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Education and the State: A Digest

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a broad consensus existed among governing and middle classes in Europe and America over the necessity of some form of education for the masses. Disagreements raged over precisely how this education should be administered. In many countries, debates over church involvement retarded the organisation of public education. In others, serious conflicts over the precise nature of educational organization – whether it should be centrally or locally controlled, for instance – had a similar effect.

A vibrant educational press and a rich international educational literature contributed to the generalization and widespread acceptance amongst the dominant classes in various countries of the necessity of popular education.

educational theory

While the first half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a brand consensus over general educational practices and objectives among educational reformers and members of the governing classes in most European and American countries, the translation of this consensus into a set of effective educational practices aimed at local, and especially working class populations was a continually problematic matter.

The translation of educational theory and philosophical propositions into effective practices necessitated first, the creation of a set of educational relations and rituals, and also the transformation of these things into taken-for-granted features of the educational landscape.

The organization of public educational systems typically involved the creation of new authority relations – between states and local populations, between teachers, students, and the community, between teachers and educational administrators.  Public educational systems tended to define school knowledge in novel ways, insisting upon the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge and skill, and marginalizing or stigmatizing others.

And as systems of public administration, public educational systems commonly involved the creation of new institutions of political governance.  Public educational systems were successfully created only where theses kinds of social relationships were established and institutionalised.  However, state educational reformers frequently encountered opposition and resistance from students, local school supporters, and other groups and classes in society (In this regard see Phil Gardner (1983) Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England, London Croom Helm.  These points can be illustrated in the formation of the public educational system of the Canadian province of Ontario (known as Upper Canada from 1891 to 1840 and as Canada West from 1841 until the confederation of the Canadian provinces in 1867).

The foundations of the educational system of Ontario were laid in the turbulent decade of the 1840s.  During this period, where a network of locally supported voluntary schools had already produced a generally literate population, educational organization figured centrally in political conflicts over the issue of colonial self-government. In educational relations and curricular forms what one witnesses is a restructuring of the politics of education such that political relations become implicit rather than explicit.  The institutionalization of educational practices and procedures which assumed that students were children effectively transformed the reality of studenthood…

… The study of the formative period of state educational systems is particularly instructive for its revelation of the processes of educational normalization.  In practice, the successful normalization of relations of power in education systems means that they disappear from view.  They become submerged in an obviousness which tends to be taken for granted unquestioningly.

Historical study calls into question the taken-for-granted nature of contemporary education relations  and structures.  By examining the conditions under which educational systems were organized, and by detailing the kinds of changes in social relationships which these systems provoked and continue to sustain, we may better understand the basis of the existing social order.

The above is a digest derived of the work ‘The Normalization of Education Relations in Ontario, Canada’ by Bruce Curtis is Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada. (Bruce Curtis, The Normalization of Education Relations in Ontario, Canada , Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 82 – 90)

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