by Ashish Aarush !
One of the difficulties with writing about education is that by the time educational reformers manage to make their voices heard, they are too old. They have forgotten what it is like to be a young person in school, and the schools have changed so much during their own lifetimes that to the extent that they do remember, their memories are no longer relevant. One of the paradoxes of life is that at 22, I still remember a lot of experiences from school that remain relevant to the contemporary debate, but because I am 22, no one really pays attention to much of what I say. But I digress. Today it has occurred to me that the reason our schools do not work is that our society has three distinct purposes for its schools, and that these purposes contradict each other in fatal ways.
In contemporary society, the three purposes of the education system are:
- The Capitalist Mandate: To distribute skills among future workers in accordance with needs of the economy.
- The Liberal Mandate: To distribute civic virtue and political knowledge among future citizens to enable popular government to function properly.
- The Authoritarian Mandate: To accustom young people to the “real world”, to authority and hierarchy, to following directions and completing projects of questionable value without complaint.
If we followed any one of these mandates to the exclusion of the other two, we would get a very different education system. The capitalist mandate would require us to teach students as efficiently as possible only the material they need to learn to perform the economic roles we expect them to have. In a contemporary context, this might mean lots of science, math, programming, and vocational training, but no substantive arts training. The liberal mandate would require us to teach students as efficiently as possible only the material they need to learn to be good citizens. Today, that would entail a heavy focus on the social sciences and the humanities, to the the exclusion of the more practical economic pursuits. The authoritarian mandate would differ yet further–it would require us to teach students in an inefficient and aggravating manner, ignoring their protests or perhaps even punishing them for their complaints.
This can easily be represented in a chart:
|Science||Taught Efficiently||Ignored||Taught Inefficiently|
|Math||Taught Efficiently||Ignored||Taught Inefficiently|
|Social Science||Ignored||Taught Efficiently||Taught Inefficiently|
|Humanities||Ignored||Taught Efficiently||Taught Inefficiently|
|Foreign Language||Taught if Needed||Taught for Culture||Taught Inefficiently|
|Vocational||Taught Efficiently||Ignored||Taught Inefficiently|
|Arts||Ignored||Taught Efficiently||Taught Inefficiently|
Most educational reformers have one of these mandates in mind. We often hear people complain that our schools don’t prepare young people well enough for the workforce–this is the capitalist mandate in action. But pushing back against that are those who feel that the emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) crowds out civic virtue and the liberal arts–these people are giving voice to the liberal mandate. Proponents of the status quo often stand up for the authoritarian mandate. These folks argue that heavy homework loads, indifferent teachers, and intense structure are good for children because they prepare children for real life. In sum, their argument is that because the real world is an awful place, and school’s purpose is to prepare young people for the real world, school should be awful too.
We cannot pursue all three of these aims at once. To prepare children for the workforce necessarily diverts time away from preparing children to be capable citizens, and vice versa. To do either one of these things well, such that children are encouraged to think deeply and critically, necessarily contravenes the authoritarian mandate.
Different societies try to resolve the dilemma in different ways. Many European countries try to divide their students in two between the capitalist and liberal mandates on the basis of natural skill and inclination, with the math and science students going the former route while the verbal students go the latter way. The weakest students (who, unfortunately, tend to be the poorest), often end up getting the brunt of the authoritarian mandate, especially in countries like Britain where there is a sharp divide between the private and state schools. China places overwhelming emphasis on the capitalist and authoritarian mandates while paying the liberal mandate comparatively little heed, as it has little use for widespread civic virtue. In the United States, we try to do all three mandates at the same time for all students regardless of ability or inclination. The result is that the capitalist and liberal mandates don’t really get achieved at the high school level (they have to wait until college, and as a result students are spending more time and more money at universities). Students who like the liberal stuff have to spend all of their time struggling with the capitalist stuff, and students who like the capitalist stuff have to spend all their time struggling with the liberal stuff. If math comes easily to you but writing does not, most of your time in high school is spent struggling to write, and vice versa. Only students who are lucky enough to naturally excel in both make substantive progress in either. The only mandate that really gets across to most students is the authoritarian mandate, and it makes it even harder for the schools to really get anywhere with the other two.
