Our education system, which came about in its current form during the industrial revolution, exists in such form for various reasons, none of which, unfortunately, include the genuine desire to educate a population of critical, analytical thinkers capable of advancing society. This may come as a challenge to commonly held beliefs, but if one suspends judgment and applies a little time to learning the history of our modern education system one quickly comes to understand its flaws.

Future Generations

It if often stated that our children are our future and that the potential for humanity lies with them. Children bring fresh eyes to old problems and are not weighed down by the cultural baggage that so negatively afflicts so many adults. It is with children, and education, therefore, that there is perhaps the greatest potential for change, and the education system, therefore, is both well positioned to assist in the creation of a healthy and sustainable society, and responsible for doing so.

The education system, however, is a reflection of society and its culture at large as well as a preparation for it. Arguably most schools exist in order to establish, among other things, fixed habits of responses to authority. Schools are the engine-room for the creation of the mindset necessary to perpetuate the system in which they exist. With this in mind one must wonder how children are to go on to advance society if they are, in fact, being instilled with a set of values that simply perpetuate the status quo.

Schools function as a cookie-cutting factory for the reinforcement of obedience and docility, and use coercion to create conformity to the status quo, while stifling critical thinking and individuality. It seems clear that future generations of children are simply being taught not to question the way things are, and to proceed into the future indoctrinated with a belief that the way things are is the way they must be, and must continue to be. No fundamental norms and values are challenged, no structures and processes are challenged, and no social evolution takes place as a result of our formal education system.

The Origins of Education

Education, in the days before there was a formal system of compulsory education, used to be carried out by the process of observation and imitation along with the oral impartation of information. Children would simply watch and learn processes, imitating and then mastering them. They would listen to stories and learn traditions, passing them on, in turn, to the next generation. This informal education was a way of passing on the skills and values necessary for a given society to survive. Those skills and values were, to a large extent, relevant to a life based on living within the earth’s natural ecosystems. With the development of civilization, as characterized by city life, the skills and values necessary for survival within the human-made system became more dissonant from those that had been necessary prior to civilization.

With the development of reading and writing information could be passed further and with greater reach to future generations. For hundreds of years literacy was a skill reserved explicitly for the upper echelons of society as it was recognized that with the knowledge that could be gathered by the literate came great power, and this was to be reserved for the already powerful for the sharing of power with those who may think differently was, and still is, unthinkable. As an example of how literacy and learning have actually been historically suppressed, William Tyndale was executed for heresy for his translation of the Bible from Latin into English in order to make it accessible to the masses. One would think, from a common sense perspective, that the accessibility of information to the masses would be a positive thing for the advancement of society. However, this is not the way education is viewed by those who wish to enforce their will and perpetuate their power structures. For an ailing society there is nothing more dangerous to the system than a genuinely educated population.

Formal and compulsory education as we know it derives from the policy of the church to indoctrinate young generations of believers to accept a system and power structure that was already in place. Later this system developed in a way that enabled a newly industrial society to receive apprentice workers ready for the workforce and, therefore, contribute to economic growth for the sake of further lining the pockets of the already wealthy. There was never an emphasis on the reaching of human potential, treating those to be educated, instead, as people who needed to be controlled in order for them to do as society required.

Our current state-sponsored formal education system, which is a relatively recent development, was born out of government policies intended to address the health and wellbeing of women and children working in factories through the industrial revolution period. These women and children suffered terribly due to working extremely long hours in harsh conditions in unregulated factories, serving the needs of a capitalist society in which there were no workers’ rights. When formal, compulsory education was introduced during this period it unsurprisingly, took the form of a factory-like setting and approach to learning – treating humans as objects that needed to be controlled and processed as if on a production line. One may see that in many cases little has changed.

Interestingly the early 19th century Prussian empire had a great impact on the British education system, on which the current Australian system is based. The Prussian 8-year compulsory education program grew out of a belief that the Prussian army had been defeated in the Napoleonic wars due to a lack of discipline and too much individual thinking that interfered with the following of orders. An education system was therefore established to cultivate social obedience in addition to learning reading, writing and arithmetic. It was deemed necessary to cultivate a belief in the infallibility of one’s leaders in order that people would follow the orders they were given to the betterment of society as a whole.

Our Current Education System

A model of state-enforced education based on working hard rather than thinking hard, with memorization and rote-learning being the tools by which this is accomplished, and in which any dissent is punished is what characterizes our modern education system. Critical thinking does not have a place in this system which rewards a quantity of work completed and a level of effort applied, rather than a breadth of thought and degree of development.

