Education, The Enlightenment, and the 21st-Century

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  • Picture of Fred van Leeuwen
    Fred van Leeuwen
  • Education

The enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries sought to liberate the human mind from dogmas and encourage scepticism, tolerance, and critical thinking. It rejected the blinkers that limit exploration and human development.

Enlightenment philosophers had widely differing views. That, in a way, was the point; they were not constrained or prescribed in their thinking. Their minds were free. However, it was not enough to have a few islands of free thought. It was necessary to change attitudes and the balance of power as well as to struggle to overcome obscurantism in all its forms. 

Is the legacy of the enlightenment relevant in the 21st-century? To me, it seems highly appropriate to re-visit the values and the spirit of that time. It is not the end of history and we have constant reminders that civilisation itself is under threat.

The French newspaper “Le Monde” reported on changes in education in the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State. The article was based on a memo from the “Minister of Education” as well as information provided by former teachers and others. Schools have been converted to centres of indoctrination. Forty percent of class time is devoted to Islam and to the sharia. Human images have been banned from textbooks and classrooms. History has been abolished other than the life of Mohamed and the early years of Islam.

One former teacher indicated that, while earlier textbooks for young children started teaching simple arithmetic by asking pupils to count donkeys, they are currently told to count Kalashnikovs. Children are not being prepared for life, but for war.

One can hope that when the reign of terror ends in Syria and Iraq that reconstruction will also include a revolution in education that not only ends this intellectual terrorism but also actively seeks to reverse the damage that it has done through teaching tolerance, critical thinking and all of the other missing elements of education. In that region, education has the mission not only to overcome the Islamic State, but also the effects of generations of dictatorship. Without fundamental changes, only fragments of humanity will remain in place long after buildings have been restored.

Obscurantism, not a monopoly of the Islamic State, is associated with religious fundamentalism, now as in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment philosophers would have still had memories of the fanaticism that caused suspected witches to be burned at the stake and imposed its science, for example, the “truth” that the world was flat.

Fortunately, most of the world’s population is not under the yoke of religious fundamentalism, however, there are many places where education is not fulfilling its mission due to other forms of obscurantism.

There is an inherent conflict between blind faith and critical thinking. That is true whether it is religious fanaticism or the imposition of political ideologies or nationalistic or ethnic dogmas in schools.

Although I am not confounding barbaric terrorism with the “values” of the market, it is a danger if one grants markets and management thinking unexamined reverence. Placing education in such a straightjacket is having a major impact on development because it is affecting the way in which communities are conceived, justice is understood, and democracy is practised.

It is normal, perhaps even part of the “natural order” of things, for profit-making enterprises to “deliver” for their shareholders. Unlike schools, their mandate is relatively simple; to turn a profit and to pass on as much in the form of dividends. To accept such normal, instinctive profit-seeking behaviour as public service or confuse it with what drives traditional private schools requires either a quantum leap of faith or a lobotomy.

The inherent conflict of interest between “serving” children and serving shareholders is compounded by involving commercial firms with a pecuniary interest in the making of education policy.

Who would accept the idea that pharmaceutical companies would be able to determine which drugs are safe for the public? Who would want such companies to have privileged access to policy making and research related to their own products? Such practices are clearly unacceptable as evidenced by the fact that when they occur, they produce scandals.

Suppose that one took it one step further and said that pharmaceutical companies would be given contracts to run hospitals, and might, in turn, furnish them with drugs. That would be seen as a clear and even outrageous conflict of interest. Why should that be any different for education? Are our children really so much less important than our health?

The Enlightenment left us with a belief in the value of learning, of the comprehensive role and scope of education and of its fundamental role in society. Its DNA includes critical thinking and free debate. Over generations, the mission of education developed around those principles. That began to change around the time that market mania took hold in the 1980’s.

If you examine the new apostles of education among many actors in so-called “reform”, you will not find one trace of enlightenment DNA. There also seems to be no genetic link between market ideologues in education and the father of capitalism, Adam Smith. He said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

But, there is another development in education that may be as dangerous as confusing the public interest with private gain. Even without the profit motive, it can denature the mission of education. And, its influence is spreading rapidly in the form of a market mentality alien to education and to public services in general.

As during the Enlightenment, education does not exist in a vacuum. It is a miniature of society. And, the Enlightenment rejected what the times meant for society. As Nietzsche said, "The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”

The 21st-century battle against obscurantism requires us to deliberately provide that there is enough space for reason and for real debate to take place. It requires us to re-connect with our origins in the Enlightenment and in the centuries of thinking and practice since that time rather than accepting the blockages and limits of functioning within the rigid boundaries of simplistic market fashions.

In the world of good and evil, since the 1980’s, good has increasingly been seen as private and public as evil. It is the perception of the weakening of the understanding of and support for the notion of the “public good” that has allowed much social and democratic progress to be reversed. The galloping inequalities and the loss of opportunities and hope that have afflicted many societies since this new definition of good and evil took hold dramatically affects education in theory and in practice.

Without going into great detail, it is clear that, on a global basis, the language of management is defining education. As George Orwell argued, “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

What is the relationship between the description of educators by Albert Einstein, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge,” and “Performance Management”?

In keeping with the management “party line”, one could respond that there is no conflict; that, in fact, performance management is designed to ensure that teaching and education are of better quality and more efficient and effective. It is, in no way, intended to reduce education impact or quality. One could even argue that PM is the way to realise Einstein’s vision.

But, there is “no management without measurement”, so performance management means performance measurement. Only certain things can be measured, so what is the most easily measured, becomes most important. That becomes the basis for assessment of students and for accountability of teachers. These management systems define education. And yet, such systems leave little room for joy or creativity for the student or the teacher.

The emphasis on competition rather than collaboration in schools is particularly destructive. One of our member organisations (the KTU) from Korea as part of our survey last year on the status of teachers reported:

“First, competitive culture has been introduced to the teaching profession… like merit bonus payments, standardised testing, teacher evaluation systems… Government policy makers wanted to show… a big effort to bring innovative change among teachers, but it has borne no positive fruit. Rather, those policies have played a role in breaking down the cooperative culture among teachers. Second, students’ interest in learning has declined because of teaching to the test. It has brought about students’ bad behaviour that teachers can’t control…”

The connections between the elements of education are immediate; the links in the chain are tight. There is an interdependence that does not combine well with the separation of management from the profession and from the work at hand.

Teachers and their organisations are often excluded from education “reforms”. New forms of organisation and management of education effectively shut out the public as well. It sometimes seems as if one has to be outside education and outside our communities to be inside the debate.

To the extent that reforms offer choices, they are rarely about policy; collective choices about how education should serve young people and society. Rather, they provide individual choices so that parents can "shop around" for schools. 

The replacement of real democracy with the “democracy of the marketplace” will never bring about positive and sustainable improvements in education[1]. Instead of increasing atomisation and feeding the forces that are breaking down the fabric of communities, we need to come together on values that will best serve education and society.

We need a real debate on education and we need serious reform to improve quality as well as access, one that does not exclude the very professionals that make education happen every day or parents or communities or elected officials. It makes sense to re-cast the debate so that it is about learners and teachers in the flesh unobscured by market dogma.

If we are going to discuss education based on the Enlightenment or create 21st-century enlightenment, it is not necessary to go back to the 18thcentury. The roots of “market babble” in the policy debate are shallow.

If, rather than beginning with performance management at the top of the hierarchy, we start with the purpose of education and, from there, make the logical and indispensable connection with the qualifications and status of teachers, the dots connect without elaborate gyrations or heroic efforts to put square pegs in round holes.

Fortunately, it is possible to look at education clearly and objectively. As recently as 50 years ago, the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers (1966) provided a consensus definition of education as well as explaining in some detail the role of teachers as qualified professionals who are best placed to ensure quality educations. Its definition of the purpose of education is not, however, very “testable”:

"Education from the earliest school years should be directed to the all-round development of the human personality and to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural and economic progress of the community as well as to the inculcation of deep respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; within the framework of these values the utmost importance should be attached to the contribution to be made by education to peace and to understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and among racial or religious groups."

