Ted Trainer.


Following is a brief list of some of the essential ideas documented at length in the radical education literature.  The central theme is that our present educational institutions are predominantly geared to the reproduction of industrial, affluent, consumer society, and therefore not much Education takes place within them.  See also Education: How should we conceive it? for a view of what Education could be about.

Based on Chapter 14 from The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books, 1995, and updated somewhat in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010..  The argument has also previously been published in  “Towards an ecological philosophy of education”, Discourse, 10, 2, April 1990, 92-117.

The Selection Function.

Radical education theorists argue that,

School prepares and selects people for jobs in the production system. It provides the certificates that are the main determinants of where people end up in the competition for jobs.

Our higher educational institutions select and train the technocrats and scientists who will devote themselves to developing and promoting new products.

Educational credentials are the most important of all factors Iegitimising and stabilising industrial society. People accept their very unequal positions because they think that these are deserved and legitimate in view of their educational achievements. People must work for years in schools to pass many exams, in subjects most of them have little or no interest in and subjects which have little to do with the jobs they want to enter. Those who achieve better grades and therefore access to the most desirable jobs then have no doubt that after all that work they deserve their privileges.  This view is just as firmly held by those who didn't succeed. Everyone knows that the main key to success is doing well at school.

It seems economically rational and just to have a system in which those with more "brains" do better at school and get higher credentials and therefore are allowed to enter higher paying jobs.   Yet virtually all the evidence I have seen indicates that determining job and social placement according to educational achievement is in general not very valid. There is much evidence from many studies going back decades showing that in general a person's performance at school is not a good  indication of how well he or she will do at anything else, including  jobs, sport, courses, or success in professional life or business, or in life in general. In some cases it is of some validity as a predictor, but in general the correlations are very low or insignificant.  (Trainer 1990, Berg 1970, Bowles and Gintis 1976.)

“... The better educated employees are not generally more productive, and in some cases are less productive, among samples of factory workers, maintenance men, department store clerks, technicians, secretaries, bank tellers, engineers, industrial research scientists, military personnel and federal civil service employees.” (Collins, 1971).

“School grades appear to have no predictive validity as far as eminence is concerned; i.e, in public life, scientific or business achievement”. (Blum, 1978, 78). 

“Most studies of the relation between high school grades and economic success have found negligible correlations.” (Jencks, 1972, 186).  

“Researchers have in fact had great difficulty demonstrating that grades in school are related to any other behaviours of importance - other than doing well on aptitude tests.”   (McClelland, 1974, 166).

The evidence does not apply only to low level jobs. Hoyt reviewed over 40 studies on the predictive validity of college grades and concluded that “... college grades show little or no relationship to any measures of adult accomplishment'” (Klug, 1977, 20).

Even the predictive value of the final high school achievement grade for performance at university is not very good; e.g., correlations of .4 seem to be about average.  For courses with quite similar content to that studied at high school correlations can be around .6, but for courses such as teacher training and health they can  be .1  Thus many who do well on the HSC do not do well at university, and many who don’t do well on the HSC would succeed at university.  Do we get the best doctors by only taking into medical school those in the top 1% or so of the HSC distribution?  How many people would be good kindergarten teachers but can’t enter because they don’t have the HSC?

This “meritocratic myth” is widely accepted. Almost everyone thinks good performance at school means a person is more “brainy” and should have access to higher jobs and social privileges. Consequently the enormous “educational” system which makes us all spend at least ten years mostly learning things we will make little or no reference to after school is seen to be valid. Yet it cannot be justified in terms of the development or selection of the skills needed to perform adequately in present society.

The seriousness of all this would be difficult to exaggerate. It means that school grades do not predict anything important about a person at all well and in general should not be used to select people into jobs or courses, yet hundreds of millions of kids are being herded through years of school work to get credentials which are then used as major determinants of their life chances.  Their grades also feed into their identities and sense of self worth (e.g., convincing many that they are dumb). Why are there not huge legal cases where people are suing, saying, “You let him into the course because he got more marks than I did at school but  that’s as invalid and unfair as letting him in ahead of me because he’s taller.”  Note here that there is no problem with using a measure, including achievement at school, as a selector for any job or course for which it predicts well, and there will be cases where this is so.  But there is much evidence that in most cases it is not so, or that the predictive validity is very low.

“Ah, but credentials indicate a person’s Stick-to-it-iveness.”

This is a common response.  Many assume that those who do well at school are those who have been able to work hard, discipline themselves, accept authority and rules, and persevere at difficult long term tasks.  These are valued traits in this society, so surely it is rational to select into jobs according to how good people are at these things.  The claim therefore is that grades achieved indicate character rather than brains.

This sounds plausible, but the abundant evidence says that school grades do not predict performance on the job, regardless of whether they reflect brains or docility or self discipline.

In any case, if this was a sound account, then we could save a lot of time and money by getting kids to collect beer cans for a couple of years.  Those who worked hardest and stuck to it, getting up on cold mornings to find more cans than others, would be the ones with most stick-to-it-iveness.

            What is really going on?

Although those who staff the system surely do not intend it or realise it, the main selection functions which radical education theorists see the educational system performing are licensing and legitimising social placlement; i.e., granting the right to positions in society, and getting people to accept the positions they end up with in competitive industrial-consumer society.

All people leave the educational system with a credential determined by how far they went at school.  This functions as a licence to enter a particular job or course. If you do not have the HSC there are many things you are not allowed to do, no matter how well you could in fact do them.  In most cases the licences are more or less invalid and unjustifiable.  It is as if we allowed all the tall people to go to university but said short people can only enter for trade training.  Yet the licensing system is accepted.  People accept the allocation, access and exclusion determined by how well they went at school, because everyone thinks this indicates “brains”, competence or capacity to do the job or course.  Thus the social selection process is legitimised.  People do not have to be forced to accept rotten jobs and life chances.  Those who fail at school accept a life of poor income or unemployment because they too believe they do not deserve any better…because they didn’t do very well at school.

