State Role In Education Essay

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Education is a vital dimension of human existence that manifests throughout history from the prehistoric era, to ancient civilizations, to modern society and the postmodern era. Education serves a multiplicity of functions for humans, from basic survival to cultural transmission. The state, meaning any kingdom or nation at any point in time, relies on education as a critical institution within the society. Education serves many purposes, from the constructor of social norms, to economic engine, to ancillary, to national defense, to preserver of culture. Just as the state is a creation of humans designed with the hope of a better existence, education is a creation of humans designed with the hope of supporting that better way of life. In this entry, the relationship of education and the state is traced from earliest times to contemporary societies. Special emphasis is given to the development and relationship of education in the United States.

Ancient Times

The course of human development is marked by milestones related to the economic and cultural survival of the species, and education plays a role at all stages of this development. For prehistoric humans, basic knowledge of survival skills and the development of crude tools were critical to existence. Education served to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next. Children learn to fend for themselves after their parents educate them about where to find potable water and edible plants, when to harvest nutritious fruits, how to avoid dangerous animals, and how to construct a basic shelter.

Tribes And Clans

Innovation accelerates because accumulated knowledge becomes easier to access. Thus, as humans form into tribal groups and clans, knowledge is held in common as it is spread within the group. In addition, the transmission of valuable information to succeeding generations is also made easier. In this group setting, each individual does not have to have all the knowledge needed for survival as specialization within the group takes place. However, the tribal and clan setting adds to the need for even more education. Group cohesion requires that patterns of behavior and interaction within the group follow group norms. In this circumstance, the individual must be socialized to the group. Parents add socialization to their child’s education, and the group also assumes responsibility for the education of its members.

Tribes and clans evolve into more complicated organizational structures, and the state, in the form of an elite ruling class and societal hierarchy, comes into existence. Specialization expands not only into areas of technology and basic survival, but is also seen in the roles needed to protect and maintain order within the society. Here, specialization in the form of the military and priestly classes assumes part of the duties of perpetuating the social order. The oral tradition, passing critical cultural information from one generation to the next, becomes a central feature of the society.

Human existence is routinely subjected to natural disaster, war, famine, and disease. These events tend to disrupt societies in ways that randomly affect the population. As a result, the specialization of skill and knowledge found throughout the society dies with the specialist who held it, also in random ways. In such instances, written language is a technological advancement that mitigates the potential for complete cultural annihilation when disaster strikes. Written language can help a society devastated by disaster recover, because more individuals within the group have access to important survival and cultural information.

Written Language

The great river civilizations and city-states of the ancient world—Sumer, India, China, Egypt, Olmec— each developed forms of written language. Evidence of written language has been discovered as early as 4000 BCE. This technology, written language, requires even greater and broader levels of education in order for it to be used and preserved. Written language serves no purpose if it cannot be read by those who need the information contained in the writing. Reading and writing must be explicitly taught and take time to learn. The historical record shows that as reading and writing become known in a society, some people are selected to learn and preserve these skills, and are often referred to as scribes.

What would appear to the modern observer as schools are organized within these societies. Schools are the inventions of humans and are used to pass on valued cultural knowledge to succeeding generations. They come into existence when the amount and degree of this knowledge is too extensive or complicated for the family to fulfill. Human development is a spiral of ever more complex survival skills, technologies, and social structures. Schools function to maintain and facilitate the development of the individual and wider society.

Thus, the ancient cultures established scribes, accountants, priests, military leaders, and civil servants of all kinds. Specialists in the areas of technology, agriculture, engineering, astrology, religion, philosophy, medicine, maritime, armed forces, and the arts appear. Large states with rich and complex cultures produce these arrays of human endeavor, but they are created and sustained through informal and formal systems of education. Without education, civilization does not exist.

Role In Society

Overwhelmingly, history shows that the social facet of education and religion, when they emerge within a culture, often become indistinguishable. The purpose is to perpetuate social mores and belief systems deemed essential to the culture. Frequently, when this development happens within a culture, the elite classes assume deified personas, thus attempting to strengthen the bond between religion, social order, and ruling elite within the society. This construct is seen in such examples as Egyptian pharaohs, Mayan caciques, and European kings. Even today, education in the form of religion is seen as a state function among some nations.

The state also has a stake in education as an essential part of the defense and economic viability of the society. A universal means of education in this mode is the parent-to-child instruction. Hence, families specialize in certain technologies. Artifacts of this old social economic order are seen today in Anglo-Saxon surnames such as Smith, Miller, Mason, Weaver, and Cooper. More complex means of economic enterprise and military organization require education beyond what can be accomplished within the nuclear family. Often in larger societies, clans or villages assume an area of specialization such as pottery, basket weaving, metallurgy, or shipbuilding, with the encouragement of the state. From such larger enterprises, education through the apprenticeship evolves.

Apprenticeships in the more lucrative and technologically complex fields can develop into a guild system in which admittance to apprenticeships is tightly controlled and the esoteric knowledge of the field is kept secret. It is common for the state to control these forms of education for economic purposes through a system of prohibitions and sanctions such as licenses, charters, and degrees. These systems often award monopolies for the enterprise to favored groups, and with it a monopoly related to the education and training associated with the economic endeavor.

