In the US, conservatives today under the Tea Party label and in the last several decades under different stripes complain that education is highly politicized with a 'Liberal bias', given that the vast majority of educators, especially in colleges and universities consider themselves centrists or leftists. What conservatives want of course is a system to serve their values and interests. By contrast, a percentage of progressive educators complain that the educational system is an appendage of the corporate structure and it has lost the Renaissance and Enlightenment ideal of educating the individual for the purpose of 'self-discovery and creativity to the benefit of both the individual and society'. What they aspire to is a system that never actually existed in the real world but only as an ideal.
Whether in the US with its tragic history of racism that had a profound impact on the educational system especially in the southern states throughout its history, or in Europe where nationalism and ethnic identity have deeper historical roots, education has always reflected the value system of the dominant (privileged) social classes and regimes catering to the privileged social group. Whether monarchies, liberal bourgeois democracies of the 19th century, interwar dictatorships like those of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, or contemporary elected governments of the right, center of center-left that rhetorically promote pluralism in education, all have manipulated educational systems, though not individual faculty, courses, or specific schools, through fiscal policy for political purposes, above all, as a means to social engineering.
The larger question is how does the commodity that contemporary education produces, namely the student who in today's marketplace is a surplus commodity as an extension of social capital intended to yield a return on investment, fit into society? And how does this commodity play a catalytic role in political and social transformation? As I have argued before, today's college graduate as a surplus commodity finding it difficult or impossible to realize the goal of upward mobility using education as the vehicle will become an agent of change in the cyber-eco-bourgeois evolution, if not revolution in the inevitable process of social discontinuity, inadvertently hastened by rapid advances in cyber-tech development and inescapable social engineering.
But is the educational system, in today's society that much different in terms of its politicized role than it has been in the history of the western world at least - not that the rest of the world is very different even without a Renaissance and Enlightenment to influence concepts of education's role - and is it not true that some scholars believe it is great that education is a means to social engineering (how a society educates its people. After all, how else can society organize itself and make progress - a concept that a number of philosophers including Alfred North Whitehead and modern 'systems theory' advocates have raised? A critic of educational systems that contributed to societal stagnation, Whitehead wrote: "In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful—Corruptio optimi, pessima."
Does the contemporary educational system suffer from 'inert ideas', from hyper-politicized process, from ubiquitous business influences in education, or is it a reflection of society at large as it always has been? From ancient times to the present, education has invariably reflected the values of the dominant social classes and served established institutions; this is true as much for ancient Egypt and Greece as it is for ancient China - judging by the social class of students, the curriculum and uses of educated people.
Society accorded educated people status, in part because they already enjoyed social status, whereas today in societies of mass politics and mass education that produces surplus commodities from all classes, of which a limited number can be absorbed by the market, the prestige and status issue is problematic. An African-American working class child in Cleveland becoming a biology professor can only use education and career up to a certain degree to transcend race and class. Education in the times of Pericles, Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne and Henry II as primarily the domain of the nobility, primarily designed to serve that privileged class, primarily a status symbol of the dominant class whose value system it reflected meant something much more than today because it was for an exclusive club in a highly stratified society.
Renaissance coinciding with the Black Death changed the western concept of education that was almost the exclusive domain of noble males serving monarchy and church. Education in Tudor England under Edward VI underwent changes to reflect not only the changes that the Reformation was ushering in Europe, but the transition from Medieval to modern era with characteristics of humanism and nationalism influencing educational institutions, while the Commercial Revolution and Black Death made it necessary to train lawyers, while the gradual rise in the population as the Black Death was waning made it necessary to train more doctors. Education in Tudor England was different than it was during the the Victorian era whose values and societal structure educational institutions reflected technological, economic and social changes.
In 1837 when young Queen Victoria took the throne, children of working class status worked (see Henry Mayhew, London Labour & the London Poor) under appalling conditions because labor received subsistence wages. By the end of the Queen's reign the second industrial revolution had created economic, political, and social conditions that made compulsory education a necessary reality for 19th century England as well as other western countries. It is not the case that the Western world did not know about compulsory education, for the idea was first introduced in Plato's REPUBLIC, repeated by German theologian Martin Luther, popularized by the Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutionaries in France at the end of the 18th century, and advocated by various intellectuals from liberal and leftist ideological orientations in the 19th century, some daring to go as far as to suggest women must be included! Nevertheless, in the US, the state of Mississippi was the last in the union to introduce a compulsory law in 1918, and in agrarian societies around the world the concept made no sociopolitical and economic sense until the 20th century.
