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Essay on Modernisation Through Education

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The discovery of printing in Europe many centuries later in the fifteenth century did not lead to anything approaching universal literacy, indeed, it is extremely doubtful that literacy rates reached or exceeded 30 percent in European settings until well into the nineteenth century.

Printing has its relevance no doubt, and one would not wish to cite it, but modernization is a more crucial variable in predicting high rates of literacy.

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Other things being equal, the more highly modernized a people; the higher will be their literacy rates until in highly modernized societies something approaching universal literacy has been achieved.

We use literacy as a synonym for a whole set of a learning. Learning to write is regarded as the obverse of learning to read, but we also expect a universal literacy with regard to such fields as arithmetic, and even, oddly enough, some of the general facts and myths of the history and civics of the peoples concerned.

All of these become part of the basic-that is, that which they share or accept to share with other members of their society as opposed to the specialized or intermediate learning of modernized people.

Other things being equal, the less modernized a people, the less will be the absolute amount of their basic learning, ar|d the less will be the development of their intermediate or specialized learning.

With modernisation, the acceleration of development of specialised learning is so enormously great that we are sometimes forced into ignoring the enormous increase in basic learning.

Some realization of this, as it applies today, is implicit in the joking we do about the “New Math” It is not just a joke. A level of mathematical sophistication extending increasingly to the use of computers is a part of basic learning for our children, though it was not for us.

In considering the enormous increase in basic education, no one can afford to overlook the leveling effect of participation in it. When only the elite learn to read, and perhaps, it is one characteristic by which you can identify the elite.

Nowadays you can’t tell the Joneses from the Astors that way. One of the greatest “democratizing” forces in the history of the world has been the sharing of a common curriculum.

Beyond the basic common curriculum of learning to walk and to talk is to eat and to sleep and control bodily functions and interact with other human beings; the common curriculum for all humankind has never been so great as it has become with modernization. Moreover and especially, never before in history has it exhibited a tendency to become continuously greater all the time.

The expansion of basic knowledge is in a sense even more spectacular, though usually ignored, than the proliferation of the specialised knowledge that rests on it the most spectacular part of all icebergs is the part you never see unless you dive deep. It is difficult even to discuss universal education as we think of it without referring directly or indirectly to the use of schools as the device to handle education.

For non-modernised people in schools, as we think of them, are restricted almost entirely to small portions of the elite. Even for the elite, much of the schooling was provided by individual tutors and the like, rather than by schools as we think of them. Schools represent a special organisational device focussed on education. Schools stand in immediate and stark contrast to one of the great universals of the non-mod­ernized experience.

The universal is that for the non- modernized, the overwhelming proportion of all education for all individuals has taken place in family contexts, not just in the first three years or so of life, but throughout the life cycle of the individual.

As modernization continues, however, it becomes overwhelmingly likely that the vast majority of all that will be considered education will take place in non-family settings as schools.

The break is especially dramatic and traumatic for latecomers who are not yet accustomed, if they are young, to learning things of great importance from people who are not older members of their own families.

Furthermore, and no less strategic, the older individuals are not used to having their young learn things of great importance from individuals who are not members of their own families and who are not under their tutelage and control.

The overwhelming majority of ail of the young, especially of the non-modernized peoples, spend the vast majority of all of their time, including their learning time, in family contexts or those closely associated with family contexts. With modernization all spend an increasing proportion of their time in schools.

What happens to them there is a regarded as critical both by them and by others. (Even the most negative critics of our schools regard what happens there as critical even when they hold it not to be “relevant”.

The general exposure of any substantial proportion of the population to education in terms of schools is something that no people have experienced much longer than a hundred years. Probably most of the world’s population has not had much experience with it for as much as half a century. As long as families, or some closely related organizational contexts such as neighborhood groups, clans, and so forth, are the fact that learning takes place there simply reinforces the general relevance of such settings, to the extent that schools replace a part of that, some of the relevance of such contexts is destroyed, but it cannot be automatically replaced by the school context For the vast majority of people the family context is, after all, a continuing one.

Even in our own lives where we string schooling out quite long, the schools are, for practically everybody, specifically a transitional context —a training or preparatory context. A school is not a general living context except for those in the process of training.

This may be one of the reasons why people who remain perpetually in school contexts, as do university faculties, have from many points of view a childish aura about them.

