Monday, 19 May 2008

Education: The nature of the problem

Education is a social activity. Schools train children for their future role in life. Where society is hierarchical this includes their position in the hierarchy. Education is both product and support of the social order and its aims become diluted as a result. No socially conscious individual and eventually government could leave education to chance. As a result it became enmeshed in conflicting social and political aims. When economic conflict gave rise to class consciousness, men of one class saw it as a means of controlling other classes by offering them education on their own terms. When there was religious or sectarian conflict, education became involved in that too. While class and religion were related — the different forms of Christianity having a close linkage with the economic position and social status of those who hold those beliefs — the cross-currents generated by these conflicts influenced, and possibly distorted the development of English education. Education was therefore a major focus for those who believed in social control, as an instrument for molding public morals and social attitudes. Government and politicians cannot leave it alone. This was as true of the nineteenth century as it is today.

Baldwin Francis Duppa, Secretary of the Central Society of Education wrote in 1837 [1]For schools to be efficient, it is necessary that they should be so ordered as to supply the wants peculiar to the class intended to be educated at them; that they would have a regard to existing evils, and that they should have reference, not to one class of faculties alone, but to all.’  The radical Robert Owen wrote in 1813 [2] ‘For every day will make it more and more evident that the character of man is without a single exception, always formed for him; that it may be, and is, chiefly created by his predecessors; that they give him, or may give him, his ideas and habits, that are the powers that govern and direct his conduct. Man, therefore, never did, nor is it possible that he ever can, form his own character.’

Education was a major support for the existing system but it could also act as a means for liberation, a force for subversion. The debate in the nineteenth century was, in part, about the degree to which it should be controlled, why and by whom.  ‘In an agricultural society the old man is the wise one; in an industrial society he is a has-been.’  So wrote the historian Carlo Cipolla in 1973. There has been a long debate on the nature of education and the ways in which education and schooling interact. Upbringing is a combination of two simultaneous processes: socialisation that makes people human, and acculturation. Socialisation occurs through communication between different members of society and they become acculturated because the content and form of the communication carries from one social context to another. To talk of socialisation is to refer to the attributes that all humans share, whereas to talk of acculturation is to focus on differences of life style.

Cultures typically differentiate themselves linguistically in their languages, dialects and accents. But cultural identity is also stored and transmitted through other channels: the way people design their homes, wear their cloths, eat their food, give each other flowers or hold each other’s bodies. Joining a culture or acculturation is rather more than becoming a human being. It is an intensely social experience comprising induction into a complex array of conventions and practices. Collectively these practices form the fabric of a culture.

  1. As a major activity of acculturation, child rearing is a process of transmitting and decoding cultural messages. It is a culturally focused activity.
  2. Education was transformed from a human activity into a human institution and became a highly visible feature of the cultural landscape. Significant areas of educational practice became separated from everyday life. They were seen as the responsibility of specialist personnel [child minders and teachers. They were conducted through specialist activities [for example, games, exercises, homework]; were linked to specialist materials [for example, toys, textbooks]; associated with specific periods in young people’s lives and, finally, were identified with specialised locations [schools, nurseries, playing fields].

Education, as a result of this transition from a process to an institution, also underwent a further change. It became less of an undisciplined, natural process and more of a regulated, cultural institution. The rise of schooling entailed a major reconceptualisation of social learning: a move from experiential, non-formalised learning grounded in older educational agencies [for example, employment, the church and the family] to formalised, rational, institutional learning in the school. In this process the nineteenth century is pivotal in the development of English education since, for the first time, all children were officially required to attend school. Schooling is as much a political institution as an educational one: it is an island of established and controllable order within a much wider — and far less ordered — educational framework.

Schooling emerged as the process of education became institutionalised. It gradually became a partitioned social activity, separate from the rest of life. The notion that learning might be place specific has its origins in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Before that a school meant, not so much a place, but a group of teachers just as the word church has two senses [a congregation of people and a more permanent structure]. The establishment of relatively permanent and static schools was accompanied by the attraction of teachers to specific settings. Historically schools like this, established by the Church or by local benefactors, were exceptional, both numerically and socially. They catered for a small sector of the population and, typically as grammar schools, were closer to the universities than to the forms of domestic one-teacher schooling that served the rest of the population. School buildings began to grow in size in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the single schoolroom was transformed into the multi-room, multi-teacher schools. Each classroom was, in effect, a separate machine room: but how were the different rooms to be coordinated? How were children to be allocated to their classroom? Were learners to be processed as individuals or as batches?

Before the sixteenth century, childhood did not exist. The transition from a state of dependence to the responsibilities of adulthood was very rapid. By the nineteenth century the period of infant-to-adult transition had, for some people, been prolonged. Schooling was one of the products of this process, an institution designed to occupy young people. The nineteenth century development of pre-schooling can be seen as an extension of the length of state-sponsored schooling. For many children, therefore, the time to learn (or, more accurately, the time to be schooled) started earlier in their lives and ended later.


[1] Baldwin Francis Duppa 'Central Society of Education: Objects of the Society', Central Society of Education, 1837, Woburn Press, 1968, page 13.

[2] Robert Owen A New View of Society, 1813, Everyman edition, page 45.

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