Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : a Paradigm
(2002 - 2012)
From enforced schooling to self-directed learning
Education from living (^)
In the course of history people have learnt from experience, that is
- by observation and imitation of behaviour judged successful, suitable or simply acceptable;
- by experimentation and invention, i.e. by trial and error leading to the discovery of new forms of behaviour.
During most times there was
no differentiation between living and learning and there was no idea that
these two aspects could be held separate.
For the vast majority of people this was the case for centuries, even when in wealthy cities some individuals started offering their services as teachers and the first schools were opened in ancient Egypt and Babylonia.
In fact, although the image of the school as the main centre of learning
has now taken strong roots in almost everybody's mind, the concepts of learning
from life and learning as a lifelong process have never disappeared.
The many English men and women that, from the 17th to the early 20th century, embarked on the Grand Tour, that is on a voyage of discovery of other European countries and of the Greek and Roman civilizations, are a vivid example of this belief and practice.
At the same time, it is of course true that, in so doing, many of them
were continuing a learning course that had also included previous attendance
at some school.
Learning through schooling, while arising later, historically, than learning through life experiences, is in fact, as already mentioned, quite an ancient social phenomenon.
Education as schooling (^)
The invention and diffusion
of writing, with all the related skills in terms of reading and arithmetic,
favoured the establishment of schools, first in Egypt and Babylonia and
later in Greece.
In Greece, Socrates became the celebrated exponent of a way of educating called maieutic, where the learner is helped, through a series of pertinent questions and answers, to bring consciously to the fore what was deemed to be already present, in a latent and still undeveloped form, in his mind and senses. As a matter of fact, the etymology of the word education is "to draw out" (e-ducere) i.e. to stimulate and let the individual fully express his potential energies and qualities.
In contrast to this educational conception and practice, a new breed of instructors emerged at the same time in ancient Greece that would provide a model for most future teachers: the sophists. The method adopted by the sophists was to teach standard elements concerning the art of persuasion (dialectic) and the art of expression (rhetoric) in order that the sons of wealthy Athenians could prevail against their opponents in the political arena.
The sophists' method of teaching gave enormous importance to the handling of words and to their formal arrangement, aspects that would inform most teaching in schools throughout the centuries.
The separation between school and life that this way of teaching/learning could not avoid was also present in Rome. It was this truly negative aspect in Roman education that prompted Seneca to express his famous warning: "non scholae sed vitae discimus" ["we learn for life, not for school"].
After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the decadence of life in the towns, schooling declined and almost disappeared and education took place again mostly within the family and through daily activities. It was only with the urban revival (around the year 1000) and the development of production and trade that teachers and centres of formal education reappeared to cater for the sons of new aristocratic families and of wealthy merchants and master craftsmen.
The resumption and diffusion of schooling (^)
During the Middle Ages, the Church took upon herself the task of preserving the classical works of Greek and Roman authors against ruin and neglect. The churchmen became then the cultivated elements in society, practically the only ones endowed with literacy skills and in possession of formal notions from past ages.
For this reason it is not surprising that the Church wielded a dominating (or even exclusive) influence over the setting up and running of almost all educational centres and activities of that time, from the teaching of children up to the founding of universities.
Because the Church was a universal power, scholars and students could move from one centre of learning to the other (from Bologna to Paris to Oxford), free from any political border or cultural barrier, using Latin as the lingua franca.
The limits to learning were, in many cases, of a different nature and consisted of the same ones that had affected the practice of the sophists: the separation between teaching topics and teaching methods on one side and life activities and life problems on the other. Rote learning, rules of form, pedantic study of the Greek and Latin languages, these became the centrepieces of a large part of mediaeval schools. The learner was supposed to study slavishly the texts of the classical authors as if they were the still unsurpassed and unsurpassable pinnacles of culture. This view, which was shared by many educated individuals all over Europe, would leave a deep imprint on the aims and practices of many future schooling institutions, restricting them to the pure and simple transmission of past cultural achievements.
Classical education based on the study of Latin was then deemed essential for being part of the professional élite composed of lawyers, physicians, theologians. However, at the same time, in response to an emerging demand, vernacular schools started appearing, where more practical subjects such as commercial mathematics and reading and writing in local idioms were taught to the children of the rising merchant class.
The co-presence of various types of schools, promoted by different categories of people (wealthy merchants, secular and ecclesiastical masters, town rulers, itinerant teachers, etc.) shows that, once a need arises, if there are no restrictions (political, technical or other) as how it may be satisfied, the likely result is the coming into existence of a number of possibilities, in this case of a variety of educational services offered by a series of educational promoters.
This fact would be much more evident later on, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the general improvements in living conditions, due to a dramatic increase in productivity, permitted the allocation of more and more time and energy to the formal education of children. During the first half of the XIX century, an incredible array of new initiatives in schooling took place in England, which was becoming the most industrially advanced country in Europe. Catholic and Protestant schools were supplemented by Sunday schools for the workers occupied during the week, adult evening schools, charity schools or dame schools for the poor in many run down quarters of the towns, village schools supported by endowments and small fees, factory schools promoted by farsighted entrepreneurs like Robert Owen, mechanics institutes initiated by the efforts of George Birkbeck, mutual improvement societies, literary and philosophical institutes, training colleges and a host of different schools and civic universities started with a legacy and funded mainly by voluntary donations, personal funds and users' contributions. The number of so called private schools (that is, those deriving their income only from fees) jumped in England and Wales from 688 in 1841 to 3,754 in 1850 (Source: Census 1851), an increase of 545% within just ten years. A similar development could be expected in other countries once they started the industrialization process leading to the general betterment of living conditions.
