What is the never-ending task of education? This question has been asked and answered by inquiring minds throughout history. Not surprisingly, the responses have been complex. A credible reply is found in the autobiographical Education of Henry Adams: “From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education” The task does not change. The means to accomplish it are, however, many and varied.
In considering the task of education over time, it is well to examine how education has progressed over the years in representative nations across the continents. This entry considers the earliest vestiges of educational pursuits, as well as adaptations over the past 150 years, in Africa, Australia, the Americas, and Eurasia. Attention is given to the human and material price of progress.
Republic of South Africa
Historically, education in South Africa was centered in each village, where children were taught the survival skills necessary to subsist in a subtropical climate that is home to “The Big Five”: buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard, and elephant. Early African education was not institutionalized, and black African families were multigenerational. Women were considered subservient and were often subject to spousal violence. For centuries, both boys and girls learned their roles from their elders in the language spoken in their own regions.
With the 17th century came white dominance. White Afrikaners (Dutch South Africans) reigned supreme, and in the mid-1800s ethnic-specific boarding schools were established with the dual purpose of producing laborers and precluding uprisings among the natives. Literacy was not a priority in these schools, cost was a factor to poor families, and children from rural areas had little opportunity to attend. In contrast, white children were educated in private schools, many of British origin. The disparity between black and white schools increased with the institution of apartheid in 1948. The Christian-based National Party denied blacks access to any white-only areas, particularly schools, and imposed Christianity on students regardless of their religious affiliations. Blacks were not allowed to travel freely. In 1953, the Bantu Education Act was passed, further discriminating against blacks and resulting in only 1% of all funding to reach black schools. Students were coerced into learning the Afrikaans language, and they continued to be educated to do manual labor. In 1976, while the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, 600 South African students were massacred in riots while protesting against inferior schools and the unwelcome heavy use of Afrikaans in the school system.
Since the fall of apartheid in the late 1980s, measures have been taken to integrate the schools and to revise the curriculum to include literacy, mathematics and science, life skills, history, and geography. Lessons began to be taught in English and in a native language of choice: Ndebele, Sepedi, Zulu, Setswana, Xhosa, Venda, Swazi, Xitsonga, Tsonga, or Sesotho. Budgets for educational improvements were astronomical. With the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994, marking the official end to apartheid, school populations grew to over 12 million black and white students in more than 30,000 schools. Presently, 87% of males and 86.7% of females over age 15 can read and write. Desmond Tutu coined the phrase “the Rainbow Nation” to illustrate the diversity of the South African people. And, so that they did not die in vain, President Mandela’s new government declared June 16 as Youth Day in memory of the 600 protestors who died in Soweto.
Prior to the arrival of the English settlers in Australia, the Aboriginal people who populated the continent lived a pastoral life. Boys learned to hunt and to plant from their fathers, and girls learned to rear children and to maintain the home from their mothers. Institutional education did not exist until the early to mid 1800s when early English settlers and clerics established private schools for the purpose of domesticating the tribes. By the late 1800s each Australian state had passed public education laws that funded public governmental schools and, to a lesser degree, private denominational schools. Funding for private schools was fully guaranteed in 1964 when Parliament affirmed the practice. As the Commonwealth developed, there were major efforts to unify states in terms of common goals for education, but the outcomes of the conferences were only with regard to schools remaining free, compulsory, and secular in nature, with authority and funding to remain the responsibility of the states. Only in the Capital Territory, in and around Canberra, near Sydney, did the central democratic federal-state government determine educational processes and practice.
Australia is made up of six states and two territories; most people live in and around the large cities and work mostly in the manufacturing and tourist industries. Only 5% of the total workforce is involved in farming. Over time, interest in educating Aboriginal and other agricultural populations has become keen. An important innovation, facilitated to expand educational opportunities to the native people and to people in the remote areas of the outback, is a system of schooling named School of the Air. To communicate, two-way radios are used by teachers and students. Follow-up is carried out via the Internet, facsimile, or the mail. Instruction is done in an Aboriginal language and in English, and, in both the School of the Air and in city schools, Japanese is studied. Australia is a mecca of cultural diversity, and more than 200 languages are currently spoken there.
