November 17, 2017

Education – what for?

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An individual, in order to be a member of a real society, must also, as we have seen, be a member of a family, age-group, etc. It is their membership of a specific set of such groupings that confers on them an identity or status within the society.

In order to fulfil their corresponding functions, the precise nature of the information which should be communicated to them must of necessity vary with each individual. In this way no two people will receive an identical education.

It might be sufficient to communicate some of this information to them relatively late in life. Generally this is not the case for functions requiring great skill. For these there appears to be no substitute for the apprenticeship system. Indeed it is not at the age of 19, at a polytechnic, that one can learn to become a master craftsperson or a great artist. It is by diligent and painstaking work starting at a very early age, during which time valuable information that has possibly accumulated over many generations is passed on, mainly via the family.

Needless to say, the apprenticeship system is impossible in a society which regards social continuity as retrograde and social mobility as an end in itself: indeed as the very mark of progress and social justice. Such values are indeed very unadaptive, for, by making the apprenticeship system impossible and forcing people into centralised schools, these skills can only be lost and greater uniformity promoted.

Apart from this, and to return to a previous theme, the stability of the family unit, possibly even more important than that of the community itself, is being effectively destroyed. A child educated far from home in a vast factory-like school and imbued with the values of our technological society will regard a parent, who still plies a rural craft in the native village, with a mixture of pity, disdain and condescension.

To me, this is the ultimate human tragedy, especially as the parent has probably made untold sacrifices to provide the child with that education which he / she believes will ensure social and economic advancement. Yet it is the inevitable concomitant of our highly mobile society for which our educational system is at least partly responsible.

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Specialisation of sexes

Specialisation in human society is mainly culturally determined. That based on sex however has a genetic basis, though it is fashionable to maintain the opposite. It is one of the illusions of our society with its fixation on uniformity and standardisation that men and women are for all purposes, but the sexual act itself, psychologically and behaviourally interchangeable. One must not be fooled, it is maintained, by the fact that they look different: a morphological difference does not imply a behavioural one.

It is surprising that apparently serious people are willing to defend so indefensible a proposition. Men and women look different for the very good reason that they are different and the present-day attempt to iron this out is naive, disruptive and ultimately condemned to failure.

Significantly, in every traditional society known, there is a clear division of labour between men and women. The exact functions fulfilled by the different sexes vary from one society to another. The same theme however runs throughout. Women are responsible for looking after the children for which function they, and not men, are biologically and psychologically adapted. The notion that bringing up the children should be shared by husband and wife takes no account of the fact that only she is capable of feeding the child and also that mother’s love is very different from the father’s.

In The Art of Loving, Eric Fromm points out that a mother’s love is unconditional. [9] A child can commit the most heinous crimes without it being affected in any way. This is not true of the father’s love, which is given on condition that the child behaves itself. This must imply that the child must be psychologically stronger and must probably reach a certain age before it can tolerate the substitution of the father’s love for that of its mother.

In nearly all traditional societies other functions undertaken by the women, not directly connected with bringing up their children, tend to be in the home or in its vicinity, while the men wander further afield. Thus in a hunter-gatherer society it is the women who do most of the gathering and the men the hunting.

This does not prevent women from fulfilling all sorts of important social functions and acquiring considerable influence and prestige within their social group. The division of labour between men and women is also important as the relationship between a man and a woman is clearly not symmetrical. They require very different things of each other.

The matriarchal society which people often talk about is rarely found among traditional societies. Many are matrilineal which means that inheritance is via the mother, others are matrilocal which means that a married couple live with the wife’s parents. Some are both at once, and in such cases the wife’s influence is probably greater than in others, but she still does not run the family.

Matriarchal societies are to be found in the ghettos of the larger American conurbations. Here the men are largely unemployed, incapable of fitting into mainstream society and psychologically prevented from fulfilling their functions as fathers and husbands. Marriage is rare, most unions are temporary and it is the mother who must take upon herself the responsibility for bringing up the children. This situation is aberrant. Such societies have reached the final stages of disintegration and are hovering on the verge of explosion.

In our industrial society, women tend to be subjected to precisely the same education as men and are encouraged by every means to compete with them. This can only mean the further breakdown of the family unit which depends for its survival on a clear division of labour among its members, which provides the basis for co-operation rather than competition.

Such a policy must also mean condemning our children to a large measure of social deprivation since their mothers, forced to work in offices and factories, sometimes many miles away from their homes, cannot conceivably devote to their children the time required to ensure their proper upbringing. This tragedy can only be reflected in further increases in delinquency, crime, drug addiction, alcoholism and other manifestations of social maladjustment.

It must also mean encouraging the further expansion of our energy and resource-intensive consumer society, since women are thereby ineluctably drawn into the cash economy and must become increasingly dependent on crèches, bottled milk, convenience foods and labour saving domestic appliances.

