Last night (28 February 2011) I watched the Oprah Show that was broadcast in the US in September 2010.  (In South Africa we see these shows about five months after their original broadcasts.)  The programme was about Education, a subject about which I feel very strongly.

The programme featured Jeffrey Canada whose mission is “to save the children,” (of Harlem), by providing them with a proper education.  He is determined to make school a safe place for children in Harlem, provide them with all the facilities that are available to children in the best schools and ensure that they proceed to college once they have graduated from high school.  He believes it is immoral to keep children from a good education, that failing children are indicative of a failing society, that education has been failing the country for the past forty to fifty years.  There are thousands of jobs that cannot be filled because children have no training in maths and science and unemployment is rife.  Education does not deliver nevertheless parents have abandoned the responsibility of education to the schools.  Canada wants parents to encourage their children to do more than their homework; they must develop the habit of study. 


After Canada, Oprah introduced Cory Baker, Democrat and Mayor of New York City, and Chris Christi, Republican Governor of New York State.  Both men were equally concerned about the state of education and agreed to overcome party prejudices to work together to reform the situation.  Accompanying Christi was Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook who pledged a hundred million dollars to the reform programme.

All these people believe that as children are not getting the traditional good education what is needed is provision of good facilities.  But, in my opinion, their efforts will be going into providing more of the same education that is failing.  In the 1970s, Ivan Illich made us aware that schools were failing but his radical notion of deschooling society was not taken seriously. 

Schools, however, have not kept up with the developments in society.  Schools operate on the factory model and its principles of mass production, i.e. the production of standardised commodities and the conveyer belt notion of progress through school. 

The factory system of education was devised to provide workers for industry and The Worker, a phenomenon of the Industrial Age, is a commodity that slots into the society’s factory facilities.  The Worker, the very term affirms it, is dependent on a society that is going to fit her/him into its functions.  Even teachers are only workers dependent on a Department of Education to place them in work situations. 


Based on the model of industrialisation, the School turns the majority of students into workers not independent thinkers and achievers.  Mark Zuckerberg believes in a good education but in the education that he received, he found the ability to rise above its tendency to create dependency.  He began to develop Facebook while he was still at college, long before his formal education was concluded.  He, however, is exceptional; the majority of us do not rise above dependency and we believe in the myth that a good education will lead to employment. 


But there is great unemployment of high school and college graduates all over the world.  In the Middle East, young people have risen up against their governments because they cannot find jobs.  They believe that they are in pursuit of democracy; what they really want is a decent life, i.e. a job and the means to fulfil their personal ambitions.


But they have not been educated for life in a highly scientific and technological age.  They received a completely generalised education and were not encouraged to understand and meet the challenges of living in today’s world.  If their autocratic governments had ensured that they had a little more than the means to survive, there would be no crisis in the Middle East today.  People spout a great deal about democracy but really as long as government functions to some degree in ensuring that they have a fairly good life, they do not complain.  They are willing to put up with despots for years.


We need a radical change in the way we view education.  It has to become relevant to the technological society in which we live.   That would mean an education that does not create total dependence on government and industry for jobs – these are on the decline anyway.  The business of school as a baby-sitting institution must come to an end.  Children must be made aware of the opportunities offered in society and how to fit their interests with the demands of the real world.  They need real skills and entrepreneurial capability.  Children must also be allowed the freedom to learn in any venue that offers them appropriate education.  That means school should not keep them prisoner for twelve years of their growth, i.e. we no longer need compulsory schooling.  According to Mark Zuckerberg, he came from a stimulating home that provided the basis of his interests and his education.  He was free of school even before he entered its confining environment.  Children should have the freedom to advance at their own pace.  That would mean not subjecting them to restricting timetables and forcing them into the pattern of progressing one year at a time from level to level in classrooms based on age-levels.


Education needs radical change.  Tinkering with curricula, equipment and facilities with the principle of mass production still in mind is not going to improve the situation   Change is needed in the Schooling System.  We must free ourselves of the notion of mass production and must provide opportunities for the education of individuals.  And that does not necessarily mean schools.  Ivan Illich encouraged us to think of the whole of society as school; children can learn in places such as laboratories, businesses, trade and craft venues, as well as in school.


The only way to save the children is to free them from the factory school system.