Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

The future of education

There can be one Western country that is satisfied with current educational provision, but I have not heard of it. From America to Germany, from Italy to Sweden, from Spain to Britain the cry goes up: our education is not working! Efficient Germany, well-administered France, intellectual Italy, aspirational America, all cry out together that educational provision is going down the toilet; that it is turning out generation after generation of self-regarding illiterates with no values, neither willing to crack a book open nor prepared for work and real life; that the level of factual information conveyed to children has diminished, is diminishing, and - in the opinion of most - ought not to diminish; that discipline is abysmal to nonexistent.

I have dealt with some features of this educational crisis, as it is unfolding itself in Britain, elsewhere (http://fpb.livejournal.com/250748.html). I do not change the views I have set out there, about the symptoms of educational malfunction in the United Kingdom, and, in particular, about the ruinous effect of governmental busy-ness and make-work which fiddles with non-essentials and burdens teachers with initiatives while studiously ignoring the core of the problem. However, this essay will deal with a deeper issue: that is, that it is possible that our current educational model - which is fundamentally that which arose out of the French Revolution - may have outlived its usefulness.

Universal state provision for education is not a natural feature of society. The West managed long and contentedly with a provision that left a large minority of the public more or less illiterate. (A side note. Beware of statistics from the period. They consistently underrate the peasant class' acquaintance with documents and writing. Peasants had many reasons to disguise any learning they might have; in France, for instance, educated peasants might be subjected to onerous public duties. But at decisive moments such as the revolt of Wat Tyler in 1381, significant episodes show that peasants could tell the difference between genuine, ancient charters in Anglo-Saxon script and falsified modern ones imposing duties unknown to the earlier items; a quite sophisticated kind of knowledge one would have thought restricted to lawyers and scribes. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that most of the labouring classes in pre-revolution Europe did not read and write, nor feel much need for it.)

What changed everything was the French Revolution. Building on ideas that had already become prevalent, and that had been partly realized in America, the French Revolution established a new model of government built upon the proposition that all adult male citizens (later, all adult citizens, period) were to be responsible parties in the governance of the country. In fact, the Revolution - which was nothing more or less than the collapse of royal governance, which left the nation to fend for itself - completely boxed the compass in terms of both forms of government and of principles; from the same set of events one can draw a model for an aristocratic republic led by an elite, for a one-party tyranny ruled by terror, and for a nationalistic and militaristic dictatorship based on mass support - what later would be called Fascism. In effect, the whole political future of Europe, in every direction, was set out in the generation between the collapse and the return of the Bourbon kings. But the one that made the most impression, that went the deepest, and that did the most to shape the future of Europe, was the republican and egalitarian model - the notion of free and responsible citizens equally involved in the governance of their native country.

This notion, to begin with, was found to develop enormous power. The world was stunned by the apparently irresistible advance of France's novel conscript armies, driving away from their own border coaltions formed by every major military power in Europe, then surging to the Rhine, and finally - under a lean Corsican adventurer with blazing eyes - ripping through Europe in every direction and humiliating every traditional army in their path. The conscript army was a new thing. Until 1789, European states hired and paid professional "standing armies" whose members were soldiers by trade and all their lives, and migbht well be found still lugging a musket at fifty or sixty if they could physically manage it; and which had no necessary connection with the country at all - France and Britain both hired foreign troops by the thousands, and half of the renowned Prussian army was not Prussian-born at all, often not even German. Apart from these professionals, some countries also had a militia, a local levy with only very basic training and that was rarely called out to fight except in the direst of emergencies. But the French revolutionary army was the strenght of the whole male population of the country, yet armed and drilled by officers trained to the highest standards of the old military academies, and filled with a spirit of individual daring and collective responsibility that arose from the certainty that upon them, the citizen soldiers, rested the destiny of the country. They were as responsible for its future as their generals, and indeed there was no reason why at some point one of them should not become a general himself.

The ideal of the sovereign citizen, equal before the law and equally responsible for the country, was of course an ideal, which meant that in practice it would be possible to point to a million large and small breaches of it. But the immense military success of France after the revolution shows how practical a thing it was; it was the new spirit, the new belief in civic duty and virtue, in personal responsibility, in a direct connection between citizen and fatherland, that drove hundreds of thousands of men to enlist and train, to slog and freeze, to fight and die. A change in the idea of citizenship had meant a change in politics and an even bigger change on the battlefield.

The evident counterpart of universal citizenship is universal education. If the citizen is to be responsible for his country, he must be prepared for that responsibility, both by an understanding of his rights and duties, and by training in the suitable virtues that underlie those rights and duties. Universal elementary education was the almost immediate result of the Revolution, and remained a part of the French state ever after. It was, evidently and to everyone, the other half of the fundamental French institution of conscription, and it was correspondingly unpopular according to whether the ideas of the French Revolution were accepted or rejected. Universal elementary education was only accepted in Britain in the eighteen-sixties, in Austria and Russia even later; and Britain, Austria and Prussia all rejected the idea of the conscript army as long as they dared - in Britain it only existed from 1939 to 1958.