But, in other parts of Europe things had already moved in a different direction, with the state taking more and more control of educational matters, and even England would be affected, in due time, by this trend and attitude.
The birth of state schooling (^)
The coming to dominance of the state in schooling is preceded by a long preparatory period during which the Church and the schools she had established started to be vilified and ostracized; this was in contrast to the previous period when the Church had been taken by the state as an ally to whom educational matters could be entrusted as her proper mission.
In fact, in 1547 the Spanish viceroy had promoted the involvement of the Jesuits in education and the founding of schools when he invited Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Society of Jesus) to send some Jesuits to the Sicilian city of Messina for teaching and charitable activities.
However, in 1759 the wind had totally changed direction. That year the Society of Jesus was expelled from Portugal. In 1764 it was banned from France and, in 1767, from Spain. The schools it had established were either closed down or given to other institutions to run.
From the end of the XVIII century onwards, many buildings and properties belonging to the Church were confiscated in several European countries (first of all in Revolutionary France) undermining not only Church power but also, in some cases, the Church's ability to perform some charitable activities like providing free schooling for the poor.
In 1763 Louis-René Caradeuc de la Chalotais, attorney-general to the Parliament of Brittany, wrote an "Essay on National Education" putting forward the idea of an educational system promoted by the State. He was moved by two main preoccupations:
- To control the access to education. Louis-René Caradeuc de la Chalotais was extremely worried by the fact that "never before have there been so many students ... even the working people want to study"; "the Brothers of Christian Doctrine, called the Ignorantins, are pursuing a fatal policy; they are teaching people to read and write who should have learnt only to draw and to handle planes and files but who now no longer wish to do so."
- To control the content of education. In order to end the influence of the Church, in particular that of the Jesuits, on young intellects Louis-René Caradeuc de la Chalotais wanted the institution of state schools because "the children of the state must be brought up by members of the state." To this aim, he advocated the appointment by the king of a commission to study the question of national education, to define its aims and to prepare the materials (e.g. textbooks) needed for this purpose.
In Prussia, which should be considered with France as the cradle of state schooling, the General Schools Regulations of 1763 (under Frederick II) made school attendance compulsory for all children between the age of five and thirteen. At around the same time (1768) Johann Bernhard Basedow was advancing the proposal for a Supreme Supervisory Council of Public Instruction that was actually implemented (Oberschulcollegium) under Frederick the Great in 1787. In 1794 all educational establishments were put under the supervision of the state, a decision reaffirmed in 1803 in the Prussian Law Code in which it is expressly declared that "the schools and universities are state institutions."
Meanwhile in France, B. G.
Rolland, president of the Parlement of Paris, drafted a report on national
education (1768) advocating the intervention of the state through a centralized
and hierarchical system of schools supervised from the capital.
The theoretical and practical foundations of state schooling were, then, laid down in the second half of the XVIII century, ready for the protagonists of the French Revolution to build on them and for the other ruling élites to follow suit, given the military successes and political appeal of state centralized France.
The consolidation of state schooling (^)
In France the Revolution, with its idolization of the state as the supreme protector and guarantor of the citizens, prepared the way for Napoleonic imperial despotism.
In 1802, with Fourcroy's decree, the state, while leaving elementary schools to local arrangement, intervened in the area of secondary education through a centrally controlled curriculum. Napoleon saw state education as the means for producing well-trained administrators and officers obedient to him. For this reason he instituted state Lycées where military discipline was the distinctive trait. Starting from 1804 the state took upon itself the right of appointing the teachers and, in 1806, it established the Imperial University (with supplementary decrees in 1808). This was a sort of Ministry of education in charge of controlling the whole of the schooling system and teaching apparatus in France.
The role of the state in education was extended after the fall of Napoleon, when in 1833, with the Guizot law, every town in France was obliged to set up a state elementary school. But it was under the minister of education Jules Ferry (during the 1880s) that state education received a strong boost, becoming the state monopoly to which the political ruling élite had aspired since the beginning of the century. A series of laws reduced greatly, and in some cases even eliminated, the presence of Catholic schools, forbidding priests from teaching. The curriculum for all schools was centrally planned and thoroughly expurgated of any religious reference and theme. Moreover state schools became tax supported and so apparently free of charge, the fees being paid, in a different, unrelated and almost undetected way, by everybody.
In Prussia, the example of France and of the expanding role that the state was playing as supreme guide of the nation in all fields, contributed to the emergence of a current of ideas (represented especially by Hegel and Fichte) according to which the task of education was seen as the formation of loyal state citizens and patriots.
Following the example of France and Prussia, many European states took education into their own hands, expropriating past providers and eliminating new possible ones that could never compete with a state schooling system that was compulsorily financed by all national subjects.
Since those early beginnings in the second half of the XVIII century, state schooling has spread everywhere and taken over education to the point that education has been identified with schooling, and schooling has come to mean, almost implicitly and generally, state schooling.
We need then to focus a bit deeper on state schooling, pointing out briefly the justifications given for its introduction and the functions (aims), features (traits), figures (protagonists) and effects (results) connected to its existence.
The proclaimed justifications for state schooling (^)
The main reason generally
put forward for the establishment of state schooling was an egalitarian
and humanitarian one.
The radical elements present in France and England, in association with philanthropists, social activists and political reformers, saw in the intervention of the state in education the way to improve the lot of the poor and to reduce, if not overcome, cultural disparities and social evils.
In other words, according to the preachers of state intervention, only the state, as the representative of the entire national community, could and should provide education to everybody in order to form citizens free from ignorance and a society free from inequality.
Actually, in many countries, a large part of the state ruling élite did not share this intention of emancipating individuals through the spread of education promoted by the state. In actual fact, the emergence of literacy amongst the masses was considered a potential cause of rebellion and unrest. According to this view, a literate servant or a cultivated manual worker were seen as a contradiction and a source of discontent that would not bode well for the established order.
Clearly this reality undermines
the myth, cherished by many, that the state was the real promoter of general
education and the initiator of mass literacy.
In actual fact, from the end of the XVIII century the spread of literacy was already taking place against and in spite of the opposition of the state, considering that even a liberal ruling élite such as that in English had put taxes on paper in order to discourage the diffusion of reading and writing amongst the poor. Nevertheless, revolutionary pamphlets like Paine's "Rights of Man" (1791-1792) and Godwin's "Enquiry concerning political justice" (1793) circulated widely and this was a sign that reading skills were expanding without the need of state assistance and in spite of actual state hindrance. In fact, as soon as the Stamp Act was repealed in 1855, seventeen provincial daily papers were founded, a further indication of a consolidated presence of reading skills amongst the English population at large, well before the beginning of any state schooling in England.
A further justification for state intervention in the form of compulsory schooling for all children up to a certain age, was to stop them being exploited by uncaring parents and greedy masters who put them to work in the mines and in the factories. This was, again, a very commendable reason but it was based on a generalization that was far from reality.
In fact, while it is true that a small number of parents were not behaving decently, to say the least, towards their children, most of them were making every possible effort to assure a better future for their offspring. As James Mill reported in the Edinburgh Review in October 1813 : "We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school."
And to schools or to various educational courses they were going in increasing number, at least if we refer to the English situation. During the first half of the XIX century (1818-1858), when the intervention of the English state in education was practically nil, the student population rose from 675,000 to 2,500,000, with an annual increase in the number of pupils attending school that was double the annual growth in population (1965, E. G. West, Education and the State). At the same time the large majority of workers had already become literate through personal effort or charitable assistance. So, the conventional portrait showing that, before state schooling, we are in the presence of mass illiteracy and generalized child neglect and exploitation, is, in most cases, either literary invention or pure propaganda necessary to justify the entry by the state into a new field (as the supposedly indispensable provider of an otherwise unachievable benefit) in order to establish its own total supremacy.
The concealed motivations for state schooling (^)
The reasons advanced for state intervention in education are very appealing indeed and have rallied to the cause many sincerely progressive and humanitarian individuals. However, even if we accept those as valid reasons for giving support to the promotion of education by the state (for instance, financing and facilitating in many ways all sorts of educational activities), they do not lead necessarily to state schooling and universal state control of education.
It is then clear that, behind a smokescreen of philanthropism and egalitarianism that truly animated many social reformers and social activists and justified the state's entry into the field of education, there are, concealed, other substantial motivations that paved the way towards the most pervasive and intrusive type of intervention: compulsory state schooling.
This goes well beyond and against what many caring individuals advocated. In fact, to be in favour of education for the 'lower' classes with a view to their emancipation, does not equate with state schooling, considering the many ways in which education can be accessed and promoted. Nevertheless, even against most educational principles, in many countries state schooling was the only road to education, chosen to the detriment and exclusion of many others. This choice was the direct consequence of some important events that suggested such a course of action to state rulers.
At that time the whole of Europe was under the spell of Napoleon who was exporting the ideas of the French revolution and of the new French state to every country; amongst the so-called "revolutionary" measures there was that of a centralized system of education (1802).
The many victories of the French armies all over Europe and especially the defeat of the Prussians at Jena in 1806 had the effect of stirring up feelings of national revanchism. If the successes of Napoleon were due to a strong state and a centralized system of education that produced obedient and efficient soldiers, that model had to be copied. And so a new idea emerged and spread, namely that of instilling sentiments of national pride and state allegiance through a national system of education, unquestionably under the direction of the nation state. The document that best represent this attitude is Fichte's Address to the German Nation (1808).
The state system of education, already present in Prussia, was then perfected even further on nationalistic lines to the point that the schools became one of the most effective tools in the political arsenal of the state. This policy worked so well in producing manipulable state subjects that, after the fall of Napoleon, Prussia was on the way to becoming the new super power in continental Europe. This ascent would be sanctioned by two events:
- the victory of the Prussian army over the Austrian army at Königgrätz (Sadowa) in 1864;
- the victory of the Prussian army over the French army at Sedan in 1870.
In the words of the Prussian minister of war, "the victor at Königgrätz was the Prussian Volkschule teacher." The same could probably be said for the military success against the French.
The Prussian-German experience showed that "schools are instruments of state policy, like the army, the police and the exchequer." (1960, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism). And practically all state rulers, in due course, learned the lesson.
The first state to follow was the one already best positioned in that respect, i.e. France. After the defeat of its army, new politicians emerged for whom the renewal of the nation under a strong state was the top priority. Amongst them Jules Ferry who, as already mentioned, was the promoter of a system of state schooling (laws of 1882 and 1886) rigidly controlled from the centre and from which any influence external to the state (e.g. the Church, the parents, the community) was methodically either expunged or marginalized. This is the system that would be adopted in other countries (for instance Italy) and that would last, with some updating and with a modernizing varnish, throughout most of the XX century.
