Thursday, 24 February 2011


Modern Western education systems owe their existence to the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) that was the last intellectual revolution the western world has experienced. Living the legacy of the Enlightenment era means that we have inherited not only its grand bourgeois ideals but epoch-linked and class-based pitfalls as well. Predicated on 18th-century middle class principles of meritocracy, liberalism, and egalitarianism, educational systems have always been elitist in practice in so far as they have served to perpetuate the socioeconomic and political hegemony by the dominant class.

The Age of Reason in the 18th century brought an end to "utilitarian education through imitation," but not the end of elitism despite the fact that it coincided with the dawning of the age of mass politics ushered in by the French and American Revolutions. Without demeaning the Enlightenment's enormous and far reaching contributions to science, technology, and liberal education in general, the question is whether the intellectual elites have best served society - all classes and not just the middle class - with their education model, one we have inherited with modifications to reflect the national character.

While professional teachers 'train,' more accurately acclimatize, pupils to secure a place in private and public institutions established to further elites' interests, by definition the educator's constrictive classroom role entails stifling creativity and fostering institutional conformity. This was especially the case in the 19th century and bitterly criticized in popular novels by many including Charles Dickens who depicted mass education as an extension of factory system of mass production.

For example, in HARD TIMES Dickens is bitterly critical of dehumanizing conditions as much in the factory as in schools that serve as a microcosm of the the industrial city. Students are no different than inter changeable factory parts subsisting in order to serve the larger purpose of enriching the factory owner's profits and move the industrial economy forward. How are things any different today in most of the western countries that have a surplus educated population unable to find employment in the field of their college training and with a salary commensurate to their education. How is the modern college graduate any different than a mere interchangeable factory part that Dickens described of elementary school students in the early 19th century?

Mass education from the Industrial Revolution to the present resembles ailing private enterprises that try to increase productivity and cut costs to survive, while producing a product, the student, ready for the marketplace. The question is not that schools around the world are deteriorating along with polarized pyramid-style socioeconomic structures that they intended to serve, but that they are actually able to graduate students, at least a good percentage, that can function as free thinking, creative, and productive members of modern society; and a small percentage that have energetic creative minds transcending the mediocrity of the system. If private enterprise has problems of incompetence and corruption, why should schools--elementary through college --be any different: could they be any different as they they are operating outside the larger institutional milieu?

Has the Enlightenment ideal of continuous linear progress based on optimistic rationalist assumptions, almost Hegelian in the sense that life and history are endless roads of upward progress, based on a mechanical or mathematical model solved all institutional and social problems?  Or has this model created other problems such as alienation of the individual and class and geographic inequality on a world scale? Has the Enlightenment model of education resulted in more creative and more content people, or has it exacerbated the human condition?

While the Age of Reason coincided with the socioeconomic ascendancy of the bourgeoisie that fostered an education system to mirror middle class interests and values, in that respect no different than medieval religious education that reflected secular and spiritual nobility's interests and values, the bourgeois model with all its modifications is anachronistic and fails to best serve humanity's needs. Unfolding social discontinuity in the age of globalization will eventually entail that a new revolution would incorporate workers' interests and values that the bourgeois intellectual revolution of the 18th century hardly took into account even in theory.

Capitalist managerialism, the exploitation of humans for profit, as Erich Fromm argued in The Sane Society, prevails over humanistic communitarianism, thereby contributing to the alienation of modern humans.  People yield to capitalist managerialism, in fact most feel that it is perfectly natural and many take pride to be a part of it, because they have been indoctrinated by mass education, the media, and mainstream institutions, especially government that seeks mass conformity.

Modern man has been conditioned by society to fear alienation from the community, which translates into submission to institutional conformity, and to accept the security and rewards of institutional conformity at the expense of actualizing the creative potential that falls outside institutional perimeters. Instead of education serving to liberate the human spirit and unleash its creative potential, it has been and remains a tool for conformity, and therein rests the poverty of the system.

No comments: