no previous
no next



  ― 159 ―

Education for Democracy?

note

Thisnote is the first of a series of pamphlets to be issued by the Australian Council for Educational Research, under the general title “The Future of Education”. The series, Mr Medley tells us, is “designed to emphasize the vital importance at the present time of devising a real plan of education for the future”, and professor H. Tasman Lovell, who as president of the Council contributes a foreword, expresses the hope that the pamphlets “may prove a useful contribution to reconstruction”. It is clear that “research” in the Council's view, is concerned with “practical” problems, with determining what is to be done and not simply what is the case—clear, also, that this approach assumes what is not the case, namely, that we should all agree about what is “desirable” (about what would he “a better world after the war”) though we may have doubts about how to get it. For if some of us do not share the aims of our educational reformers, we may attach no importance at all to any “real plan” that they might devise. And while it may be impossible for anyone to discuss education without indicating co some extent what he supports and what he opposes, any research worthy of the name will take constant account of the controversial character of these questions and will give serious consideration to the social conditions determining the adoption of divergent views and programmes. If, as seems likely, advocacy is to play a large part in subsequent issues, the series


  ― 160 ―
will contribute little to an understanding of actual trends in education.

The view that education is the key to society, that the way to have a better society is to have a better education, is plausible enough on the level of popular thinking, but one would expect professedly informed discussion to show some awareness of its difficulties and to provide some argument against opposing views—if only to the extent of considering disputes as to what is “better”. After all, it is nearly a hundred years since Marx (third thesis on Feuerbach) attacked the conception of education as the agent of social change, pointing out the artificiality of the division of society into those who were to be improved through the improvement of their conditions and those who, presumably, had mastered their conditions and were to do the improving. And it was very little later that he and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, criticized those Utopians who resolved history into the propagation and carrying out of “social plans”. (The suggestion is, of course, in both cases, that the reformers represented a particular interest or way of living—and criticism of their professed disinterestedness would consist in showing what that interest was.) In fact, according to Marxism, social conditions not merely determine the adoption of views and programmes but determine what happens in considerable independence of what people believe and propose. Now the voluntarist may find it very hard to grasp this position, to see even what is meant by maintaining that the ideological struggle is incidental to a deeper social conflict; but, in view of the very great influence that Marxism has had during the past century, he may be expected to put up a case against it and not to ignore the doctrine of social struggle and the possibility of a class origin (or the colouring by some particular interest) of his own views. It is rather late in the day to be posing such simple questions as what “we”, in everybody's interest, shall do with educational institutions.

But, of course, these phenomena have to be looked at against the background of war, which puts Marxism, and


  ― 161 ―
social criticism generally, at a discount and gives an impetus to the voluntarist way of thinking. It is one of the aims of war propaganda to get people to believe that “all this” is not to happen again and that it can be averted by eliminating or subduing ill-disposed powers and letting the well-disposed powers operate freely. The theoretical weakness of this position is obvious enough; the “well-disposed” showed no capacity in the past for anticipating or controlling events, and the formula of “eliminating the ill-disposed” does not on the face of it indicate any growth in competence, any deeper insight into world affairs. In fact, it is such as to cover the same advancing of special interests and ignoring of difficulties as led to the present turmoil. Yet, though critics may murmur “The devil was sick”, there are plenty of the uncritical who will accept the admonition to avoid “post-mortems” and look to the future, who are eager for the new dispensation and so permit their rulers to absolve themselves from responsibility for present ills. That is one main condition of the spread of voluntarist ideas and the belief in “goodwill” as the social panacea.

But that is only half the story. “Reconstruction” propaganda is aimed not merely at maintaining present submissive attitudes but at facilitating future developments and particularly the trend, observable all over the world, towards centralization. To represent this as the approach to the reign of goodwill seems, once more, a highly implausible position, but it has its appeal to those who have become discouraged in the struggle to influence events and also to those who can envisage themselves as sharing in the work of “guidance”—and these are the people who are most concerned in the propagation of the belief—in a “new order”. This is not to say that their activity is the chief factor in bringing about such an order; it can help to determine some of the details but in the main it is symptomatic of, and adapted to, a development which is taking place independently. None the less the acceleration of the tendency towards centralized control gives fresh opportunities to the devotees of guidance, gives them the chance in particular to


  ― 162 ―
put some of their rivals out of business, and this is in accordance with the monopolistic character of the whole process. Now if it were recognized that “planning” means monopoly, it could not readily be associated with democracy or with “education” in any sense other than regimentation. And it is here that the posing of the question in the form “How shall we reconstruct?” has its usefulness—it covers over the critical question, “What social interest does ‘reconstruction’ represent?”, and it prevents consideration of the view of democracy which historical determinism would oppose to the doctrines of the voluntaristic “reformers”.