So, the real motive behind the intervention of the state in education was the protection, survival and aggrandizement of the state ruling élite. As pointed out by a perceptive historian, in the schooling system of the nation state "the purpose of education ... is to bend the will of the young to the will of the nation" (1960, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism), that is to the will of the nation state rulers. Or, to quote the words of a well-known French historian (Ernest Lavisse) at the beginning of the XX century "if the schoolboy does not become a citizen fully aware of his duties, and a soldier who loves his gun, the teacher will have wasted his time."
The functions of state schooling (^)
If the un-confessed aim of state schooling is to instruct subjects for the purpose of the consolidation and expansion of state power within the country and abroad, clearly the real functions certainly cannot be those of liberation from ignorance and of emancipation towards independent thinking and acting. On the contrary, the objectives of state schooling, more evident and blatant in the past but still presently intrinsic to the state's way of dealing with education, can be summed up as:
- People indoctrination. Indoctrination here means the spreading, forced and planned from the top, of ideas conducive to the creation of a national identity (i.e. sameness) under the aegis of the state. The real mission of state schooling is not to facilitate the development of cultivated reasoning individuals but to manufacture identical docile state servants. The implementation of territorial sovereignty by the state requires the control and manipulation of the mental attitudes of the subjects living within that territory. In the words of an Italian writer and patriot, Massimo d'Azeglio, once Italy was made, it was time to "make the Italians," meaning with it the formation of an Italian identity (i.e. serial or mass-produced identical national subjects). And this task could be best performed only through the establishment and continuous strengthening of a state schooling system aimed at rearing a population "devoted to the Country and to the King" (from an 1886 circular of Michele Coppino, minister of Education in Italy) or, as in Germany, "loyal to one Kaiser, one army, one navy." The state had finally displaced the Church in the function of moulding citizens' minds and was replacing the old religion with the new ideology of statism.
- Mass homogenization. Homogenization means that all the learners have to go through the same learning process, absorbing in a uniform manner the same notions and the same attitudes that would make them obedient workers and law abiding subjects. The process is so uniformly imposed from the top that, towards the end of the XIX century, a Minister of education in France seems to have boasted that he could state which part of the state curriculum was being imparted in every school in the country by simply looking at the date and time. The notions to be ingurgitated mainly concern events and artefacts of previous civilizations, arranged on an historical progressive trend leading, as its final accomplishment, to the appearance of the nation state. The state is artfully presented as the initiator or accomplisher of everything that was, supposedly, either neglected or badly performed in the past (administration of justice, provision of social services, development of infrastructures, etc.). Moreover, each national school system seems to possess the irresistible tendency to portray its country as the beacon of civilization and to neglect or minimise the accomplishments and successes of the others or to attribute to them, sometimes, practices of exploitation and expropriation from which its own country has been, magically, immune. No wonder that this kind of manipulative mass teaching prepared the way to mass carnage, when opposed manufactured identities clashed for supremacy.
Homogenization is only part of the function of state schooling and is mainly addressed to the 'lower' classes. Once those belonging to these classes have absorbed the basic notions and attitudes, their schooling life was/is over while the children of the 'higher' classes continue their studies in the Lycées (another Napoleonic invention) and at the University (or presently in further postgraduate courses).
- Class Differentiation. Differentiation means that the school is organized into levels and branches reflecting the division of society into classes. The main division is that between those assigned to perform manual work (execution) and those destined for intellectual activities (direction). The differentiation starts in the elementary grades when the children of the ruling élite and of the wealthy parents go to better schools (sometimes state schools in selected areas), schools abroad or even catholic or other religious schools if they are considered of higher quality. The other state schools, many of them crowded and bureaucratically managed, are for the children of the undifferentiated mass, who should be happy and grateful for being allowed to go to school, apparently free of charge.
At this point it is necessary to highlight the main features of the state schools that the sons and daughters of the common people (but not only them) are obliged to attend.
The features of state schooling (^)
A confirmation of the real functions of state schooling comes from an overview of what were and still are the basic features of state schooling, namely
- Universal compulsory funding (taxes). State schooling is a service provided on a practically monopolistic basis (i.e. there is no serious competition) given the fact that it is compulsorily financed by everybody, whether or not they have children and whether or not they approve of the state schooling system or even refuse to use it and actually invest personal time and resources in order to offer alternative educational experiences to their children (home teaching, community schooling, expert tuition, special courses, provision of learning materials, etc.).
- Universal compulsory attendance (up to a certain age). School attendance is mandatory by law in practically all countries (home teaching is now permitted but not everywhere) and pupils are obliged to go to school, otherwise the state intervenes through the police and the judiciary.
- Teacher Regimentation (teacher training and teachers' teaching). The teachers are trained under the supervision of the state and are meant to teach notions that are spelled out in a state devised curriculum, using state approved textbooks, following conventional state approved techniques (mainly, the academic lesson).
- Pupil Regimentation. Pupils are divided according to their chronological age (their actual mental capacities or personal interests are not taken into account at all) and, in some cases, according to their sex, and put into groups (large or small according to the amount of resources allocated) under the command and instruction of one ore more teachers. All the pupils are supposed to pay attention, memorize and repeat the notions passed on to them by the teachers without questioning either the content or the form of the process.
- Nationally based notions. The notions transmitted, especially in the humanities, reflect mainly the culture of the national ruling élite and what that national élite considers worth absorbing and worth perpetuating. Creativity and cosmopolitanism are not, in general, in the state educational agenda.
