The United States was set back on its heels in the 1930s by the Great Depression. As a result, the United States charged the high schools with making the children “workforce ready.” The hope was that the schools could train children for the workforce of tomorrow—i.e. the 1940s—when the manufacturing base of the United States would be revitalized, and prosperity would return. I this context, children were kept in school longer (and out of the workforce), with the idea that they would be able to recreate the successful societies that the planners knew—the cities of the pre-Depression 1920s. In this context, there was a reform of schools in the 1930s, undertaken with the broad hope that the children would be the factory line workers of the future.
But things did not work out as planned—the schools of the 1930s and 1940s actually did a rather poor job of creating the 1920s. Instead the children of the 1930s created the world of the 1950s-2000s and beyond. To understand how utterly inappropriate the curriculum reform of the 1930s were for the future workforce it is useful to think of a child born in the 1930s, and what they actually “did” with the primary and secondary education they received from about 1936-1948. You know, things like send humans to the moon, invent computers, and have a PC on their desk by the time they retired. For that matter, the children trained for the workforce today in 2015 will be part of a workforce in 2060 which we today cannot imagine. And that’s ok.
The following is from my book “Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.”
Why Do Modern Societies All Have Systems of Mass Education?
Every society needs a way to reproduce itself, its habits, values, and morals. Education is the “social thing” by which adults through a political process assert a right to control the upbringing of not only their own children but at the same time those of other parents (see Durkheim, 1956: 62). This is of course most developed in modern mass society, which extends across nations, and even continents. In small societies this occurs in the context of unscripted face-to-face relationships emphasizing the family unit. For centuries, as long as the productive unit was small and society limited to face-to-face relationships, this was adequate. The wisdom of elders was assumed and routinely reestablished, as was learning about the seasons, family, clan, housing, and the gods. As importantly, you learn who is trustworthy and what is right and wrong ( i. e. morals, in the context of daily life). Loyalty to the small group is particularly important in such societies.
But modern societies go well beyond the needs of small intimate clans and a division of labor based only on gender and age. They need to recreate society and transmit the knowledge too. They need to reproduce what Bourdieu described as the unspoken predispositions, that is a habitus that a society needs to recreate itself. It recreates itself by passing on predispositions for morality, hierarchy, loyalty, trust, respect, and sense of what is right and wrong. This internalized social system, underlies the cultural legitimacy necessary to maintain and reproduce society. The question every modern government faces is how will the habitus of legitimacy be created across a population, most of whom will never meet each other, but nevertheless come to recognize each other as sharing values and playing complementary roles in a vast society. In particular, who will do this when a diversity of roles emerge, which are not only patterned by age and gender but also by social class, caste, occupation, social status, skill levels, and a wide range of taken-for-granted status attributions.
Because much of the strength of modern society results from what is learned by the masses, school systems emerged in all countries to reproduce the legitimacy of the existing social and economic order. But as in small traditional societies, it is necessary that the habitus and daily ways of life are internalized in a fashion that protects the status quo and also creates a society that deals effectively with unforeseeable change. But the milieu is not the family, nuclear or extended. More typically it is the nation-state, which is ultimately why every modern society needs a system of mass public education in which a scripted habitus is transmitted in a predictable fashion, which re-creates cultural capital in the context of a vast global marketplace. As with socialization in small clans, such education is about the transmission of older taken-for-granteds to a younger generation.
The Transgenerational Transmission of Culture via Modern Society and Bureaucracy
The habits, thoughts, and values of one generation affect the next—no human generation reinvents itself without reference to parents and the past. In modern societies, such habits are ideally written down and are explicitly fixed by powerful bureaucratic institutions in a formal school curriculum. But even in such modern societies, other such habits, which are just as powerful, are not written down, but are acted out in the day-to-day interactions between the members of national societies, which are “six degrees of separation” from each other, even in the large national societies of 300 million people like the United States or the even larger societies like the European Union and the huge societies of China and India.
The long-term effect of such natural habitus is perhaps no stronger than in the school system, which begins to make its mark on the brains and habits of children when they are about five years old. The habits and beliefs that are developed at such young ages come to affect the nature of the school system for 70 years or more, as individuals in their role as a citizen, parent, grandparent, teacher, or politician draw on a habitus that provides a template to make decisions about schools until they die. What these people came to take for granted as five-year-old children affects how they see the world for many, many years and makes school into one of the most conservative institutions in society.
The Long Echo: How Nineteenth-Century Schooling Influences the Twenty-First Century
But the conservative rigidity of school policy did not simply start some 70 years ago with the first grade of today’s 75-year-old grandparents. Rather it dips back even deeper into the past, since the predispositions of habitus carried in the heads of the grandparents and great-grandparents sitting on school boards and state legislatures today was not created in a vacuum. Today’s policies are the product of the pedagogic, political, and economic interests of the school administrators of their day who in turn had a childhood habitus created for them some 40 or 50 years previously. Given this pattern, it is not surprising that many of the assertions made about schools in 2010 have their pedigrees in the plans, programs and predispositions created by people born in the 1870s and 1880s. A brief review of this cultural history provides a context for the changes that occurred in American education. Some of the earliest and still most useful descriptions of cultural history come from the French traveller, Alexis de Tocqueville who observed the United States in the 1830s. (pp. 30-32)
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.