Winston Churchill once remarked that the deeper you look into the past, the further you can see into the future. Well, you do not have to look too far into the past the see why public education in the Western world is in such diaboical trouble. Why is it that we need a strong public education sector? Consider the origin and development and destruction of it.
Sir Ken Robinson, a wonderful observer of education, suggests that modern education is the illegitimate child of the Enlightenment and Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Robinson indicates that the idea of education came from a time when education consisted of little more than rote learning of the Classics, but it came of age with the growth of industrialism and a recognition that workers needed more than what they were getting. These are, I suspect, just two of the legs in a three legged stool called education. Robinson does not talk about a third leg, and if he did, he would probably be shut down by the tabloids so quickly that his head would spin.
I suspect that the spread of wealth brought about by industrialization and growth of the working classes is that third leg. The middle and working classes grew so rapidly from about 1800, that a whole raft of legislation was created to balance opposing forces that were growing and could possibly fracture and overwhelm society. The Factories Act, child labour laws and others developed into modern day Workplace health and safety laws. Sufferage was extended from land owners to all literate males then to women. One such piece of social legislation has been about Public Education and so many nations developed strong public education systems.
Public education was one of the methods of ensuring a certain amount of social mobility. Children from poor backgounds could excel in school, gain a scholarship and enter University, not many, traditionally, but some. This would add a certain level of novelty to a potential leadership pool, new blood, as it were. The US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia undertook this and the results were that these four nations had each developed high standards of living. Most Northern and Western European nations did the same, some lagged, but most developed high standards of living. Apart from the occasional war and a couple of atomic bombs, public education grew in importance. It is easy to recognise that the nations that had strong public education systems were also those nations on the upper end of the standards of living tables.
The people who benefited most of course, were the middle and working classes. The wealth they generated brought political power, better health care, more spending power, and a host of other benefits. Society profited, the majority were happy, the majority of people were literate and democracy would ensure peaceful succession. By 1970, Locke and Smith were proven right, Hobbes and Marx were not.
The connection between national wealth, the common weal, and education is well established and clearly understood, yet education in these same countries is in decline. The reasons are not so obvious, but John Ralston Saul describes it in his work “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” in two ways. One is that the speed of money movement around the world means that international business is not interested in establishing a corporate identity or presence like they used to, so are increasingly disinclined to paying taxes to support government social expenditure. The other is that our next generation of leaders are not going to come from the public schools so more education funding should be directed to the private sector.
Of course, if this is so, then there has to be less for the public sector. This is exactly the situation we have in Australia right now. The Right talks about “balance”, but what they really mean is there should be no public involvement in education except for subsidising private schools. The public schools should be closed. This is the same thing that the Tea Party in the US has been promoting. We can see a similar rhetoric in the UK.
“We have to improve public education,” they say. The rhetoric is essentially casting away the outmoded ideas of a previous generation designed to empower future citizens. Instead we need a good, “solid education” for a flexible workforce. Except for two things this sounds great.
The first is “What work”? It is all being exported. A flexible workforce for what? How much education do workers need to purchase cheap Chinese imports? The second is what is considered to be a “good education” for workers? As long as they do not have to count and can barely read, who cares? They do not actually have to know anything, in fact it is better they do not.
An appalling reality is, liberal democracratic systems only suits the middle classes. They demand an egalitarian education, paid for in our taxes. The rich do not want it, they pay for private education, so why should any of their tax dollars go to public education? The poor are too busy trying to survive to worry about anything else. Public education is expensive, so the Right attacks it on the basis of “user pays”, that is a good one.
You pay for good health cover, and pay.. and pay… and pay…. and pay….. You want your kids to get a “good” education, send them to a private school where you pay… and pay…. and pay. Obviously, the public schools are just not up to it – the rules on how private schools operate as opposed to public schools are just completely different – to the detriment of public schools. So much or the “level playing field” – it seems fair play does not count in public education.
So what are we left with. A confused system that is in its death throes. “Improvements” to public education are a nightmare of murky ideology and poorly considered options.
The really sad part about it is that nations built on strongly egalitarian public education systems are just wrecking the very thing that made them strong. The nations are revisiting the elitist structures of previous ages. The Romans did the same thing, so did the Greeks before them, so did the other great empires before them. They developed elites, who did nothing but maintain their own power, to everyone else’s detriment. The West is doing it now, which is funny, as the Chinese are doing exactly the opposite.
Where the West is decimating their middle class, the Chinese is developing it. Some things are seriously strange when trying to blend financial ideology into society.