- State-endorsed qualifications. If the students
have been satisfactorily docile and sufficiently effective in their effort
of attention, memorization and repetition of what they have been presented,
they can expect to receive a state-endorsed document (a diploma) that would
(more in the past than in the present) open to them many careers, especially
within the state or in state-related state-licensed positions. That piece of
paper is a magic key that, however, does not always reflect what people are
actually capable of doing. In that case, they will learn on the job, during
their professional activities. With reference to this, "the American economist, Professor George J. Stigler, who measured the kind of education which leads to increases in income-earning power of the individual, concluded that in 1940 as much as two-thirds of it was acquired not in colleges or schools but by experience and instruction within the factory or office." (1965, E.G.West, Education and the State. A study in political economy). If it is still so, we are back to the past, when learning was taking place through life experiences. The only difference, and it is not something to be proud of, is that educational failure within state schooling means that personal time and social resources have been squandered in enormous quantities without rational reasons and praiseworthy results.
In fact, if there is something that is certain it is that state schooling absorbs a huge amount of resources, directed mainly towards those who work for the system. It is then necessary to examine briefly the figures linked to the state schooling system.
The figures of state schooling (^)
When education was simply acquired from life experiences, everybody, in the family and in the outside world, endowed with some specific skill, was an informal teacher (a disseminator of knowledge).
Later on, literate individuals belonging mainly to some Church congregations dedicated their efforts to teaching in a formal way, either to the poor or as tutors in wealthy families.
With the birth of the idea of modern schooling, ladies from aristocratic families engaged themselves in charitable teaching institutions. At the same time, individuals, often from humble origins, who had become literate, offered their educational services, becoming the first nucleus of established teachers; they were paid by the parents and were under the scrutiny of the local community or of the clergy that employed them.
The financial uncertainties of the profession, at the mercy of parents and local people, and its dependence on the Church, which controlled most formal education, were the main reasons why, in the course of time, more and more teachers favoured and accepted the intervention of the state in the field. For them it meant:
- a regular salary paid by the state out of compulsory taxes instead of worrying to collect the fees from each parent personally;
- a distant master in the form of the ministry of education located in the capital instead of the continuous control exerted locally by the parents and the whole community;
- a more updated curriculum that would do away with some pedantic religious teaching and introduce more down to earth learning matters;
- a better personal standing within the local community and the society at large, as they were seen as the educational representatives of an ascending power (the nation state) and bestowed with a mission to accomplish (the education/nationalization of the new generations).
No wonder that the teachers had a strong direct interest in the spreading of state schooling and in becoming sort of state educational officers. An acceptable justification was the fact that, in this way, they were emancipating themselves, in many cases, from the suffocating tutelage of the Church. What was not noticed was the fact that, for financial reasons, they were putting themselves under another tutelage, that of the state, that would be, from the start or in due course, not less suffocating and demeaning. From that moment onwards they became if not the mouthpiece of state power, certainly the national propagandists of the statist ideology that is made up of a mixture of compassionate paternalism and authoritarian dirigism.
In this respect it must be pointed out that state schoolteachers are members of a category that includes many who were/are the direct instigators and propagators of state roles played by their pupils as concentration camp guards, torturers and killers under the instructions of the state. As remarked by a contemporary historian, "the torture chamber and the concentration camp merely completed the work that the classroom had begun." (1999, Martin van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State). And the bureaucratic/authoritarian superstructure of the state still holds nowadays mainly because of the propagandistic and manipulative work of most state schoolteachers (whether they are conscious of it or not).
Other categories that eagerly accepted the rising and spreading of state schooling were those who found employment in bureaucratic roles as school inspectors or administrators either inside the school or within the huge, centralised apparatus that would guide and shape the instructional machine.
Presently, in some countries the Ministry of education is the biggest national employer and so the amount of vested interests that work for the perpetuation of the system is formidable even when or where the results are very poor or simply provide an incredibly low return on the amount of resources employed.
Let us then examine briefly what have been and what still are the effects of the imposition/diffusion of state schooling.
The effects of state schooling (^)
Compulsory state schooling has achieved no less than three unsavoury results that were not expected by many of those who favoured this educational road:
- It has devalued parents. According to the premises underpinning state intervention, schooling has to be forced on parents otherwise they would never be interested in the education of their children. This unsupported generalization, even if true in regard to a small number of parents, has been applied to all parents with the result of eliminating any responsibility of the families in the education of the children and attributing this task to a group of professional figures and bureaucrats which take most (if not all) decisions. No wonder that the parents have really become irrelevant or marginal as pedagogical figures, not any more originators and stimulators of values but pure and simple dispensers of cash.
- It has devalued learning. Another basic premise of the compulsory state school model is the idea that learning has to be forced on children otherwise they would show no interest and curiosity in anything and would remain forever lazy and ignorant. This, again, is an unproved generalization, discounted by practically all major educationalists; paradoxically it is valid only when self-motivation to learn is eliminated and is replaced by compulsion. In that case, as in any case when coercion is introduced, any supposed educational experience loses its attraction totally and becomes an annoying chore to be avoided as much as possible. Creative learning is displaced by rote-parroting, compulsorily endured only to obtain the required piece of paper called a diploma.
- It has devalued activity. The fundamental approach of state schooling consists in congregating children in a specific place (the classroom within the school building) where somebody is in charge of presenting notions. In this way, the strict link - if not unity - between learning and doing is totally broken. Learning appears as something completely detached from activity, a long vacation from real life that will resume its course once schooling is over. This model, derived from a view of society divided between manual and intellectual activities, is at the basis of the class divide between ruled and rulers. And the state school, through its way of operating, perpetuates this social fracture.