How would selection be carried out in a satisfactory society? 

Where we have tests that could be shown to be good selectors we would use them, but the foregoing evidence indicates that these would not weed out many applicants.  There would therefore be many jobs, positions and courses for which we would end up with a large number of applicants who we could not rank using any measure with much predictive validity.  What then should we do?

The answer is very simple, but quite unacceptable to most people.  We should just use a ballot, i.e., select randomly, giving all an equal chance.  In Holland university entrants were selected this way.  (Those who missed out were given a double chance of selection in the following year, and anyone who missed out then would automatically enter the course in the third year.)

 Middle class people do not to like the idea of a ballot at all.  They want a system that gives advantage to people like them, who are familiar with academic and literary work, examinations, conformity to boring work situations  and to authoritarian relations, and to grinding away in bureaucratic, rule-bound jobs.  They think that anyone who has done all those years of work richly deserves the reward of access to university, etc., and they do not like the idea that anyone might be allowed to come in off the street, even without any schooling, and be allowed to go to university.

Ideally, if someone without educational credentials did want to become an engineer we should first apply any tests that can be shown to be valid indicators of whether or not he will make a good engineer, but then start him at his level of competence.  If he couldn’t even operate a calculator he should start down at that level.  If he really wanted to become an engineer he would probably quickly race through all the basics, under his own steam (although a good society would provide generous assistance.)  All the time it would be possible to reject him from the course if and when he showed (on demonstrably valid measures) that he was not going to be good enough at things that are crucial.

There is some evidence that if we had access systems of this kind high status courses like medicine would not be swamped.  Evidently it is not the case that lots of people actually want to be doctors.  But, again, if too many applied in relation to the places available, and we had no valid way of saying some should be excluded because they couldn’t become good doctors, we should just use the ballot.

Use of a slightly valid criterion is great for the selecting agency, but unjust for many applicants.

If we take into account all kids entering high school there probably would be a significant relation between the school grades they achieve and their capacity to be a good doctor.  Those at the top of the final exam score distribution would be very likely to become good doctors at a significantly higher rate than those at the bottom.  This is so even when, as is usually the case, the correlation between school grades and performance in a job is low.  If it is just slightly significantly positive then taking those at the very top of the distribution of grades is indeed likely to yield more good doctors than selecting at random.  But what’s important here is that to use a very high grade as your selector when the correlation is low means you are being very unfair to a large group of people; i.e., all those who fell below your cut off grade but who would nevertheless have made good doctors.

This makes clear how it suits the selectors, especially universities to have school grades accepted for selection purposes.  Not only does that eliminate discontent about the legitimacy of who got in, but it reduces their chances of having failing students.  Great for them, but what about the large problem of fairness for the many who would have made good doctors but were not allowed in?

            The "equality of educational opportunity" trap.

The sociological issue that gets most attention within education is to do with equality of opportunity.  The average school achievement of people from different social classes differs considerably and educators often seek to help the disadvantaged groups lift their performance.  There are some serious mistakes in this quest. 

Firstly, in a competitive society that does not provide for all, many will fail and become unemployed and excluded.  Does it matter much if we manage to get less of the social injustice to fall on say Aborigines or people from the slums while we make no difference to the occurrence of exclusion, i.e., the number who experience it?  If we help Aborigines to get more HSCs, then more of them will be among the job winners…but more of some other group will then not get the jobs the Aboriginals beat them to.  All we would have done is even up the experience of injustice across social groups, so that it did not all impact on one or a few groups.  There is some merit in that, but it is not a very important goal compared with getting rid of injustice, eliminating unemployment and exclusion, and getting rid of the largely invalid selection process which determines who is going to be excluded.

 Even if we got all kids to leave the educational system with a PhD, that would make no difference whatsoever to the incidence of unemployment.  Unemployment is due to structural faults in this society; it is not due to lack of education. This society does not provide enough jobs to employ all who want work.  It is not that there are enough jobs for all but Aborigines and others do not get them because they haven’t acquired the necessary skills at school.

There are societies that do not have any unemployment.  Ours is one of those barbaric societies that does dump some people into it when factory owners don't want to hire all the workers available.  In such a society educating all people, or particular groups to higher levels can’t make any difference to the numbers who end up with rotten jobs or without a job.  Education can only affect who gets the available jobs.

Even more importantly, to try to increase the rate at which disadvantaged groups achieve higher credentials is to accept the validity of determining social selection by educational credentials.  But as has been explained in the previous section, in most cases this process is not very valid, and in many cases it is of no validity at all.  So to work to enable more Aborigines to get the HSC and therefore to get good jobs, is to work to help them pass a test that should not be used, and a test which greatly favours the middle class who are more at home with books, desk work, academic pursuits, tests etc., and it is to work to reinforce one of the main myths in the dominant ideology.

            Credentials escalation.

There is a strong tendency for the credentials required to enter any specific job to be raised over time.  This is clearly due to the use of credentials as a convenient way for employers to regulate entry into jobs as demand changes. 

A similar phenomenon is where a profession increases its years of training, partly or solely to increase its prestige.  Again these practices would not be tolerated if people refused to accept selection by credentials which could not be shown to be significantly valid predictors.

        Exams, grading, tests, credentials.

