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The Purpose of Education: Social Uplift or Social Control?

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This is part 2 of the series, "Class War and the College Crisis."

Originally published at the author's website: http://www.andrewgavinmarshall.com

In Part 1 of this series, I examined the elite assault on education -- through the Chamber of Commerce, right-wing think tanks, and the Trilateral Commission -- which arose in response to the massive social and political activist movements of the 1960s. The threat of popular democratic participation -- that is, active and activist participation of the population in the decision-making process of a community or nation -- was too much to bear. The fact that a significant degree of this activism had been mobilizing from the universities was enough reason for elites to declare a "crisis of democracy" and demand more apathy, complacency, and pacification from the population, more authority for themselves, and more control over the society as a whole. The result of this was neoliberalism -- globally and locally -- in government, the media, and the schools. The "Crisis of Democracy" was that there was too much of it. The solution, therefore, was to deconstruct democracy.

The emergence and spread of education -- both mass public and university -- is generally considered to be the result of the Enlightenment ideals and the emergence of democracies. The idea was that education was developed and designed for the purpose of enlightening individuals, spreading literacy and fostering intellectual pursuits which would yield for the benefit of the whole of society, a benevolent institution. Indeed, there are these elements to the history of education; but like with most things, there are other, deeper, elements to the story. So it begs the question: what is the purpose of education?

The spread of "mass education' of primary and secondary education from the Prussian system in the 18th century was designed to socialize the population into a state-structured ideology (taking the monopoly of education away from the religious and community institutions and into the hands of the emerging nation-state). The aim, therefore, of mass -- or public -- education was not a benevolent concept of expanding and sharing knowledge (as is purported in liberal thought), but rather as a means to foster patriotism and support the state system in preserving the social class structures. In 1807, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of the founding philosophers of this system, explained that educated was the means toward fostering patriotism, as "universal, state-directed, compulsory education would teach all Germans to be good Germans and would prepare them to play whatever role -- military, economic, political -- fell to them in helping the state reassert Prussian power."[1] As British philosopher Bertrand Russell explained:

Fichte laid it down that education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished.[2]

It was in the promotion of state formation and patriotism that European nations, one after the other, developed mass schooling systems. In the United States, mass schooling was not directed toward the political process of "state formation', but rather the cultural process of "nation-building' in the 19th century. In the 19th century, the United States remained largely rural and nonindustrial, and thus, "the apparatus of state control was extremely weak in most communities." As Meyer et. al. argue: in the American Journal of Sociology:

The spread of schooling in the rural North and West can best be understood as a social movement implementing a commonly held ideology of nation-building. It combined the outlook and interests of small entrepreneurs in a world market, evangelical Protestantism, and an individualistic conception of the polity.[3]

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In early 19th century United States, many worried about "a new industrial feudalism supplanting the old order." For such reformers, the complex circumstances in which they found themselves -- of a society in which the old ideas and institutions were disappearing and new ones were emerging -- could best be addressed by the common school, "serving all citizens, stamping them American and unifying the nation."[4] This was, in itself, a desire for "social control' in a socially disruptive circumstance of rapid change in all realms of human activity. As Robert H. Wiebe explained, "the instruments of control were themselves the means of improvement," and schools were viewed as "assimilating, stabilizing mechanisms." By the 1830s, school reformers "were urgently seeking a new national cohesion, a source of uniquely American wholeness." The focus on socializing children was of the utmost concern. As one reformer stated, children "must be taken at the earliest opportunity, if the seeds of good are to be planted before the seeds of evil begin to germinate." Thus, "the role of the educator was to construct a model environment around the child."[5]

In the early 20th century, most Americans began to view "education as a task specifically of the schools rather than of a general society, a reflection of both the school's expertise and a modern society's rational differentiation of functions." The institutional structure of schools became nationalized and more state-oriented than previously:

Central agencies of education, professionalization and publicity -- the major teachers colleges and accrediting agencies, a revitalized National Education Association and a lengthening list of professional journals -- set the agenda for discussion and the boundaries of debate throughout the land.[6]

The lower levels of education are directed at producing "general outputs for society," while the higher levels may actually reflect and affect "socially and politically constituted authority." In short, the lower levels produce the masses, while the higher levels may produce the managers. The university system is the dominant form of higher education in the world, far outweighing other forms of educational institutions that have existed through history. Universities emerged during the medieval period in Europe, which have been described as "corporations having close relations with both Church and State but possessing considerable independence in relation to each."[7]

With the universities of medieval Europe, as sociologists Ramirez and Meyer explained, "a more promising strategy considers the relationship between centralized authority and the rise of universities," as situations of political decentralization tended to favour the establishment of universities.[8] The university which arose during the Medieval period (1150-1500) was a corporation, a guild of masters and scholars, or professors and students. This was the era in which Western civilization was rapidly developing, and this "new and uniquely Western institution resulted from a combination of powerful societal trends." These trends, wrote John. C Scott in the Journal of Higher Education, included "the revival of mercantilism, growth of cities and the urban middle class, and bureaucratization, along with the 12th-century intellectual renaissance." Thus:

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As European society became more complex, the universal Roman church, secular governments, and municipalities required educated priests, administrators, lawyers, physicians, and clerks for business. Fulfilling this social demand were the universities, which were clearly oriented toward teaching and the learned professions.[9]

There were student-controlled universities, predominantly in the south, such as the Bologna University, as well as universities of faculty governance, such as with the University of Paris. By 1500, the faculty-controlled university became dominant. The aims of the Medieval university was the pursuit of knowledge, "divine truth and learning," focusing on the areas of law, medicine, and theology. Monarchs and others increasingly relied upon such learned men for their advice in matters of state and court systems, foreign affairs and diplomacy. At the undergraduate level, students came from all social classes and generally studied liberal arts. At the graduate level, however, "students pursued the higher disciplines of theology, medicine, and law. Most alumni served the church, state, or municipality in various capacities." Save Russia, most of Europe had universities by the end of the Middle Ages, with roughly 80 in the region by then. Predominantly chartered by the Roman church, or by monarchs, these pseudo-autonomous institutions "were subject to the authority of popes, monarchs, local bishops, dukes, or municipalities, depending upon the country and century."[10]

The medieval university had a cosmopolitan nature, seen as a place of "universal knowledge" which was tied to the "universal ideology of Christendom," and was not tied to any particular nation-state, largely developing prior to the centralization of nation-states. Scholars traveled all across Europe to the great medieval universities, from Bologna to Paris, to Oxford and Toledo, reflecting their cosmopolitan nature. As sociologist Gerard Delanty wrote in the journal, Social Epistemology:

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I am a 24-year old independent researcher and writer, having written dozens of articles on a wide variety of social, economic, political, and historical issues, always from a radical and critical perspective. I am Project Manager of The People's (more...)
 

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