Despite the fact that education is failing everywhere, we still call for schools and more schools. School is still thought of as the means to employment even though unemployment is rife throughout the world; thousands have lost their jobs and are marching in protest. It’s no use blaming governments for this particular phenomenon. Politicians are simply administrators, not innovators. If we are to ‘blame’ anyone for the present failure of education, it would have to be scientists and technologists. They are the innovators and it is their discoveries that lead to major changes in society. The men who invented the wheel, tools, electricity, the computer, have changed our lives, have radically transformed the way we live and interact.
Scientists developed the technology that created the Industrial Age and scientists continue the work that carries us into new forms of existence. At present, we are being carried out of industrialism into the electronic age. Though we have embraced the new advancements, we still retain factory modes of thinking and operating that developed in the age of industrialism. We are in the midst of a revolution; the wisest can see its ramifications, but we don’t listen to them. We are going through radical changes that challenge all the major institutions that reflect the values of the industrial revolution, but we cannot see. These institutions are so ingrained in our understanding that we regard them as natural.
School is one such institution. It still operates like a factory churning out mass education, a generalised education, and sends students out into the world of work to serve with machine like precision. While we are evolving out of industrialism, school is not. So it continues to prepare for a world that is fast fading away. Our students are entering into a new world with old skills that have become redundant and they cannot earn a living. So like addicts, students look to further disabling education. When they eventually leave the school environment, they cannot find employment because employers are looking for people with skills and experience. How do students locked into schools and universities gain experience? Is it any wonder they are frustrated and taking to the streets to protest?
We must give up the belief in the effectiveness of the Industrial Age ‘factory’ school. Before its establishment, skills and training were acquired through apprenticeship. People didn’t sit around trying to decide what they were going to become; they had a good idea because they had a family tradition. I believe that when Ivan Illich in the 1970s, spoke of deschooling society, he meant getting rid of the institution, and turning the whole society into a place of education as it had been before industrialisation. But we are so conditioned to the idea of school, so convinced that school leads to employment, we laugh at Illich, even though we see, every day, high school graduates sitting on street corners begging for jobs. And who can employ them? Nobody. They do not have the requisite skills. Their generalised education has led them to an appreciation of ideas but has not given them the skills to earn a living.
Before industrialisation, the home was not simply a place of nurture, comfort and relaxation; the home was an economic unit in which a family operated a trade or small business and children born into the family were in apprenticeship from an early age. But industrialism broke the old tradition of children following in the footsteps of the family and turned everyone into a worker. Today, if we look carefully, we will see that parents who share their occupational interests with their children, provide them with a vital stimulus. The likelihood of their children becoming independent is greater because they are learning from live models and gaining real, practical experience. Children dependent on school for all their learning are at a disadvantage.
The purpose of school is to produce compliant workers for factory-type institutions and the teacher’s role is to inculcate:
1. basic abilities in the 3Rs so that workers can read and understand instructions;
2. punctuality because work is synchronised through division of labour and each worker has to be in place in the assembly line;
3. obedience because work is mechanised and needs absolute conformity to the process.
The role of school and teacher was, and still is, to prepare the child for work in a factory type operation; in other words school is a process that turns the child into an element in a production line. The school, like a factory, is a closed institution, closed, because the processes in which it is involved are more important than the child.
In school, children are regimented and ruled by the clock. They have to attend school between certain hours, are divided into class groups of the same age, and are fed the same diet of abstract information. And they move through school as on an assembly line, picking up more and more abstract information as they move along from grade to grade. That may have been sufficient as long as society needed the labour intensive ‘factory’ type institution. But times have changed and assembly lines are disappearing; we no longer need as many workers.
The school that was born of industrialism created a divorce between education and the world of work. The system worked for a while – for as long as we needed workers. But we no longer do; new technologies are replacing the worker and there is worldwide unemployment. Not only in factories, but in all institutions and bureaucracies. As institutions and bureaucracies adopt new technologies that reduce the need for manual operations, retrenchments become common across all sectors.
Now we are beginning to see that the connection between a factory model of generalised education and the world of work was temporary. People are becoming less and less necessary to the routines that run government and industry.
We understand, at last, what Alvin Toffler told us in the 1980’s: we have to become ‘prosumers.’ We have to reclaim our function as producers; we cannot just be dependent consumers.
Governments have begun to tinker with apprenticeship programmes, SETAs and so on, but they are still based on the factory model of the school. They will not succeed because they are still only preparing students for employment. In reality, they are preparing them for unemployment.
Children must be prepared for more than employment; they need to be prepared for ENTREPRENEURSHIP as was the case before the Industrial School came into being. Learning, therefore, has to be connected directly with real work. To try to develop work skills via the school system is to continue in the mode of the ‘factory’ school which provided an abstract environment for learning. Ivan Illich told us to deschool society and by that he meant allow children to learn in real work environments. But we did not listen. Now we sit with thousands of unemployable high school graduates.
Despite the failure of education all over the world, we still think it is mandatory to send children to school. It is only in very poor countries that children become involved in work, but that goes against our conditioning, and we come up with child labour laws to prevent child labour without taking into consideration the circumstances that lead to it. Laws should be aimed at preventing exploitation and protecting children but not at preventing them from earning a living.
In the Electronic Age, people need to go back to becoming producers as they were before industrialisation, which split apart production and consumption and turned majorities of populations into consumers. When we became primarily consumers, we became dependent, dependent on government and corporations for jobs – they were the producers and we were the consumers. This dependency is evident today in all the protests of the unemployed, of students who cannot gain entry into higher education and of people who rise up against governments. The universal cry of protest is “We DEMAND”. It is the declaration of DEPENDENCY, of disempowerment. It is the declaration of the dependent CONSUMER.
The factory school produces disempowered people; people who consume and cannot produce. Take modern high school graduates. What do they want? More education. Schools turn students into consumers of education. Schools are not the answer to economic problems; they give rise to more and more unemployment. Schools are out of touch with reality.
We need less generalised education. If we have to have schools, they should be limited to providing basic skills such as the 3Rs. Schooling should be limited to the amount of time it takes to learn to read, write and calculate. Thereafter, learning should focus on turning students into producers and should be through apprenticeship and specialised training that places emphasis on real, practical experience. All apprenticeships and places of training should be easily accessible to any pupils of any age at any time.
We need to dismantle the education system and allow opportunities for education and training that are not institutionalised. What most of us need are opportunities to develop the talents we have in real environments, not in programmes that simulate reality. If we have to have institutions, they should be highly specialised and provide real, practical experience where apprentices can learn from professionals, not teachers. Workplaces should not be simulated; they should be the real thing.
What children have to learn is that they must become producers so that they can be independent human beings who do not have to wait for others to provide for them. Toffler told us this in the 1980s.