Our education system streams students according to perceived ability, which is assessed using a single measuring tool – that of formal examination. There is little to variety of assessment tools that are applicable to the vast range of learning styles and personality types; nor is there much attempt to match the style of assessment with the type of learning to be assessed. And all of this with the assumption that arbitrary assessment is in any way a valid measure of learning. The attempt to quantify ability according to the narrow parameters of tests and exams displays little in the way of a true understanding of what it means to actually learn.

The streaming of students, touted as a way of grouping them according to ability so that they may receive the attention they need does not achieve what it purports to aim for. Streaming has the effect of stratification, of rendering children, from their early years, into pre-determined strata that later determine where they will end up on the socioeconomic stage. There is little in the way of real attempt to assist students to reach their potential or to aim for the next level in the system, the system instead satisfied with keeping children in their pre-determined groupings, living out a self-fulfilling prophecy, destined to live out a career that is as rewarding as their education system. In short, for those who are streamed favourably early on the system holds promise, for those who are not it does not. This has very little to do with real ability and a great deal more to do with conforming to a set of rules and providing programmed responses to arbitrary requirements. For those who are bored or who think outside of the predetermined parameters there is little chance of success.

Despite the efforts of many teachers who are, unfortunately, so constrained by the system in which they teach that they are unable to achieve their full potential as educators, there is little to no recognition of the value of various different teaching styles matched to the various learning styles and personality types. Visual and auditory learning styles are emphasized while kinesthetic is all but ignored. So much learning is individual and competitive rather than group-oriented and collaboratively developmental. So much is linear rather than holistic and global in scope. The tools of education are matched only to a certain type of student, leaving the rest disadvantaged, eventually manifesting in low levels of success for those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold so well. Worst of all, instead of acknowledging that the one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective the system allows students to view themselves as failures rather than allowing a critical challenge to its methodology.

Our current political, economic and sociocultural systems would be unlikely to survive a generation of critical thinking adults who had grown up with the skills of independent scientific thought, lending suggestion to why such skills are not emphasized within education. It can be hard for some people to accept that we have been processed through an education system that has not been entirely honest with us, nor really intended to help us to develop to our true potential. We may wish to defend the system we know so well, asking why anybody in authority would wish or need to lie to us. However, the answer is evident from the history. The guardians of the system lie or withhold information in order to preserve their interests – the interests of perpetuating the structures that maintain their positions and ensure no challenge is made. If any critique is allowed it certainly does not extend as far as negotiation of the parameters of education itself.

Our education system is even based on the unsustainable cultural value of materialism. It is a value system perpetuated by our education system, which encourages status-seeking and the appropriation of wealth. Our children are taught to compete in order to gain status and positions of authority and respect, and that to seek employment that allows one to accumulate larger financial wealth is worthy of greater respect than any other endeavor.

Love of Learning

We are told that the education system is there in order to promote a love of learning. However, this is a fallacy. For a real love of learning to be evident we would not need the extrinsic motivators of grades, reward and punishment. We would simply need, instead, to cultivate curiosity – the curiosity that leads a child to learn everything one could possibly know about dinosaurs and babble about it at the dinner table to the bemusement of their elders, or the curiosity that leads a child to learn that through the gap in the fence there is a tree they can climb that provides them a view for miles around, or the curiosity that leads a child to ask “why”, ad infinitum, to everything an adult may say! It seems that our society does not know how to foster a true love of learning in the system that exists, purportedly, to promote that very sentiment. Learning is not something that should need to be forced; it needs to be fun, and enjoyable, intrinsically rewarding in itself.

Instead of fostering a connection with the process of learning our education system cultivates confusion by compelling us to learn subjects in a way that is divorced from connections to our place in the natural world. Most of this information is not even of use in the streamlined job market, and children who ask, in frustration, why they are being made to learn algebra and the date of the Norman Conquest when they intend to work as dentists or lawyers, yet would really rather be football players or artists, are asking pertinent questions indeed. Instead of being greeted with honest responses children who ask such questions are punished for their genuine confusion and treated as though it is simply their own fault that they cannot see the connection between what goes on in the classroom and what is needed in the real world. This is, perhaps, appropriate preparation for a lifetime of not understanding the systems underlying the way society runs, the motivators of economics and politics, or the causes of global issues. If we are a bewildered herd that needs to be led by the nose by a leadership that treats us with contempt is it not the fault of an education system that has not even set out to do what it claims, that is, educate?

