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There are so many areas of concern and debate when it comes to education that it is hard to prioritize. There are also problems which apply locally, in specific disciplines, institutions, parts of the world, etc., and some issues can look very different depending on one’s political and ideological perspective.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of such problems, but I want to try – as far as possible – to look at the challenges facing education in a global context and from an ideologically neutral perspective.

These are the five main problems I see with present-day education:

Problem #1: Many children get an inadequate education

A couple of hundred years ago hundreds of millions of children around the world got no education at all. These days, hundreds of millions of children are going to school but not receiving even a basic education.

Source: The Education Crisis

Is that progress? I suppose it is progress of a sort. It’s probably better than picking cotton, or being sent up a factory chimney or down into a coal mine.

That’s something to consider. There are still some exceptions, but in most countries children are legally protected from being used as labour and required to attend school.

So, yes, there’s been some progress. But when hundreds of millions of children are being deprived of their childhood for little or no tangible benefit it’s clear that there is still a long way to go.

Problem #2: Schools are often little more than factories churning out wage slaves

What about those children lucky enough to get an education that at least provides them with the basic skills? Are the years they spend in classrooms worth the sacrifice of their childhood, or are they all too often simply conditioned into being economic units, leading lives of unfilled potential in thrall to an elite that thrives on the fruits of their labours?

Jayaprakash Narayan; I don’t necessarily agree with all his ideas about the solution, but surely there can be little doubt about his diagnosis of the problem!

What’s wrong with education?

It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it often is. No wonder some people see education, not as a right to be fiercely protected, but as a scourge…

Are teachers just another brick in the wall? Or are they taking the stick for institutional failures at a higher level?

Problem #3: The primary benefits of education tend to go to those who are already privileged

In a game with so many losers there must be some winners. As Douglas Webber and others like to point out, those who graduate from university will, on average, earn substantially more money than those who don’t. Speaking of students in the United States, Webber writes:

The typical college graduate will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate over their working life.

Is college worth it?

But there are lies, then there are damned lies…and then there are statistics, which are so often adduced to prove lies. One of the biggest and most basic ways in which statistics can subvert truth is by mistaking correlation for cause or cause for effect. Do high earners, in general, achieve their level of income because they went to university … or do they go to university because they come from high income families?

What’s wrong with education?

Education fails when most of the advantages of education go to those who are already in the most privileged positions, and where you’re going in life is determined, to a large extent, by where you come from.

Problem #4: Standardized testing perpetuates inequality

This issue is closely related to the previous one, and it’s a thorny problem. In the 19th century, the educationist and politician Horace Mann introduced standardized testing in the United States as a way of eliminating inbuilt privilege in the form of social class, wealth, or ethnicity. Ironically, then as now, standardized tests merely reinforced the advantage of those who were already privileged; socially- and economically-advantaged students outperform students from disadvantaged backgrounds for all the same reasons as I pointed out in the previous videoclip.

What’s wrong with education?

“… standardized tests are not really fair and helpful evaluation tools because they reward the ability to answer superficial questions quickly and do not measure the ability to think or create in any field. They also assume that all test takers have been exposed to a white, middle-class background.”

Institute of Education Sciences

Problem #5: Instead of being taught how to think, students are often being taught what to think, or simply not to think, but merely to memorize and conform

This is another very thorny problem. There’s a very thin line between inculcating values and indoctrination. Teachers, parents, society as a whole – everyone has values and, whatever those values may be, everyone thinks they are worth imparting to the next generation. Is it even possible to conceive of an education system without values, and if it is, would we want such a system?

The answer to both questions is probably “No”. Values are implicit even in the selection of material for the curriculum, and an educational system divorced from values would lead either to a society with no values, or to one in which individual values were so diverse and contradictory that there would be no cohesion, no commonality.

But when values and ideology come at the expense of critical thinking and the spirit of inquiry then they come at too high a price, particularly in today’s rapidly-changing world.

In the past, teachers could assume that the world their students would grow up into and inhabit would be essentially similar to the world they themselves grew up into and inhabited. Today, though, if there is one thing teachers can be sure of it is that the world their students will live in will be very different from their world.

Today’s students are living in the Information Age. Pretty much anything you can think of is just a mouse-click away, from the weight of Jupiter to the pigments used in the Mona Lisa, from the Bible to the Qran, from Das Kapital to Mein Kampf, from TikTok to Skillshare, and Squid Game to TED talks. Fake news rubs shoulders with fact and almost anyone can say almost anything. In such a world any education system that does not consistently encourage students to develop their own critical faculties, to sharpen and make use of their powers of judgement, is not fit for purpose.

Most of the above is based on a YouTube video I made a couple of years ago …

Here it is in full:

What’s wrong with education?

Coming up next: What can be done? I’ll be talking about ways to meet the challenges education is facing.