Why are schools so riddled with exams?  What has this to do with Education?  If Education is seen in terms of personal development, being able to make sense of the world, interest in learning, thinking, reading, becoming wiser, etc., then exams have nothing to do with Education.  In fact they interfere with it. (See Education; How Should We Conceive It?)

Exams make sense only  in a system that is for training people, grading, licensing and legitimising.  After 15 years of schooling involving hundreds of tests a student has learned that grading is important in this world, we all have an educational rank, prestige and rewards rightly go to those with high ranks…and he is not very deserving so therefore he should not expect to get a very good job.  This is again surely not the conscious purpose of those who design and run educational systems, but it is something the hidden curriculum teaches us all.

The logic of exams?

There are several important problems with exams as indicators of what a person knows.  For instance they tend to take very narrow samples from what one has learned about a subject.  One’s responses can be very unreliable indicators of what one actually knows, e.g., when one can do quadratic equations fairly well but couldn’t do the example set in the exam.  Even when understanding can be thought of in terms of a one-dimensional scale from none to total, one question on the area in the exam is likely to be a poor indicator of where a person is on that scale.  A reliable measure would use many questions at different levels in order to get a number of indicators of where this person is.  Exams are usually not well designed to enable a student to show what he or she knows. 

Above all it is absurd that one’s capacity to show what one knows should depend at all on luck, on whether the question asked was one the individual could answer well.  “I studied those poems but the question was on these.” If you want to know what a student knows, what he has learned from the course, then get  him to tell you!  Why don’t they do this?  Probably because they don’t want to be bothered with all that; they just want to grade people as quickly and conveniently as possible, with some measure that will be accepted.  The examinee will always admonish himself, “Well, if I had studied hard I could have answered that question.”

Then there is the fact that exam performance depends on capacity to cope with stress.  Why let factors like this interfere with your attempt to find out what he knows…or is it that what you want is a measure of how he can handle stressful conditions?  If so, why not get them to collect beer cans carrying a rucksack full of scorpions?

Questions in English exams can provide extremely challengeable cases.  One NSW HSC question was, “Define a generation”.  What did they think different responses to this puzzle, imposed under stressful conditions with limited time for thinking, would indicate about a person?  Did they have empirical evidence supporting these assumptions?

Then there is the comical business of cramming for exams…only to forget all that stuff immediately after the exam.  Again, what on earth is the point of making students do this?  What could such a performance possibly tell us that it is important to know\ about a student? 

A revealing question here is “How would you like to do the HSC exams you passed again --- right now --- with no preparation?  We want to see how much of the stuff you learned you now remember.”  How would you go?  Well then, what on earth was the point of making them learn all that material?   Learning, knowledge is of less than no Educational value if it is not built into a desire to understand the world, unless the learner values it and frequently refers to it because of the light it throws on the meaning of things, which he is constantly interested in thinking about. (See Education; How Should we Conceive It?)

Examiners never seem to think seriously about such questions.  If they cannot demonstrate what their questions predict reliably, then they should be fired, and sued!

            Why do those who need least education get most?

Why is it taken as normal and rational that the brightest kids get and should get the best teachers, most educational resources, and more years at school.  The slowest learners are the one’s who need most help and resources, yet assistance is heaped on those most able to find their own way.  If education was about Education, helping a personality to flourish, make sense of the world, develop potential, enjoy life, contribute, then obviously we would put most effort into those who have most difficulty learning these things. 

Obviously the system is what you would expect in competitive, acquisitive winner-take-all society, enabling those most rich and capable to take most of the prizes and the wealth.  This is partly rationalised by the assumption that it is good for society that those most talented are assisted to become doctors etc.  No one seems to reflect on the possibility that society would be much better if we made sure that large numbers at the bottom end didn‘t become unemployed, bored, angry, welfare-dependent, hooligans, criminals and suicidal.


Radical education theorists argue that schools have significant socialising effects that help to reproduce industrial-consumer society, although again these are mostly not recognised.  For instance they would say,

Š      There is a "hidden curriculum"; i.e., we learn many important things about the world by the sheer experience of school life, even though this may not be intended, or even recognised by people who staff schools.

Š      School teaches that work has to be done, work is important, and it is important to be a hard worker, i.e., morally important. (Advocates of The Simpler Way believe we work about three times too hard, producing mountains of stuff that is not necessary.)  Reflect on the way schools are so heavily about work…almost nothing but constant work, which many/most do not want to do.  (Make school voluntary and see how many would stay there.)  Now how come education is so identified with work – and how come no one ever asks such a question?

Š      Work has little do with Education.  It only comes into the picture when a learner can see that grinding through something, or practising is necessary if he is to develop the understanding or skill he wants to develop.  If you make someone work at learning you will damage his Education, because in general it is only if something is learned voluntarily, eagerly, and because it is interesting and valued, that it will contribute to Education.  So why do you make them work as hard as you can, all the time?

Š      Questions like this can be very disturbing to the conventional Schooled Mind.  Most teachers and parents feel there is something seriously wrong about “free schools” where kids can “learn what they want” and do not have to go to classes if they don’t want to.  “They really ought to be working, not mucking around.”  These sentiments connect with the neuroticism about work built into Western culture.  “Work is right, important, noble.  You should work hard (even if you are producing cigarettes or fat-saturated fries).  We admire the hard worker.  Laziness is a sin.  You will be sorry if you don’t work hard…”  Yet the biggest fault in consumer society is the fact that far too much producing and work is going on!  We urgently need far more laziness (…or play, or creative activity, or conversation…)

Š      The “hidden curriculum” of school socialises us to the conditions of work in industrial society, i.e., to the alienated labour imposed by the factory mode of production. We learn to work for a boss and to do what we are told without much say or interest in the purpose of the work. We do not develop the habit of taking collective responsibility for the organisation or control of work, at school or in the factory. We learn to work as individuals. We learn to work for extrinsic rewards, such as the grade and the pay-packet. We do not learn to expect work to be a source of enjoyment or personal growth. Work comes to be seen as quite separate from living, hence Bowles and Gintis (1976) point out that the conditions of work in school 'correspond' to the conditions of work in industrial-consumer society.