That view, taking its departure from the contentions that institutions have their own history and that this is a history of struggles, would take democracy to reside in the openness, the publicity, of struggle and not in devotion to a postulated “general interest”. It would reject the conception of institutions as devices whereby people attain certain ends and maintain, on the contrary, that it is only within institutions that policies have any meaning. This is not to deny that institutions are interrelated, that other institutions are affected in special ways by political institutions, that there are important relations between publicity in society at large and publicity in such a special field as education. But whatever these relations may be (and the study of them has been greatly impeded by the Marxist reduction of all social diversity to a single conflict), the diversity and independence of institutions, and of interests operating within each institution, remain.

If, then, we consider the history of educational institutions themselves, we shall find it largely taken up with the struggle between the development of inquiry (education in the strict sense) and opposing forces which regularly come in the guise of “social utility” and frequently take the form of State interference. And any attempt to enforce a view of what education shall be, inevitably interferes with inquiry. There can be fruitful (democratic) interaction between education and politics; it may be argued indeed (as I have argued elsewhere) that a


  ― 163 ―
thorough education is necessarily political. But political training is not thorough unless it involves preparation for struggle and criticism of the doctrine of social unity. A case in point is the outrageous denial of educational facilities to Victorian school-children who are not prepared to accept social unity (“loyalty”) as a dogma. It will be argued, of course, that they are accepting the protection of that which they refuse to acknowledge. But the question whether there is a protective “system” or a conditional adjustment among divergent interests is just the matter in dispute. It is a greatly encouraging sign, on the other side, that a majority of Australians have in the recent elections refused to subscribe to a unity without diversity, have shown some realization of the fact that agreement is only within limits and that a complete sinking of their special interests (“putting their liberties in pawn”) merely means submission to the special interests of a minority.

As the reader will have gathered, there is no suggestion, in Medley's pamphlet, of criticism of the doctrine of social unity; “education in citizenship”, “learning the difficult lesson of cooperation”, are the burden of his song. He recognizes such obstacles as timidity and laziness but has nothing to say about the utilization of educational institutions in the service, of special (commercial) interests. He involves himself at the very outset in the vicious circle to which Marx drew attention. “Any, system of society—call it what you will—is no better and no worse than the system of education which it fosters”: so runs his first “general proposition”. Thus, to improve society we have to improve education, but to improve education we have to improve society. The assumption is, of course, that there is a body of improvers who stand, as Marx put it, “above society”, and presumably get their own education by revelation from on high; but, if that is so, what becomes of the “proposition”? And, if there were such a superior order, what reason would there be for thinking that it would undermine its position by “the provision of a genuine equality of opportunity for all citizens”? The error here lies in the notion of “provision;”;


  ― 164 ―
it is fashionable at present to counterpose equality and liberty, but, in fact, genuine equality depends on people's own efforts and is not something that can be bestowed.

On this question Medley himself is uneasy. Having outlined his scheme of “real equality”, distinguishing the pigeon-holes into which people may be fitted (he believes in “vocational guidance”, it need scarcely be said), he remarks:

It is easy to criticize the whole idea on the grounds that there will be no difference in fact between the society I have outlined and a totalitarian state. The difference can only be one of spirit—the spirit of man as opposed to that of the machine and that difference can only be maintained by seeing to it that education in citizenship does not stop short with the school (pp. 24, 5).

So on p. 13:

What we must do is to realize now that the only difference between civilized societies in the future will be a difference: not of social and administrative machinery, but of spirit—a difference between societies inspired by the spirit of man and those inspired by the spirit of the machine. It will be no use crying like children after spilt democracy. We must lift our eyes to a new order and see that it is one of our own making. If we resolve that it must be a democratic one, the must start here and now to make our people fit to have it, for if they are not fit it will not come to them (my italics).

Actually, the antithesis of spirit and machinery is a false one (like Lovell's antithesis of “the nurture of persons” and “the teaching of subjects”, in the foreword); a particular spirit has its particular modes of operation, and the organization of an educational institution, for example, may be such as to kill or greatly weaken the spirit of inquiry. What Medley's “difference of spirit” amounts to is a difference of name—regiment the people, have them all giving the maximum of service to the machine (not forgetting the extreme importance of “physical education” and “fitness”), but call the system “democratic” and it won't be totalitarian.




  ― 165 ―

The insubstantiality of Medley's “democracy” can be made manifest by a few further citations. Having described democracy as a system in which a large majority of citizens play a significant part in “the common business of the community”, he goes on (p. 10) to give as his second general proposition, “We are resolved that our system of society will after the war become a ‘democratic’ one.” But then he says (p. 12): “If my definition of a democratic society he accepted, it is clear that we have never been a democracy. It is clearer still that after the war we shall be even less of a democracy than we were before it”—which presumably means that there will be a loss of participation in public affairs. And this is illustrated, lower down, by the assertion: “Peace must bring with it, if it is to be effective, an advance to a society based far more upon communal and less upon individual effort than has been the case in the past”—from which we might extract the sound conclusion that loss of independence means loss of democracy, though we might not call that “an advance”. But then again, on p. 14, Medley informs us that “We are not a physically fit people…We are not a mentally fit people…And all these things must be mended if our new democracy is to have a chance of existence.” What is to be inferred from all this except that our “new” democracy will not be democracy at all? That conclusion is reinforced by the further argument on p. 14:

Isn't it merely common sense to insist that a state which expects its citizens to play their part in its business should see to it that they are physically and mentally capable of doing so? And how can the state do this except by compelling them to become and to remain as fit as they can be both in body and mind? That is the only way to afford equality of opportunity and the only way to make our democracy possible.