It must also mean further damaging the health of the population since bottled milk is a poor substitute for human milk and convenience foods contain potentially harmful chemical additives; while most of them have been so devitalised that they but imperfectly satisfy basic human nutritional requirements.

It must also mean creating an increasingly large number of ever more maladjusted women who are being forced by their education and other social pressures to wage an unequal struggle against their natural instincts. It is hardly surprising that more than 50 percent of teenage girls entering hospitals today are the victims of attempted suicide.

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Relevance of education to lifestyle

It is an important feature of traditional education that it is totally relevant to the life the young will afterwards lead. The accent is on practical matters but also on the cultural traditions of the social group. The latter’s relevance to the problems of everyday life is not immediately apparent to most of us who have been misled into regarding a culture as a random pattern of superstitions and irrational practices. A new approach to anthropology – cultural ecology – is rapidly revealing that a culture is a social control mechanism; that its status vis-à-vis a society is similar to that of the personality vis-a-vis the individual.

The colonial powers attached very little importance to the cultural patterns of traditional societies and suppressed many of their essential features. Instead, they imposed upon them an alien educational system designed to transform their members into the alienated inhabitants of an anonymous mass society exclusively geared to the dehumanising goals of mass production and consumption.

In From Child to Adult Middleton writes, learning of genealogies of the families and clans, as among the Ashanti and the Baganda, the recognition of social groupings in hierarchical tribal settings and of their reciprocal relationships, the hearing of tribal history in praise songs and legends told at tribal gatherings – these were forms of direct learning which had no place in schools but had set times and places in a traditional situation. [10] All these activities were not deemed worthy of inclusion in the curriculum of institutionalised western schools.

With the institutionalisation of education the tendency is to isolate the educational process from the social one. Rather than be an integral part of it and subjected to the same modifying influence that will enable society as a whole to adapt to changing environmental requirements, it becomes subjected to a different set of modifying influences, of a mainly arbitrary and non-adaptive nature, those imposed by the prevailing values of the day. As Coleman says:

“This setting-apart of our children in schools which take on ever more functions, ever more extra curricular activities-for an ever longer period of training has a singular impact on the child of high school age. He is ‘cut off’ from the rest of society, forced inward towards his own age group, made to carry out his whole social life with others of his own age. With his fellows, he comes to constitute a small society, one that has most of its important interactions within itself, and maintains only a few threads of connection with the outside adult society. Consequently, our society has within its midst a set of small teenage societies, which focus teenage interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities and which may develop standards that lead away from those goals established by the larger society.” [11]

It is also true that teachers, both in schools and universities, are increasingly isolated from the real world. The Assistant Masters’ Association has complained of just this, pointing out that teachers pass their childhood in the classroom, their adolescence in college and their adulthood back in the classroom. How can they know anything of the outside world?

This tendency can only be accentuated with the further institutionalisation ofthe educative process. Eventually it must destroy the social continuity, which is the basis of education in traditional societies. Cultural information, as is already partly the case, will cease to be transmitted from one generation to the next. Instead, each new generation will be called upon to work out its own solutions to problems which are ever more challenging, and whose precise nature they are ever less able to comprehend.

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The dynamics of education

Another of the unfavourable aspects of modern education is that the child’s role in the educational process is a largely passive one, whereas when education is part of the social process, as is the case in a traditional society, the child is an active participant in it.

Among the Chaga of Kilimanjaro, as O.F. Rahm writes:

“The child is not a passive object of education. He is a very active agent in it. There is an irrepressible tendency in the child to become an adult, to rise to the status of being allowed to enjoy the privileges of a grown-up . . . The child attempts to force the pace of his ‘social promotion’. Thus, at five or six years of age a little boy will surprise his mother one day by telling her that he wants to be circumcised. The mother will hear nothing of it and threatens to beat him if he repeats the request. But the demand will be made with increasing insistence as the child grows up. In former times it was the clamour and restiveness of the adolescents which decided the older section of Chaga society to start the formal education of the initiation camp.” [12]

The social process is a dynamic one, and to introduce a child into if is sufficient to ensure its education. Institutions are largely unnecessary. Instead learning is something that takes place like any other behavioural process, so long as the conditions are propitious. As Illich writes, “By definition children are pupils”, and

“learning is a human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being ‘with it’, yet school makes them identity their cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” [13]

Illich regards the child

“as a typical victim of consumer society and institutionalised education as a specific type of merchandising. The ‘school’ sells a curriculum – a bundle of goods made according to the same process and having the same structure as other merchandise. The distributor/teacher delivers the finished product to the consumer/pupil, the reactions are carefully studied and charted to provide research data for the preparation of the next model which may be ‘upgraded’, ‘student designed’, ‘team taught’, ‘visually aided’, or ‘issue centred’.”

To anyone who has studied the learning process in animals, human or non-human, it is apparent that this type of education is useless. Learning depends on active participation. In addition, the human brain is so designed that it enables information irrelevant to the behaviour pattern to be forgotten.