How does the authoritarian mandate manifest itself? Here a few ways:
- Limited Elective Choice–US schools require students to take so many specific courses that students have little influence over how they spend their days, like most adult workers.
- Rote Memorization–instead of encouraging students to think critically or systemically about a subject, the curriculum isolates the subject into discrete units composed of terms and facts that must be memorized. The curriculum doesn’t encourage students to evaluate the material for themselves and instead demands that they regurgitate a fixed view.
- Long Hours–while many adult workers are entitled to 8-hour workdays, after which their time is their own, students spend 8 hours in school and are then expected to spend several additional hours doing homework. Only the best students are able to do this work quickly, and schools respond by giving them even more of it to do in the honors classes. As a result, students typically work 10 or 12 hours a day, denying them the spare time they need to develop themselves as distinct individuals. As a result, students define themselves by their ability to be productive. Anecdotally, as many of my old friends have graduated and found themselves in that zone between school and employment, many of them find themselves feeling restless and guilty, unable to enjoy their free time when they have it. Their elementary school counterparts would weep to see them in this state. They can do whatever they want, but they are unable to take any pleasure in it because they have become habituated to viewing their productivity as a primary standard of value.
- Early Start–despite scientific evidence that indicates that early morning starts inhibit teens’ ability to think, we continue to send students to school at 7 or 8 in the morning. Combined with the aforementioned heavy homework load, this often means that high school students can only get 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night. The result is that most students are in a foggy haze, unable to think clearly for years at a time. Anecdotally, it was remarkable to me how much better I felt intellectually when I got to college, simply because my university allowed me to schedule my classes in the afternoon.
- Little Limitations–wherever possible, schools seem to look for opportunities to restrict student freedom. They require uniforms or dress codes. They determine where students must be at any given time with bells. Students who wish to go to the bathroom must carry hall passes. Students must stay in their seats, and recesses are increasingly rare, especially for older students.
None of this is to say that there are no other reasons for these policies, or that all the teachers and administrators actively support these policies or think about them in this way, but the cumulative effect is to limit students’ abilities to think in an abstract, critical, complex, or systemic way. The students who are most rewarded by the system–those with the highest grades–receive their reward not because they have demonstrated any critical thinking ability, but because they have demonstrated that they can make themselves come to class on time, memorize what they are told to memorize, do the assigned work, and turn the work in on time. In sum, the students with the highest grades are the students who are most compliant, who demonstrate the highest willingness to spend their time the way they are told to spend it by authority figures. These are the students most likely to get into the nation’s top universities, and when they get there they are often unprepared to get the most out of their experience, either for the capitalist or liberal mandates.
Our schools don’t work as well as they should for the capitalist or liberal mandates because they have too thoroughly embraced the authoritarian mandate. This is not to say that those who support the authoritarian mandate have no case at all. If students were never asked to do anything aside from what they would voluntarily do, there would be tremendous upheaval when those students were asked to subordinate their whims for the good of a collective project. But we have gone too far that way, and the result is that many of our high schools are teaching very little of capitalist or liberal value. Schools need to show more respect for students as autonomous citizens with legitimate interests and wants. This means that students need to have a little more control over what they study, when the study it, and how they study it. In the absence of that, no amount of educational reform will be sufficient to solve the system’s problems.
And in the meantime, there is the problem of the capitalist/liberal clash. For even if we were to get the authoritarian mandate back in line, we would still have a conflict between the needs of the economic system and the needs of the political system. Our economic system needs qualified workers and our political system needs qualified voters, and achieving one may necessarily compromise the other. This is very troubling, because our economic system needs a functional political system to survive, and vice versa. Without a functioning economic system, we can’t get the goods and services we need to survive and thrive. Without a functioning political system, we can’t sustain the social order, the political structures that allow the economy to function and provide for liberty and security. Ultimately, we need to achieve a balance between these two values if the liberal democratic project is going to succeed, and it’s not at all clear that such a balance is sustainably achievable