NEARLY a century ago a young school teacher in New York City told her kindergarten class a story about two children who brought their mother home from school a beautiful rose. In her crowded and dirty apartment the mother stuck the flower in a water glass on the kitchen windowsill. So the flower will have more light she cleans the window, then notices how dirty the rest of the room is. In a flash she scrubs the whole apartment. Meanwhile, her husband who has been lubricating his sorrows in a nearby pub stumbles home and is amazed to find a clean and tidy house. Chastened, he decides to spend less time at the pub and more time at home. His drinking problem solved, he can now hold a steady job. And — viola! The family lives happily ever after.
A transparent melodrama, perhaps, but one whose moral was widely endorsed by the early advocates of state-funded schooling. Mass education was to be the new cornerstone of a free, egalitarian and democratic society. Like the beautiful rose, school would bring the light of knowledge to the poor, transforming their lives and lifting them out of penury.
This view of education was pioneered in the mid-1800s, but by the end of the century it had gained widespread acceptance. Business were convinced that in the long run an educated workforce would be of more advantage than cheap, child labour. And for those without schooling education and wealth were tied together. Any opportunity to Improve the first was gratefully seized upon since it would inevitably lead to more of the second.
Today education still seems to hold out the same glimmer of hope. But in fact the system can no longer live up to its promise. Unemployed school-leavers swell the dole queues, s drive cabs and only a minority of people end up doing satisfying. useful work at a decent wage. The great education sham has come to an end.
Although it was dressed up in the garb of social justice, mass education was founded on rock-hard principles of practical self-interest In the 19th century, in the midst of the social turbulence caused by the industrial revolution, compulsory schooling seemed like a good bet to bring a little peace to an increasingly disordered world
Mass public schooling was touted as a democratic vision that would afford all children, rich and poor alike, the chance to make it to the top. Those who succeeded would do so not as the result of wealth or privilege, but because they earned their way. What could be more fair?
The democratic ideal had just enough flexibility to remain credible. There were always poor kids who made it successfully through the system. And the better educated were seen as earning the right to better jobs and better incomes. So the general belief that schools were ‘meritocracies’ held true. But a nagging question remained. Because in practice there has never been much basis for assuming that all children have access to the same schooling and the same chances for success. Differences in race, religion and wealth all influence the quality of education— despite the fact that the curricula might be identical in a working class neighbourhood and a wealthy suburb.
And if the education system — despite the pretence of fairness — favoured the rich over the poor, was public schooling really any more than an elaborate means of reinforcing the status quo?
In addition, if everyone, rich and poor alike, came to accept that schools were fair, then the social hierarchy which the education system strengthened would also be accepted as just and inevitable.
Besides its supposed economic benefits, public education was promoted as a cure-all for other kinds of social ills. Influential liberals like US educator Horace Mann believed that public schooling would erode class differences and lead to social harmony. In the 1840s Mann and his Massachusetts’ supporters sold schooling as ‘the best police for our cities, the lowest insurance for our
homes, the firmest security for our banks, the most effective means of preventing pauperism, vice and crime and the only sure defense of our country.’
Equally important from the point of view of factory owners and merchants was the role of the school in producing prompt, industrious and busy workers.
Formal schooling is a child’s very first contact with the social world beyond his parents, brothers, sisters and friends. As such school is a primary training ground for later life. Students learn to be punctual, they learn to get their work done on time, they learn to obey the school rules, they learn how to pass exams — in short they learn how the system works and how not to rock the boat.
Early employers naturally found this ‘con ~ sequential’ learning valuable. The regimented life of the classroom produced good ~ workers for the regimented life of the assembly line.
Preparing people for their slot in the job ~ market has become an even more important ~ aspect of formal education in the last 30 years. Through a variety of barriers, detours and cul-de-sacs the great sorting machine of ~ education selects and qualifies people for their place in the job hierarchy. Armed with psychological tests, labour market profiles and computerized models of the economy, ‘vocational planners’ try to fit workers to jobs. This ‘tracking’ of students into lower and higher-order jobs is not a new process. But in recent years it has become more sophisticated. Under the guise of teaching people marketable skills, the emphasis on career training merely rewraps inequality in a bright, new package.
The great majority of working class children move along a lower track. perhaps tumbling out the other end with a bit of paper from a technical college clutched firmly in hand. Instead of being trained on the job, employers now get specialized workers at public expense. The irony is that many of these students are over-trained or trained for jobs that don’t exist. The technical colleges which have sprouted like dandelions since the mid-1950s have become little more than warehouses for surplus labour. Rather than developing jobs to meet the needs and training of people, the system churns out masses of ~7’ graduates who must learn to lower their ‘unrealistic aspirations.’
