December 15, 2005

The Failures and Limitations of Modern Schooling

 

 

Measure of Failure

Before we can speak about
the failures of modern schooling, in the West or anywhere else, we should consider
what it is that schooling has set out to do. This will help us to consider whether
or not schooling has failed at anything, or if it has actually succeeded in
accomplishing something. Without a clear idea of what schools are for, in other
words, we have no real basis for evaluating if schooling has failed or succeeded.
This question also needs to be considered in historical context, because what
may have been seen as the successes of school at one time may have come to be
seen as its failures, while what may have been perceived as failures in one
time may have later come be seen as its successes. Therefore, the question of
success and failure of schooling is bound up with expectations of a given time
and place, although those expectations have been remarkably consistent.

Labeled and Categorized

Despite superficial differences
in language and culture, what we are calling modern schooling is for the most
part global in its uniformity. A visitor to a school in most any place in recent
years will find the same type of facility, a box-shaped concrete building resembling
a factory (or prison or hospital), divided into smaller boxes called classrooms,
in which there are a number of desks and chairs facing forward towards a larger
teacher’s desk, behind which is a blackboard and above that a clock. The
placing of these items might differ slightly, but the items are all there, from
Tokyo to Istanbul , New York to London , Karachi to Rio de Janeiro . A flag
or some other symbol of the nation, such as a picture of the current head, is
often present and may even be ritually saluted in some way, while a national
anthem is often played or sung at the beginning of each school day.

Students move among these
boxes according to strict timings, often announced by bells or alarms, and the
school day is divided into several periods approximately 50 minutes apiece,
beginning at around 8 a .m. and ending around 3 p.m., with a lunch break in
the middle of the day. School meets five days a week for ten months of the year,
and this usually lasts for 12 years. Students are classified and graded in many
ways, most often ordered according to age-based classes and categorized according
to academic grades. This grading and classifying gets ever more precise as students
approach their graduation, when each is then given a sheet of paper that certifies
his or her experience and performance.

Schools were structured
in this way for a reason. During the 19th century, beginning in Europe but soon
spreading globally, it became necessary to acclimate the masses of people to
large-scale emergent social realities: industrialization and nationalism. The
routines of factory work required that young people be taught the necessary
skills and values—including uniformity, punctuality, and efficiency—as
well as gain the ability to withstand long hours of repetitive labor. The industrial
economy offered employment for those who succeeded in this system. Similarly,
the gathering of people into nation states required that they see themselves
as part of a single nation and that they learn respect for the national symbols,
such as the flag and the nation’s head, and be willing to die fighting
for those symbols, although often being contented with fighting other nations
in sporting events. Modern schooling has been remarkably successful at achieving
these goals, in a relatively short period of time, to the point that most of
us cannot imagine life without it.

Globalizing of Modern
Education

With the phenomenal rise
of Europe as an industrial and military power, schooling came to be seen as
the key to that success, so the European model of schooling was eagerly sought
by those desiring industrial and symbolic power in other parts of the world.
The Americans and the Japanese were among the first to adopt this new system
of schooling, although one can also find early adoptions of it in other places,
such as the Russian and Ottoman empires. Soon, it came to be seen as mandatory
by the colonial powers, namely Britain and France, who spread this system throughout
their domains. By the early 20th century, a global system of modern schooling
was in place and it remains to this day.

While the structure of schooling
taught its lessons of industrial standardization and national adulation, there
were of course various academic subjects taught as well, mainly language and
math skills. The modern nation state also required the teaching of history and
civics, to further the feeling that each nation was somehow special and unique
among others, and that its head men and political systems were the best over
the rest. Schools also began teaching the sciences and humanities, though at
first these subjects were reserved for the elite private schools, where the
rich and famous could sequester their children to learn the “higher values”
of science and literature and to maintain a feeling of superiority and separation
from the seething masses. But by the mid 20th century, most of the academic
subjects that we see in most schools anywhere today were being taught.

The benefits and successes
of the new system were not shared by all, in particular the benefits of an industrial
economy, because the Americans, Europeans and Japanese greedily guarded their
competitive edge in these areas, while the rest of the world became the suppliers
of their resources and consumers of their industrial products. It is an irony
that while most nations of the world adopted the factory model of schooling,
very few were actually able to develop industrial economies. This could be seen
as a failure of modern schooling, but it would depend on which time or place
one is examining. The success of modern schooling in building a sense of nationalism
has been more evident. In both cases, either in building an industrial economy
or national identity, schooling was a process directed by those with a vested
interest in one or another of those new realities.

Becoming Obsolete

By the late 20th century,
the recognition emerged that this system had largely run its course or that
it was becoming obsolete and in need of some sort of reform. The main benefactors
of this aging system—America, Europe, and Japan—fought each other
in horrifically violent wars, which were called “world wars” because
they involved the colonial spheres of influence of those powers, and which spanned
the entire planet. In addition, the Third World began to realize the ruse of
the system, that they were playing by the rules but still largely unable to
reap any of the benefits of the game. The global economy, in the meantime, had
passed from national planners in the dominant colonial powers into the hands
of global corporations, and now all nation states are coming under the sway
of global rules of economic development, including the once great state powers.
Meanwhile, media have become the new teachers of identity, though decidedly
diffuse.