The brain is not a store, but an organisation of information, and information is organised in accordance with its relevance. Academic information which does not have obvious relevance to our daily lives is unlikely to be registered more than superficially, nor can it be expected to outlast its usefulness for examination purposes.

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The export of education

Since we regard our way of life as a model for all other societies, and those who have not yet achieved it as being backward, barbaric and ignorant, we have come to identify education with our particular type of education. It must follow that people who have been subjected to the traditional education of their own non-industrial society are regarded as ‘uneducated’.

In other words we regard the information imparted in our educational establishments as

  1. expressing a set of indubitable truths,
  2. expressing the only possible set of indubitable truths, and
  3. having universal applicability.

A more intolerably presumptuous attitude is hard to imagine, nor for that matter one that is more naive or that reflects a greater ignorance of scientific and social realities.

Needless to say, if education is identified with socialisation, then each society must require a different type of education. Thus the programme which will transform a Chaga child into an adult member of its society capable of fulfilling its specific functions within a very distinctive African society cannot conceivably be the same as that which will enable a baby Eskimo to learn its equally specialised, but very different functions, as a member of a family and small community geared to survival in the inhospitable Arctic regions which they inhabit.

A Chaga with the education of an Eskimo is, from the point of view of their society, uneducated, as they would be were they to have been exclusively subjected to western education influences even were these to result in a doctorate or a Nobel Prize.

It is evident that the spread of western science-based education throughout the world must lead to the disruption of all other cultural systems. A society subjected to this sort of cultural imperialism finds itself inevitably deprived of the means of renewing itself, since its youth, imbued with a totally alien set of values, will cease, in all but name, to be members of it.

Nor will it, in exchange, have become fully transformed into a modern industrial society. It is thus condemned to drift into a cultural no-man’s land, from which it can neither retreat nor advance.

It is essential that it be generally understood, before any further irremediable damage be done to the delicate fabric of remaining relatively stable societies, that real education cannot be transferred from one society to another. It is not something that can be imported or exported like cheese or Brussels sprouts. It is only the external trappings of education that can be transferred in this way.

Real education must be seen as a process for ensuring the continuity of a cultural pattern and maintaining a social structure and way of life which may have taken many thousands of years to develop as an adaptive response to specific environmental conditions.

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It is not by further centralising education or rendering it more capital-intensive that one can combat ‘ignorance’ or in any way improve the state of the society we live in. Nor is it by forcing more and more of our youth to spend an ever greater part of their lives in the factory-like compounds into which we are at pains to transform our schools and universities. Education is the process of socialisation. It is the communication to the young of that information which will enable them to fulfil their functions as members of their families and communities.

Ignorance can only be regarded as a deficiency in that process. It is not due to a shortage of educational establishments, to a lack of teachers, nor to a shortage of funds for providing them, but rather to the breakdown of the family and community: the necessary environment of the educational process, without which the latter is but an empty formality. One cannot socialise people when there is no society for them to be socialised into. One must first re-create a society.

To do this, one must re-establish those conditions within which the family and community can once more become self-regulating units of behaviour. This basically means de-industrialising society for, with economic growth, the tendency can only be in the opposite direction, as every one of the institutions of an industrial society conspires to bring about further social disintegration.

Nor is instruction in modern technologies a substitute for education. It can give rise to a mass society which, for a while, may display a considerable degree of affluence, but not to a structured stable or happy one.

Education is an essential part of the social process. If the latter is deficient, however, then education must be too. Nothing short of a total reorganisation of society can provide us with a satisfactory educational system, and this must first of all involve the development of a decentralised society in which each community is allowed to develop its own cultural pattern and its own decentralised educational system for transmitting it from one generation to the next.

Only in this way can our youth learn to fulfil its familial and communal functions, only in this way can we develop a society that can renew itself and hence survive.

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1. Rhodes Boyson, Evidence to the Bullock Committee on Literacy, 1971.
2. A. Williams, President of the National Association of Remedial Education, speaking at the NARE Annual Conference, Clacton-on-Sea, 1971.
3. Statistics of Education, School leavers, Vol. 2, 1971.
4. Gabriel Carceles Breis, UNESCO Courier, June 1972.
5. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society. Calder and Boyars, London, 1971.
6. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa. Morrow, New York, 1928.
7. Edward Goldsmith, “A Model of Behaviour”. The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 12, December 1972.
8. J. S. Coleman, The Adolescent Society. Glencoe Free Press, Illinois, 1968.
9. Eric Fromm, The Art of Loving. Unwin, London, 1957.
10. John Middleton, “From Child to Adult”. In Studies in the Anthropology of Education. The Natural History Press, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1970.
11. J. S. Coleman, op.cit.
12. O. F. Rahm, Chaga Childhood. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1967
13. Ivan illich, op.cit.
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