Zvi Lamm: Ideology in Education

(A talk given by Dr. Zvi Lamm,of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in Highgate, London, on Thursday 28th March, 1985. This talk was delivered informally and at short notice; here it has undergone the editing called for by the transition from speech to writing).

My concern with ideology began many years ago, and for some years now I have been teaching a course on the impact of ideologies on educational theories. To put it briefly, the main message of this course is that the only thing which gives educational activity a direction is ideology. Usually this is camouflaged as a theory or a philosophical system, but in the last analysis it is ideology.

There are two ways in which anything can be proved: by demonstration and by argument. But most of our decisions in everyday life, especially in politics, social problems and education, cannot be proved correct at all, either by demonstration or by argument. We decide to do something or not to do it because we are as we are if one father is permissive with his children and another very authoritative with his, each is behaving in the chosen way not because permissiveness or authoritarianism has the better arguments on its side but because he is permissive or authoritarian.

Here we approach a very strange conclusion. When people discuss what is good for children each of them believes himself to be guided by his beliefs on what is good for the children. But they actually act because of what they are the child has nothing to do with the decision. It is the beliefs about what should be done with the child that are the decisive factor, as I shall try to show.

Ideological thinking cannot occur in a situation which compels us to a certain course of action if a woman has given birth to a child, for example she has to feed it although there are of course different ways in which this can be done. But if the situation, while compelling you to act, leaves you a choice of actions, and it cannot be shown, either by logical argumentation or by empirical demonstration, which possibility is the best one, then you act on an ideological basis. If we have to decide whether to vote for a party which demands houses, or for a party which is against putting public money into housing, we cannot decide either rationally or empirically which solution is the best one; everyone has arguments for his position. So we see that ideology directs our activities in situations in which there are many possible actions and we cannot prove which is the most justified.

To take up this position is to make a fundamental change in educational philosophy. The point of departure of most schools of educational philosophy is that it can be decided, not ideologically but logically, which education is the best one.

Now, until I came across systematic ideology I used to start my course on ideology with dividing the different theories of ideology into two types. The first is the interest theories, and this includes of course the theory created by Marx and the marxists, which holds that a human being thinks ideologically because he has some interest or because he belongs to a group that has some interest. This kind of explanation of ideology is put forward even by people like Mannheim, who is a marxist but who says that whatever Marx himself says on this subject is itself ideological. Marx claimed to be scientific, but Mannheim says that Marx’ writings were ideological, and this means that according to Marx’s own theory, they were an expression of false consciousness.

The second is the “strain” theory of ideologies. This is described by a man called Sutton in a book called The Creed of American Business, and it was taken over by a very able and interesting anthropologist wrote a lot about ideology, Clifford Geertz. The strain theory says that when people find themselves in a situation where conflicting values require contradictory courses of action, which cannot both be performed at the same time, they have to reconcile the stress by creating an ideology which decides for them which action to take.

Now I have a third theory of ideology, systematic ideology. So I start the course by presenting the marxist theory, the Sutton-Geertz theory and the Walsby theory as three different explanations of ideology. I try to show how each of these theories relates to the province of education.

This evening I am not going to speak about the marxist theory or the strain theory. I just want to say a few words about the way I apply the theory of systematic ideology to the history of educational thought. If there is anything that is not clear, please ask – I should be glad to get some feedback. In what follows I shall use the technical terms of systematic ideology and I shall simply describe what I have been doing without stopping to explain everything.

First, the Protostatic ideology. As you know, in Ideologies and their Functions Walford associates education with the epistatic, but before that ideology developed, in the purely protostatic period, there were children, and they learnt what they needed to know. What was the educational thinking of the protostatic ideology? This ideology tends not to differentiate, and when this tendency is applied to education, it produced something which I call socialisation through direct participation of children in the activities of adults. At this period children lived with adults, taking part in their activities, such as hunting and learning to be members in their tribe by direct participation, perhaps with a very small amount of formal education, initiation rites for example, but most of their learning not acquired by way of formal education. The people follow their ordinary lives, hunting, fishing, gathering, and the children do these things together with them, learning by imitating the adults.