Teachers never seem to doubt the legitimacy of what they are doing when they punish, or to think about the “Educational” effects.  They are never troubled by the argument that power, authoritarian relations, coercion, punishment and failure can have nothing to do with Education, apart from damaging it.

Schools are intensely authoritarian institutions, probably more so than any other, including prisons. Teachers can accuse, try, judge and punish.  Hundreds of millions of children throughout the world are forced to go to school when they don’t want to and when it does them little or no good. It can be argued that the loss of liberty and forced compliance with the will of others that compulsory schooling is the single greatest  human rights abuse in the world; not the most serious in terms of  individual detriment, but the most widespread.

Schools are therefore well designed to contribute to the production of authoritarian dispositions and relations in a hierarchical society. This society functions on such relations. Most firms, institutions and social arrangements, especially our forms of government, are intensely hierarchical and authoritarian. School contributes to the development of authoritarian personalities, and therefore reinforces the polar opposites of the dispositions and skills needed in The Simpler Way, where the premium is on cooperation, fraternity, equality and non-authoritarian relations.   Above all, a highly self-sufficient and cooperative society would be characterised by friendliness (in Ivan Illich's terms, “conviviality”), not power relations.

In Education; How Should We Conceive It? it is argued that there can be no place for authority, force or power in Education, i.e., for teacher having any power over a learner.  Teachers usually know more but this does not mean they have any right to force anyone to do anything.  Any use of such a power can only do Educational harm, because it will interfere with the development of intrinsic interest.

Š      With this authoritarian structure comes an intensely coercive and punitive

situation.  It is assumed without question that it is alright to force children to go to school, to force them to conform to the rules there, and to force them to “learn” and “work” as the teacher dictates.  Often children resist and this is met by force and punishment.  Resistance is seen as not just morally wrong and deserving of punishment but as unwise and ungrateful, because after all becoming “educated” is good for you.  The punishment is for your own good.  “Good” students don’t deviate and don’t disrupt the morally good functioning of the class and don’t deserve or receive punishment.

All this is powerful conditioning to accept power, rules you do not like, boring work, and the edicts of authority and to accept the legitimacy of social systems in which some with authority force others to do things they do not want to do and can’t see any point in.

Schools help to condition us to accept competition as natural. We are therefore more inclined to endorse a competitive economy, and to strive to be a winner.  School pits us in competition with others.  (It does also give some experience of cooperation, such as in team sports, but the point is usually competing to beat the other team.)  The damage done to personality and society is not seen.  A good society would be very cooperative and people would want to help each other and nurture others, and these experiences would contribute to their own personal development.  Competitive individualism produces stunted and warped personalities.

School puts great emphasis on the importance of success, achievement, getting ahead, rising, beating others and doing well in this world. This reinforces the obsession with being seen to be successful in life, with being promoted, rising in power, wealth and prestige, and therefore in becoming richer and consuming more.  It also reinforces the ideology whereby it is in order for those who are superior or have succeeded to receive bigger rewards.

Present society accepts a hierarchy of status; some are superior, elite, upper class, Royalty, bosses…and many are not.  We learn that this is an important fact about the world.  It is important to rise, become superior if you can…if not then to pose, purchase, display and pretend in order to get others to believe you are of higher status.

Radical educators stress that schools provide far more experience of failure than of success.  This teaches the same lessons regarding the importance of success and hierarchy, and it does immense harm.  Only one person wins in a competition. Most learn at school that they are not very “brainy”.  Many kids do badly every time, at everything.  They learn that they are dumb and this is indelibly stamped into their self concept. It is therefore not surprising that many never take any interest in thinking, analysing, trying to figure things out or becoming active, critical citizens.  Many learn that intellectual activity is simply not for them.  Many become mindless conformists.  Some seek status in hooliganism and vandalism.  Some radical educators emphasise that the abundant experience of failure at school makes people feel vulnerable and intimidated, and therefore this helps to make them acquiescent, eager to gain acceptance and respect  by conforming, and politically quiet.

The emphasis on success and failure does great harm to personality development.  It encourages concern with comparative status.  “How good am I?  Others are brighter than I am.”  It contributes to lack of self-confidence and to insecurity.  You must conform to be secure.  You learn that life is about continually struggling to succeed and to avoid failure.

•  School teaches people to be docile, passive conformers and consumers.  As Illich says, at school we all spend at least a decade learning the role of “passive consumers of packaged goods and services”. Teachers and other authorities make the decisions, and students learn to do whatever professionals and experts prepare and bring to them. Students usually do not make their own decisions about what they will learn, why, where, how and when. It is therefore not surprising that as adults we allow professionals, bureaucracies, corporations and governments to make the decisions, or that we do very little for ourselves and buy all goods and services, or that we take little responsibility for affairs in our neighbourhood and do not show much concern about wider social issues. All of this is highly functional for an economy which must have the maximum amount of buying and consuming going on.  If people made more things for themselves and organised more of their own local services, the GDP would suffer.  If people had developed the habit and expectation of being actively responsible for their own situation, deciding what they will learn and do, someday they might want to take action to change their social situation.