The Recommendation is informed by Enlightenment traditions and by the subsequent contributions of generations of education philosophers and educators. It is imbued with human values and with respect. It is based on experience, not theology and it is “tailor-made” for education rather than providing “off-the-rack” management tools.

One could argue that neither the Enlightenment nor the 20th-century can provide useful guidance because so much has changed. However, that basic framework is better fitted to today’s discussions than the framework under which we have failed to communicate in recent years.

Let’s take information and communications technology (ICT), non-existent in the 17th and 18th centuries and not very developed in 1966. If you take the Performance Management approach, you may seek to replace teachers to the maximum extent possible (after all, teachers just “deliver” information and ideas and ICT can do that at less cost). If on the other hand, you take the 1966 and Enlightenment approach, you start from the impact on learning and you look for how ICT can enhance the teaching profession and improve the learning experience for students.

EI submitted its most recent report to the Committee of Experts (CEART) of the ILO and UNESCO in April of 2015 showing the relevance of the two Recommendations (Status of Teachers and one from 1997 covering the status of higher education personnel). The EI report shows how the Recommendations remain relevant for such “modern” issues as “de-professionalisation” and work-place-stress.

Any fair examination of the future of education will show that it will depend on involving and serving the community, parents and learners. But, in particular, it will recognise that good, quality education relies on professional teachers who are free to exercise their profession and maintain the highest standards without being micro-managed. It will show that the best role for school leadership is to supply teachers with the crucial support, trust, and respect that they need to educate. Recognition of the profession of teaching and for educators will not only lead to better quality education, but it will help overcome serious problems of recruitment and retention.

It is particularly appropriate to re-visit the fundamental questions facing the future of education in the context of the Enlightenment and centuries of learning and experience. It is a privilege to do so at the invitation of the RSA, an institution that has represented those values since its foundation.

The Enlightenment and what we must strive to achieve in this century are about a lot more than opposing obscurantism. They are about the free, critical thinking needed to support human rights, freedom and democracy, and create and maintain tolerant and decent societies. In that context, there is an important contribution of the right kind of education to avoid what was described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau with these words,

“Once you teach people to say what they do not understand; it is easy enough to get them to say anything you like.”


[1] The OECD recognises the damaging impact of the application of market principles to the provision of education. In its report, « Equity and Quality in Education – Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools » (February 2012), the OECD states, « School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms in education allows equal access to high quality education for all…However, evidence does not support these perceptions as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation (page 64)

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  • In rethinking education for the 21st century, we must first have an understanding of how our education system has come to be. Education is a topic that has been addressed by great thinkers of every culture throughout time. Due to its importance and complexity, it is a topic with a very wide scope. I have been working at my homework help since 2013 as . During the Enlightenment, an incredibly important philosophical debate that shook the bedrock of education in Europe and changed the landscape of education forever, was what is now referred to as the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. The debate built throughout the 17th century, erupted in the 1690’s and carried into the 18th century. On one side were “the ancients” — those who were in favour of an education based on canonized knowledge which drew on ancient authors, as well as textbooks and methods that held that all knowledge needed in philosophy and science was already available. On the other side were “the moderns” — those who were opposed to an education filled simply with the memorization and regurgitation of canonized knowledge. The moderns were in favour of an education which recognized that, “If future learning can bring new truths, old knowledge can no longer be regarded as perfect; thus, ancient authors cannot be the masters of the present. To study Plato or read Homer is not to fill the mind with eternal truths in philosophy or literature. Education must be opened to a new learning, at least in terms of research and the production of knowledge” (Oelkers, J. 2002). The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and their discussion of modern learning and experiential education, opened the door for what we consider “modern” education. “After this historically important debate, education and learning could be connected with the open experience of modern science” (Oelkers, 2002: 679).