Now, I believe that one of the most important features of systematic ideology is the claim that the major ideologies do not die, that once developed they continue to exist, even into our own society, and I believe that the informal education of our day, the really informal education, is a continuation of the protostatic ideology. (Some “informal” education, for example among the Scouts, is not really informal. You could perhaps call it structured-informal, but really it is formal education). The most important institution for informal education is the family, and I believe that informal education in the family is still protostatic, the child coming to internalise all the features of the protostatic ideology, starting with strong in-group feeling, identification with the group, and some kind of hostility – but perhaps that is too strong a word – some kind of suspicion toward the outside world. The ordinary practice of the family also teaches the child economic individualism, political collectivism and the other protostatic features.

With the next major ideology, the epistatic, comes the first invention of formal education. And the first invention of formal education is really the school. But the first school is an institution for a selected part of the population, it is not for everybody. The first school, charged with the epistatic ideology, is for an elite. The first schools were schools for the scribes, connected with the temples. The next generation of schools brought those connected with the courts, where they served the king, supplying him with administrators. Later the school came to provide a status symbol. In order to belong to the upper strata of the society one had to be schooled and the school, from those days until now, serves as an instrument for the maintenance of existing society. Those who try to use the school as a tool for changing the society, for revolutionising it, usually fail. The school, by its very definition, is a conservative institution.

The next ideology is the parastatic, which brings the invention – I use that word because it conveys the idea – the invention of a dual system of education, one type for the rich, for the elite, and the second for the poor. This complies with the belief that everybody has the right to education. According to the parastatic ideology everybody has the right to vote, and everybody also has the right to education, but this does not mean that everybody has the right to be educated in the same way as everybody else. So in the Western culture we have, for several generations, two kinds of school. In connection with the parastatic in education I would mention Robert Owen, who started a school for the poor at his factories, a typically parastatic undertaking. And there were others who did the same thing, such as Pestalozzi in Switzerland.

Now we move on to the eidodynamic ideologies. The next stage was the unification of the two kinds of school, for the poor and for the elite, under the slogan of compulsory education for all. The law that the educational system be unified. This is really the social-democratic approach to education. In all the countries of Europe, about a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago, laws were introduced for compulsory education for the duty of parents to send their children to a school where everybody studied the same curriculum at the beginning, later dividing into two streams, those who went on to the secondary or grammar school and those who went to work. Later on there were six, seven, eight years, and today we have come to twelve years of uniform education for all. And this concept of uniform education for everybody I would ascribe to the protodynamic ideology.

The next stage in the historical development of education is the entry of the epidynamic, with the recognition that education which is financed by the state has a political function. Here we have the recognition of ideology. Here for the first time the schools are expected to act as ideological agents. They are seen as brainwashing the children into acceptance of the state ideology and the communist try to use them for the contrary purpose, for inculcating an ideology opposed to that of the state. But in either case it is accepted that ideology is a part of the curriculum that the schools train the children in ideology. This was not accepted during the earlier stages of historical development; then ideology was regarded as not for children; only with the entry of the epidynamic does ideology – along with sex – come to be seen as something to be taught in school.

The next stage is what we experienced in the ‘sixties, the paradynamic, anarchistic approach to education. This is what now call open education, the free school or free education, examples of it being the work of A. S. Neill in this country, the students’ unrest all over the world during the ‘sixties, the commune schools, the experimental schools, and so on. It is an attempt to switch over from regarding education as a social institution, to be directed to the interests of the society, to regarding it as a matter for the individual. Here, in the paradynamic, education is seen as something the individual should benefit from, something to help him develop his forces, his abilities and so on.

And at the end of the series comes the critique of all ideologies of education, the metadynamic approach to ideologies, the recognition that all ideologies impose limitations upon what can be achieved by educational activity.

from Ideological Commentary 19, July 1985.