In our highly technological world we live in a state of constant flux because of continuous new developments. Everything becomes outdated in no time; email for instance is already being referred to as old-fashioned.
Take the cell phone and how it has evolved over the course of a few decades and how it has changed our lives. It started off as a bulky, heavy object with limited functions but quickly evolved to its present diverse forms with a multiplicity of functions. At first it was simply a telephone. Now it is also a camera, it provides internet and email services and allows us to type and send messages and pictures.
And it has made huge changes in our lives. It gives us instant communication far and wide. People in rural areas are no longer isolated because of it. It allows us to deal immediately with emergencies; to access banking services; to share experiences and through the Internet to create communities of people across the globe.
Though we are adapting to new developments all the time, we tend to cling to old ways and seem unconscious of the effects of rapid change on our lives. Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave describes how the pace of change has speeded up over time. He points out that change was gradual at first and there was plenty of time to take in and adapt to new developments so that they seemed a natural part of life. This continued on a fairly even keel over many centuries. But the Industrial Revolution that began in the nineteenth century, speeded up life considerably. Electricity, radio, telephone, mass media, cars, railways, steam ships, airplanes and other inventions took us into new experiences beyond the village and the town, and changed people’s understandings and expectations.
According to Toffler, six main principles drove the industrialisation process and the consequent reorganization of our lives. The six principles are standardisation, specialization, synchronization, concentration, maximization, and centralisation. These principles gave rise to national states in which power is centralized in national governments, big business and industries. This centralisation process turned the ordinary citizen into a dependent person. Formerly, people had lived on the land and had provided for themselves. But with the development of national governments and large industrial and agricultural corporations, people became dependent on them for employment.
We are being forced to recognise this dependency today because we are undergoing transformation from an industrial to a technological age in which there is greater individual freedom but we no longer have the security of education that leads to employment. Retrenchment, unemployment – especially among school-leavers, financial crises and the depletion of natural resources are all signs that the Industrial Age is running down. We react with violence against these changes. And violence continues to increase in our societies.
In our headlong rush into the future, in our eagerness to adopt new ways to make life easier, we are not able to foresee all the consequences of all our innovations. We see the immediate benefits and only later discover the side-effects. In the Hindu religion, the concept of karma teaches that worldly existence is paradoxical; as we cannot see the whole, we cannot count on actions being beneficial because we cannot predict their every consequence.
Change includes both positive and negative consequences and we need to be constantly on the look out for weaknesses and deleterious effects so we can deal with them before they overwhelm us. When we build huge power plants, we expect them to last forever and do not expect any kind of wear and tear. But investigations after disasters reveal weaknesses usually in maintenance.
In the 21st century, we are being forced to confront the consequences of our mindless exploitation of the world’s natural resources as we look at the results of widespread deforestation and pollution.
In the new age of electronic communication and nuclear power, we rejoice in the new ease of access to information. But when we are plunged into financial crises that result from the facility with which electronic advancements allow manipulation and exploitation, we are suddenly forced to acknowledge our short-sightedness.
And did we ever think, for example, that the cell phone, in enhancing communication, would be used by school pupils to access pornography?
The only thing we can count on never to change is human greed and desire for power.
With the Industrial Revolution came the unification of peoples into national states. It did not occur to us that centralised power would lead to large scale corruption, to the dependency of the worker and to the widespread unemployment that we see today. New technological advancements have made industry less labour intensive. As the nature of work changes, we no longer need factories and industries that employ masses of people. All over the world, workers are being retrenched. And because they were nurtured in a culture of dependency they are in panic mode, making demands on governments and industries that can no longer support them.
Workers of the world are being thrown back into times that require them to be independent. But they can see no way around their predicament and continue to make demands.
The “Occupy Movement” in the USA is articulating the need for a complete overhaul of the system but its members are out on the street protesting and making demands on people whose vested interests lie in keeping things as they are. Nevertheless, they are questioning taken-for-granted institutions. Everywhere in the world, we see people who thought they lived in democracies now in opposition to governments. We are beginning to realize that as citizens we need more accountable governments; that we cannot simply relinquish power through the vote; that complete trust in elected officials is misplaced and that free enterprise also leads to exploitation.