On the whole, the state school has failed and is failing in what many, naively, think is its essential function, i.e. to develop and promote knowledge for dealing/coping with new realities. This is not possible in so far as the state school favours:
- the repetition of the past over the construction of the future
- the transmission of national notions over the exploration of universal science
- the study of conventional theories over the experimentation with original hypotheses.
The social/psychological results of all this appear very clearly if we just reflect on the attitudes cultivated and transmitted during most of the XX century, namely:
- nationalism, chauvinism and the dismissal of cosmopolitanism
- imperialism, militarism and the contempt for pacifism.
To think that state schooling has nothing to do with all this is like being mentally and morally blind, a degenerate zombie with a degree in idiocy.
On the basis of these results, the state school could very aptly be listed amongst the total institutions of the state like the prison, the army barracks and the mental asylum, sharing with them, although in a more soft and subtle way, the characteristics of:
- restriction (prison)
- regimentation (barracks)
- repression (asylum).
The state school is also the perfect example of a mass society where even education becomes a uniform pre-packaged process and the pupils are like machines on an assembly line. Or, to give a more apt view of the entire sequence, children are like battery chickens, force-fed in order to produce animals that fit into the stew of the bureaucratic state, in the role of docile workers and alienated consumers.
Besides that, schools have also become centres of rage, violence, apathy and illiteracy to the point that not only education is out of the question but miseducation is spreading fast and wide, coupled with an enormous dissipation of resources, especially human resources.
Many saw from the start the nefarious effects of the state taking control of education. And so, the objections to state schooling have been numerous especially from those who grew up in places and times when the state played a reduced role (XIX century); further objections have reappeared in the second half of the XX century and are becoming an avalanche since the beginning of the XXI century.
The objections to state schooling (^)
Objections to state intervention
in education arose during the XIX century both in England and in France.
Thinkers like John Stuart Mill warned, not always in a consistent manner, about the risks connected to leaving education in the state's hands. In the essay "On Liberty" (1859) he wrote: "A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another" and "in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body."
In the "Principles of Political Economy" (1848) Mill stated very forcefully that: "It is not endurable that a government should, either de jure or de facto, have a complete control over the education of the people. To possess such a control, and actually exert it, is to be despotic. A government which can mould the opinions and sentiments of the people from their youth upwards can do with them whatever it pleases."
Karl Marx expressed objections of similar nature when, criticizing the programme of the Social-democratic Party of Germany (the Gotha programme) he wrote: "Education of the people by the state is altogether objectionable." "Government and Church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school." (1875, Karl Marx).
In France, Frédéric Bastiat, amongst others, was totally opposed to state education, declaring that: "The State, or more precisely the party, the faction, the sect, the man who gets hold at a certain moment, even in a totally legal way, of the power to influence the government, can give to education the direction that pleases him, and can shape according to his wishes all the minds just through the mechanism of diplomas." ["L'Etat, ou pour mieux dire le parti, la faction, la secte, l'homme qui s'empare momentanément, et même très légalement, de l'influence gouvernementale, peut donner à l'enseignement la direction qui lui plaît, et façonner à son gré tous les intelligences par le seul mécanisme des grades."] (1850, Baccalauréat et socialisme).
In Italy, Antonio Gramsci, in an article published in 1918 in the socialist paper Il grido del popolo wrote: «We socialists should be in favour of the free school, of the school left to personal initiative and to the Municipalities. Freedom in school is possible only if the school is independent from state control. (...) We should promote the free school and we should take the freedom of setting up our school. Catholics will do the same where they are in the majority; and we will see who is going to be the most able." [«Noi socialisti dobbiamo essere propugnatori della scuola libera, della scuola lasciata all’iniziativa privata e ai Comuni. La libertà nella scuola è possibile solo se la scuola è indipendente del controllo dello Stato. (…) Noi dobbiamo farci propugnatori della scuola libera e conquistarci la libertà di creare la nostra scuola. I cattolici faranno altrettanto dove sono in maggioranza; chi avrà più filo tesserà più tela»].
And Piero Gobetti, turning upside down the flawed logic of those who want to impose on everybody a secular education under the control of the state, wrote that: "Only a theocratic state can claim the right to monopolize education." ["Solo uno stato teocratico può rivendicare il diritto del monopolio scolastico."] (1924, La Rivoluzione Liberale).
Other objections have been directed at the regimented and forced nature of the schooling system, where children are treated like empty barrels and teaching means filling them with notions, whether they want it or not.
However, the reverence inspired, at least in the past, by the figure of the professional teacher backed by the Church and, later on, by the mighty state, made the objections less and less forceful and capable of changing educational practices. The only option left was to abandon the school whenever possible and practicable.
One of the most famous cases of refusal of schooling is that involving in 1854 the seven-year-old Thomas Alva Edison. After a discussion with the principal of the school, and disapproving of the rigid teaching system, the mother decided to educate her son at home. Thanks to this courageous resolution, the mind of the young Edison was spared from conformity and one of the brightest intellects of all ages was allowed to flourish.
Not so fortunate, as far as school attendance is concerned, was another genius, Albert Einstein, who, looking back to his school years had this to say: "One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year."
If this is the effect that schooling had on such a curious and bright mind as that of Einstein, we should be terrified at the thought of what it produces in less exceptional pupils. Unfortunately, too many nice, accommodating children are unable to follow Mark Twain's resolution expressed in the statement: "I never let schooling interfere with my education"; and for this reason they are repelled for life from real educational experiences.
