This could have some desirable shake-up effects on fossilised universities.) It does not require much imagination to foresee what will happen to Educational values when profit is allowed to determine what is done. Departments of Marxist studies are not likely to be well funded! Mining corporations are already providing study kits, which tend not to dwell on the catastrophic impact mining often has in the Third World. Educational systems underfunded by the state are happy to have corporations offering to provide materials and services.
A sensible society would make sure that many important things are done and provided even though there is not much demand for them and they would not be profitable. This is especially so with respect to cultural activities, critical thought, high quality literature and artistic functions, and the maintenance of high standards, cultural identity and "General Education". Globalisation and the neo-liberal agenda are taking us in precisely the opposite direction.
Is reform possible?
Is it possible to reform educational institutions so that they do not have the characteristics identified above, especially the obsession with tests, exams, grades, credentials, petty rules, authoritarian relations, competition, hard work, passivity, and training workers as distinct from Educating? The answer is emphatically no -- unless we first get rid of capitalist/consumer societyI! If you want a capitalist/consumer society you must have schools who which help to reproduce the skills, attitudes and workers and consumers that such a society must have. The educational institutions we have in this society are very effectively geared to this purpose. Really Educative institutions and procedures would have to be uncontaminated by competition, grind, grading, authoritarian relations, boredom, etc.
Bookchin, M., (1987), The Rise of Urbanism and the Decline of
Citizenship, San Francisco, Sierra Club.
Bowles, S. and H. Gintis, (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America, New York, Basic Books.
Berg, I. A., (1970), Education and Jobs; The Great Training Robbery, New York, Praeger.
Blum, J. M., (1978), Pseudoscience and Mental Ability, New York, Monthly Review Press.
Collins, R., (1971), "Functional and conflict theories of educational stratification", American Sociological Review, 36.
Jencks, C., (1972), Inequality, New York, Basic Books.
Klug, B., (1977), The Grading Game, London, NUS Publishers.
McClelland, D. C., (1974), ""Testing for competence rather than intelligence", in A. Gartner, et al., eds, The New Assault on Equality; IQ and the Social Stratifications, New York, Holt and Rinehart.
Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1984), "Do schools educate?" New Education, 6, 1, 1-17.
Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1990), "Towards an Ecological Philosophy of Education", Discourse, 10, 2, April, 92-117.
See also on this website,
Education; How should we conceive it?
Education in the alternative, sustainable society.
The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment,
limits to growth, Third World...)and the sustainable alternative
society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.