Education and The Global Division of Labour
The education system that we have today, came about in the nineteenth century, arising from Liberalism, Industrialism and Empire.
The modern Education system was a great Liberal project, above all. Its ideals were different from that of the Eighteenth century: Productivity, rather than Civility, was its stated purpose; Consumption, rather than self-restraint, was its point; and at a time when the aristocratic privileges could no longer be taken for granted, it promoted the Jeffersonian 'natural aristocracy of men'.
Not all Eighteenth Century ideas were dead and gone, however. One distinction, between Liberal and Servile education, very much shaped the educational imagination in the Nineteenth. The idea of distinct education systems for intellectual and practical pursuits were now formalised: The great century of invention extended the chasm between intellectual and manual work, and people doing manual work were disappearing from view and the direct experiences of the intellectuals. While Marx was looking at the 'alienation' of the producer from his product, the other side of the coin was the distance of the consumer where the goods came from, and any direct knowledge of the physical realities of making.
Also, ingrained in the modern Education system was the Nineteenth Century ideal of Free Trade Empire. By now, Empire is a market, and the industrial, military and political domination of the European powers are now being used to create markets and establish global supply chains. The British Navy is no longer pirating Spanish Gold or guarding Slave ships, but rather guaranteeing safety of sea lanes.
All put together, the modern education system was built for a global, urban, industrial world of specialists, and a system of division of labour - as an organising principle of society and the optimal system of creating economic value - was at the core of its mission.
The history of education is usually studied in national lines, and therefore, the underlying architecture of the Division of Labour often gets overlooked. Indeed, the debates about access and merit, vocational and cultural aims of education, and public and private funding, are shaped by this architecture, and such contests are often resolved using the logic of Division of Labour. 'Skills Gap' features prominently in the conversation; public funding flows into basic education for the sake of market creation, and it is withdrawn when an alternative arrangement of credit can be put in place, tying educational objectives firmly with the structure of economy. And, such an architecture enabled, in successively expansive scope, globalisation, shaping the global supply chain and the arrangement of global desires and demands in a neat pyramid. It is not an accident that the Metropolitan Centres of world boast the best universities pursuing fundamental research and building creative and innovative economies; and that the developing nations produce graduates who are cheap and dedicated process workers and consummate shoppers: This is what the Liberal Education system set out to create!
The two implications of this are that it is difficult to change an education system of a country without a change of the economic structures, and that we may need systems innovation in Education when the global Liberal economic order falters.
Education systems are integral part of globalising processes - one that is shaped by where the country is in the global division of labour, and which it in turn shapes - and it is hard for an individual educator, even a Tagore or Gandhi or Makiguchi, or an institution, to change the structures and purposes of education. The structure of education essentially keeps every nation in its place, or in the place designed for it by the Liberal Economic order.
I would also argue that the Liberal Economic order is facing an existential crisis right now. It is facing a challenge as big as the systemic breakdown of the Twentieth Century Global Wars, though this time, the challenge is coming from within. The resurgent national interests have changed the political conversation, and the foundational assumption of global division of labour is being challenged. And, this is not just political, but technological as well, which makes it more consequential. This takes away the logic of the current educational system, and reshapes its hierarchies, its structures and its promises. This is a moment for post-Liberal imagination in Education.