Education: not a fixed abstraction

In his book The Long Revolution, in a chapter on ‘Education and Society’, Williams wrote: 

…we speak sometimes as if education were a fixed abstraction, a settled body of teaching and learning, and as if the only problem it presents to us is that of distribution: this amount, for this period of time, to this or that group.

…to conduct the business [of education] as if it were the distribution of a simple product is wholly misleading.

…what has been thought of as a simple distrubution is in fact an active shaping to particular social ends.

The way in which we organise education, the particular structure our education system has taken, the shape of our curriculum, the specific selection of content we choose to ‘deliver’ through that curriculum – all these and more are not timeless abstractions, but particular to the social, political and economic context in which we construct and operate an education system.

This, of course, comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever thought seriously about education, about its purpose and about the way it is organized in different societies. Nonetheless, it is good to be reminded that education has two key functions. They are:

  • to reflect the society we live in, and;
  • to reproduce the society we live in.

Which of the two we might regard as the more dominant at any one point in time will depend on our ideological standpoint. Tensions arise when our education system no longer reflects our society, when changes in society happen too quickly for our education system to keep up. That, I believe, is the situation we are in today.

And what if our education system continues to seek the reproduction of a society that no longer exists? If social relations are changing, if our vision of a future society is different from what has been before, and indeed if the very nature of what it means to be educated is changing, as I believe it is, how do we ensure that education is set up to help us get there, rather than drag us in the opposite direction?

Changing practice in the classroom (micro-level change?) is one thing, but changing the very nature of our education system (macro-level change?) to reflect and (re-)produce the society we seek is a very different beast altogether.