The Failures and Limitations of Modern Schooling

By Professor Yusuf Progler

Measure of Failure

Before we can speak about the failures of modern schooling, in the West or anywhere else, we should consider what it is that schooling has set out to do. This will help us to consider whether or not schooling has failed at anything, or if it has actually succeeded in accomplishing something. Without a clear idea of what schools are for, in other words, we have no real basis for evaluating if schooling has failed or succeeded. This question also needs to be considered in historical context, because what may have been seen as the successes of school at one time may have come to be seen as its failures, while what may have been perceived as failures in one time may have later come be seen as its successes. Therefore, the question of success and failure of schooling is bound up with expectations of a given time and place, although those expectations have been remarkably consistent.

Labeled and Categorized

Despite superficial differences in language and culture, what we are calling modern schooling is for the most part global in its uniformity. A visitor to a school in most any place in recent years will find the same type of facility, a box-shaped concrete building resembling a factory (or prison or hospital), divided into smaller boxes called classrooms, in which there are a number of desks and chairs facing forward towards a larger teacher’s desk, behind which is a blackboard and above that a clock. The placing of these items might differ slightly, but the items are all there, from Tokyo to Istanbul , New York to London , Karachi to Rio de Janeiro . A flag or some other symbol of the nation, such as a picture of the current head, is often present and may even be ritually saluted in some way, while a national anthem is often played or sung at the beginning of each school day.

Students move among these boxes according to strict timings, often announced by bells or alarms, and the school day is divided into several periods approximately 50 minutes apiece, beginning at around 8 a .m. and ending around 3 p.m., with a lunch break in the middle of the day. School meets five days a week for ten months of the year, and this usually lasts for 12 years. Students are classified and graded in many ways, most often ordered according to age-based classes and categorized according to academic grades. This grading and classifying gets ever more precise as students approach their graduation, when each is then given a sheet of paper that certifies his or her experience and performance.

Schools were structured in this way for a reason. During the 19th century, beginning in Europe but soon spreading globally, it became necessary to acclimate the masses of people to large-scale emergent social realities: industrialization and nationalism. The routines of factory work required that young people be taught the necessary skills and values—including uniformity, punctuality, and efficiency—as well as gain the ability to withstand long hours of repetitive labor. The industrial economy offered employment for those who succeeded in this system. Similarly, the gathering of people into nation states required that they see themselves as part of a single nation and that they learn respect for the national symbols, such as the flag and the nation’s head, and be willing to die fighting for those symbols, although often being contented with fighting other nations in sporting events. Modern schooling has been remarkably successful at achieving these goals, in a relatively short period of time, to the point that most of us cannot imagine life without it.

Globalizing of Modern Education

With the phenomenal rise of Europe as an industrial and military power, schooling came to be seen as the key to that success, so the European model of schooling was eagerly sought by those desiring industrial and symbolic power in other parts of the world. The Americans and the Japanese were among the first to adopt this new system of schooling, although one can also find early adoptions of it in other places, such as the Russian and Ottoman empires. Soon, it came to be seen as mandatory by the colonial powers, namely Britain and France, who spread this system throughout their domains. By the early 20th century, a global system of modern schooling was in place and it remains to this day.

While the structure of schooling taught its lessons of industrial standardization and national adulation, there were of course various academic subjects taught as well, mainly language and math skills. The modern nation state also required the teaching of history and civics, to further the feeling that each nation was somehow special and unique among others, and that its head men and political systems were the best over the rest. Schools also began teaching the sciences and humanities, though at first these subjects were reserved for the elite private schools, where the rich and famous could sequester their children to learn the “higher values” of science and literature and to maintain a feeling of superiority and separation from the seething masses. But by the mid 20th century, most of the academic subjects that we see in most schools anywhere today were being taught.

The benefits and successes of the new system were not shared by all, in particular the benefits of an industrial economy, because the Americans, Europeans and Japanese greedily guarded their competitive edge in these areas, while the rest of the world became the suppliers of their resources and consumers of their industrial products. It is an irony that while most nations of the world adopted the factory model of schooling, very few were actually able to develop industrial economies. This could be seen as a failure of modern schooling, but it would depend on which time or place one is examining. The success of modern schooling in building a sense of nationalism has been more evident. In both cases, either in building an industrial economy or national identity, schooling was a process directed by those with a vested interest in one or another of those new realities.

Becoming Obsolete

By the late 20th century, the recognition emerged that this system had largely run its course or that it was becoming obsolete and in need of some sort of reform. The main benefactors of this aging system—America, Europe, and Japan—fought each other in horrifically violent wars, which were called “world wars” because they involved the colonial spheres of influence of those powers, and which spanned the entire planet. In addition, the Third World began to realize the ruse of the system, that they were playing by the rules but still largely unable to reap any of the benefits of the game. The global economy, in the meantime, had passed from national planners in the dominant colonial powers into the hands of global corporations, and now all nation states are coming under the sway of global rules of economic development, including the once great state powers. Meanwhile, media have become the new teachers of identity, though decidedly diffuse.