What if on your first day at University they gave you a list of all the lectures, films, visits, demonstrations, and consultant-teachers available, told you to draw up your own Educational program, come and chat your progress over as often as you like, and at the end of the year come and tell them how your Education is coming along?  Schooled minds would freeze in panic.  They would be totally incapable of handling such a situation.

School gets us used to striving as individuals to advance our own welfare. It does not encourage much cooperation and sharing or concern with the public good. School therefore reinforces our private lifestyles, which magnifies consumption. For example, every house on the block has a lawn mower when two might do for the whole block.   Similarly, we do not get together to organise many services, so corporations, professions and bureaucracies provide them, at much higher cost in resources.  School experience does not teach us that it is best to work together and help each other to solve problems and improve things cooperatively.  By default school teaches that collectivism is not a good idea; the way the world works is in terms of individuals pursuing their self interest.  What matters is your mark in the ex, not whether the class understands the material.

School encourages us to believe that our affluent way of life is good. We praise high technology, we portray primitive societies as inferior, and we regard our way as the model for the Third World to aspire to.

Š      One of the most powerful ideological effects of the "hidden curriculum" is that it teaches us that there is "equality of opportunity"; anyone who has brains and works hard can succeed and get good credentials and a good job.  Thus we can all see that this  is a just society. Both those who get ahead and those who fail believe they had an equal chance to succeed if they had the ability.  Inequality in society is therefore legitimised.

Š      Schools directly and explicitly teach the desirability and truth of many aspects of growth and greed society - for instance, the superiority of Western/modern societies, the inferiority of primitive cultures, the importance of industrialisation and high technology, the inevitability of competition and the desirability of a competitive economy, the importance of working hard and getting ahead, the rightness of allowing the profit motive and the market to determine economic affairs, and above all the desirability of affluent living standards and economic growth.

Š      Similarly school teaches us that many things do not happen or are not important.  After 15 years of schooling people know that English is important, maths is important, being neat and punctual and polite are important, so is sport…simply because so much time and attention is given to these things.  But the plight of the Third World and how our affluence is built on its plunder are not important. Critical thinking about the nature of the market system, or the empire that provides your living standards, or advertising, or private control of the media, or capitalism, or the connection between high living standards and war…are not important ...because these topics are never even discussed.  No authority figure or exam or course ever mentions these things so people learn by default that they are not important to know about or think about.  Indeed we learn to not even see them; they are non-problems.


Knowledge is regarded as objective rather than relative, and given by or discovered in nature (rather than “socially constructed”). Hence knowledge is a matter of authority. Those who have knowledge are authorities and should be deferred to; those without it are inferior.   Authorities have come to know what “the truth” is.  Becoming knowledgeable is a process of assimilating the pre-formed and pre-selected chunks of knowledge that educated people know to be important. From these assumptions it is a short step to authoritarian teacher-pupil relations, deference, coercive attendance and curricula, and the whole syndrome of exams, grades, failure and credentials.

However, one could begin with the very different assumption that what is regarded as knowledge in a society is highly problematic (...  is astrology knowledge?  What about Zen, meditation, theology…),  and that society defines what is important knowledge (why is physics more important than cooking or painting or hobbies?)  One could argue that what passes for knowledge is a matter of social definition and therefore inevitably dependent on subjective perspectives and traditions, preferences, ideologies, and power.   (Some argue that knowledge is what the powerful say it is, or at least that what is important knowledge is what they say is important.) 

In Education:  How Should We Conceive It? it is argued that Education is best thought of as a process whereby the individual builds his or her capacity to make sense of the world, and his or her desire to do so, and that such a process is best directed by the individual's own unfolding needs and interests, not dictated by authorities who claim to know what is important to learn whether or not you think so.  But it is unlikely that an educational practice based on such assumptions would produce reliable and disciplined factory-fodder, skilled technicians, ravenous consumers or politically passive and compliant “citizens”.

Foucault drew attention to the way groups such as doctors and teachers tend to use a “discourse”, a vocabulary, a way of talking which makes things appear to be the way that it suits those groups to have you see them.  Their “professional knowledge” tends to portray things in a particular way, a way which serves their interests. What for instance is a “difficult patient”, or a “good student”?   Is a child who thinks what he is being taught is useless crap, and says so, likely to be praised for critical and independent thought…or to be branded as an ungrateful, stupid, trouble-making rebellious deviant, and punished.

And why is the high school curriculum so intensely academic, literary and written.  Why is it all about studying books, writing and reading. What about practical skills, manual skills, personal development, social skills, emotional development, artistic expression, self-understanding, hobbies, gardening…

The bankrupt banking theory.

The basic approach in school follows what is well described as banking theory. Every hour of every day of every year for at least twelve years is set out for teaching and learning some particular bit of knowledge or some skill…whether or not anyone in the classroom has any desire to learn it or interest in it.  The (implicit but never spelled out let alone justified) rationale is, “…you will need to know this someday, so we are teaching it to you now.”  The (implicit but never tested) assumption is that when it has been taught, banked, it will be there until it is needed, when it can be withdrawn and used.

One could guarantee that there is not the slightest bit of evidence on how much of that which is put into the bank stays there.  Where are the studies reporting that after one year, five years, twenty years x% of what was taught is remembered.  Some is.  We all remember some of the things we were taught at school, but how much, and how much of that was worth learning or is important to us now, helps us make sense of the world, has  become part of the frame we use for thinking and negotiating. (I studied Latin for three years and I don’t think anything I learned passes any of these tests.)  Secondly consider how very inefficient the process must  be.  In view of all the time teachers and kids spend studying the Atacama desert, my guess is that one month or five years later they remember little of it.  If it is important to know about the Atacama desert, is there no better way of developing lasting knowledge?  Millions of teachers never ask themselves such questions.

