The basic model for schools, starting with crèches, and continuing into nursery schools, primary schools, and secondary schools, is to have one adult looking after several children. The advantage of this (given our current system of employment) is obvious, as it not only provides work for child minders, but it also frees mothers (and fathers) to take up paid employment. Children, however, have to accept being in a more structured environment than would be normal at home. They have to respect start times, break times, and organised activities; opportunities to talk to adults and interact with them on a one-to-one basis are reduced. As they progress through the school system, the degree of regulation increases, particularly for those who are destined for success.
By the time that they start secondary school, children are expected to be well advanced in their reading and writing skills, and their work has to conform to strict rules of spelling and grammar. They then embark on a pre-arranged study of a set of subjects, covering science, mathematics, history, languages, geography, etc. People who never did well at school, are often unaware of the amount of pressure to conform that is applied to the more high-flying pupils.
This pressure is intensified as pupils vie with each other for places in the most elite universities, with a lifetime’s prospects hanging on getting a good mark in a series of examinations sat when they are just seventeen or eighteen-years-old. The opportunity for self-expression in this environment is close to zero. Pupils who disrupt the focus on work, or who take up time by questioning the exam-course dogmas, are quickly removed from the class.
Universities like to portray themselves as the direct descendants of the centres of learning that emerged in the Middle Ages, and which were responsible for the Renaissance of European culture. However, in their early days, these universities did not have final exams, corporate funding, or student fees. Today’s institutions are quite different, the more prestigious they are, the more important to them it is that their graduates fit seamlessly into one or other of the key institutions of the modern era: usually government or business. Freedom of thought is not favoured in such circumstances.
The lack of freedom in the education system, therefore, takes many forms. In the early years, it involves physical constraints, children are confined to specific places at specific times, are made to conform to group behaviour patterns (sitting at desks, etc.), and do not have the freedom to talk or to ask questions that they would enjoy in other circumstances. Later on in the education system, people have more freedom over the details of how they spend their time, but the pressure to conform to a particular view of politics, economics, science, medicine, philosophy or religion becomes more intense as time goes on.
The consequences can be felt in every area of life. Our major institutions of government and commerce are staffed by people who have graduated from an education system which suppresses personal initiative, originality, and, even more importantly, warmth and kindness between people in charge and those under their control.
Even more significant is the tendency to learn by example. Because schools are run on the basis of someone in authority at the front of the room telling everyone else what to do, and conflicts are resolved by that person making arbitrary decisions, backed up by the power to punish and humiliate the offender, and, if necessary, permanently exclude them from the class, people assume that it is appropriate to use the same techniques in their own lives when they grow up. This has contributed to the fracturing of family life, the breakdown of communication between generations, and the disintegration of communities. The institutions that have grown up to replace local communities are almost exclusively hierarchical, with authority concentrated at the top; individuals are disempowered and their role reduced to that of simple consumers of products and services.
Just as serious, however, is the way in which our society now acts in its relationship with nature. Whereas at one time this relationship was co-operative, it has gradually, over time, become more and more authoritarian. People have spent the past few hundred years developing bigger machines and more aggressive technologies to make nature behave in the way that they think they want. Industrial-scale agriculture has transformed the countryside so that it yields more of certain crops, with fewer people involved, meaning more people can move to the town. Every time a problem emerges, rather than stepping back and seeing it as a warning sign that something may be wrong, a way is found to force nature to conform to our pre-conceived designs: bigger ploughs, a new range of toxic chemicals to spray on the ground, clearing another stretch of virgin forest, laying more concrete, a greater dependence on of industrial fertilisers, etc. This brutal approach to the natural world is leading us to the brink of disaster: climate change, soil depletion, species loss, contamination of the ocean, micro-plastics, and industrial pollutants are now acknowledged to pose a threat the continued existence of many creatures on the planet, amongst them human beings. Given the educational programme through which they have progressed, it is perhaps not surprising that the solution to these problems proposed by those in charge of our government and business institutions is to press on a little further with the same programme that has brought us to this point. One further technological breakthrough, we are asked to believe, and nature will finally be under control, and behave in accordance with our wishes.
Alternatively, and more logically perhaps, one could suggest that what is needed is a return to a more respectful relationship with both the natural world, and with each other: a relationship of equals giving and receiving; the problem is that our education has not trained to work in that way, and to do so, would involve us having to change the way in which we view the world.