Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant's 1959 book-length essay, The Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a "revolution" engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, in which "one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary." Against School (Harper Magazine), John Gatto.
Gatto, the author of The Underground History of American Education, is not against education, though his view of school (as in the typical public school) is pretty extreme. He is against school the institution the compliance factory, the social engineering tool of architects attempting to construct society according to their vision. If Gatto's metaphor sounds pretty extreme, the idea isn't very new -- in his article he quotes 1924 satirists lamenting the anti-intellectualness of public schooling. The public has been fairly exposed to it since Pink Floyd's Another Brick In the Wall; the song isn't the revenge of a dropout-turned-musician. PF was composed of fairly good students -- competitive students of architecture and art -- yet they too, were "against School".
Some of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell's inspirations for their dystopic novels came from School. Probably for good reason.
There is often talk with this "reform vs. traditionalist" rhetoric as though it were that simple. What tradition, anyway? Has there ever been a golden age of education? I argue not really. The more you investigate the history of school (school anywhere!), the more it seems like the pages out of the history book of Latin America: revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups and counter-coups.
Of course, I don't totally agree with Gatto's picture, though I suppose he simplified the history for rhetorical purposes. If the political spectrum is to be brought into it, public education was a strange alliance of progressive and conservative (in the strictest sense of the word), bringing forth a system that was both radical yet reactionary. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Progressive activists pushed for public education of course, but reactionaries, were faced with the era of populism: ever-increasing mass literacy rates, a politically-awakened population and all of the things that come with small-d democracy.
I am reminded of the one time that my high school world history teacher suddenly asked us -- quite randomly -- if we knew the driving force for why public education was first implemented. Most of us replied with progressive explanations. His answer: factory owners were responsible for the explosion of public education, not the progressives. "Public education wasn't created to educate citizens. It was to train workers so they could work in factories." For a while, I took this as just another fact of history, but it took quite a bit of time for me to realise what he was getting at.
In a paradoxical way, the radical progressives were so ambitious and radical, they unwittingly played into the reactionaries' own hands. School wasn't just to be the place for academic lessons -- it was to be a tool of social engineering to create a more progressive society, a free and enlightened populace and unrestricted flow of ideas. For the reactionaries -- why not social engineering as well? You could also create a more manageable populace this way: disciplined, differentiated, divided, docile. What is "reform education," then? It is an attempt to reverse this early coup d'éducation and restore the original progressive objectives, like Sun Yat-Sen attempting to reverse the coup of Yuan Shikai after he had taken control of the First Chinese Republic. Perhaps not very well -- the reformers are not only divided, they have saboteurs within their ranks, much like the warlords who diverted Sun Yat-Sen's restoration objective.
Which results in the educational mess you might see in your child's classroom today. All of these paradigms and plays for power have been fought by comparatively few compared to the how many people these battles affect. Revolutions? What revolutions? Who knew there could be so much dirty politics involved in your child's education? But veteran parents and veteran teachers can easily attest to how much entrenched power play goes on, of course. Toss teachers' unions and booming education companies and you get a combat theatre!
This isn't merely about the woes of American education. I have been a student of both an American high school and a Singaporean secondary school and must say I found major faults with both experiences. Oh let me say -- despite the good teachers I found in both schools -- I hated high school. In contrast, in my current school -- there are no politics over educational paradigms or standardised assessments, thank goodness. More or less, professors have a free arm to run their class; student feedback is one of "checks" in the system. No rubrics, no standardised professor reports, except of the kind they might submit to Nature. But I hear at many colleges, the edupolitical battlefield is slowly creeping into the picture. It certainly exists in community colleges; I can attest to its presence in the local university I dual-enrolled in.
It is fascinating to explore how certain educational paradigms spread worldwide. There is a certain paradigm for example, that you might find to be common among "Asian tiger" nations like Japan, South Korea, The Republic of China on Taiwan, Singapore, etc. The nationalist movements of countries under colonial or imperial influence are partially responsible for spreading them. China is an interesting case with interesting parallels. The imperial examination system -- very reactionary and conservative, arguably quite anti-intellectual -- was overhauled by a young Guangxu emperor of the reformist faction. The only way China was to progress in the world, of course, if the countless "scholars" and "officials" produced by the system knew anything about math, science, and industry and not merely Confucian rhetoric.
Young Guangxu had good intentions, but alas, he was no Queen Elizabeth and he found himself outmanoeuvred by his more politically-savvy opponents at court. One of the consequences of this drastic reform was the sudden dismissal of countless officials and bureaucrats deemed "useless" by the Guangxu emperor, their removal of power, loss of salary (no pension), etc. After all, the Qing government was facing a major budget crisis. Endemic corruption, sinecures and general parasitism were placing a major strain on Qing resources. Alas, this made the Guangxu emperor quite unpopular among the "old school" (literally) bureaucracy and support conservative Empress Dowager Cixi, who was planning a military coup. Guangxu in desperation turned to Yuan Shikai, commander of the modernised Beiyang New Army. Yuan Shikai had carried out major institutional and technological reforms with his branch of the military -- surely he backed Guangxu's reformation plans, right? Wrong. Yuan Shikai realised supporting Guangxu was too risky: he betrayed Guangxu, who was arrested and deposed from power. Cixi effectively reversed most of Guangxu's reforms.