However let’s be guided by the evidence; what do studies show regarding the extent to which things are remembered when learned via banking, via sugar coating, and because people really want to know them.  Sadly there is not likely to be any evidence.  Note that there is a much more important question.  I still remember some Latin, so the question is not whether things are remembered; it is whether the process was Educative, whether those things have become part of a worldview, a way of thinking about things, of making sense of the world…which is an intrinsically valuable process for the individual.

            Knowledge should be built on interest.

The approach of  “Progressive” and “Free” schools is built on the important understanding that banking is a serious mistake and that meaningful lasting learning cannot take place unless knowledge is built out of the pursuit of purposes and interests.  So when kids individually or in groups become obsessed with some “project”, for instance running a school newspaper or shop, teachers go with it and built useful learning into the venture.  The shop might enable a number of aspects of arithmetic to be covered, with kids who realise they can’t run the shop if they don’t know these things.  Teachers have to think about what projects are more likely to be valuable and what things have not been covered yet, and they might work hard at getting the kids into this rather than that, but the basic wisdom is that there is not much point making them learn anything they are not interested in or can’t see any point in.  This makes life difficult for teachers; much easier to grind through a neatly organised list of topics whether the kids want to or not.

Conventional teachers often try to get the kids interested, sometimes by extraneous and artificial devices, such as having them come dressed as Roman soldiers.  The assumption seems to be that if learning about Rome is associated with a pleasant experience it will be remembered.  This is “sugar coating the pill”.  I think it is misses the point.  The goal should be to learn more about Rome if and because you want to, because this adds to your capacity to make sense of the world, which s something you want to do.

If you are interested in something you will learn about it fast, you will listen to a teacher, you will do what they think is the best way for you to master the field, you will study hard.  Imagine a person who at a later age decides that he really wants to be an engineer, even though he can barely do arithmetic.  Given the right conditions he would learn all the maths he needs to start at engineering school in a matter of weeks.  Compare this with the extreme inefficiency of grinding bored and resistant kids through twelve years of maths lessons in whicy they are not interested.

Why so few subjects?

The typical high school student studies only about 6 subjects.  What about the rest of knowledge, the many things an Educated person would know something about, such as theories of ethics, philosophy of religion, how to manage one’s emotional life, find havens and battery rechargers?   What about the many social skills a person needs, such as how to relax, be a good citizen, criticise without offence, model one’s character… The potential list here is extremely long.

A highly trained specialist might know only one field, but an Educated person knows about, is interested in, can converse about and gradually learns more about…just about everything.  An Educated person is a generalist, not a specialist.  Universities turn out highly competent specialists but if we had any evidence on the question it would be likely to show that they do not turn out people who know a lot about a lot and who seek to become more Educated as time goes by.

                                                THE SCHOOLED MIND.

Radical educators argue the experience of school in time produces “Schooled Minds”.  Following are some of the characteristics this term refers to. A Schooled Mind,

Š      Identifies school with work.

Š      Forgets what was learned for the exam soon after, and throws away notes.

Š      Sells text books.

Š      Identifies education with exams and grades.

Š      Knows grades are very important.  Wants to know what marks it got, and will quibble over marks.

Š      Can’t make its own decisions about what to learn.

Š      Sees education in terms of being brainy or dumb, and being about competing with others, about success and failure.

Š      Knows where it ranks; knows if its bright or dumb.

Š      Sees access to courses and jobs as being deserved by level of achievement at school, and by credentials.

Š      Sees education as work done; resents having to do anything again. “We’ve done that Miss.”

Š      Sees some subjects as hard and respectable, and some as soft…”He’s only doing Vege maths.”

Š      Sees the benefit of education only in the access to a better job that the credential gives.

Š      Has no idea what “learning for its own sake”, or the “intrinsic value of Education”, might mean.

Š      Doesn’t like learning.

Š      Looks forward to holidays and weekends; would never go to school voluntarily then.

Š      Does what it’s told.

Š      Learns stuff it can’t see any point to.

Š      Sees a sharp distinction between work and play.

Š      Is likely to say, “I have finished my education”, or “I was educated at…”

Š      Knows that authorities know best.  It’s wise to do what they say. They know what its important to learn.

Š      Looks forward to weekends and holidays from school.

Needless to say radical educators see all these as indicators that serious Educational harm has been done.

The Educational Function.

Perhaps the most radical criticism is that our educational systems do not do

much Educating. There is remarkably little interest in the question, “Do schools Educate?”  It is not researched and there seems to be almost no evidence on it.  

Firstly the distinction between Education and mere training is crucial here.  Our institutions are very good at training people to be competent engineers etc.  But how well do schools and universities do things like develop a lasting interest in learning,  books, ideas, discussing issues, argument, critical thinking and becoming a wiser person, more able to make sense of the world?

Despite our pretence that schools exist to Educate, virtually none of the vast quantities of money, time and talent devoted to educational research goes into determining whether or not the experience of school actually increases interest in learning etc.  We have no idea whether the study of Shakespeare or maths increases the individual’s interest in these, let alone whether it helps to make them more Educated.

In fact it can be argued that our schools and universities do more Educational harm than good, i.e., that they put more people off learning, inquiry, books, ideas, thinking, etc. than they turn on to these pursuits. (See Trainer, 1984.)  Think about the many students who leave school at the earliest opportunity after years of experience of boredom, failure, anger, and domination by authorities. To what extent will they be likely to read again in future years the kindss of literature studied in English, to write essays or poems for pleasure, to think scientifically, to do maths puzzles and exercises for the fun of it, to study, or to see growth in their capacity to make meaning of the world as a primary life goal? Many have their curiosity and willingness to learn permanently stunted if not completely eliminated by their experience of normal schooling.