As this new system changed, and in the wake of the World Wars, the industrial powers began to quibble among themselves, at once envying and mimicking each other’s national educational systems, in the hope of gaining a fleeting edge in economic development. For example, in the 1980s, it was faddish for American technocrats to bemoan the failure of the American educational system, in the face of Japanese economic ascendancy, which was seen as due to its superior educational system that created true adulation not only for the state but for the corporate order. But that was put to rest a decade later with the virtual collapse of the Japanese economy, and the rise of despair, depravity, and suicide among Japanese youth. Meanwhile, a never ending stream of reforms plagued the educational systems of the “developed” nations, with the “developing” world waiting to see what their colonial masters would come up with next. Faddishness continued to be the order of the day for an educational system seeking a new sense of meaning and a new purpose for its existence, not to mention a justification for the tremendous amount of money it cost.

It is at this point that one can detect more clearly the failures of modern schooling. After a century and a half of development, there is not really much to show for this system. The so-called advanced democracies are mired in political nihilism and cultural frivolity, at times rivaling that of the decaying Roman Empire . Gangsters, murderers, liars, fascists, and bigots are elected to public office with impunity. Meanwhile, most people are utterly unable to see beyond the promises of unlimited economic growth, instead living blindly a consumerist lifestyle that has time and again been denounced as unsustainable over the long term. Ecological systems are in collapse, species are becoming extinct, and humans have become one of the few organisms (other than pigs) that consistently foul their own habitats. People still fight each other over trivialities, with armies marching to murderous ends to defend lines on a map, madly cheering the latest movie stars and football heroes.

Perhaps it is too much to lay the blame for all this at the doorstep of school, to say that the mess the world is in today is due to schooling. But it is equally unrealistic to expect schools to fix these problems. Yet most efforts at educational reform are still dancing to the same old tunes of economic growth and national pride, with the few exceptions to this uniform pattern, such as those feeble efforts at “environmental education” and “global awareness,” merely serving to prove the rule. Once a problem is identified, people turn to schools to solve that problem, if they have not already blamed the problem on schools.

In those nation states with expendable wealth, technocrats can continue to pour it into their national educational systems. In such places, flashy consumerism is replacing stodgy industrialism, spearheaded by the fun-loving Americans. Now one can find the utter absurdity of schools in the rich nation states exchanging the drab decor of factory schools for colorful Disney characters. Even where there is not as much disposable wealth, one can find a “Disneyfication” of schools, testimony perhaps to recognition that schools are indeed drab and boring places, but also a testament of the failure to imagine any alternatives other those images produced for the global entertainment markets. In the impoverished nations, neither of these games is played. They never benefited from the industrial system and don’t have the money to apply the latest educational fad, so what one finds is a simple decay of colonial schooling. While this is often decried by the United Nations and the NGOs of the wealthy nations, it may also be a cracked mirror for the rest of the world to view the decay of the industrial way of life and the nation states of modernity.

For many people, this is too bleak to accept. They would rather devote themselves to making schools better places. The argument is that as long as schools exist, we should at least try to make them habitable and tolerable places. Others will argue that schools are still one of the few places where people can get together for some sort of intellectual activity, although this is usually reserved for universities (equally in decay, but beyond the scope of this article). When asked what they like most about school, many children, and those adults recalling their childhood, will list the social aspects more than that the academic aspects. Indeed, it is perhaps a success of schools that they have become places for mass socialization, but at times this socialization has gone against the grain of what parents and societies desire, at which point this “success” can then become a “failure.”

In fact, framing the problem of modern schooling in terms of success and failure is in many ways a futile exercise. Nationalistic zealots and greedy corporate leaders, particularly in the “developed” nation states like America , have consistently used a rhetoric of school failure to justify the imposition of austerity and intolerance on diverse populations. The corporate chiefs and their cheerleaders among the political elite in particular, eagerly applaud any claims that schools have failed because it gives them another shot at raiding the public coffers, since money spent on failed schools is surely money wasted and it would be better spent lining their pockets and those of their cronies. It is for this reason that one finds a spiteful impulse to maintain schools the way they are, and not complain too much about their failures, in the hopes of protecting one of the few public spaces left in the industrialized world today. While this may be a valid argument in some places, in particular where there is wealth to contest, for most of the world it is seen as an irrelevant luxury of the privileged nations in search of meaning.

Whatever the reason, when increasing numbers of people the world over have come to see schools as failures, then this is an indication that there needs to be serious discussions about what to do with them. This cannot be left to politicians and corporate executives, nor can the problems (or solutions) of the wealthiest countries be superimposed upon the rest of the world. It is in those places where the vast majority of humanity resides that the most rigorous discussions have to take place, where there is little to gain or lose. Before bulldozing all the schools, or dressing them up like shopping malls, a concerted effort needs to be made to truly assess what we expect of them, and this has to be a collective endeavor. This must also include looking honestly at alternatives, ranging from efforts at de-schooling and “walking out” to developing vocational institutes and home education. Above all, the limitations of schooling have to be recognized. As long as we aspire to gain wealth and status through schooling, in a game that demands there be winners and losers, then the “failed” system of modern schooling is unlikely to change very much, since the foundations of the system are built on economic growth and social ascendancy