As this new system changed,
and in the wake of the World Wars, the industrial powers began to quibble among
themselves, at once envying and mimicking each other’s national educational
systems, in the hope of gaining a fleeting edge in economic development. For
example, in the 1980s, it was faddish for American technocrats to bemoan the
failure of the American educational system, in the face of Japanese economic
ascendancy, which was seen as due to its superior educational system that created
true adulation not only for the state but for the corporate order. But that
was put to rest a decade later with the virtual collapse of the Japanese economy,
and the rise of despair, depravity, and suicide among Japanese youth. Meanwhile,
a never ending stream of reforms plagued the educational systems of the “developed”
nations, with the “developing” world waiting to see what their colonial
masters would come up with next. Faddishness continued to be the order of the
day for an educational system seeking a new sense of meaning and a new purpose
for its existence, not to mention a justification for the tremendous amount
of money it cost.

It is at this point that
one can detect more clearly the failures of modern schooling. After a century
and a half of development, there is not really much to show for this system.
The so-called advanced democracies are mired in political nihilism and cultural
frivolity, at times rivaling that of the decaying Roman Empire . Gangsters,
murderers, liars, fascists, and bigots are elected to public office with impunity.
Meanwhile, most people are utterly unable to see beyond the promises of unlimited
economic growth, instead living blindly a consumerist lifestyle that has time
and again been denounced as unsustainable over the long term. Ecological systems
are in collapse, species are becoming extinct, and humans have become one of
the few organisms (other than pigs) that consistently foul their own habitats.
People still fight each other over trivialities, with armies marching to murderous
ends to defend lines on a map, madly cheering the latest movie stars and football
heroes.

Perhaps it is too much to
lay the blame for all this at the doorstep of school, to say that the mess the
world is in today is due to schooling. But it is equally unrealistic to expect
schools to fix these problems. Yet most efforts at educational reform are still
dancing to the same old tunes of economic growth and national pride, with the
few exceptions to this uniform pattern, such as those feeble efforts at “environmental
education” and “global awareness,” merely serving to prove
the rule. Once a problem is identified, people turn to schools to solve that
problem, if they have not already blamed the problem on schools.

In those nation states with
expendable wealth, technocrats can continue to pour it into their national educational
systems. In such places, flashy consumerism is replacing stodgy industrialism,
spearheaded by the fun-loving Americans. Now one can find the utter absurdity
of schools in the rich nation states exchanging the drab decor of factory schools
for colorful Disney characters. Even where there is not as much disposable wealth,
one can find a “Disneyfication” of schools, testimony perhaps to
recognition that schools are indeed drab and boring places, but also a testament
of the failure to imagine any alternatives other those images produced for the
global entertainment markets. In the impoverished nations, neither of these
games is played. They never benefited from the industrial system and don’t
have the money to apply the latest educational fad, so what one finds is a simple
decay of colonial schooling. While this is often decried by the United Nations
and the NGOs of the wealthy nations, it may also be a cracked mirror for the
rest of the world to view the decay of the industrial way of life and the nation
states of modernity.

For many people, this is
too bleak to accept. They would rather devote themselves to making schools better
places. The argument is that as long as schools exist, we should at least try
to make them habitable and tolerable places. Others will argue that schools
are still one of the few places where people can get together for some sort
of intellectual activity, although this is usually reserved for universities
(equally in decay, but beyond the scope of this article). When asked what they
like most about school, many children, and those adults recalling their childhood,
will list the social aspects more than that the academic aspects. Indeed, it
is perhaps a success of schools that they have become places for mass socialization,
but at times this socialization has gone against the grain of what parents and
societies desire, at which point this “success” can then become
a “failure.”

In fact, framing the problem
of modern schooling in terms of success and failure is in many ways a futile
exercise. Nationalistic zealots and greedy corporate leaders, particularly in
the “developed” nation states like America , have consistently used
a rhetoric of school failure to justify the imposition of austerity and intolerance
on diverse populations. The corporate chiefs and their cheerleaders among the
political elite in particular, eagerly applaud any claims that schools have
failed because it gives them another shot at raiding the public coffers, since
money spent on failed schools is surely money wasted and it would be better
spent lining their pockets and those of their cronies. It is for this reason
that one finds a spiteful impulse to maintain schools the way they are, and
not complain too much about their failures, in the hopes of protecting one of
the few public spaces left in the industrialized world today. While this may
be a valid argument in some places, in particular where there is wealth to contest,
for most of the world it is seen as an irrelevant luxury of the privileged nations
in search of meaning.

Whatever the reason, when
increasing numbers of people the world over have come to see schools as failures,
then this is an indication that there needs to be serious discussions about
what to do with them. This cannot be left to politicians and corporate executives,
nor can the problems (or solutions) of the wealthiest countries be superimposed
upon the rest of the world. It is in those places where the vast majority of
humanity resides that the most rigorous discussions have to take place, where
there is little to gain or lose. Before bulldozing all the schools, or dressing
them up like shopping malls, a concerted effort needs to be made to truly assess
what we expect of them, and this has to be a collective endeavor. This must
also include looking honestly at alternatives, ranging from efforts at de-schooling
and “walking out” to developing vocational institutes and home education.
Above all, the limitations of schooling have to be recognized. As long as we
aspire to gain wealth and status through schooling, in a game that demands there
be winners and losers, then the “failed” system of modern schooling
is unlikely to change very much, since the foundations of the system are built
on economic growth and social ascendancySource:
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