  • Those are interesting thoughts. Also today education faces lots of problems. The point of the standardized tests was to flag issues (like literacy) as they arose for remediation. To avoid scenarios such as high schools filled with students reading at second or third grade level. 
    {Or, worse, legions of dropouts with that skill level...}
    When I had to do my stattistics assignment and a few other data collection assignments I learnt the Boomers took Iowa and other basic assessments to gauge this, and it wasn't considered an affront to society. The testing craze, no doubt bolstered by companies supplying them as well as prep books and software, may be out of control.
    Grim classrooms of drills on testable basics shortchange time for a full educational picture, such as art, science and even P.E.
    But lacking basic literacy skills, how much history or foreign language instruction can a student absorb?
    Ditto basic math operational skill.
    Of course we don't want schools hijacked by test-centric lesson planning. But getting every kid reading is a goal we can't shirk from. And adding & subtracting....

  • Anyone who cares about either Enlightenment values or publiceducation—and certainly anyone who cares about both—should pay careful attentionto van Leeuwen’s essay.

          First, what isthe Enlightenment legacy in his context? The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’slist is as good as any: a respect for reason and liberty, science and industry,justice and welfare. This coincides closely with van Leeuwen’s own point that theEnlightenment “rejected the blinkers that limit exploration and humandevelopment.”

         It would be nice if those were always thevalues and goals of public education. Of course they’re not—far from it. VanLeeuwen mentions the schools under Islamic State control that devote 40 percentof class time to Islam and sharia, and shift arithmetic lessons from countingdonkeys to counting Kalashnikovs.

         In the United States, meanwhile, the TexasBoard of Education—which controls the education of more than 5 million publicschool students, most of them Latino--is right now considering favorably atextbook with thinly veiled (and, incidentally, false) racist statements like “Chicanos…adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wantedto destroy this society.”  

          Van Leeuwen isrightly skeptical of “unexamined reverence” for markets and market capitalismdogma. There’s a sad example of this in Texas’s social studies curriculum. Itexplicitly requires that “the middle school student is expected to explain whya free enterprise system of economics developed in [the United States] includingminimal government intrusion and taxation, and property rights.” It goeswithout saying that in the Texas curriculum, students are by no means expectedto know or explain a single thing about welfare-state liberalism, or socialdemocracy, or Marxism.

          The point hereis not to suggest that Texas is a fraction as repressive as the Islamic State.That is as silly as it is slanderous.

         Moreover, the TexasBoard of Education is not unique. There are plenty of other public educationsystems around the world, apart from those under the Islamic State, where freeinquiry is throttled far more effectively than in Texas on its worst days.

         China is one. As the preeminent educationanalyst Diane Ravitch wisely notes, “Chinese students regularly win anycompetition that depends on test performance. Where they fall short iscreativity, originality, divergence from authority. The admirers of Chinesetest scores never point out that what makes it the ‘best’ education system isalso what makes it the worst education system.”  

          So is there infact  any common thread that runs fromthe Islamic State to Texas to China? Well, there is.

          Inmy view, his most important insight is suggesting that there really is a vastideological battle in public education.

           One side is basedon the deeply anti-Enlightenment impulse to turn young people into “excellentsheep,” in William Deresiewicz’s phrase. That impulse has a long history, ithas a wide variety of manifestations, and it is still very powerful andwidespread.

         The other side ofthe battle, which draws on the Enlightenment, is based in the notion ofeducating students to think for themselves, view the world critically, and atleast occasionally question authority. Consider Diane Ravitch’s description ofschools in Finland. “The central aim of Finnish education,” she writes, “is thedevelopment of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not theattainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish educationis cooperation, not competition.”

           Does that side havea reliable constituency? It varies from place to place, but usually, it isteachers who are respected, well-trained, and organized into unions or othersimilar professional associations that give them a collective voice.

           Without them, aserious, rigorous, widely available public education based on Enlightenmentvalues probably will not exist.

          With them, it may well have a fighting chance.



  • I read this brilliant article and was so inspired by it.  If only our government and education policy makers would read it and act accordingly.