During the Cold War, the US supported Muslim schools as tools of anti-Communism. After 9/11, however, it turned adamantly against the 'Madrasah' that has its roots in the 9th century. US, EU and other countries now regard such Muslim educational institutions as the source of militant indoctrination and training that must be stopped. The educational system in the Muslim world has always reflected the value system, traditions, history, and institutions of the country and/or region, no different than in the West, and very influential in the process of cultural diffusion during the Renaissance. Islamic education that has historically made many contributions to western education was virtuous during the Cold War and worthy of support as a social engineering tool because it served NATO-US political purpose, but the source of evil and terrorism today because it teaches that the Judeo-Christian West is the enemy.
Can there be an educational system that is free of social engineering, one that is free of political or business manipulation, an educational system that promotes free thought, creativity and self-discovery? Optimists believe that a 'world citizen consciousness' is emerging and it will prevail over ethnocentrism, nationalism, and regionalism/localism, no matter what the state does with education as a tool of social engineering. This is also a position that UNESCO has adopted, among others that aim at 'spiritualizing/universalizing' education, gearing it toward more 'green-sustainable development goals'; a system designed to promote human understanding of all people on the planet. As much as I admire UNESCO and the globalist goals of many scholars, the rhetoric in all seriousness would be more fitting of beauty queens uttering one-liners on the runway.
In the real world where real people live, education remains a tool for a) career and income, b) social status and upward mobility, c) a better quality of personal and social life. What are the obstacles to those goals in the early 21st century? Simply put, money for the most part. More and more working class people cannot afford not only college education, but even to have their kids finish high school in a modern super-concentrated socioeconomic pyramid.
Until the 1960s in most advanced capitalist countries an undergraduate degree was a guarantee for upward mobility, a good career and income, a good bet that the children also would go to college, and better quality of personal and social life - a chance to move to the suburbs. In the early 21st century, a college degree, well known in society as a 'dummied-down' degree, is as good as a high school diploma in the 1960s. Graduate and professional degrees are more useful, but not by much for here too the 'post-graduate commodity' is in surplus amid a market that cannot possibly absorb the overly-educated product.
Only the select few who have attended the very best graduate schools and have some connections have real opportunities, while the rest must wait their turn for years, or turn to another career in order to pay the rent. US government informs graduates to be prepared to change careers - not jobs - an average of seven times in their lifetime! Such is the situation with the surplus commodity that mass education has over-produced in a two-tiered system, one serving the well-connected elite with few cases of working class students so they can still cling to the claim of 'democratic, fair, and pluralistic process' - all the meaningless politically-correct jargon educators and politicians use to convince society that 'democracy works'!
One could argue that we ought to judge educational systems by their results, the way we judge companies by quarterly profit reports. But what if the educational system 'cooks the books' the way companies do? And even if they are honest, that may not be as simple, given that some countries produce excellent students who are then lost to the brain drain process - the exodus from their countries for better opportunities elsewhere, mainly in the advanced capitalist nations that pay well. We may also use the status of the economy as criteria to determine if education best serves society. But is it not the case that government policies may be such that they retard economic growth and deny opportunities to educated people?
Is it the fault of the US educational system because the financial elites in their quest for greater profits sunk the US and world economy into recession in the past three years? Is it the fault of Italy's educational system, one with a very high percentage of educated people, that the economy cannot absorb the surplus students? Is it the fault of the educational system or the government for doing very little to stimulate a jobs growth economy and using the educational system to keep unemployment low?
On the one hand, mass education - in the case of US prisons as well as mass education - serves to keep the unemployment level down, and that too is a significant (utilitarian) part of social engineering, no matter where one stands regarding the ethical dimension of the issue. If modern societies were to declare that society will not need any more pharmacists, doctors, biologists, English majors (to quote Garrison Keillor), and, oh yes, history and philosophy majors, the legitimate question to ask is what role will the 'surplus commodity' of college-educated people play in shaping the future of society?
In previous postings, I have addressed the issue of faculty who have a shared responsibility along with corrupt and business-style university administrations interested in self-promotion and personal career advancement without advancing the education of students; faculty and administrators as willing collaborators in social engineering. One problem here is human nature itself, namely, that somehow in many institutions 'lighter elements invariably float to the top of the ladder in positions of authority', while those with some weight remain on the bottom to the detriment of the entire system. Besides human nature however, the institutional role of the private sector and (central and local) government in education as structural impediments to a sound system is really a reflection of larger society. Again, the question is what role will the surplus educated commodity play as part of the emerging cyber-eco-bourgeoisie in the distant future as agents of social change?