For many critics of schooling educational results have appeared to be so discouraging that, starting from the 1960's, a series of books began to be published with revelatory titles like "Compulsory Miseducation" (1962, Paul Goodman) or "How Children Fail" (1964, John Holt).
They were followed, at the beginning of the 1970's, by even more radical books advocating the ending of schooling. Their titles were no less explicit: "School Is Dead" (1971, Everett Reimer) and "Deschooling society" (1971, Ivan Illich).
The analyses and the diagnoses
were all quite similar: learning cannot be based on compulsion, memorization
and repetition but it arises out of personal freedom and natural curiosity
that leads to investigation and discovery.
On the basis of these ideas and as a reaction to the failing of children in the schooling system dominated by the state, new experiences came to life especially during the 1980's and 1990's and are multiplying at the beginning of the XXI century.
The alternatives to state schooling (^)
During the period of dominance of state schooling and even within the domain of state schooling, some experiences of progressive education have taken place that run counter to the conventional formulas dictated by the centre.
While state schooling was/is
- centred on the teacher
- based on textbooks and academic lessons
- compulsory and regimented
progressive education was/is
- centred on the child (Maria Montessori)
- focusing on learning by doing (John Dewey)
- free from compulsion and regimentation (A. S. Neill and the experience of Summerhill).
But these experiences have been either islands on a sea of conformity and acquiescence to the state directives or a sprinkling of novelty in a generally bureaucratically formulated approach.
The inadequacies of the state schooling system have, then, persisted and have been compounded by a social and technological dynamic that is making the school appear ever more irrelevant and detached not just from the real needs of the learners but also from actual reality.
An urgency is presently felt by many to move from a few experimental cases to a rich variety of experiences. And this is what is happening in some regions of the world.
There are three parallel ideas that are starting to be accepted by an increasing number of individuals and that push for the setting up of alternatives to the present situation:
end of the identification of schooling with state schooling. The pedagogical
deterioration of many state schools, made even more visible and acute by
episodes of violence and bad behaviour, has energized other actors to intervene,
by entering in the field of education, or expanding their presence within
it. In the USA, the end of state criminalization of homeschooling has allowed
the flourishing of many experiences in which parents have taken direct responsibility
for the education of their children. The number of homeschooling students
is estimated to have grown in the USA from 350,000 in 1990 up to 1.3 million
Schools promoted by religious groups and institutions and aimed at conveying also a strong moral teaching represent another developing area of non-state schooling. This kind of school is chosen by those who attribute particular importance to an ethical education and to the transmission of certain firm values. Thus we have Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Quaker, Mennonite and Amish schools, to list the most well known. (1997, Ronald E. Koetzsch, The Parent's Guide to Alternatives in Education).
Besides religious schools, in many countries there have always existed non-state schools (called "public schools" in England and "private schools" elsewhere) promoted by individuals and groups and supported by fees paid by the parents and by donations. The current financial crisis of the state, which is, at last, unable to cover with its presence all sectors of life, makes these initiatives even more necessary. To cite just a case, in Poland since the collapse of state communism almost 300 new non-state universities have been opened, attended by half of Poland's current university students.
All these are just some examples amongst others that show that the mental association between state and schooling as an indispensable and necessary combination is less and less tenable.
- The end of the identification of learning with schooling. In addition to new schools there are also experiences of education tailored to the individual and instructional tools to be used by individuals for self-teaching. Hypertext coursewares introduce the learner to many subjects of cognitive interest and allow for personalized trails of discovery, at the time and pace of his/her own choice. In general, the high circulation of information and the considerable amount of learning materials and opportunities available beyond formal schooling, already make the total environment a learning environment and the schools only one (and not even the most important) of the many places dealing with knowledge.
- The end of the identification of learning with a specific period (school years) or place (school buildings). Learning is and always has been a lifelong process. It is so now more than ever, given the pace of technological and social change. The idea of learning limited to the school years, inside a school building, aimed at to the absorption of notions from a curriculum imposed from the centre, updated every so many years, is a very bizarre one and puts individuals in a very disadvantaged situation. Those who undergo this process become incapable of coping with new situations, obsolete human beings like the notions they have been forced to absorb.
To remedy this situation, courses (short, long, at a distance, introductory, advanced, specialized, etc.) on almost every possible subject, along with experts on demand, are or should be available within the reach of everyone, at any time during people's lives, via a series of old and new promoters (learned societies, local associations, the business community, professional specialists, etc.). This reality, in most cases far away from formal schooling and geared to the specific actual needs of the learner, is what, in the first and final instance, promotes true educational development.
All these experiences introduce us to a new paradigm of learning, beyond schooling and especially beyond state schooling, that needs to be examined a bit closer.
From schooling to learning (^)
The conceptual overcoming
of the three identifications previously highlighted is the necessary premise
for freeing the mind from a series of deceptive ideas that have been transmitted
through the generations.
The most erroneous of those ideas, propagated by the state and not by educationists, is that learning is an unavoidably painful imposition, whereas in fact it is a natural pleasurable experience.
What is really painful is to be compulsorily confined in a room, for many hours a day, for many days every year, and for many years during what is the most active part of a human being's life, to listen to and absorb second hand experiences and notions that have to be memorized and parroted out in order to pass a test that will allow young people to climb the social ladder. Having being forced to do this in the past, many parents have been prepared (i.e. manipulated) to accept that their children go through the same painful and tedious process only because there is (or there should be) a prize at the end of the tunnel: economic security and material gratification.
As a matter of fact, this is the re-proposition of the old Church view of life as suffering rewarded by the gaining of after-life bliss. Under statism the years of schooling are a long preparation for a life of stress and boredom in order to gain material comfort, presented as the source of true happiness.