It will make a difference to the commonsense of the matter if we conceive the state as concerned with the interrelations among many institutions or ways of living and not as a total


  ― 166 ―
organization of which they are subordinate parts (a view of an essentially militaristic character). And it is clear that that which exercises general compulsion is not that in which there is general participation but is a special interest of some kind. The kind of interest that requires physical fitness is not doubtful—and what can be meant by “mental fitness” except submissiveness and adaptability to an allotted task? Could there be a more philistine way of describing the cultivation of the mind? But, if that is seriously in question, can “mental fitness” be exhibited otherwise than in critical thinking? And can critical thinking be compelled? Does it develop otherwise than in independent institutions and, to a large extent, against “the state”, that is, as criticism of the system of rights which prevails at any given time, and in the attempt to force readjustment? Such opposition is in fact the condition of democracy, and the assumption of a total interest, or of a central organization which brings everything else under its wing, is anti-democratic. Neither democracy nor education can exist without controversy, they cannot exist without initiative, without spontaneous movements of the “rank-and-file”, and the greatest danger to both is the spurious agreement involved in submission to the “expert”, the official judge of “fitness” and “unfitness”.

The details of the scheme of “equality of opportunity” do not matter very much. “Reform” of the curriculum follows familiar lines.

There should be at school leaving age—say fifteen (plus)—a leaving certificate based on five main divisions—English, elementary mathematics, social science, general science and one other containing a wide variety of options. After it there should be retained in the educational system at the expense of the State wherever necessary all those who have any possibility of benefiting from higher education and they should undergo a two years' course of the kind which the Americans describe as “orientation” or “foundational”—(say) 50 per cent general subjects of a background character, 40 per cent preliminary specialist or technical training and 10 per cent physical, including


  ― 167 ―
if possible a period or periods in a labour camp engaged in manual work of national importance. At the end of this course—aged eighteen—those who have had all the higher education of which they are capable should be ruthlessly turned into the world, irrespective of their own desires or their economic position (p. 19).

One may question the use of the expression “higher” here; at any rate, we still have control by the infallible expert and the very opposite of democracy. The development of democracy in the schools would require a freer, more critical treatment of existing subjects (particularly language and literature, as culturally fundamental) in which there is a coherent body of knowledge within the capacity of school pupils. But what sort of mastery of “social science” can they have? Presumably the “subject” would consist of odds and ends of information about the working of social and economic institutions, backed up by “social unity” propaganda and sermons on “citizenship” and “fitness”, that is, by the assumption of the very things a real social science would call in question.

The fate of universities is left a little obscure. It is suggested that professional courses could be made more “humane”, but at the same time

the idea that a technical education is in some way socially inferior to other kinds must disappear into the limbo of things best forgotten. Both tradition and convenience will continue to necessitate that certain branches of specialized training will be carried on in universities which, side by side with that training, emphasize the value of “pure” knowledge and research as an essential accompaniment to any form of social progress. But the university of the future cannot arrogate to itself any monopoly of the educational stratosphere, and the sooner the problem of its proper relationship to the highest forms of what is at present called technical education is faced in a realistic manner, the better for all concerned.

In fact, “the best contribution that universities can make towards ‘reconstruction research’ is to start by


  ― 168 ―
reconstructing themselves in close collaboration with institutions of technical education” (pp. 22, 3). If they do, it is not hard to see their finish. If they adopt the criterion of social usefulness (in place of their own criterion of scholarship), they will very soon be technical institutions. The whole trend of Medley's proposals is in this direction; and it is the technicians who will constitute the “educated élite” whose leadership he prefers not to call “Fascism”. Presumably this is because no one will dispute it. “It is in our conception of citizenship that we must find the foundation of our secular ethic and it is obvious that its main lesson must be the responsibility of every citizen for the community at large” (p. 24). And this conception is to be filled out by the activity of community centres. “Goals cannot be reached without the machinery to attain them. A belief that talk is enough, that making speeches will itself produce results is a characteristic of democracy that has done us immeasurable harm. Let us cut the cackle and come to the community centres” (p. 26). The characteristic of democracy that Medley here caricatures is opposition; and the reality behind his idyllic picture of social agreement is the repression of opposition.

What I have tried to bring out in this review is the anti-democratic character of “planning”. Much further argument would be required to show the illiberality of the reforming attitude in general. But I hope I have shown that the Australian Council for Educational Research might well devote some of its “research” to a consideration of liberality and utility as opposing trends in the educational world. Meanwhile it pleases me to think that this pamphlet so far gives the game away that it will do the cause of “educational reconstruction” a great deal of harm.

no previous
no next