Unlike schools in the northern hemisphere that traditionally begin in September and end in June, schools in Australia begin the academic year in June and end in September. Students wear uniforms sewn of cotton, and children wear hats with a neck flap to shield their necks and shoulders from the sun. Sunnies (sunglasses) and sunscreen are required for students. Sometimes children are rewarded for their hard work and compliance to rules with little treats called lamingtons, small sponge cakes that are drenched with chocolate and topped with shredded coconut.
Throughout history, education has been strongly influenced by Western educational philosophy. Continual reformation has brought about dynamic and progressive change. Australia’s literacy rate is currently 100%, and there are 20 colleges and universities on the continent. Australia is ranked high on the international stage for exceptional schools.
Education in Mexico has changed dramatically over the years. Mexico has entered the 21st century with a national system of education dedicated to meeting the needs of all Mexico’s children from the rural Mayas in the south to the Mestizo miners in the north. These ideals, however, have not as yet been fulfilled. Emanating from a society where only the elite attended school and education was the sole responsibility of the Catholic Church, a secular system of education was extremely costly and difficult to establish. The country was largely illiterate. Initial credit goes to President Benito Juarez. Juarez rose from poverty by way of a sound education. He focused on increasing the number of schools in Mexico, and by 1874 there were 8,000 schools, and public education was declared a universal right.
Jose Vasconcelos, director of education in the early 1900s, popularized the notion of education for the masses, and through his efforts, the education budget was more than doubled between 1921 and 1923 to 35 million pesos. Vasconcelos dispatched teachers, agriculturalists, home economists, and artists to remote villages to teach literacy, numeracy, and technology. Opportunities were advanced to women. A lively and enduring Mexican identity and cultural nationalism took hold.
For a time, the third article of the Mexican Constitution was amended to proclaim “State education will be socialist in nature.” New curricula were written to emphasize the leading roles of the workers during the Mexican Revolution. Catholic education was basically tolerated, but great opposition was mounted against powerful landowners and foreign property owners. Revolution bore industrialism, and prosperity followed. Money became available for education, and literacy rates rose to 57% before World War II. The word socialist was removed from the Constitution. Catholicism remained, and still remains, the religion of 95% of all Mexicans.
Education continued to be a priority throughout the 20th century. Cost-effective prefabricated schools, furnished with teacher residences, were built to attract teachers to the rural villages. Free textbooks and workbooks, some in the 50 or more indigenous languages of Mexico, allowed more children to remain in school. Mexico became the first country in the world to offer telesecundarias (distance learning), and by 2004 the overall literacy rate reached 92%. This is significant because only one quarter of all students remain in school until age 16. Poverty plagues the society, and many poor Mexican families harbor detrimental anti-intellectual attitudes. Only a small percentage of high school graduates go on to higher education. Despite these problems, amazing progress has been made in the federal republic. Mexico City University, founded in 1551, is the oldest and largest university in all the Americas. Nonetheless, until students from the Mexican countryside have an equal opportunity with their counterparts in the cities to attend college or university, the absolute success of the Mexican educational system will not be realized.
Iraq has a magnificent history of intellectual pursuit. What other country can boast the invention of the wheel, utilization of the first alphabet, or rank among the first to study mathematics and astrology? Indeed, the oldest university in the Arab world, Mustansiriya University, founded in 1234, is located in Baghdad. Relatively modern educational practices were introduced to Iraq by the British in the early 1900s, but student enrollment was low and the literacy rate was only 20% of the Iraqi population. Upon Iraq’s becoming a republic in the late 1950s, great strides were made by the new government to construct schools, raise enrollment, and more than double the literacy rate. From kindergarten level to university level, tuition was free. The government provided all materials and texts. Teachers were paid well, and schools were in very good condition. More boys than girls attended Iraq’s gender-segregated schools. Age-old gender bias existed, and Muslim women wore the hajab or the burka. It was believed that separating the sexes resulted in children’s being better able to concentrate on their studies. Also of note is that more children from the populous areas went to school than those from rural areas. The nomadic and seminomadic people raised sheep, goats, cattle, poultry, and horses. School-age children were needed by their families to tend the livestock. Education was a luxury for them, not a priority.