Education is far more important to a society than mere training.  We do not need more engineers to produce more products.  We desperately need a far higher level of critical thought, sense, awareness of history and our global situation, etc. among people in general.  It is precisely because we are so deficient on these Educational factors that our society fails to deal satisfactorily with the huge problems it is facing.

In addition there is the value of Education in enriching the lives of people, in helping the to be able to make more sense of things, to understand and appreciate, to be more mature and able to manage, and to become wiser beings.


One of the most irrational and annoying things about our educational systems is that they make no effort to get kids to understand what Education is!  Children spend about 12,000 hours in classes, and more again doing homework.  None of them ever spends one minute being helped to think about what Education might be and why it might be valuable.  Consequently very few people in the most educated societies have the slightest idea.  Very few have any idea that it might  be desirable to learn things just in order to be able to make more sense of the world, to become wiser, to have more context and reference points from which to interpret things.  Few would ever have encountered the idea that it is desirable to go about the world with this outlook, to develop a learning orientation to life, or that there can be great intrinsic value in this, i.e., that it can be very satisfying to think, inquire, analyse, reflect, look things up, read to find out more, simply in order to know more, to understand the world better, be clearer and surer about your views, etc.

I went to school for about 25 years, including honours courses in a School of Education, and some 10 more courses (as a Miscellaneous, non-degree student, transferring from one field to another), then a Masters and a doctorate.  In all that time no one and no course and no encounter ever offered me any thoughts on what Education might be and why it might be of value.  It would have been long after final graduation that phrases like “Education for its own sake” began to mean anything to me.  How absurd that kids are not helped from day one to see the immense distinction between mere training and Education, to develop some idea of what Education might mean, to see it as being of great intrinsic value, to see that it has nothing to do with brains, grades, exams, or competition, and to hold it as one of their supreme and life-defining concerns.  (For more detail see Education; How Should We Conceive It?)


It is likely that most teachers are conscientious and work hard to get their students through with the best possible marks.  But most seem to have no interest in what they are actually doing and whether it makes sense, what its social effects are.  Few if any seem to ever ask the questions the radical educators raise.

It is highly ironic that education is supposed to be about rationality, thinking clearly and validly, and critically, yet these characteristics are stunningly lacking in the organization and functioning of educational systems.  Those who make policy and those who work in the system day to day typically fail to think at all critically about the kinds of issues raised in this document.  Teachers for instance appear never to think of asking themselves “Why am I teaching Shakespeare?”  Of course if you asked they would trot out some high-sounding reason, but just ask them whether they have any evidence of the effect of their teaching on the readiness of students to read and enjoy Shakespeare ten years later, or on what changes it makes to their Education.  Ask them why they teach stuff kids hate learning, and what they think this achieves.  Ask them why they force perhaps 70% of students to be there.  Ask then would they go to a hospital that did things to patients without thinking about what the effects would be and without any interest in whether there was evidence that what they did had desirable effects.

Consider trying to force 7e in some black ghetto to be quiet and to learn their maths when everyone knows a) they won’t be quiet, b) they won’t learn any maths, c) they will learn to despise the teacher who is oppressing them, d) they will learn contempt for everything school stands for, d) they will develop a smouldering drive to hit back at authority figures , e) the teacher will take the next available transfer option, and f) those kids will be unemployed, or drug addicts, or petty criminals whether or not they learn their maths.  What on earth is the point of forcing them to be there? Is this not the epitome of mindlessness?  Yet large numbers of teachers do this kind of thing all the time, as if processing recalcitrant raw materials through machines in a factory for a wage.

Marxists see what happens in schools as explicable in terms of the reproduction of capitalist society.  However some radical educators say that you can’t explain what happens well unless you also take into account another powerful and mysterious factor which has nothing to do with capitalism or class; i.e., …sheer mindlessness.

What hope is there for a society which prides itself on its civilization and rationality when its educators slog on mindlessly day after day apparently without ever seeing any need to check out what effects they are having, let alone make sure these are desirable and worth the vast expenditure of time and money.


From the foregoing it is evident why radical education theorists regard the Educational system as a powerful reproducer of the ideas and values that sustain consumer-capitalist society.  Again consider,

Š      The obsession with competition and individual success. The world is competitive and those who win are better than me, and deserve their prizes.

Š      Learning to work for their own benefit, not that of the collective.

Š      Rule by authority, obedience, acceptance of hierarchical work situations, doing what you are told…as distinct from learning to work collectively and take collective control over our fate.

Š      Elitism, grading, status, superiority, levels of authority permeate everything.  Deserved rewards, learning your quality and place. Some people are superior and you should not expect to get what they get.

Š      Docile conformity, acquiesce, do what the teacher tells you, learn to go alone even when you think it’s pointless rubbish, learn not to make important decisions or take responsibility for your own  education.  Good students are quiet, obedient and diligent and  get their work done.  It is no surprise that graduates from our schools acquiesce in terrible social practices, institutions, systems, projects.  They learn not to be discontented or to rebel, or even question.

Š      Learning to work.  They learn to work hard, long, diligently.  They learn that hard work is morally virtuous. How would capitalism fare if they didn’t?

Š      They learn that industrial-affluent-consumer-capitalist society is good, indeed the best. There is no need to think about inequality, imperialism, economic justice, war and domination, growth, Royalty, capitalism, why there is an environment problem, whether consumer society is viable, whether radical change is urgently needed…there can’t be because these things are almost never mentioned or represented as important at school, let alone studied at length.