It may also explain why life in school at any level even when the great majority of all those of appropriate age experience it —it somehow is still generally regarded as something apart from the “real world.” Today we not only take universal education for granted and education in terms of schools for granted; we also take higher education for granted.

Some years ago, in 1935 something in excess of 70 percent of US children completed secondary school and more than 55 percent of those went on to some form of higher education.

US has reached a situation in which 50 percent of all of the children born go on to some form of higher education. There are practically none who do not expect and want that per­centage to increase.

As has been true of secondary school education before, the college education is sure to become a part of the basic education of our people. Japan is the second country to follow. Such advancer schooling is not compatible with high rates of productivity in other respects on the part of the students during their school years.

Unless we find a different way of combining activities with schooling, we shall continue to live with the fact that only extremely affluent societies can afford to keep any substantial proportion of their young out of other productive pursuits for their first twenty to twenty-two years of life.

To put it in another way, only the members of highly affluent societies can make higher education universal. In most non-modernized settings even to have aspired to higher education may be a mark of distinction.

In a setting in which it is a matter of pride to point out that one has failed the entrance examination to the college, those who have had any experience of higher education are, indeed, too elite to accept positions, which, though beneath their elite distinction, are well beyond them in experience.

To place them in the kind of bureaucratic positions justified by academic snobbery is to place them in positions for which they are ill prepared and hence it guarantees troubles for the bureaucracy.

To refuse them such positions is to guarantee a highly disgruntled and articulate elite. In this respect the experience of armed forces is highly opposite. After all, armed forces, when they are not fighting, are essentially in training and educational contexts. An enormous number of armed forces in history have hit upon the following device.

Given the best recruits attainable, whether by universal conscription or by voluntary procedures, those who show aptitude as privates are sent to military schools (or special courses); if they succeed at military schools, they are made cadets; if they are good, they are sent to national academy schools; if they are good at sergeant schools, they are made sergeants; and so on until, following Peter’s Principle, they have been demoted to the level of their incompetence.

What one does without anybody’s having thought it out very well is to adjust the level and nature of advanced training to the level of relevant experience insofar as that can be determined.

There is absolutely no reason why this cannot be done in non-military contexts. Given the values and requirements of most of the latecomers, college degrees should not be regarded even as an initial ideal in civilian governmental contexts.

Young people who have the required basic education in literacy could be taken in and sent along for further schooling as their experience and achievements warrant. That would be one way of getting a closer relationship between experience and relevant higher education than is presently Obtainable.

It is feared a major obstacle to doing this may very well be that the military do it and therefore it is automatically considered inalienably military and hence improper for civilian contexts. There is another factor having to do with higher education that is of some importance.

Universities are curious organisations with a long history. In general, only .three things have ever been done well in university contexts (and the members of most universities have probably not succeeded in doing those three very well). Those three things are the preservation of knowledge, the transmission of knowledge, and the discovery of new knowledge.

The service of universities to the large community must, if the universities are to be viable, consist primarily of performances along some combination of these three lines.

For a good number of years most of us have been cynical about how good a job is done in term of the transmission of knowledge.

No major proportion of the general public has even been terribly interested in the preservation of knowledge. So in recent times perhaps the most striking feature of universities has been their contribution to the discovery of knowledge.

This is in and by itself a special development. Throughout most of their histories, universities have been primarily important for their contribution to the preservation and transmission of knowledge. As the modernization process developed, two curious things took place.

On the one hand continual increases of basic and specialised knowledge became increasingly critical for survival, let alone the good life, and, on the other hand, the overwhelming organizational focus for the discovery of new knowledge came to be the university or a university-simulated organization.

Prior to the twentieth century, the universities even in the West were not the main settings through which contributions to knowledge were developed.

By a series of historical accidents, the United States has become the overwhelming repository of world university resources, especially with regard to contributions to knowledge at the frontiers of discovery.

Universities are delicately poised and curiously tolerated organizations. For a whole series of reasons the temptations for latecomers to develop them quickly, and for the mod­ernized as well as the non-modernized to attempt to use universities for purposes other than the three roles mentioned above, especially to use them as primarily political devices, are certain to be very great, indeed, both from within and from without the university.

Such attempts will never accomplish the purposes they are intended to serve over any extended period, but they may easily result in the destruction of the universities.

If that happens generally in the modernized world, we shall have to look to other contexts for the discovery of needed new knowledge, just as those countries who have not developed universities must do now.


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