The purpose of elementary state-provided education, then, is to be the first half of the process which culminates in one, two or three years of military service, and which forms a citizen. Its presuppositions were that in a society which tended to be highly stratified, and in which economic and cultural forces tended to separate the members of society into highly distinct classes, a forceful and continuous intervention from the State was required to counter the effects of social status and to form, from the disparate elements of society, a number of potentially equal citizens. It must be understood that equality in this sense did not mean absence of social stratification, but rather that every citizen, rich or poor, is prepared and allowed to take a responsible role in society; that no citizen should be such as to allow a nobleman to say, as someone in Shakespeare does, "Out, dunghill!" if he dared to take an interest in public matters. But in order to do this, the natural clay of man - the clay that, left alone and to the heedless working of social forces, creates those "dunghills" that the old aristocracies were taught to despise - must be forged in a specific shape; a shape of responsibility and of at least basic education, able to read and write so as to be able to understand his duties and assert his rights.

The basic idea of the kind of universal state education that arose from the French revolution, then, was to raise the average native from the level of a toiling, passive peasant to that of a conscious, active citizen. In doing this, the schoolteacher was aware that he or she was to some considerable extent working against the grain of society, that asked to peasants, and later to industrial worker, nothing more than the use of their brawn. To get all young children to read and write was not necessarily something that their parents would welcome, and indeed the more backwards of them - shepherds were a notorious case - would withhold their children from school to do more useful, and even more interesting, things. A whole mindset had to be faced and fought, in the name of the nation and its future; and to do so, generation after generation of mostly female schoolteachers spread across the face of Europe and the Americas, horribly underpaid and barely recognized, spreading the ABC and the Pythagoric table with the zeal of soldiers going to war, and just as willing to use violence for the greater good. The ruler, or the rod, or the knuckles of their own tough old hands, were to these missionaries an undoubted part of their trade, which they would not hesitate to use for what they regarded as the good of their children.

It was a heroic generation, or series of generations, worthy of an epic that perhaps has not been written yet. They created our world; without mass, standardized education, the modern world simply would never have happened, at least not as it has. But in doing so, they eventually made their own model outdated. Their time is gone. It simply is no longer true that to educate a child is to go against the grain of the society he or she lives in. The mass media, television, and the internet, have taken care of that; illiteracy, in modern societies, is for all practical purposes restricted to the criminal classes and to some groups of immigrants (by no means all). The ploughboy, even where he still exists, spends his free time on the internet, and the shepherd's boy whiles away the long hours with comics and videogames. Where once the forces of the lower half of society pulled away from all kinds of literacy, now they pull towards them. Farmers have to know how to fill forms, how to drive and repair machines, how to read textbooks in their own subjects, professional magazines, market news.

It follows that there is a crisis of legitimation for the schoolteachers. The students who want to study know that they can find out about things just as easily outside the schoolroom as inside; and those who do not are no longer subject to the discipline that once insured that they would scrape by whether they wanted to or not. And discipline, in turn, is no longer rigid, because the republican model of citizen in whose name the older generations of teachers worked and starved is no longer so certain and so admired an ideal. It has not gone away, of course, and nine parents out of ten would tell you that they want their children to grow up in something like its image. But its full force existed when it was bound up with a number of notions and experiences - the nation, the flag, the constitution, and the experience of conscription that made one a soldier in their service. These things began to be seriously criticized from the end of the first world war, and today it is difficult to even imagine, and impossible to recreate, the uniting emotional value they once had. An evident symptom of this is that the conscript armies that were once the other end of educational provision in every European country have been reformed out of existence. Most continental European countries now have professional standing armies, and I belong to the last generation that knew what it is like to spend a year or two in barracks, training for a war of great armies.

As the ideal becomes weaker and more conflicted, so the will to assert and impose it becomes weaker. Today's teachers would be horrified at the means their predecessors used to impose their own idea of a citizen on the stubborn clay in their classes. And today's children would not have it by any means. The very peasant mentality that the educators wanted to remake was the mentality that accepted that authority should, in the final analysis, be obeyed whether you liked it or not, and that therefore allowed the teachers, as representatives of the State, the authority to order and discipline their children. That mentality is largely dead, and the teacher can no longer rely on peasant submissiveness to let little peasants be shaped into little citizens.

The model of state provision of universal education has therefore outlived its origins, and struggles for relevance in the modern world. And yet we cannot say that the need for universal educational provision has passed. It is as relevant as ever, indeed more so; and that not only if we want to keep at least some of the features of a democratic society, but even more fundamentally, if we want to live in an orderly and peaceful world.

