Wrote this a couple years ago, thought it might be appropriate for the current discussion of schooling.
Written a bit on this previously here.
To sum up: Education can only be an expression of a culture. Throughout history (and, one suspects, prehistory) education consisted precisely in those activities that passed on culture.
Putting on my mail-order evolutionary anthropologists’ hat, it is easy to speculate that learning a particular culture, one within which have survived those most necessary evolutionary participants called ‘parents’, would in itself have huge survival advantages: how are you going to survive in an environment? Look around – who in a similar situation has survived? Why, your parents! Let’s do that!
Anyway, once History rolled around, people began to largely fail to record how they educated their young – the record is surprisingly thin on details. This makes sense: it would be like expecting early historians to record how they chewed their food or got dressed in the morning – education is so completely natural and integrated into daily life that it would have seemed completely pointless to describe how it happened.
Unless you decided to change it. The earliest records I know of recording in any detail how young people were educated comes from the Greeks in around 500 B.C. Before then, we have things like the recurring biblical exhortations to fathers to make sure their children learned the laws of their ancestors – it seems to be assumed that the fathers would know how to do it, so that part seems to get left out. I say ‘seems’ because of course the laws of the ancestors would be passed on in their observance – if everybody around you is celebrating Passover, reenacting detailed rituals and reciting specific prayers, that’s something a kid will pick up. That’s why the historical biblical books record the many times the Law and the feasts were ignored or restored – that is precisely the history of the fall and rise of Culture, and, by extension, the history of education within that culture.
So, back to the Greeks. We know from quite a number of sources that the various city-states and various philosophical and political schools paid a great deal of attention to education. It is important to note that, early on, little detail exists to cover what we might call the grade school years – just like everywhere else, no one could be bothered to describe how little kids were to be educated, everybody just *knew* how that happened. The end result was clear: all properly educated little kids would be prepared to do the next level of schooling, equivalent to junior high school, at least in terms of the ages of the pupils.
(Later on, around the 3rd century B.C., the Greeks began to record even how little children were to be educated. I’d speculate that this new interest is a sign that people felt the culture was under threat, somehow, so that what used to be safely assumed now needed to be paid attention to. )
Here the records get thicker. The arguments – Greeks so loved to argue! – was over, ultimately, what kind of culture you wanted. Spartans wanted a culture that supported an army that would never lose a war; Athenians wanted to never lose a war, too, but believed it was better to get there via a broad education that would help one love the city he was defending. Changes to education both lead to and followed changes to culture. When Alexander lead his Macedonian Greeks in conquest of most of the known world, he set up everywhere both ‘Alexandrias’ – new Greek cities manned by his troops and colonists – and Greek enclaves within the major conquered cities, from which to govern them. In both these places, schools, called ephebia, were set up to make sure that the young men were properly saturated in Greek culture.
Ephebia began as military schools. Around the age of 18, men would spend a year or two training as soldiers. As the Macedonians and subsequent Roman dominations made defending your city-state less immediately critical, ephebia evolved into cultural schools entirely, eventually completely losing their military character. They even started accepting barbarian students, training wannabe Greeks along side Greek Greeks. Thus was the survival of Greek culture in Greek lands assured up until the sacking of Constantinople. The literary and artistic output of all that culture assured its survival up to today.
So, I hope I’ve shown how cultures generate education and how education reinforces or even reinvents culture. The important note here is that all the education – and there was a lot of it – in the ancient and biblical world took place without any graded classroom instruction. Graded classroom instruction is an idea of the Enlightenment and of the Industrial Revolution.
So, given that the graded classroom model is a comparatively later-day innovation, the question should arise: what sort of *culture* does that model aim to achieve? As an innovation, it is intended to make things new – to create what was not there before. A lot of what I’m writing about here on this blog is simply an attempt to illuminate the cultural goals of ‘scientific’ education. What many people suspect – that they don’t want for their children what the schools want for them – is true to a degree most people find hard to imagine.
Alas, you can’t make a new cultural omelet without breaking the existing cultural eggs. It is telling that the Orwellian phrase ‘multiculturalism’ is a religion among the most vigorous proponents of industrial schooling. They would like to reduce culture to an innocuous matter of taste, rather than an indispensable part of what it means to be a human being – the more easily to crack it, and replace it. So, in places like the KIPP school in New York and the Pardada Pardadi school in India, where everyone (almost) can agree that the cultures being destroyed – the drug and gang and welfare culture in New York, and the misogynistic culture or rural India – deserve to die, the classroom model is seen as a great success.
But what about the Mexican culture of California? Having grown up in Southern California and having lived in California almost my whole life, I can attest that the there are many good things in the Mexican culture in California: much tighter families, greater care and deference shown to the elderly, warmer treatment of kids, and a general openness and compassion sorely lacking in our dominant culture.
It is universally lamented by the champions of public education that comparatively few Mexican-Americans go to college, and relatively many drop out of high school. Look at what is being proposed from the Mexican-American’s point of view: You can stay in school and go to college. To do this, you will be setting yourself apart from those members of your family who don’t don’t or didn’t do this, most notably your parent’s generation. During high school, you will be doing homework during much of the time you would otherwise have spent with family and friends. If you succeed in high school, you will ‘go away’ to college, either literally or figuratively, spending even less time with family and friends. If you succeed at college, you will get a career, the pursuit of which will, as likely as not, take you even further away.
Now, as a member of a different culture than your family, you will see them at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in accord with how your new culture does things. You will not be involved in the daily lives of your sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, uncles and aunts. You’ve traded all that for the approval of a new culture and money and stuff. When life gets hard, you will not be surrounded by loving family – you’ll just call them on the phone, maybe.
I suspect that many Mexican Americans do not pursue college because they are more or less consciously aware of this trade-off. They’d rather drop out at 17 and take that job with Tio Juan’s sheet-rocking business, or wait tables at Tia Lola’s restaurant, and stay connected with family.
Perhaps you think I’m painting too sunny a picture, leaving out gangs and drugs and poverty. Perhaps I am – my personal experience with Mexican Americans was all through school and church, which has the effect of largely filtering out the gang and drug scene. The Americans of Mexican origin that I knew and know very much fit the picture I painted. As to the gangs and drugs and so on, perhaps the destructive power of our culture got ahead of itself, and managed to destroy the existing culture before it was able to develop the new one. I know that divorce and materialism, which play a smaller role in traditional Mexican families, have had a huge negative effect on Mexican-American families. A husband can just walk out on his wife here in America, move in with the girlfriend. He would probably have had to flee the country in the old culture, because the entire village would have probably been outraged at him.