September 20, 2017

Education – what for?

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This essay explores the paradox that the more we are educated, the more literacy has declined, while traditional knowledge essential for the transmission of culture to new generations is lost. Mass education, Edward Goldsmith argues, is doomed to fail in its essential task of socialising increasingly alienated younger generations.

First published in The Ecologist, January 1974, then in PHP (Japan), December 1975, and Oko Journal (Switzerland), February 1975. This revised version appeared in 1988 as Chapter 2 of The Great U-Turn, published by Green Books in 1988.

Few people today would dispute that education is a good thing. Most would even consider that the more we get of it the better. In fact it is increasingly regarded as an inalienable right of all citizens, regardless of ability. The reason is that we believe it to be the key to success in the industrial world we live in, as is mana among the Polynesians, muntu among the East Africans, baraka among the Arabs – a sort of vital force on whose accumulation success in life ultimately depends.

As a result, we spend an ever increasing proportion of the national budget on education, and an ever increasing number of our youth are made to spend an ever greater part of their lives in educational institutions. What is the result of these efforts?

Literacy, contrary to what one would expect, is decreasing. [1] According to the British Association of Settlements there were two million illiterates in the UK in 1971 and the preponderance of illiterate adults rather than belonging to the older generation as one would expect, were aged 25 and under. [2]

A report some years ago, Trends of Reading Standards confirms what the late Sir Cyril Burt wrote in the ‘Black Papers’ on education; that standards of literacy are today lower than they were in 1914. What appears extraordinary is that literacy seems to have been going down fairly steadily ever since the state took an active part in education.

At a global level, the situation appears even worse. A 1972 UNESCO study of world education reports that the number of illiterates over 15 years of age increased between 1960 and 1970 from 735 million to 783 million, though admittedly the proportion of illiterates over 15 dropped from 44.3 percent to 34.2 percent of the adult population. The number of children dropping out of school without taking any examinations remains remarkably high. [3]

In the north of England, Yorkshire and Humberside, the figure was over 50 percent. In much of the Third World, according to a UNESCO report, drop outs from primary education are as much as 80 percent of those who enrol, and this is in countries in which only 10 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 have attended school. This means that only 2 percent of children pursue their studies to the end of the primary school programme. [4] These trends have continued since this chapter was written in 1973.


Another change is that schools have become far more permissive. Teachers no longer command the obedience they used to. In many schools, especially in the slums of the larger industrial cities, it is increasingly difficult for them to keep order and often attempting to do so occupies so much of their time that little is left for teaching. In many cases teachers are abused and even assaulted by the pupils.

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The practical results of education

Although our educational system provides many of the skills required for the functioning of our industrial society, success for those who pass their exams is not necessarily assured. Unemployment among school leavers is high, as it is among university graduates. In universities in particular, the courses do not necessarily relate to the demand for specific skills.

In the USSR, as in India and other parts of the Third World, there is a surplus of engineers; in France of lawyers; in the US of physicists; while throughout the industrial world there is a growing shortage of craftsmen, such as carpenters and plumbers – the products of a very different type of educational system.

As expenditure on education is increasing much faster than gross domestic product (GDP), the economy’s capacity to absorb graduates is likely to continue declining and, as a result, the aspirations of only an increasingly smaller section of school leavers can be satisfied. The vast majority of graduates, condemned to fulfilling functions they have been taught to regard as menial, may be faced with a miserable and frustrating existence in jobs requiring skills for which they have had no specific training and for which their education has rendered them psychologically unfit.

This has already happened in the UK, where people often simply refuse to fulfil what they regard as low-prestige jobs. In the past, this has meant that to fulfil these functions, society has taken in people from foreign lands whose education has not imbued them with the same set of prejudices. Thus in the UK we import the waiters in our restaurants from Italy, Spain and Cyprus, domestic servants from Portugal and the Philippines, workers in the construction industry from Jamaica and bus drivers from the Punjab.

In this way, as irony would have it, the furore for mass education is leading, among other things, to the creation of a caste system – the proverbial epitome of social inequality.

In the meantime this massive educational effort is not making our society a visibly better place to live in. It seems that we face more crime, more delinquency, more alcoholism, more drug addiction and more of all the other problems associated with a disintegrating society.

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Costs of education

Even if modern education provides the benefit it is supposed to, it is a luxury that few countries can afford. In the UK it is increasingly obvious that we cannot possibly afford to increase expenditure on education. Indeed, if we project current trends of the GDP and current educational costs, we find that even if the whole of the government budget – which we can take as roughly 40 percent of GDP – were to be devoted to education, we would still fail by about the year 2007 to meet foreseeable educational costs.

If the US were to introduce what educators call ‘Equal treatment for all’ in all state schools, the cost, according to Ivan Illich, would be somewhere around $80 billion. [5]

In Britain we already spend on education twice the total income of the average Indian or Nigerian. In spite of this, everything is being done by governments and international bodies such as UNESCO to spread western education throughout the countries of the Third World in the full knowledge that none of them can remotely afford it.

