Globalization of Pedagogy, Not for the Better: Origins and Purposes


pedagogy-1 EspañolJoel H. Spring, a noted education researcher, authored the book Pedagogies of Globalization: The Rise of the Educational Security State. But let us reverse his title and ask about the globalization of pedagogy: why are schools around the world so similar? What economic and historic trends led to such similarities?

The globalization and homogeneity of educational practice might be laudable if all were satisfied with current outcomes, but this is hardly the case. Indeed, as Professor Richard Elmore of the Harvard Department of Education stated, “the modal classroom in the modal public school in this country is designed point-for-point to be exactly the opposite of what we’re learning about how human beings develop cognitively.”

This concern is not unique to the United States. Hundreds of Spanish-speaking collaborators expressed similar concerns in Spain and Latin America, in the video “La Educación Prohibida” (English subtitles available).

The leading paragraphs from Aristotle’s Politics, Book 8 is a good place to begin our inquiry (emphasis added):

No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives […] And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private — not as at present, when every one looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all. Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole.

The contemporary practice of education in Aristotle’s time contrasted sharply with his proposed utopian ideal of uniform state-driven and state-sponsored education. Athens, as described in Kenneth J. Freeman’s 1907 essay “Schools of Hellas,” had very little regulation of education: attendance was voluntary; the acquisition of reading was an obligation of citizenship, but the means were left to parents and students; home-education was an accepted part of the process. School hours were set so as to permit children to travel to and fro during daylight hours. Otherwise, it was subject only to that natural regulation which is engendered via voluntary exchange among customers and providers. Athens must have been doing something right, since they produced some of the most remarkable philosophers, mathematicians, and authors in the history of the world.

Now why would Aristotle, who learned in one way — “when every one looks after his own children separately” — advocate a completely different model? It could be that he offered this utopian ideal for its own compelling merits, or perhaps such a utopian ideal would be most pleasing to the ears of his employer King Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander, who later became “the Great.” Whenever government controls education, this may lead to the lofty ends cited by Aristotle, but it certainly will be more conducive to the ends of the government itself, and ultimately to “the rise of the educational security state,” to borrow from the subtitle of Joel H. Spring’s text.

This is no mere speculation or theory; we have records of people who proposed exactly that.

For centuries, literacy in Europe was accessible only to a few elites. Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press, ca. 1450, speedily transformed the production of books. It made them cheaper and more widely accessible, leading to a rising demand for education. Another factor was the Reformation, and the tenet that people should read and understand the Bible in their own language, rather than having its guidance imparted to them.

In 1520, Martin Luther proposed that the German states should mandate and provide education to everyone, enlisting children in a war with Satan.

If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil

This theme was taken up in some American colonies, including Massachusetts, which passed the Old Deluder Satan Law in 1647.

Even so, parents and guardians paid tuition for their charges, and attendance was still voluntary.

Modern education was transformed in a more Aristotelian direction by the trend toward nationalism. Key to this transformation was the Prussian Philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. When the many critics of today’s education speak of the nearly-universal “Prussian Model of Education,” it is Fichte who was one of its most influential progenitors.

In October of 1806, Napoleon’s forces gave Prussia a severe drubbing in the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Within a few months, Prussia suffered extensive losses of territory, men, and prestige, and became subject to the French Empire. The 6th Coalition reversed the tide in 1812 and defeated Napoleon, but not before the original losses had led to Fichte’s 1808 Addresses to the German Nation. In his address, he laid out a theory of the causes of Prussia’s defeat, and proposed a solution: a complete revamping of the educational system.

In a word, it is a total change of the existing system of education that I propose as the sole means of preserving the existence of the German nation.

Fichte’s goal was to mold the entire person, leaving no part behind, so that the education should not merely “belong to the person,” but should be integral to the person.

The new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can be relied upon with utmost confidence and certainty.

Fichte was not aiming merely for literacy, the “Three R’s,” or critical thinking skills. His aim was to create subjects who would not merely do as they were told, but would be unable to think otherwise.

In an ironic twist, Minister of Education Victor Cousin brought the ideas of Fichte and other Prussians back to France; he somehow envisioned this system of education as a sort of war prize, worth more to France than the defeat of Prussia at Jena and Austerlitz.

Governments everywhere have a universal appetite for mechanisms to inexpensively control their subjects. The Prussian ideas spread widely. Here, in the Edinburgh Review, 1833, is a hint of the motivation:

When we contemplate, indeed, the vast masses of manufacturing population congregated in our large towns, and think that they have learned the secrets of their own power without the knowledge of how to use it aright, we may well be apprehensive of danger, and desirous to know by what means it may be averted.

The elites of every nation feared education; it was outlawed in many times and places. When demand became too great to be stifled, the second-best option was chosen: to co-opt the process of education, to provide “safe” myths and ideas to the masses — not least of which, the myth that the elites and the masses, the superiors and the inferiors, are in their rightful places — whether for reasons of history, religion, heritage, or such reasons as may be dressed up in scientific form.

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