How can ordinary citizens become empowered, independent and sustain themselves? That is the problem we have to solve. The changes that must occur cannot simply be spin-offs from technology. Technology initially led to a culture of mass production and now it is leading to mass unemployment. We need to rebuild societies in which power cannot be hi-jacked by oligarchies of politicians, of businessmen, and of criminals. Perhaps modern technology is pointing the way to reform by allowing greater individual freedom. Perhaps deconstruction of institutions that turned people into ciphers and helped generate the culture of dependence is where we need to begin.
As socialisation begins in the home and is continued in school, we need to examine the institution of The School. First we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that The School means Education. The School is a place where learners should acquire knowledge and skills. The Institution of The School replaced the training that children received at home working in the trades, crafts, businesses and professions of their parents. The School, however, became conflated with Education and that led to humanistic curricula for broadening the mind. The knowledge and skills necessary to prepare students for the world of work was side-lined.
Now we have students with matriculation certificates who are unemployable. They see their only option as more humanistic education at universities which prepares them for professional work. And when the market for professionals is glutted, they are forced to turn to the lowest forms of labour. We hear of university graduates in some countries sweeping streets. And when universities cannot accommodate the large number of applicants, we see students with matriculation certificates sitting on street corners begging for jobs. But they are unemployable; they don’t have the skills that householders are looking for: painting, plumbing, carpentry etc. We have developed an elitist attitude to education. We look up to professionals, and look down on tradesmen. But even a carpenter can become a powerful leader; Jesus was a carpenter
We need to reinstate the idea that every child must acquire the skills and knowledge that prepare her/him to earn a living. School at present prepares learners for more education on a conveyer belt system that begins in school and continues into university. Based on mass production and standardization, education is not relevant for the majority of students. That can be seen from the fact that students are not motivated to learn. School does not reflect their experience of life. And everywhere there are complaints that students leaving school cannot read. And students leaving school and even university cannot find work. But our schools and universities continue to churn out students without regard to the changing environment, and the needs of society, and more importantly, without regard to students’ interests and abilities.
There are those who believe that education should not have pragmatic ends such as employment. That is idealistic. Most of us can only rise to higher levels of consciousness once our material needs are taken care of.
Because of the disconnect between students and the factory school environment, schools have become places of violence. Bullying and hazing is widespread, pupils carry weapons to school and rape and murder is not unknown in the today’s schools. In the United States, there have been several incidents of lone students gunning down people.
The violence at schools resembles the kind of violence that occurs amongst inmates in prisons. It was B.F. Skinner who demonstrated that people locked up in confined spaces turn on one another in violence. And today, schools in South Africa have become even more like prisons with their locked gates and security guards.
We have to ask: Do we still need these large schools with masses of pupils? Part of the problem with education today is that children have a better understanding of individual freedom than people of my generation but in school they are not treated as individuals. In school, they have to submit to standardisation which requires all kinds of control measures. Do we need to concentrate masses of young people in a single venue where their individuality is restricted? This lack of freedom of choice and movement leads to deviant forms of behaviour: peer pressure, the formation of gangs, the development of class consciousness based on intellectual prowess and the reinforcement of prejudices.
Can we not return learning to places of work and small venues? Can we not subsidize:
i. businesses and industries, big and small, to enable them to offer apprenticeships to young people.
ii. subsidize small educational units that offer supplementary knowledge and skills that relate to apprenticeships
iii. allow the establishment of private schools for those who prefer traditional, generalised schooling?
The kind of generalised education that I accepted as student is no longer relevant to modern students. Ironically it prepares them to seek employment without giving them the skills and knowledge for employment and sends them into a world where workers in all sectors are being retrenched. Students need real practical skills gained from real work situations and they need entrepreneurial skills.
