November 17, 2017

Education – what for?

Pages:  1   2   ALL 

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top


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.

Back to top


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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top


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.

Back to top


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.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top