The Dark Side of Education

The main goal behind the emergence and initial expansion of public primary education systems was to promote social order and political stability, not human capital accumulation or economic development. Civil conflict was a key driver of the expansion of mass education.

Every country around the world has a system of primary schools targeted at children and controlled by the state. This is astounding. There are over twenty countries that have chosen not to have a standing army—one of the main attributes of a modern state, we have been told—yet each one of them has a primary education system. If you are reading this website, chances are you are a product of one of the many systems that exist around the world. Their prevalence is not the only remarkable thing; so is how similarly their classrooms are structured. Google “schools in [country of your choice]” and the images you will see are of children sitting in rows facing an adult—the teacher—who does the talking while the children listen, copy what the adult writes on the board, and raise their hands if they have a question or want permission to go to the bathroom. Why do all countries have an education system, why do their classrooms look so similar, and why does that even matter?

Much of what has been written about primary education systems in the last half century points to democracy, industrialization, wars between states, or the popularization of ideas about the political and economic importance of education as the main drivers behind the expansion of mass schooling. These explanations vary from incomplete to incorrect. What’s more, many people who write about education systems interpret them through an anachronistic lens that forgets or ignores where these systems come from. They assume, for instance, that because education systems today have the potential to increase individual earnings and promote economic growth, they must have become popular among policymakers for this reason—and must have been designed to accomplish these goals. I do something different by going back in time to see what the long history of state-controlled primary education can tell us about the systems we have today.

I provide new empirical evidence that in most parts of the world, and particularly in Western societies, the emergence of mass education systems was an autocratic project, not a consequence of democracy. Elites designed these systems not so much to promote social mobility or economic development, but to prevent social disorder by teaching children to be obedient, respect existing rules and authorities, and be satisfied with the status quo. States took over and expanded mass education to deal, first and foremost, with the fundamental problem of social order that every state must grapple with. That is why all modern states have an education system and why classrooms look the way they do—centered around the authority of a teacher, not the individual needs of children. 

Political elites were especially like to turn to the indoctrination of children in the wake of civil conflicts pitting the masses against the status quo. The fear of losing power helped elites forge a coalition of support around proposals to use mass education not to appease angry sectors of society but to teach children that they had no reason to rebel against the status quo. The logic I expose -- one in which elites in post-conflict settings turn to education to indoctrinate children -- finds support in 19th-century Latin America and Europe and, more recently, in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement.

Overall, this book shows that a key reason why education systems often fail to reduce poverty and inequality is because that is not what they were primarily designed to accomplish.

Assistant Professor

University of California, San Diego

Dept. of Political Science &

Global School of Policy and Strategy 

twitter: @aspaglayan