During a recent conversation with a history professor friend of mine the subject of peasant education arose. My friend noted that the current education system seems to have the same basic goal as the peasant education system that arose in Europe. Leaving out some of his nuances, the goal of the peasant education was to train them to be literate and give them the skills needed to operate in the changing economy of the time. This education explicitly avoided teaching them to think for themselves. After all, while competent workers were needed people who might question the established order were certainly not desirable.
Fast forward to today and it certainly seems that certain politicians are working to create this sort of education system (and my friend contends that for most Americans the peasant education has long been here). While the education system has long been a favorite target, recent years has seen a major step up in attacks on education. Education budgets have been cut, standardized tests have been imposed, educators have been vilified and even higher education is being micro-managed (ironically by the very Republicans who purport to be for small government and freedom). In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently said
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
He has followed up on this by sending a rather long list of questions to the state universities. These questions tend to focus on matters such as whether or not the universities are meeting the needs of employers and other job related matters.
This, one might suspect, seems to indicate a desire to push a peasant education. That is, to shape higher education so that its primary purpose is to create workers crafted to meet the needs of employers. While there is an emphasis on critical thinking and writing proficiency (after all, as my friend noted, the peasants need to be literate), these also seem to be matters relating to being fit employees rather than a concern for educating people to think for themselves (which has been a hallmark of the liberal education).
It is interesting that the fields that are typically the most subject to attack tend tend to be those that emphasize original thinking and questioning. For example, philosophy has long been bashed as being “impractical” and “useless.” Coincidentally, philosophy is focused on original thinking, questioning dogma and inquiring into matters deeply. Folks who learn too much philosophy (such as Locke, Socrates, King, Wollstonecraft and Jefferson) are often not content to go along with the status quo and have a tendency to be rather concerned about such things as ethics and justice. As another example, science has often come under attack, at least when scientists deal with matters that certain folks regard as unsettling (such as climate change, vaccines and evolution). Of course, I am sure it is just a coincidence that the fields of inquiry that are most concerned with big questions and profound inquiries tend to be the target of charges of being useless and impractical.
It might be objected that I am being rather foolish. After all, the true purpose of a university education is to be trained for a job and Governor Scott is sincerely trying to do what is best for the students and the people of Florida (including the “job creators”).
This objection does have some teeth. After all, most students are, in fact, in school to get the piece of paper that will enable them to get a decent job. By channeling resources into degrees that are mostly likely to lead to jobs and putting a greater emphasis on creating students crafted to fit into jobs these students will have a better chance of being employed (assuming that companies ever get around to doing more hiring).
It could also be said that my perception of the purpose of education is distorted by the fact that I am a philosopher and I have been influenced by troublemakers like Socrates and Locke. If I were a more practical sort of person I would see that true education, at least for the working class people who attend state schools, lies in being properly trained to meet the needs of potential employers. The other sort of education is, of course, best reserved for the betters of society-those who attend Yale and Harvard (or their lesser cousins).