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Do schools Educate?

By Ted Trainer - posted Friday, 23 March 2012

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a fairly robust interest in radical education theory, focusing on people like Illich, Reimer, Giradet, Friere, Bowles and Gintis. It has long since died out and "debate" about education now centres on tame issues like funding, equality of opportunity, testing, and whether the economy is being supplied with the kinds of skills it wants. There is little critical public discussion of what the fundamental purpose of education is or ought to be. I thought it might be of interest to summarise the general view of education argued by the radical education theorists long ago.

Despite significant differences they agreed that schools and universities train workers, very well, but don't do much Educating. Schools develop the skills and more importantly the dispositions required to staff the industrial machine with obedient, diligent and competent workers who will accept hierarchy and authority, turn up on time, work hard, do what they are told, compete, consume, and not expect to have control over their situation.

More importantly schools legitimise social position and inequality. Those who fail at school learn that they do not have "brains" and therefore do not deserve good jobs and life chances. This helps to make inequality in society seem inevitable and legitimate.


They help to produce virile competitors, people who believe in and love competition, and therefore accept winner-take-all society, see themselves as deserving their hard-earned privileges, see losers as deserving their fate, focus on advancing their own welfare without much interest in the public good or in collectivism and who see as legitimate a system which allows the super rich to thrive.

Schools also help toproduce enthusiastic consumers, people who are keen to get ahead, succeed and get rich, identify modernity and progress with affluence, who see Western ways as the goal for the Third World, and who accept the market system and think technical wizardry will solve all problems. Just as they have passively consumed the activities, work and decisions presented by their teachers, so they passively consume the products, services and decisions presented to them by government, corporations and professionals.

Similarly, schools produce masses ofpolitically passive, compliant, docile, uncritical "citizens", largely by devoting little of the standard 15+ years of "education" to serious examination of their society's fundamental faults. After that much schooling in intensively authoritarian conditions it is no surprise that they leave the functioning of their society to leaders and experts, show no inclination to take control over their collective fate, and do not question let alone protest the social injustices that their rich-world comfort inflicts on the rest of the world. They are well disposed to staff hierarchical organisations and do what their superiors tell them, to think in power terms, to strive to rise and then boss inferiors around.

These are not the only outcomes of schooling and they are not intended effects but they are outcomes of the "hidden curriculum" that radical education theorists have pointed to. Years of experience within "educational" institutions automatically, unwittingly, condition inmates to these dispositions. For years students slave through mountains of work in the quest for credentials, knowing that these are the keys to good jobs and when the exams are over they burn their notes. Try testing them one year later to see if they remember any of the stuff "learned". But no one cares about this because the grade is all that matters. "Poor students" are forced to "learn" even when they hate it. Teachers punish resisters with righteous indignation at the lack of gratitude. Billions of children are forced to learn heaps of things they don't want to learn. This constitutes the world's greatest human rights abuse (not the most savage but the most widespread), but resistance is regarded as a stupid failure to appreciate the importance of "education".

Some good things happen at school, indeed even a little Education occurs. Highly skilled technocrats emerge, but a thoughtful, inquiring, critical, responsible, caring and Educated citizenry does not. On the dimensions that matter graduates from our educational systems are appallingly ignorant, insensitive and uncaring. Would a well Educated Australian society have tolerated what the Howard government did to refugees, would it be so suicidally unaware of the limits to growth predicament, would it have gone along with the Neo-liberal globalisation hijack and the murderous policies of the IMF and world Bank, would it give any attention to the shock-jocks who side with the maybe 3% of atmospheric scientists who doubt the majority position? Would it have allowed Menzies to get Australia into the Vietnam War and would it have felt not the slightest need to make amends for those we thereby helped to kill. Would it be so grossly unaware and unconcerned about the rich world's exploitation of its empire, about the fact that our "living standards" could not be anywhere near their present levels if we had a just global economic system?

Schools are obviously not there to Educate. The people who run them say they are, but a glance at their organisation and products ridicules the claim. But there is a much more powerful proof. If Education was a goal then whether or not it was taking place would be assessed, and it isn't. School children are assessed to death. They constantly sit tests and exams, receive grades, and worry about results, but this is only to do with whether they have remembered the facts and skills drilled into them. None of it is concerned to determine whether any Educational goals have been achieved. No school or university attempts to assess whether their graduates think about Shakespeare or evolution or Spinoza in their spare time, or do maths problems for the fun of it, or read War and Peace again, or look at the world differently after having studied the French Revolution, or can think more clearly and critically now, or whether they love learning and hold it as a supreme concern in life. No such goals are ever taken seriously enough to warrant checking whether any progress has been made towards achieving them.


The ingrained institutionalized irrationality is evident in many unexamined practices, such as forcing kids to do sport, or anything, when they hate it. But it is with respect to grades and selection that the biggest elephants are to be found.

Long ago Berg (Education and Jobs: The great Training Robbery, 1970) and others showed the monumental irrationality of allowing school achievement to have much influence in the selection for jobs or courses. Grades achieved at school simply do not correlate well with success at anything in life, and should therefore not be given much if any weight in selecting people into and excluding them from jobs and courses. This has been clearly understood for decades, but ignored – because everyone wants things the way they are.

Among the many unexamined paradoxes and irrationalities are questions like, why is most "education" given to those who need it least, the "brightest". Why is it assumed that forcing people to learn things will Educate them, when Education involves becoming more intrinsically interested in what is being studied? Why does "education" involve studying about six "subjects" at high school and maybe one in depth at university, when an Educated person is a generalist, interested in and informed about and able to converse on an extremely wide range of topics, and continually concerned to fill in the gaps? Why do people say "I was educated at…", as if their education was finished there and then although Education is a process that never ends. If the point of Education is to nurture interest in the world, in thinking, exploring, revising ideas, systematizing a world view, why is education cast in terms of punishment for deviance from authoritarian dictates, resistance, sin, and coercion and compulsion? Similarly why is it cast so nastily in terms of superiority and inferiority, and of teachers who know and pupils who are ignorant and must be instructed whether they like it or not. Why is it authoritarian; what has the power to coerce and punish got to do with Educating? Can coercion have any other than damaging Educational effects? Why is it taken for granted if children resist being forced to learn things that are of no interest or apparent relevance to them they can be treated as being at fault, unwise and ungrateful, and punished until they outwardly conform? All this makes sense if the point of the exercise is to condition recalcitrant recruits to the discipline of the factory, the office and a quiet lifetime paying off the mortgage, but if the point is to Educate then it can only prevent the achievement of the goal.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. You can find more on his work here.

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