Is Our Education System Counter-productive?

By Sanne Raggers & Francisca Ribeiro Bártolo

The topic of our brief essay links closely with the overall goal of this website. Here we talk about institutionalised education, about the mindset and people it (re)produces and its standardised and standardising character.

One of the things about institutionalised education (primary school, secondary school, university and such) that bothers us is the fact that all students are expected to live up to a certain standard, which is often based on what a student needs to be able to do at what age, regardless of what their actual interests or talents are. There are multiple things that we find problematic about this, the first of which is the notion of the universal ‘standard’  itself. We believe there is no such a thing, for the simple reason that the diversity of people in ‘our’ world (i.e. the global North), in ‘our’ education is too great to summarise in ‘average’, ‘below average’ and ‘above average’, as many primary and secondary schools do.

Such standards put great pressures on many children from a very young age onwards, rather than support them to start their lives with a feeling of self-competence. In our own lives, which by now entail over 16 years of education, we have found that such pressure takes the fun out of learning. We think that all children have a natural curiosity that should be at the heart of learning, rather than the created ‘need’ to achieve good grades. In doing so, current education has been achieving the opposite of what it is aimed at: learning.

As social science students of a university college we have learned many things that we think are very important for our lives, and paradoxically, we are hardly given the time to make what we learn meaningful in a personal way. The speed with which we are expected to “learn” things forces us to only reproduce what we are told. Learning entails thinking about something, experience it and process it: there is no processing in reproducing. To us it appears that learning is at least as much an internal process of discovery rather than only absorbing what is handed to you on a plate.

Also, these things that are “handed to us on a plate” are in many ways assumed to be objective and neutral knowledge. But how can the knowledge that we acquire at school, which is produced from the perspective of the global North, possibly be considered objective and neutral? Think about world history; does this discipline cover all the different perspectives of world history or does this mainly focus on the rise of capitalism and the highly overrepresented global North, while neglecting to a great extent the darker side of this modernity; coloniality? Some intellectuals  have said that this clearly points towards an inequality in the power relations between for example Europe and Latin America and that it shows the epistemic violence that is a great part of these power relations.

But to see this epistemic violence we need not look far away; it is actually very visible in our own lives. Especially when we look at what subjects are the focus of education and which are seen as ‘less important’ in both primary and secondary schools, we can see that there exists a certain dominance of some knowledge over other. For example, in our own university we have a division between ‘arts and humanities’, ‘social sciences’ and the ‘natural sciences’, of which the latter is by many seen as dominant over the others. In this system in which grades are very important, it is something we talk about a lot. We both experienced when telling about a good grade, we often receive responses that basically come down to: “Yes, but you study social sciences.”

Of course, the basic idea of education, creating a space for learning, is not inherently wrong, but by making it function like a capitalist institution, it does not leave space for alternative ways and topics of learning. In this system there is only space for one kind of knowledge, and this knowledge can only be received via one path. We are of the opinion that in the end this structure narrows the learning process of both children and adults down to just the reproduction of information. Perhaps we should ask to what extent this education, that aims to prepare us for ‘the world’, is a way of (re)producing people that no longer are critical of their environment, reproducing the world as it is. One major consequence of this phenomenon is that we keep looking for modern solutions to problems that were created by modernity in the first place, rather than looking for alternatives to this modernity.

The way we see modern education is in the light of a consumer society in which we live -that is about ‘owning’ and ‘accumulating’- that replaced much more natural ways of learning. Think about it; education is something you can have, the same thing goes for having good health and having a job. Thus in the development of modernity, we can see a shift from the verbs such as learning, healing and working to nouns such as education, health and career, in this way making them goods we can consume. During our time of education we consume knowledge and information and therefore it is about being able to reproduce and accumulate what you consume, like all goods in our consumer society.

If we approach education in the same way we treat most institutions in our society, like a market, it is something that is not accessible everywhere. Corresponding with the market in which we have producers and consumers, we create the exact same thing in education in which producers are  teachers and students are consumers. However, with this approach we deny any validity to information and knowledge received from other persons than the producers. Learning, in the Western perspective, is something inherently related to schools and teachers. By not acknowledging other sources of knowledge a gap is created between the ‘educated’ and the ‘uneducated’, making the latter an outsider to society. This does not mean this group does not have any knowledge, but through the created need of society for education their knowledge is depicted as non-knowledge.

Education can be compared to a factory: all the products are the same and if the product does not meet the required standards it is considered waste. It does not consider differences between the ‘products’, but requires them to be at a certain stage within a certain period. This is also what happened with Western education, where Europe considered its way to be the most effective and productive and assumed this to be a universal way. This becomes clear on a large scale, where the West has imposed its knowledge on the former colonies. Also close to  home we can see how some qualities are valued over others in our education system. The confrontation with critical ideas about education made us reflect upon our own daily lives and found a lot of elements we recognised from our own experiences. And even though this is something that cannot be changed overnight, our recognition and putting our own ‘universal knowledge’ in a more humble perspective is a starting point.

Sources used:

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power, and liberation (D. Macedo Trans.). US: Bergin & Garvey publishers.

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. London, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.

Mignolo, W. (2011). The darker side of Western modernity. US: Duke University Press Ltd.