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Project Defy

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part One

This three-part blog series offers a critical introduction to the current education system and demonstrates how what we understand today as ‘education’ is a very subjective concept and practice that serves to uphold the unjust and exploitative capitalist system rather than providing everyone and anyone with equal opportunities.    

The idea of compulsory schooling and modern education as the ultimate and most effective instrument for empowerment of the masses is deeply ingrained in society. As politicians, business leaders, Development actors, members of civil society, and ‘educators’ themselves keep repeating, the education that is imparted in schools, colleges and universities across the globe almost magically transforms what they often call ignorant, poor, backward people into ‘active citizens’ and ‘full human beings.’ This claim, however, is nothing more than a myth based on the idea that human beings are incapable of creating meaningful lives on their own, in solidarity alongside and with each other. Instead, they are seen to need the guidance of ‘enlightened elites’ in the form of teachers, politicians, economists, businessmen and -women, and other ‘experts’ who know better (and indeed best) what’s good for the masses.

At the root of this ideology is the imagination of human nature as being inherently dumb, savage and irrational. The idea that human beings are purely driven by mostly suppressed yet innate irrational, wild and violent instincts and desires has found much attention and followers through the work of Sigmund Freud and the spread of his views in the U.S. by Freud’s nephew, Edward Barnays. It implies that a nation built on democracy in which, at least on paper, every person has the same decision-making power, is highly susceptible to fall into violent chaos as soon as the brutish human nature of the masses comes to the forefront. Therefore, according to Freud’s logic and the ones who are following it, “it was necessary to re-think democracy. What was needed was a new elite that could manage (…) the bewildered herd” (Walter Lippman in the documentary The Century of the Self).

Having such a conception of human nature (in which an enlightened elite is, mysteriously, less violent and wiser than everyone else around them) is of course also an extremely convenient way to not only preserve but perpetuate the status quo which exactly benefits those elites and legitimises their rule that otherwise has no justification whatsoever. Everything that exceeds the visions and ideas of the elites of what makes a meaningful life, particularly of course what would challenge their superior status and privileges, then can also be declared and waved aside as irrational and dangerous fantasies of the barbaric masses that don’t know what’s good for them. 

Out of this imagination of human nature and the fear of the rule of the masses, there was born the idea to inextricably link ‘democracy’ with the capitalist  market economy and its key feature of consumerism in order to ‘tame’ the violent nature of human beings and divert the efforts of this ‘dangerous crowd’ into the pursuit of status symbols in the form of the amassment of mass-consumer products: “What was beginning to emerge in the 1920s was a new idea of how to run mass democracy. At its heart was the consuming self which not only made the economy work but was also happy and docile and so created a stable society” (from The Century of the Self).

The introduction of modern, compulsory education then stands at the heart of the venture of producing the ‘consuming self.’ As such, modern education has become reduced to a tool that serves the interests of political and business elites to reinforce the unequal, unjust neoliberal-capitalist economy and the hierarchical order of market society. It actively creates consumers by taking away people’s capacity to create their own livelihoods in solidarity with others and by making them dependent on and addicted to a certain kind of ‘modern’ lifestyle while devaluing any other ways of life. 

The second part of the series will look in more detail how the so-called human capital approach to education is used to perpetuate the status quo and actively prevents the emergence of a broader, more holistic idea of education.

Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl

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