Relooking at Education

A pupil asked me last week what changes I would make to the education system if I had the power to reform it. First I need to express just how thrilled I was that he had asked the question in the first place. It means that not only has he been allowed to develop critical faculties that allow him to see systemic flaws, but he has developed the courage to use that knowledge to seek reform rather than simply to complain. If education can teach young people that, it has accomplished something very important. The fact that he has asked the question at all means, in an ironic sort of way, that one cannot dismiss the system in its entirety. The current system, it seems, can be effective, if not because of its processes, than certainly in spite of them.

For this reason, his question is not one I could answer easily: all education systems will of necessity be flawed, and success will often happen in spite of rather than because of them. That does not mean, however, that I like the current system as it is. Far from it. I will spend several posts outlining a response, because there are several elements to it that deserve more detailed explanation than a single post will allow.

Today I will start by looking at the question that must be answered before any discussion about possible reforms can take place: what is the purpose of education in the first place? Until we can answer that question, we will always have an inefficient system, doomed to fail because of a lack of direction.

Understand one thing: education is primarily a political activity. By this I mean that it is always a tool used by certain groups to legitimise and maintain their power. Various powerful groups will always use it to attempt to create citizens who will serve and defend that group. Schooling always has a political agenda and is never neutral. Whether that agenda is to create national patriots, who embrace certain socio-cultural and socio-economic views, or whether that agenda is to create family or church members who reject “worldly” values, schooling begins with a picture of an ideal citizen in mind.

Most modern schools will claim that they endeavour to maximise the potential of individual pupils, but the truth is that schools usually care for individuals only to the extent that those individuals conform to the institution’s picture of the model citizen. Because each of these groups “invests” in the schooling, they each expect some sort of return. These groups therefore measure the success of the schooling programme by the observable return on their investments. More often than not this takes the form of grades. The state will use statistics about grades to legitimise its claims to power and to validate existing power structures. Sometimes the return is professed adherence to a creed and obedience to a code of conduct.

All forms of schooling – state, church or home –  are equally oppressive. That is not to say that there is malicious intent – most educational organisations will argue – and genuinely believe – that they are acting in the best interests of the child. That does not make their processes any less repressive.

I do not wish to make it sound unnecessarily harsh. There has to, I believe, be a degree of tyranny at some point in the learning process, because real learning is an uncomfortable and often even painful experience, and people generally avoid discomfort and pain. It is unpleasant to face the fact that your opinions are flawed. It is uncomfortable to be made to see weaknesses in one’s beliefs. Growth hurts. But these experiences are fundamental to education, and not always willingly embraced, particularly by the emotionally and intellectually immature. This is why tyranny in education is unavoidable.

But we should not be surprised, then, that young people resist being schooled. Any system is an attempt to impose a set of norms onto young people, who will not necessarily buy into the need to accept them. This, too, is right. If we want young people to value something, they have to be free to choose it. People only truly value that which they have deeply internalised, and if the aim of schooling is to produce active citizens (citizenship is not passive; it requires deliberate and meaningful participation in a system), then schooling must afford young people the option to reject the system. They will question what the system values before they possibly elect to embrace those values. This is the natural order of things.

Whether it is mine, or a particular state’s agenda, education always aims at creating the perfect citizen. So if I am asked what changes I would make to the system, I need to make it clear that I do not believe that my systems would be any less oppressive, or any more neutral. In my system, as in any other, the chances are that those in the system would at some point resent being there.

One cannot control whether or not the system is oppressive. All systems are. Nor, as far as education is concerned, should one make it a goal to keep all participants in the system feeling comfortable and unoffended. This is antithetical to real learning. (By the way, this is – I feel – a major shortcoming of most educational institutions: they deliberately avoid making people talk about uncomfortable issues and try too hard not to offend, when in fact people grow most out of such encounters). Instead, if I were to propose reforms to the system, I would focus on three key questions that all educational organisations need to ask: what is deemed worthy to teach, who does the teaching, and how is competence assessed?

In my next post I will discuss the role of the teacher in my ideal system.

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