In Britain it seems that the point has already been reached when it will only be possible to improve our educational system by methods which do not require further investments. This rules out further centralisation and further increases in the capital intensity of education. What it implies, in fact, is a complete change in our philosophy of education.

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What is education?

In spite of the extraordinary importance we seem to attach to education, nobody has really considered what it is for, nor why we in fact need it at all. Yet it must be clear that unless we can answer these questions we are unlikely, except by chance, to devise a satisfactory educational policy.

Now to understand education, like all other human activities, one must look at it in a far wider context than we are accustomed to. When we talk of education we invariably mean western education. It occurs to few people that every one of the thousands of traditional societies studied by anthropologists has also developed its own educational system, often a very elaborate one at that.

Still less do we look at education in non-human animal families and societies; yet in many animal species a considerable amount of information must be communicated from one generation to the next via the family and sometimes the society.

It is known, for instance, that the larger predators, such as the lion and the tiger must learn to hunt. Those brought up in a zoo would be almost certainly incapable of surviving in the challenging conditions of their natural habitat. Even apparently more modest animal species must learn – the chaffinch for instance cannot sing unless it is taught to do so. In this chapter I shall try to consider education in its widest possible context.

What then is education? Margaret Mead defines it as

“the cultural process . . . the way in which each new born individual is transformed into a full member of a specific human society, sharing with the other members a specific human culture.” [6]

It is in fact but another word for socialisation. It transforms an unspecialised child born with the potential for becoming a specialised member of a very large number of different social systems into a specialised member of a specific social system.

In a still wider behavioural context one can compare a child in a society with a cell in a biological organism. Immediately after division the latter is in possession of the full complement of hereditary material and is thereby capable of a very wide range of responses. Slowly, however, it becomes specialised in fulfilling that narrow range of responses required of a differentiated part of a biological organism.

If we accept this definition, then the education implications are considerable. For instance, the Freudian notion of the community and the family as frustrating and as the cause of psychological maladjustments must be totally rejected. The very opposite appears to be the case, psychological maladjustments for the most part being the result of social deprivation.

It also means that so-called progressive education, in which parents and teachers allow children to do precisely what they like for fear of ‘frustrating’ them, is totally misguided. It is only by subjecting a child to a specific set of constraints, which it is probably only too happy to abide by, that it becomes capable of fulfilling its specific functions within its family unit and later within its community, i.e. that it can become socialised or, in fact, educated. Otherwise it remains isolated, goal-less and alienated: as is increasingly the fate of much of our youth today.

Permissiveness at least with regard to matters of social significance is not a feature of stable social systems. On the contrary, their members tend to be disciplined. Discipline, in fact, appears to be a sine qua non of self-government. This discipline is displayed naturally. It is the product of socialisation and of public opinion.

Significantly, to the Greeks liberty did not mean permissiveness but rather self-government. They were free, not because they were permissive, but because they were in charge of their own destinies, while the Persians were slaves because they were ruled by an autocrat.

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Learning as a normal process

If education is a behavioural process then it is subject to the laws governing other such processes. One such law is that behaviour proceeds from the general to the particular. [7] For this reason it is the earliest phases of education which are the most important. It is during those phases that the generalities of a child’s behaviour pattern will be determined, while during the later phases they will simply be differentiated so as best to permit their adaptation to varying environmental requirements.

It must follow that the mother is the most important educator, and the quality of the family environment the most significant factor in determining a child’s character and capabilities.

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Sequential education

Another such law is that behavioural processes are sequential. Their various stages must occur in a specific order. If one is left out, then the subsequent ones will either not be able to occur at all, or will occur at best imperfectly. Thus, what a child learns during its formal institutionalised education cannot make up for any deficiency in the earlier phases of its upbringing within its family.

This is the conclusion that most serious studies have revealed. J. S. Coleman, for instance, whose massive study The Adolescent Society led him to examine the career of 600,000 children, 6,000 teachers and 4,000 schools, reported in 1968

“that family background differences account for much more variation in achievement than do school differences.” [8]

This is also the conclusion of the US Government study, Equality of Educational Opportunities, published in 1964, which stated that:

“variations in the facilities and curriculum of the schools account for relatively little variation in pupil achievement . . .”

The most important factor measured in the survey is the home background of the individual child. In fact, whatever the combination of non-school factors,

“poverty, community attitudes . . . which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and non-verbal skills when they enter the first grade, the fact is the schools have not overcome it.”

One of the greatest problems that teachers have to face today is the proliferation of so called emotionally unstable children. These are exceedingly difficult to teach as they are unruly, undisciplined and unable to concentrate on anything that is not obviously relevant to the satisfaction of their most short-term requirements. These are the children which are the most likely to become delinquents, criminals, drug addicts: the ones that cannot be socialised because the first phases in the socialisation process, those which should have occurred in the home, were so deficient.

In a society in which the family unit has broken down and whose principal institutions conspire to cause its further disintegration, the problem cannot be solved. Characteristically we choose to ignore the pre-school stages of education and reserve the very term for that which occurs at school.