Needless to say, all this has nothing to do with learning. Certainly some useful notions might reach the minds of the young during such a long period of forced confinement in a classroom but these meagre results cannot justify either the methods employed or the amount of resources dissipated.
Learning is something completely
different from present schooling because its basic traits are opposite
to it. In fact, a learning process is characterized by being:
- free not forced
- pleasurable not painful
- creative not repetitive
- inner-motivated not outer-directed
- spontaneous not regimented
- personalized not mass-imposed
- lifelong not time limited
- ubiquitous not place-restricted
That is why, instead of allocating
further effort and resources to the old schooling system, we should favour
projects and activities promoting:
- self-directed learning (learning as personal exploration)
- learning environments (learning as social experience).
Self-directed learning (^)
The central aspect of learning is that it is a personal exploration leading to personal development. For this reason learning is essentially self-directed, based on and marked by the following dynamic:
- Personal motivation. Learning is initiated
by the learner who finds in it the way to satisfy some natural dispositions.
Curiosity and an active desire for discovery are basic traits of every human
- Personal engagement. Curiosity and the desire for discovery lead necessarily to personal engagement in meaningful and fulfilling activities that become learning experiences. Living and learning represent then a unity.
- Personal empowerment. The results of motivation and engagement are likely to provide the individual with qualities (attitudes, skills, worldviews, etc.) he/she was not endowed with before. This fact stimulates and motivates the learner to search for engagement in further learning experiences, in a never ending process in which the individual finds more and more satisfaction and enjoyment as he/she progresses in exploring and experiencing the world.
This learning dynamic is
spontaneous and self-sustained and it takes place within a framework characterized
- primary skill: the individual becomes capable of learning to learn.
- unrestricted place/time: there are no borders and no limits to learning.
- integrated topics: there is no fragmentation and no separation between learning experiences.
The process of learning,
being centred on the individual and on his demands, pays special attention
to freedom with respect to:
- Learning themes. Learning themes refer to the learning contents chosen by the learner on the basis of his/her personal interests and needs. Different learners will approach different learning themes that will crisscross and reinforce one another, all being characterized by being meaningful, relevant and in tune with the life of the individual.
- Learning types. Learning types refer to the experiences selected by the learner in order to deal with the learning themes. Different learning themes require different experiences, stressing different learning qualities (e.g. visual, motorial, logical, etc.) through different learning paths.
- Learning styles. Learning styles refer to the learning actor and the way he/she deals with the learning experience. Individuals present differences (motivations, interests, previous knowledge base, etc.) that are reflected in different learning styles proper to the individuals (for instance, more stress given to an intuitional rather than an analytical approach, or vice versa).
On the whole, in order to
satisfy all these aspects and requisites an educational process should
be based on:
- Individualization: learning is in close relation to the requirements and motivations of the learner;
- Personalization: the learner chooses the most suitable path, place and pace of exploration;
- Integration: the materials explored not only integrate with each other but also with the learner's previous knowledge, and enlarge/deepen it.
A learning curriculum, if it exists as a learning sequence, is suggested/shaped by the learning themes, types and styles that are strictly linked to each individual personality; it cannot be uniformly imposed from the top by a bureaucratic power. As remarked by the psychologist Carl Rogers "self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner - feelings as well as intellect - is the most lasting and pervasive." (1969, Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn).
Learning, although being a very personal experience/development, takes place through a continuous series/web of exchanges and this requires and fosters the existence and spreading of learning environments.
Learning environments (^)
Learning environments are made by communities (interconnected individuals), places (resource centres) and activities (meaningful experiences) through which every human being can satisfy the inborn curiosity and desire to learn. Within the learning environments everybody is, on different occasions, a giver and a receiver of knowledge according to the specific skills he/she has mastered.
The higher the quality and the wider the variety of these learning environments, the more possibilities present themselves for learning. To be a participant (as promoter and user) of a network of relevant learning environments sets up the conditions for an exponential cognitive multiplication in the learning base of each contributor.
At a personal and interpersonal level learning becomes what it used to be and what it should always have been, a
- Problem Finding (Research)
- Problem Solving (Design)
- Problem Acting (Planning)
commitment and engagement concerning the totality of life experience, in which each phase is contained in every other.
The new educational paradigm
(new with respect to current mainstream state schooling practices) aims
at enabling every human being to become an active problem finder/problem
solver instead of becoming a sort of answering machine repeating the past
in the present and in a never changing future.
At the dawn of the XXI century most schools (state schools or state certified schools) still produce a large number of unsatisfied individuals, social clones of a decaying world, docile automata ready for the rat-race or angry and aggressive people disgusted with what has been presented to them as learning: regimentation, homogenization, subordination, in a word, pure and simple manipulation.
Individuals and communities have to take learning back into their own hands, abolishing the monopolistic role of the state buttressed by forced taxation, compulsory attendance and the paraphernalia of degrees and diplomas as bribing baits that open the way to money and power.
The separation between state and education is as necessary now as was the separation between state and religion before. The latter ended the wars of religion and introduced toleration in religious matters; the former might end national/tribal wars tout court and certainly political strife, introducing not only toleration but also wisdom.
We should replace state schools with a dazzling spectrum of learning experiments and experiences. There are no limits to learning and there shouldn't be limits to what can be done in the field of learning.
State school, i.e. state mass indoctrination, represents a dead future, like the mass society of which it is the most despicable product.
Let us focus, for real and anew, on personal self-directed learning.