Education and the State

[648 words]

What are schools for and why do public entities (nations, states, local governments, etc.) fund, regulate and manage them? The answer is long and complicated. To form a backdrop to my reflection here, I’ll start with a few historical contexts in a few different places. (In the following, when I use the verb “form,” I mean it in the sense using educational instutions and processes to shape or educate human beings so that they have a certain set of competencies, knowledge and attitudes, in alignment with particular roles.)

  • France, Middle Ages —> to form priests; to give the sons of noble families a minimal level of knowledge of Latin, manners, and doctrine
  • Europe, public education, 18th, 19th centuries —> to form a docile and productive, somewhat literate population
  • Europe, private education, 18th, 19th centuries —> to form highly literate élites (aristocrats, clergy) of reasonably good judgment
  • Europe, US, 19th and 20th centuries —> to form clerks and bureaucrats, to form compliant and economically productive citizens, to offer a pathway for social mobility based on certain forms of merit
  • 20th century colonial British and French schools —> to form a docile, literate population, to indoctrinate natives, to form a local élite
  • Amish schools in the U.S., 19th, 20th and 21st centuries —> to provide minimal necessary competencies for functioning in a rural agricultural society
  • higher education in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries —> to pursue research and to form researchers, to form literate employees, to give WW II veterans something useful to do, to form compliant citizens who are not susceptible to ostensibly dangerous and unAmerican ideologies (like communism), and to develop and disseminate materially progressive information, frameworks and principles for the betterment of the nation


In many cases, we are still working, in primary and secondary education, on the same assumptions and using the same design principles as in the 19th century. Our schools and institutions of higher education are constructed and managed not unlike factories. Classrooms are like stations along an assembly line from which there will emerge as the final product a mass of relatively literate, reasonably polished students who have some understanding of the workaday world (and the world of work). What is more, teaching work is regulated by the clock and learning is measured in terms of contact hours or what some call “seat time” in classrooms. Overseers frame their management thinking largely in terms of “productivity” and “economic efficiency,” which are imperative. An academic worker who produces more units of merely acceptable quality is, in general, more highly prized than a teaching employee who produces very few units of very high quality.

This system makes sense, so long as schools are intended primarily as a building block of state stability and security, general social prosperity, a skilled but relatively dependent and docile workforce and general economic efficiency. However, the question must be asked. Is that what education ought to be doing in the 21st century? Or ought we be turning to alternative ways of proceeding? Why not seek to implement truly humanist orientations, by fostering engaged learning and providing educational opportunities that place a high value on personal excellence, ethics, attention to what is meaningful, satisfying and engaging for learners, shared thriving, the common good, environmental and economic sustainability and truth? This kind of orientation is not incompatible with the discipline-based systems we now have in place. But it is a very different orientation from what discipline-focused higher education has generally implemented.

Is it wise to continue to use the efficiency-oriented factory model? Is it humane? Is it productive in the long run?

It is so much a part of our culture, such a large part of our mindset and of our habitus that we don’t even realize this these are the metaphors that undergird most of what we, as teachers, do.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee. Then let’s take a long, hard look at what we are doing, which is little more than a variation on what our ancestors did, whether in the U.S. or in Europe. Let’s think for ourselves.


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