It is time to overhaul the school system that evolved from the Industrial Revolution and allow children to acquire knowledge and skills relevant to their own talents and interests. People have to accept that school and education are not the same thing. We have a superstitious belief in the efficacy of school but, as it no longer leads to employment, it has lost its relevance. We have to move away from the standardised, general knowledge that school provides. Learning must become relevant, and that means specialisation in order to provide students with real means for personal development and the skills to earn a living.
Standardisation and mass production are outdated. Children are individuals not materials to be processed. Learning must be based on their individual interests and talents. Sitting a child in a classroom where everyone, all of the same age, gets the same diet of information does not prepare her for the increasing diversity of her environment.
School may only be necessary for acquiring the basic 3R’s. Once students have acquired competency in these skills, at whatever age, there must be opportunities for them to specialise. They could:
Specialisation should begin as soon as the child is ready for it. Knowledge has increased and is increasing exponentially so we need to specialise. The Renaissance Man idea belongs in the past or to geniuses. Most ordinary people need to decide on an area of interest and pursue it. Specialisation should not be put off until after matriculation or a first degree. It must be on offer from the time an individual can read, write and calculate competently. Specialisation is, has always been, the way in which we live. Some of us are scientists, others craftsmen, others artists, politicians, etc. Children are smarter today than people of my generation, so they are quite capable of deciding on careers while they are young. But we must also make provision for them to experiment so that they can try out all their different interests and abilities to help them make their choices. That could be quite quickly or it may take a long time. Highly talented children may want to acquire knowledge and skill in several areas. They may be geniuses like the physicist and scientist Albert Einstein, who also played the violin.
Learning should not be age specific and should not be confined to the classroom situation. Anyone at any age should have access to education from any learning institution, from real work situations and any providers of knowledge. Our education provision should be flexible enough to allow learners to acquire a variety of skills and knowledge.
So instead of the school which forces children into a single venue and keeps them locked in classrooms with standardised offerings of knowledge, there should be a multiplicity of small venues all over the town or city, offering real practical experience and knowledge-related-to-practice. There should be complete mobility. Students should be not confined to one particular institution but should have the ability to move about from one place to another for different courses offered at different venues. The idea of the alma mater should be relegated to the past. Learning and the acquisition of information should be on offer to students of all ages throughout the working day and at night.
Curricula should not be prescribed. Students must have the freedom to draw up for themselves their own individual curricula and timetables that reflect their individual needs and interests. This would allow students to take control over their learning, and to learn what they want when they are ready.
We no longer need the kind of generalist teacher that I was in the twentieth century. We need specialists in place of teachers – specialists involved in careers and with the expertise to take on apprentices.
And we should place emphasis on competence not on certification. The way to do that is to make apprenticeship the mainstay of our education system. Business, Industry, Trades are where learning should take place through apprenticeships in real work situations – not in classroom simulations. At present we are simply flirting with the idea of apprenticeships and commanding business and industry to provide apprenticeships, which they are reluctant to do. A proper programme for provision of apprenticeships in real work environments needs to be formulated.
Education should also include planning for economic independence. It is very important that students understand the economic implications of the careers that they undertake. They have to understand that the courses they choose are the means of their future survival and they must learn how to earn from their work. They must also learn about the laws and legal requirements involved in the kinds of careers that they wish to pursue.
We need a greater number and variety of small educational units, like NGOs, but these should be independent. They should be connected directly with real work situations and should offer supplementary knowledge outside working hours. Theoretical learning should be optional and offered only to those students who seek it because they understand the need for it.
People who have undertaken home schooling have the right idea but I do not think home-schooling is the answer. The home cannot provide the kind of specialised expertise that is needed. Home schooling probably only works well for learning the 3Rs and has the advantage that it allows for individual learning. But even at home, children are required to follow the standardised syllabuses of Education Departments and write standardised examinations in order to obtain certificates.
We should go back to Ivan Illich’s theories of deschooling to see what we can learn from them.
We need to reread Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave because he has many suggestions of the ways in which we can move out of a factory system of education.
We need to give up our hopeless attachment to the factory type school.
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