Young Guangxus -- parents, teachers, administrators alike -- beware. The sad fact of life is that it takes political savvy to be a reformer.
It turns out Yuan Shikai eventually betrayed Cixi's faction too, allying himself with the Tongmenghui republicans, a hodgepodge coalition of various revolutionary factions. Many members were young idealists educated in the West -- France, Germany, England, the US. Oh merry that this coincided with the new progressive education movement! The republicans abolished the imperial examination system and copied the new Western trends, including unwittingly some of its reactionary paradigms. Many new members of the government were only republican in name only; provincial governors or military commanders of a different generation than the students, they had allied themselves with the republicans during the Revolution but did not necessarily have their same aims. Ah! School! What a valuable political tool anywhere.
Yuan Shikai then betrayed the republicans and then exerted his own Machiavellian influence on China's education system. The education system split into two when the Communists took the mainland of course, but once again, a strange mix of radical and reactionary across the straits. Japan and Korea's education system have their own versions of the education story, especially since Japan was under the influence of militarism even as it carried out educational reformations in the 19th century. All engineered by very few people.
The architect of Singapore's modern education system as we know it was a People's Action Party official called Goh Keng Swee. (He was also responsible for much of Singapore's economic development.) Was he progressive? Conservative? PAP politics takes a mouthful to explain. Goh was interested in social welfare as an undergraduate. His graduate studies were in the London School of Economics. He returned to Singapore at a time of great social upheaval and aligned himself with such university buddies as Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye, joined the fledgling PAP, and following their win in the elections, became Minister of Finance. The PAP was a centre-left party and quite revolutionary in nature -- it was a dark horse upstart party at the time. In part, the PAP rode to power on the back of its communist faction.
One thing that is particularly interesting is how the PAP inherited its power structure from the Leninist tradition: it still has a secretive and selective cadre system, which still serves as the "inner guard" of the party. It still has a Politburo (since renamed), a Central Executive Committee, and all the other power institutions you might find in a normal Communist Party. It's quite peculiar because with time, the PAP swung steadily towards the right and eventually became anticommunist. (The paradox is not unprecedented: the Kuomintang Nationalists also have a Leninist structure because of an initial Soviet-KMT alliance in the early 1920s.) The cracks in the paradoxical PAP opened up in 1961: the communist faction fought with Goh Keng Swee, Lee Kuan Yew and other moderate party leaders, giving Singapore an electoral drama it has not since seen for almost fifty years. The PAP had its own right-wing faction -- but one suspects they came to an internal compromise with moderate leaders. This transition was very silent, because LKY, a great orator, opponent of sedition laws and a passionate supporter of freedom of speech for the sake of something like "principle" in the 1960s, appears to reverse his position throughout the 1970s, turning very pragmatist until he is found justifying sedition laws and the regulation of political dissent in the 1980s. The radical had become the reactionary.
What of the impact on the education system? The education system has an uncanny bearing to the politics of the time. Singapore's education story is a little more complex than the others because of the division of the schooling into Chinese schools and English schools (which were more prestigious), and there was a struggle between the Chinese-language proponents and the English-language proponents too, mirroring the split between the Chinese-educated communists and the English-educated moderates educated in London. (The moderate-right divide is more mysterious, because the right-wing never broke with the Politburo leaders publicly.) In a way, it too is a mix of radical and reactionary. Goh Keng Swee, under influence from both left-wing and right-wing ideas, divided the Singapore education system into "streams," in a system more complicated than currently is today. One of the explicit aims of the Singapore education system was to train workers for Singapore's fledgling industrialisation. Essentially, there were streams devoted to that -- at the secondary school level it is seen today with such designations as Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic). The Express stream can be analysed as a stream to produce a bureaucratic, professional and managerial class. Finally, a Special stream to produce Singapore's next generation of leaders, e.g. party members. All very clean, orderly and disciplined -- like a factory.
Goh wasn't the only architect: experts were recruited from all over the world. Experts from countries such as Japan, West Germany, Israel and the Soviet Union joined the Singapore development project. Many features of the Soviet education system can still be seen in the Singapore education system; our HDB public housing programme was asssisted by Soviet experts, since they had the most experience in constructing affordable public housing and the West generally failed at such programmes.
In a way, these architects were extremely brilliant people. The bar model used for primary school math in Singapore was created by a single individual (not GKS however). Goh was one of the experts who chose the right economic path for Singapore, promoting economic and social development while other developing nations suffered under planned economics and property seizures. Buyers of Singapore Math books know that Singapore's education system has been successful, in a way. But I must lament his vision: such is the problem with having a few architects design entire education systems. Having set forth to write about an ideal education system, I suppose it's not a bad thing to first write a tangent about lessons from past attempts at designing education.