What is the purpose of education?
To answer this question we have to look past the myth of meritocracy and consider the design of our schools systems and their function within our societies. When we consider the inconsistencies between rhetoric and function we recognize that the inequity is built into the design, and it was intentional.
The education models that dominate today’s world have their roots in 18th century Prussia, a region of what is now Germany. The purpose of the Prussian system was to create a disciplined and submissive population and military, inspired by the philosophy of Johann Fichte who wrote that ‘education should aim at destroying free will’. This model quickly spread to other European nations and inspired the first public education system in the US where it evolved into the ‘factory model’ mirroring the factory system of industrial production, with an emphasis on top-down power structures, separation from the community, standardisation and efficiency.
The period between the 18th and 19th century was a time dominated by rigid social hierarchies, aristocracies ruled Europe and their empires dominated the globe. In the USA hierarchies were controlled by white male landowners, politicians and industrialists, their wealth amassed through slavery, the theft of Indigenous lands and the exploitation of the working class. It was also a period of intense industrialization, the demands of which led to mass urbanization in Europe and migration to the US. This presented a challenge to the ruling classes, how could they both prepare a workforce ready to meet the demands of industry while maintaining their dominance in the face of great social upheaval and inequality. The answer was education.
The ruling classes created a compulsory system of schooling that mirrored the rigid order of industry. Children were categorised by age, learning was categorized by subject, teachers delivered information from the front of the room while students sat in lines of desks facing the front learning through rote copying and memorization, a strict hierarchy of authority rewarded obedience and punished dissent. The system turned children into products, products that were ‘disciplined’, products that would accept the knowledge presented without question, products that would submit to authority, products that knew ‘their place’ in the social order.
The other dominant force during this period of history was Imperialism, the European hunger for empire had seen the spread of colonialism across every corner of the globe, and it was a hunger satisfied through the brutality of invasion, occupation, plunder, slavery and genocide. Colonialism presented its own unique challenges, how to keep whole populations, thousands of miles away in a state of subjugation while building a workforce of semi-skilled labour that could be employed to extract the natural resources necessary to feed the growth of industrialisation. Brute force had proven an effective form of control but only up to an extent, putting down resistance through force was expensive and often led to further resistance – and so a new system of control was required, one that could control the mind.
Again education provided a solution, not only could it provide the skills necessary to develop a managerial class who could maintain local control, it could be also be used to condition the mind of the colonised population into a state of assumed inferiority and dependency by indoctrinating their children into the ideology of innate and cultural White European Supremacy. The value of a human was determined by the degree to which one could disassociate with their indigenous identity and culture and assimilate into the ‘superior’ culture and religion of the colonizer.
This created a social order through which power and privilege were obtained through assimilation into white european cultural norms and dependent on loyalty to the coloniser. Then those who attained power and privilege through assimilation were kept in a state of dependency, because the imperial rulers and culture became the source of their power. This process was dependent on systems of education that indoctrinated children into imposed cultural hierarchies, within which assimilation and loyalty to the ideologies and power structures of colonial ‘masters’ were the conditions of status, power and privilege.
A similar process took place in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and a number of countries in Latin America, where colonisation involved the mass migration of white Europeans. Once the occupiers had managed to gain control through coercion and violence they solidified their dominance by using education as a weapon designed to exterminate the identity and culture of the Indigenous populations whose land they were occupying. In the US this took the form of Native children, as young as four, being taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools designed to ‘kill the Indian to save the man’ by exposing ‘the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilisation’ where ‘he will grow to possess a civilised language and habit’.
Complex, sophisticated and diverse forms of education had been practiced by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, these practices were ideologically opposed to imposed values of the colonisers and the practices were labeled as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’, the language of dehumanisation. This language and the process of dehumanisation had evolved from centuries of colonial occupation of Ireland by the English, where the Irish were presented as less than human so that the atrocities committed against them would be regarded as justifiable. When colonialism spread to the rest of the world this process of dehumanization took the ideological form of White Supremacy where anybody who was not of white, Western European descent was considered less than human, providing a perverse rationalization in the mind of the colonizers for the unthinkable atrocities of slavery, genocide, subjugation and plunder.
Ever since colonialism the identity and culture of Native peoples in the US were considered a threat, not only because they were a reminder of the nation’s blood stained roots undermining the facade of a ‘democracy built on the value of liberty’, but they also recognised that it was through a connection to culture, relationships and land that many Native peoples drew their sense of identity and their resolve to resist and demand self determination. This perceived threat to an imposed national identity and dominance, the desire to further plunder Native lands and the paternalistic instincts of White Supremacy fueled the creation of a boarding school system, through which they could systematically erase culture, disrupt relationships and forcefully remove children from the land, systematically dismantling the foundations of Native identity in order to attack the resolve for self determination.
The strategy, as this United Nation report describes it ‘was to separate children from their parents, inculcate Christianity and white cultural values upon them, and encourage or force them to assimilate into the dominant society’ this also involved the ‘involuntary leasing’ of children ‘out to white homes as menial labor’. The conditions that these children were forced endure were horrifying, ‘children routinely died in mass numbers of starvation and disease.. (and) many survivors report being sexually abused by multiple perpetrators in these schools’.
Although conditions varied this was not unique to the US context, in Canada a similar ‘civilising’ efforts forced indigenous children into conditions where they were ‘physically and sexually abused, forced into hard labour and whipped and beaten if they spoke (their) languages’, in Australia aboriginal children endured conditions where ‘disease, malnutrition and sexual violence were commonplace’.
The list goes on, in Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil, Peru, Malaysia, Sierra Leone, China and others, boarding schools have been used to separate Indigenous and marginalized children from their parents and communities and forcefully assimilate them. The perversity of the boarding school system was unique in its extremity but also reflective of the broader ideology that was taking root across the world. The idea that education should be used as a mechanism through which to socialise the population into social hierarchies defined by the cultural norms and values of those dominant within the society in the name of social cohesion, modernisation or civilisation.
After the disruption of the World Wars led to the dismantling of Empires and the process of ‘nation building’, many newly independent nations started to build their own education systems on the foundations of those imposed through colonialism or created systems inspired by the models that dominated the US and Europe. Although many adapted and evolved the systems to address their specific needs and contexts the core structures and functions of Education often remained the same or similar.
This provided a means for those dominant within those societies to impose a model of social control and reproduction that allowed them to reinforce social hierarchies and consolidate their dominance. Also the implicit ideologies of White European supremacy were so ingrained within the systems and the societies by this point that without a concerted effort to disrupt them the systems often ended up replicating or evolving the cultural hierarchies imposed through colonialism.
In the 19th century, world war, economic depression, social unrest and progressive movements demanding equal rights for oppressed people began to disrupt the rigid social hierarchies that had existed for centuries. Collective resistance amongst the working class threatened the economic hierarchies of industrialisation, and the rise of socialism as a counter ideology momentarily challenged the dominance of capitalism and Western European imperialism. This forced the ruling classes in many countries to concede certain rights, allowing for some more social-mobility and freedoms of expression, and in the case of the US the end of racial in schools (at least on paper).
It was during this period that more progressive alternatives to the factory model of education began to gain some influence. However, the system was never fully dismantled and the original function of maintaining and reproducing social inequality persisted despite the efforts of some well intentioned but limited reform efforts. This has remained true to the present day, although there have been reforms and improvements, the core function of education as an inequitable system that reproduces and normalises social inequalities has not yet been truly challenged at a systemic level.