In this way, we define the educational problem in precisely that way which makes it appear amenable to the only sort of solution which our society can provide: the building of more and bigger schools, filled with ever more expensive equipment – language laboratories, computers, tape recorders and God knows what – into which we consign our children for an ever greater proportion of their lives. Every government in turn contributes piously and self-righteously to this fatal process.

The present trend is to raise the school-leaving age, and the number of nursery schools, and crèches for working mothers, accommodating in this way the trend towards the further disintegration of the family. In reality, the only possible way to solve the problem is to reverse such trends, and hence to restore the family to its educative role which, in traditional societies, it has always enjoyed.

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Social stability

Another basic feature of all behavioural processes is that they tend towards stability. Stability is best regarded as a state in which a system can preserve its basic structure in the face of change. It is in effect but another word for ‘survival’ taken in its widest sense. In a stable system, discontinuities will be reduced to a minimum. This is only possible if environmental changes occur within certain limits. If they are too radical or too rapid, natural systems have no means of adapting to them.

The behaviour of human societies is in no way exempt from this rule, yet, in our industrial society, we set out purposefully to defy it. We tend to regard everything conducive to change as desirable. Our educational system puts a premium on innovation and originality in all its forms i.e. it is geared to instability rather than stability.

In a traditional society, the opposite is the case. The basic preoccupation of its citizens is to observe the traditional law and to divert as little as possible from the cultural norm. Everything conspires to this end, since all deviations are seriously frowned upon by public opinion, proscribed by the council of elders and, it is believed, punished by the ancestral spirits. Education in such societies, as Margaret Mead writes,

“is the process by which continuity was maintained between parents and children, even if the actual teacher was not a parent but a maternal uncle or ‘shaman’.”

When a society becomes unstable, when social control breaks down and discontinuities grow ever bigger, then it is but a question of time before it eventually collapses. It is towards such a collapse that our educational system, together with the rest of the institutions of our industrial society, are leading us.

To avoid it, education must, among other things, be designed to promote stability rather than change – but this cannot be done in an industrial society in which the promotion of instability, implicit as it is in our notion of progress, is the avowed object of public policy.

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Information feedback

Another feature of behavioural processes is that they involve feedback. Systems can only adapt to their environment because they are linked to if by means of all sorts of different feedback loops. If these loops are severed, as occurs once social behaviour becomes ‘institutionalised’ then they become isolated, can no longer satisfy environmental requirements and, from the point of view of the larger system, become random.

The introduction of random information into the system from the outside must have similar effects. Such random information will affect the generalities of a child’s learning process, which will colour the subsequently developed particularities of its world-view. As our society ‘progresses’, so are its children bombarded with ever greater quantities of random information. Obvious sources are television personalities, newspapers and, unfortunately, one must include to an ever greater degree our educational system itself which is ever more isolated from the social process.

A living system will only tend to detect and interpret signals (and hence acquire information) that are relevant to its behaviour pattern, filtering out, so to speak, those that are irrelevant to if. Adult humans can undoubtedly do this, but for a child it is more difficult. Its behaviour pattern is still embryonic, as must be the process of filtering out irrelevant signals.

This essential function is thereby assumed by the child’s family and community, from which relevant information must largely be derived, if the child is to be properly socialised and hence educated. However if these essential social groupings have disintegrated, then the child is helpless in the face of disruptive signals and the information it builds up can only serve to mediate aberrant behaviour.

From the educational point of view, the implications of this principle are enormous. At the present time it is generally accepted that knowledge is good and the more the better. In reality only relevant knowledge is good, and then only if it is communicated in the correct sequence. Most of the knowledge we impart to our children is educatively ‘random’ and must actually impede rather than favour the process of socialisation.

If one wants to be a purist, one can go so far as to say that the invention of writing was actually a blow to the cause of social stability. Quite apart from causing a drastic polarisation of society between the literate and the non-literate, it also provided a store of information which entered into competition with traditional cultural information hitherto transmitted orally from one generation to the next.

In this respect it is very much as if a DNA data bank were set up to assist in the transmission of genetic information from one generation to the next. However, it seems unlikely that we shall ever unlearn it. Nevertheless, if we wish to reconstitute a society with any semblance of stability, steps will have to be taken to bring the current explosion in the mass media, particularly television, very strictly under control.

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Diversity is an essential requisite of stability. It is no coincidence that in New Guinea, one of the few remaining areas where small tribal societies have not been too severely interfered with, there are 700 distinct cultures, each with its own language. To destroy this diversity and set up in its place a monolithic society is to foster social disintegration, with all its attendant problems, which no amount of money or technology can ever begin to solve.

In a country such as Britain, regional differences were once marked. People indifferent parts of the country had different customs, ate different things, spoke with different accents and felt correspondingly different. In today’s industrial society, an increasingly centralised educational system contributes significantly towards ironing out these very necessary differences and imposing on it a dull and depressing uniformity.

This uniformity is not just aesthetically offensive but is also socially disruptive, since it prevents the survival of stable local communities.

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