People who make personal acquaintance with the jail system all tell the same story: illiteracy is the basic common feature of the vast majority of its inmates. Repeat criminals are not necessarily more wicked, or even more stupid, than ordinary citizens, but the overwhelming majority of them are infinitely less educated. The British politician Jonathan Aitken, who spent eighteen months as a guest of Her Majesty, tells how he became the unofficial scribe of the jail, writing out letters for dozens of inmates who knew what they wanted to say but not how to say it. One fellow jailbirds told him that since he had been in, all the girls outside could not believe the difference in their boys' letters. And it makes obvious sense. In a society such as I described, in which literacy and numeracy are the common currency of every person, in which everyone follows the mass media or the internet, to come out of the school system unable to read and write properly - or to have never been a part of it - is a warrant of exclusion from the mainstream of society. To a young man or woman who, for whatever reason, have waste their school years, a totally literate society offers very little. It seems almost inevitable that very many of them will become criminals: if the norm of society gives them no space, then they will make any kind of living, and even a career, outside the norm of society.

This shows the crushing, overwhelming need for universal education. In our world, the lack of education means exclusion from mainstream society; it means stunting, and misshapen growth. But - and here we come to the heart of the matter - just as universal educational provision has become more and more indispensible, the institutions that should provide it have become less and less able and willing to do so.

State education has never been uncontroversial; but there has never been so much irritable debate about it, its goals, its very existence, as there is now. And I think we are at a point where we have to seriously reconsider it. For a start, in our society parents are able and often willing to take a major part in the education of their children. At the same time, they are no longer as respectful of authorities as the old model implicitly expected. Whether this is seen as a positive and negative development - it is probably both - it is a fact, and must be accepted, dealt with, and made use of. The notion of the teacher as a soldier or a missionary sent by the State to form future citizens from unwilling materials is no longer significant. The material is mostly not unwilling, and even without schools it would quite likely learn by itself at home. What is needed in these cases is support and cooperation rather than having everything imposed from above.

Nonetheless, it remains indispensable that all children should be educaed to a certain and equal standard. The matter of professional criminals, apart from anything else, shows that our social peace depends on it.

Summing together these two points shows us the direction in which we should go. The State should shift from being a main, often sole, educational provider to being a guarantor and a provider of last resort. Schools should be provided and ran by any body that is capable to and can show the need: not only the ministry of education - which I would of course not prevent from having schools - or local authorities, but charities, churches, private companies who believe they can make a profit, institutions that wish to offer them to the children of their employees (e.g. the armed forces or the police, for the children of soldiers or policemen), universities that wish to establish lower instititutions, and so on. One painful point: it is impossible to see how one can prevent undesirable bodies, such as mosques financed by Saudi Arabia or extreme environmentalist charities, from establishing their own schools. That is why state intervention, verification, inspection - and inspections must be unannounced and severe - are going to be extremely important, and why a national ministry for education is and remains and absolute necessety. It must issue vouchers that allow parents to send their children to any school they like, within bonds of sense - Eton will never be open to anyone who asks, nor cheap enough to be entered by the voucher that pays for the average school. But even in the case of Eton and the like, I would issue the same voucher as for any other child, which could be redeemed as a contribution to educational expenditure. The voucher would represent the public commitment to the education of every child, and to use it for anything but education would be a punishable offence. Of course I envisage a variety of schools, both on a commercial and on a non-profit basis. The state must encourage their formation by appropriate incentives and laws, and provide them where nobody else does. It must welcome and foster alternatives such as homeschooling where anyone wishes to provide them, but insure that they do not result in second-class educational standards or worse. It must insure that schools meet certain standards and do no harm. It must set exams - and the standards of those exams must be ironbound - to ensure that whatever the educational course, people leave school with the basic learning at least, and that young people of student age go on either to real apprenticeships or workplaces, or else to continuing study preluding to university. Under no condition can the current poisonous British practice of handing exams over to for-profit private bodies, which have an interest in raising the number of passes as high as they can, be continued.

However, Britain and the USA are at least further along this path than continental European countries, where nearly exclusive state provision seems to remain the unthinking consensus. That homeschooling should be illegal in Germany and virtually unknown elsewhere is shocking. (Interestingly, the ideological roots of homeschooling are different in the two Anglo-Saxon countries. Homeschooling is a largely left-wing, hippyish tradition in Britain, but a conservative and Christian one in the USA. This shows that there is no inevitable party label to be attached to this kind of movement; the only common feature is that in both countries it arises from dissatisfaction with state educational provision.) I do not think that it is possible to reform universal, standardized, top-down education models so as to make them relevant to modern conditions; and that means that until people understand the issue, they will go on complaining about bad educational provision and refuse any practicable alternative.
Tags: education, essay, history
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