Instead of enthusiasm and curiosity this system breeds indifference. Children slog their way through years of hard work with little reward, particularly for those who are streamed low in the system, struggling to even pay attention much less enjoy what they are doing. This is a system of preparation for the world of work – in which we must fake enthusiasm, pretending our jobs are what we really want to be doing with our time no matter how much we hate them. In school we are encouraged to accept meaningless, pointless tasks that are boring and repetitive in order to prepare us for the world of work, in which we will encounter more decades of the same for the extrinsic reward of a pay packet culminating in retirement when the best of our energy has been used up.

Instead of cultivating a real love of learning schools instill the ability to work to a fixed schedule, reinforcing conformity and obedience. The ringing of bells to signal the end of classes is an example of operant conditioning. The bell signifies that it is time to move on to the next workstation. There is no need to consider the value of continuing what one was doing before the ringing of the bell, whether one has finished or not, or whether one was enthusiastic about the task or not. If a child has a love of learning in a particular area this is left uncultivated, and instead must be dropped in order to move onto the next phase of the production-line.

Although many teachers feel that the system needs to be reformed the structure itself, however, prohibits such teachers from having a reforming effect. Many teachers spend their career trying to instill a love of learning, cultivate curiosity, and foster a spirit of collaboration, yet feel that they are fighting within a system that is too rigid to adapt to the needs to the students they so wish to see develop.

Reinforcement of Cultural Norms

Education does not finish when we leave school. We continue learning throughout our lives and are shaped by the cultural norms around us. However, school is the place where our cultural indoctrination begins, and where we are instilled with the values that are taken for granted in society.

Schools teach us that we must wait to be spoon-fed and not take responsibility for our own learning or stray onto a path that is interesting to us, away from the one-size-fits-all production line. We are thus prepared to receive dogma and propaganda from our political system and economic system via the mouthpiece that is the media. If we accept unquestioningly we live in accordance with what is required of us.

Schools also begin the process of surveillance that is rampant in society. Children are encouraged to snitch on one another when one has done something deemed wrong. Children are monitored and disciplined both inside and outside the classroom, and this surveillance even follows them home in the form of homework, which must dominate the time they spend outside the four walls of the institution, in place of time spent learning social skills or with family and friends. Children who fail to comply are punished with detention, in which they are trapped in a mock-imprisonment scenario, under surveillance, until they have fulfilled an arbitrary stretch of time at which they are deemed sufficiently rehabilitated regardless of the behavior exhibited.

A competitive classroom model perpetuates the notion that one must climb above others in order to receive reward form authoritarian figures. This is not to say that all teachers are, or even act as, authoritarian figures. However, this is the position they are afforded in the system, and one that mimics future authoritarian roles students are likely to encounter through life. Pleasing those in authority leads to extrinsic reward, and prepares one for the workplace in which most reward is extrinsic – in the form of a pay packet, a promotion, or a plaque on one’s desk. However, success in this system comes at the expense of one’s peers, as we are pitted against one another in our struggle to get ahead – evident in the bell-curve system of grading that does not recognize an individual’s genuine merit but simply compares them against others in their peer-group regardless the overall level of ability.

Studies show that children learn more effectively in a collaborative environment, and in a competitive environment the more complex a task is the worse they fare. In a system in which scientific evidence points toward collaboration as being a positive approach that allows all to succeed in achieving their potential the reinforcement of a competitive model needs to be questioned. Competition forces one to focus on winning rather than developing and achieving, and also encourages us to see others as barriers to our success rather than as supportive. Healthy competition, therefore, is a contradiction in terms.

In an education system that is designed to reinforce current sociocultural values of competition, individualism and obedience that are taken for granted it is not possible to cultivate generations of collaborative, kind, sensitive, critical thinking people who will go on to develop society in a sustainable manner.

Alternative Education

Alternative school systems such as Montessori, Steiner, and the Unschooling system, for example, are positive developments in alternative education that generally result in higher overall success rates, even in mainstream exams. Graduates of such alternative education systems also display higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, are more effective communicators and negotiators, are better at collaborating, and have better social skills than children who are educated in the standard centralized system.

It is within these alternative education systems that most hope is derived for the future development of society. For future generations to develop the skills and values that are necessary for a sustainable future as a society the system has much catching up to do and ever-decreasing time in which to turn around.