According to Roger Wright, UNICEF representative to Iraq, “Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East.” That is no longer the case. From 1979 to 2003, the pan-Arab and socialist policies of the Baath Party were enforced by Saddam Hussein. Iraq became a dictatorship where the people had little influence on the government. During this time, the Iraqi economy and its exemplary system of schools were adversely affected by neglect, underfunding, and war without end. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 did little, however, to alleviate the deterioration of the schools and the school system. Harsh economic conditions caused some of the youngest children to drop out of school and beg on the streets of the cities. Parents feared sending their children to school. In Baghdad, alone, bombs destroyed, damaged, or burned hundreds of schools, and thousands of them were looted.
Even today, children who do attend school find the buildings in disrepair, with broken windows, weak foundations, and leaking roofs. Running water and sanitation facilities are defunct. Furniture, equipment, and materials are scarce. Teachers are disillusioned. They teach two and three shifts per day, and teacher salaries are at an all-time low. There is, however, reason for optimism. Much of the Baathist ideology has been removed from the curriculum. Reconstruction is slowly being carried out with the help of UN agencies, private sector companies, and the U.S. military.
Education does not exist in a vacuum. It reflects the social, economic, cultural, and political posture of a nation. This is especially true in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The recently formed Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, spanning two continents. The land west of the Ural Mountains is located in Europe and the land east of the Urals is in Asia. In early times, Russia was an imperial state ruled by a hereditary monarchy. Education was reserved for royalty and the upper echelon of society. The masses were uneducated, poverty stricken, and subject to the restrictions of the czars. The abolition of serfdom under Alexander II in 1861 brought the Zemstvo reform. Rudimentary public schools were built in the countryside for the children of peasants. Twenty years later, the Russian Orthodox Church was granted jurisdiction over education, and by the dawn of the 20th century 50% of all school-age children attended the parish schools.
With revolution came innovation. The new phase of Russian education coincided with the rise of the Bolsheviks and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1918. Led by Vladimir Lenin, and under the leadership of the Commissariat of Education, schools were deigned to become childcentered, interactive, and progressive. Instruction was to be rooted in students’ interests. However, Lenin’s idealistic vision for education was not well received at the local levels. Little change occurred, and tradition was defiantly maintained.
During the Joseph Stalin years (1931-1953), the schools became a vehicle for dispensing Soviet ideology. Schools were administered by the Politburo, the main organ of the Soviet state, and strict allegiance to the state was enforced. As often happens in a totalitarian regime, the curriculum was rewritten, in this instance painting Stalin as the Father of the Revolution. Suppression, fear, and numbing routine characterized the state and school. Yet the literacy rate under Stalin was reported to have risen to 95% by 1939 and was maintained throughout the century.
The year 1991 marked the fall of the Soviet Union and the foundation of the Russian Federation. With this came great hope and optimism among average citizens who believed that the far-reaching political upheaval would bring prosperity with democracy. Their hopes were dashed. Political and societal uncertainty and a weak economy prevailed. Schools were underfunded, teachers were underpaid, and conditions continued to deteriorate over time. Today, schools are in disrepair. Major heating, plumbing, and electrical repairs, as well as technological advances, are needed. New school construction is necessary to alleviate overcrowding and double sessions. New curricula must be designed, and “communist mythology” removed from textbooks. At this moment in time, Russian students are not encouraged to enter college or university because they can earn more money by entering the workforce. With hopes for immediate reform dashed, many Russians look to their current leader, Dmitry Medvedev, upon whom they depend to improve conditions in both society and in the schools.
Suzanne E. D’Amato
See also Cultural Evolution; Social Evolution; Vladimir Ilich Lenin; Joseph Stalin; Teaching Time
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