Meanwhile, the universities and the ivy league colleges continue to groom the few who will end up in positions of authority and power. According to US education critic Ira Shor, this group is exposed early to ‘critical and creative learning environments’ because they are the ones who will be the ‘decision-making. problem-solving and rule-writing fragment of society.’ The others, the ’trained hands’ of society, are educated in a different manner. They are prepared to ‘take orders, follow rules, obey the decisions of superiors and look to the knowledge of experts.’
This two-tiered approach to education a system that produces ‘doers’ and ‘thinkers’ — may seem light years away from the education problems faced by Third World countries. But despite the vast differences in resources, the two systems have more in common than not.
Both rich and poor nations are crippled by schooling which puts more emphasis on exams and qualifications than learning and knowledge. This syndrome, now widely known as the ‘diploma disease’ (see Reaching for the top) is a reflection of an education system that operates in complete isolation from the pressing development needs of the Third World. It is motivated by no logic but its own need to expand.
India, for example, spews out thousands of ‘0’ level graduates every year, but few of them find immediate jobs. Instead they must cool their heels for two, three and four years waiting nervously for the sinecure of a plum job in the civil service — if they are lucky.
As in the rich world, education for the average Third World peasant is a lottery ticket to future prosperity. As in a lottery someone has to win. One Malaysian study shows that a 45 per cent increase in formal education will lead to a 400 per cent increase in income. And it is this thin hope that drives the poor forward.
The sad fact is that for every student who makes the leap to higher education there are 100 more who don’t. At one secondary school in Zimbabwe in 1981 there were 2,000 applicants for only 80 first-year places. And to complicate matters the whole structure of Third World education is modeled on the ‘lockstep’ Western system. Each level leads logically to the next. Except that in most poor countries students are lucky to get more than three or four years of primary school. The result is that for the vast majority, education in the Third World is completely inappropriate. Students are stranded in a frustrating limbo, not educated enough for a job in the city and yet reluctant to resume the traditional life of the village.
As far as real development is concerned this kind of education is counter-productive. It acts as a great lever, driving families apart and subverting cultural pride. ‘My sons don’t sit and listen to me any more,’ complains one Ghanaian father. ‘They have gone to school and now they are book men, they run around with other boys rather than sitting with their fathers.’
However, the European-style focus on academic qualifications was never intended to do more than convince the natives of the benevolence of the mother country and to create a small number of local bureaucrats to help run the country. School children in West Africa were taught the geography of the Massif Central, the flora and fauna of the French countryside and the glories of the ‘Sun King’, but almost nothing about their own culture and history.
The educational duties of the colonial powers were clear. According to a 1921 French policy statement:
Despite a curriculum almost entirely foreign to their experience and loaded with Western bias, the Third World’s poor continue to dream of the elusive pot of gold at the end of the educational rainbow. Like their working-class counterparts in the West, the children of landless labourers and rural peasants are severely handicapped. Most schools are in the cities; those in the countryside tend to be ill-equipped and under-staffed Teachers are often poorly trained and lessons no more than soul destroying memory work.
A poor child is also liable to be malnourished and more prone to sickness and consequently less attentive and more likely to fail. Boys may be supported as long as their parents or village can afford it, but for girls schooling is seen as an impossible luxury. They are needed to plant, harvest, prepare meals and help the family.
As a result education in the Third World, too, tends to nourish a self-perpetuating elite. In the mid-1970s for example the child of a middle-class urban resident of the Ivory Coast had nearly 25 times more chance of getting to secondary school than a peasants child. Those who benefit from the colonial legacy are least likely to change it for a more suitable but in their eyes inferior education. Most Third World leaders and their vocal supporters are intent on getting the ‘best education for the few who qualify’. So, the whole elaborate carousel continues to spin, with the poor stretching out their arms to reach the golden ring — yet always falling short.
Still, there are ways out of this seemingly intractable bind Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has shown one way forward His attempts to sabotage what he calls the ‘banking method’ of teaching (where teachers deposit knowledge in the minds of their students who then memorize the rules and sit back to await future dividends) have inspired thousands of teachers in both the West and the Third World And some developing nations have made small but significant inroads on the Western education model. For Indonesia, India and Malaysia it has meant rebuilding syllabuses and texts around their own national language. For others, like the Namibian Liberation Movement, SWAPO, education has been redefined as liberation. With Namibian refugees in Angola there has been a clear attempt to shape learning to the needs of largely illiterate peasants in a future independent Namibia.
All schooling, as the SWAPO experience shows, is tinged with ideology. Whether in the UK, South Africa, the US or the Soviet Union education is always an instrument of the social order. Still, no matter how governments may manipulate schooling to suit their own ends, the process of education carries a built- in safety valve. You can teach people to read, to write and to study. But, ultimately, you can not tell people what to think.
This special report appeared in the the class system - education and the lessons of learning issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.