Š      There is in other words an almost total absence of critical examination of society. In an era when many of us believe our society’s problems are likely to result in catastrophic breakdown in coming decades, it is astounding that the very institutions most relevant to coming to terms with our situation steadfastly refuse to even think about the possibility that radical system change is essential.  (Of course there is some discussion of problems, notably environmental, but always as if they can be solved without change to radically different social systems.)

It is not being implied that any of this is conscious or deliberate.  Probably none of the teachers, bureaucrats or policy makers set out to make schools reproduce capitalist society.  None of them would ever think in such terms.  But radical educators think they actually staff a system that is in fact very effective in reproducing consumer-capitalist society.


The foregoing is only a list of some of the themes evident in the radical education literature supporting the generalisation that existing educational institutions reproduce our unsustainable growth-and-greed society.   It is not being implied that these are the only social effects schools have, nor that nothing desirable ever happens at school.   Nor is it being claimed that schools are so firmly geared to the reproduction of consumer society that nothing can be done there to promote transition to a different sort of society.         

The people who staff and administer educational institutions surely do not intend to produce passivity, docile consumers, acceptors of boring work, etc., or otherwise reinforce an oppressive society.  Mostly they are quite unaware of radical education themes, e.g., of the notion of a “hidden curriculum”, and mostly they take it for granted that the institutions they run are socially beneficial.  It is ironic therefore that in the very institutions that are supposed to be about critical thought almost no radically critical thought is applied to those institutions. Teachers at all levels are morally culpable in their failure to think critically about what they are really doing.

Where is the neo-liberal agenda taking education?

Education is being made to serve the economy even more slavishly than ever before.  Governments are cutting their expenditures so non-essentials such as Education are less affordable.  The resources given to critical studies, arts and humanities are being cut.  The educational system has to turn out more technocrats, commerce graduates and lawyers, because increasing business turnover is the supreme goal in an increasingly materialistic and competitive world.  Education must produce the sorts of graduates the business world wants.  Students have to become little entrepreneurs, developing skills to market and portfolios to show to employers.  The rich can send their children to private schools and hospitals so they are not very concerned about the decline of public facilities, and they don’t want to pay tax to support the public schools and hospitals they will not be using.  Politicians faced with insoluble problems call for more education and training as the answer, so we can become “a clever country” and conquer more world export markets.  Education is increasingly seen as a commodity to be bought by consumers, and as a factor of production.  They talk about developing “human capital”.

Education is now being targeted by corporations as a vast set of lucrative business opportunities they can move into, to sell courses, materials, training, testing, credentialing, remedial services, etc.  In other words it is the next privatisation bonanza. It does not require much imagination to foresee what will happen to Educational values when profit is allowed to determine what is done.  Departments of Marxist studies are not likely to be well funded!  Mining corporations are already providing study kits, which tend not to dwell on the catastrophic impact mining often has in the Third World.  Educational systems under-funded by the state are happy to have corporations offering to provide materials and services.

A sensible society would make sure that many important things are done and provided even though there is not much demand for them and they would not be profitable.  This is especially so with respect to cultural activities, critical thought, social responsibility, high quality literature and artistic functions, the maintenance of high standards, cultural identity, and global ecological awareness.  Globalisation and the neo-liberal agenda are taking us in precisely the opposite direction.

When a nation faces huge and crucial decisions such as whether to invade Iraq or how to respond to the greenhouse problem or whether to inflict nuclear waste on the next 1000 generations, it becomes painfully evident how very important it is to have a citizenry that is interested in social issues, concerned about the public good, and capable of sound critical thinking.  At such times it does not matter how well trained they are; what matters is how well Educated they are.

Is reform possible?

Is it possible to reform educational institutions so that they do not have the characteristics identified above, especially the obsession with tests, exams, grades, credentials, petty rules, authoritarian relations, competition, hard work, passivity, and training workers – and thereby enable them to Educate?  The answer is emphatically no  -- unless we first get rid of capitalist/consumer society!   Such a society is riddled with conditions that should not be tolerated.  There is acquiescence because people are in general unaware, uncritical and uncaring, and competitive, individualistic and acquisitive.  In other words these conditions exist because of the appalling level of Education, and because a great deal of schooling has taken place. If you want a capitalist/consumer society you must have schools which help to reproduce the skills, attitudes and workers and consumers that such a society involves and requires.  The educational institutions we have in this society are very effectively geared to this purpose.  Really Educative institutions and procedures would have to be uncontaminated by competition, grind, grading, authoritarian relations, boredom, etc.   They could therefore only exist in a society that was quite unlike this one.

            See also on this website,

Education; How should we conceive it?

Education in the alternative, sustainable society.

Bookchin, M., (1987), The Rise of Urbanism and the Decline of Citizenship, San  Francisco, Sierra Club.

Bowles, S. and H. Gintis, (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America,  New York, Basic Books.

Berg, I. A., (1970), Education and Jobs; The Great Training Robbery, New York, Praeger. 

Blum, J. M., (1978), Pseudo-science and Mental Ability, New York, Monthly Review Press.

Collins, R., (1971), “Functional and conflict theories of educational stratification”,   American Sociological Review, 36.

Jencks, C., (1972), Inequality, New York, Basic Books.

Klug, B., (1977), The Grading Game, London, NUS Publishers.

McClelland, D. C., (1974), “”Testing for competence rather than intelligence”, in  A. Gartner, et al., eds, The New Assault on Equality; IQ and the Social Stratifications, New York, Holt and Rinehart.

Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1984), “Do schools educate?” New Education, 6, 1, 1-17.

Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1990), “Towards an Ecological Philosophy of Education”, Discourse, 10, 2, April, 92-117.