In his lecture delivered at the University of Arizona on 8 Feb 2012, Noam Chomsky brings his own historical analysis, wide reading and critical sensibility to the question of not only which purposes education serves, but whose purposes. He delineates two approaches to higher education:
- The Enlightenment View: “laying out a string along which the student can explore and progress in his own way” (citing Wilhem Von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university system) [24’00]
- The Transmission Model (my phrase not his): a method for imbibing students with a prescribed set of knowledge and procedures and testing them narrowly on their ability to recall these.
Recalling Dewey, he links the second approach to the preparation of children for an uncritical acceptance of their lot in the workplace. It encourages students to fake learning rather than to engage with it. He contrasts this with a HE course taking the first approach, where on the first day students are required to ask not “what will we cover in this course” but “what will we discover on this course?”. This, he suggests is the whole of the curriculum at a serious university [32’00].
These two ends of a pedagogic spectrum will be familiar to anyone who has taught. It addresses the spirit of education: I would suggest that practice will range along the continuum from free inquiry to close instruction and that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Chomsky’s purpose is to place this dichotomy in the particular political and economic context of contemporary USA, in which public policy and priorities are increasingly set by corporate interests, so learning which doesn’t have clear economic benefits will be deprived of funding. The growth in tuition fees and student debt is part of a move towards an indoctrinatory system in which students will uncritically accept any education that leads to employment and then have an uncritical approach to that employment. David Harvey elsewhere has described as the creation of an indentured graduate workforce.
Placing this “education as social control” thesis in broader context Chomsky cites not Marxist theorists such as Gramsci or Althusser but Adam Smith on the immorality of a society where each is directed only towards their own welfare and Ralph Waldo Emerson for the necessity to gain the consent of the masses for privilege to be maintained.
Inevitably a narrative this wide in scope deals in generalisations, however the broad sweep of his analysis fits the picture both in the US and increasingly so in the UK. However, within the broad sweep there is wide variation and many educators are busy ‘laying out string’.
It’s interesting to ask in what ways the field of medical education, for example, with its guarantees of well-paid employment on graduation and hopefully high levels of ethical and critical thinking is able to buck the trend.