Western Tradition

Education in the Western world traces many of its traditions to the ancient Greek city-states and their renowned philosophers. A clear record of the state taking a direct interest in the education of its people is seen in the writings of the great philosophers of that era: Socrates (470–399 BCE), Plato (429–348 BCE), and Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Perhaps Alexandria, the city established on the northern shore of the African continent by the Macedonian king for whom it was named, best exemplifies direct state involvement in the promotion of education in the ancient world. The great library and museum of Alexandria, purported to have 700,000 volumes, served as a place of experimentation and learning for intellectuals of all kinds, of various backgrounds, and from throughout the world.

Ancient Rome would come to benefit greatly from the cultural heritage of the Hellenistic age and apply its own perspective to the educational needs of its inhabitants. The expansion of the Roman Empire throughout the Mediterranean and most of Europe set the stage for the ascendancy of Christianity as the dominant religion within the Western world. Christianity, in cooperation with the state and rooted in the Jewish traditions of the obligatory study of the Law of Moses and the education of youth for economic independence, would play the major role in developing the concept of universal schooling for children and the great universities in the Western world.

The Christian religion and the state merged in the form of the Holy Roman Empire. Monarchs throughout its history sponsored and promoted education as a matter of faith and in the interest of the state. The school at court and the monastic traditions were sustained with the patronage of the monarchy. The roots of this empire and its emphasis on education are traced back to Charlemagne and exemplified in his General Proclamation as to Education in 787 CE. The influence of Muslim civilization emanating from its European stronghold in Spain during this era would advance the study of mathematics and the sciences, provide links to the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, and add impetus to the relationship of education and the state by their example.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation fractured the Catholic Church’s hold on Europe. The denominationalism that followed, which was often grounded in nationalism, spurs even more emphasis on education as each religious group strives to instill its form of religious orthodoxy within its population. Concurrent with these events, advances in the technology of printing in Europe, started a half century earlier, make the printed word more accessible to the populace. Combined with the Protestant emphasis on salvation through reading the Bible, the need for mass education is accelerated. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other leaders of the movement exhort the church and the state to offer universal education as a matter of faith. The Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church also spurs educational advancements through, among other things, the rise of teaching orders like the Jesuits, who open schools and universities around the world with state sanction.

American Experience

As the sixteenth century dawns, the European migration to the Americas commences, and with it, the drive to transplant much of the culture of the mother country. Motivated by the competition for wealth and souls, the Europeans compete for territory to exploit and natives to convert. Columbus addresses this quest directly in the log of his first journey across the Atlantic, as does the First Charter of Virginia, granted by King James I.

The European states often used the mission, an educational institution for religious conversion, for technology transfer and for cultural maintenance. Within the first phases of settlement, universities are established, often by an endowment from the ruling monarch (e.g., University of Santo Domingo, 1538; University of San Marcos in Lima, 1551; Mexico City, 1553; Harvard, 1636; William and Mary, 1699; Yale, 1701).

Early Years

The colonial period in the British colonies that would become the United States of America followed the pattern of church-related education for children, the apprenticeship for young adults, grammar school for some, and the university for the select few. An array of approaches to providing education existed: schools mandated by the colonial governing body in New England; parish schools and missions in the Middle Atlantic colonies; private tutors in the home or study abroad in the South; and charity schools for the orphaned and indigent. Episodes of schools for the growing African population are found in the historical record, although great variance is seen among the geographic regions and time periods. The native peoples of the area were minimally affected by the educational endeavors of the time, relying instead on their own education traditions for economic survival, cultural preservation, and spiritual needs.

With the movement for independence and the creation of a new nation under a system of self-rule, the impetus for education was strong. The European Enlightenment inspired new thinking about the nature of man and a person’s right to liberty, but free people also have duties to the state that required thoughtful reflection and assumed a modest education. The new nation struggled to form its own identity, and ideas abounded among nation builders such as Webster, Jefferson, and Franklin about how education could play a transformative role. However, the concept of the state, in addition to the parent and the church, as the vehicle for directing education does not take flight until well into the nineteenth century in America.

Unlike several European nations of the time that had established state-supported schools in collaboration with the Church, the United States, perhaps because of its multiple religious denominations, made little progress in this regard. The federal system and the division of duties between the states and the national government also added to the slower development. With the westward expansion beyond the original thirteen states, community-based schools promoted by the state became more numerous. The forethought of the national leaders to provide resources for schools in the new Northwest Territories through the land ordinances of 1787 and 1789 underscores the interest of the national government in promoting education.

State Systems

By the early nineteenth century, many states were moving to create public education systems. For example, by 1812, New York put a three-tiered system in place, consisting of state, district, and town, that would look familiar to many today. This approach in New York followed even earlier efforts in 1795, by Governor George Clinton, to provide grants to towns willing to establish a local tax to support schools. But the growth of state-controlled and -supported education developed slowly, differently, and on different schedules in different regions of the country. Constitutionally, education was assumed to be a state function, and most of the states adopted the model of local control and local funding within an overall state system that set broad parameters for governance and operation. However, the idea that education should be a government function for which taxes are collected was hardly a universally accepted concept in the United States.

Eventually, by the late nineteenth century, a system did develop across the country, impelled by immigration, industrialization, and urbanization, that was controlled by each state and mostly funded and run by local communities. This model endures to the present, although control has shifted to the state and national governments, leaving local school districts with essentially ministerial roles. In recent times, the fifty independent state systems, and territorial systems, of education have come under the control of the federal government through its model of incentive funding and heavy regulation, packaged under the label of education reform.

Historically, government programs for education in America are telling with regard to educational trends and the racial and ethnic groups targeted to benefit. For example, over the course of the nation’s development, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and immigrants have been the focus of state directed education programs that aimed to bring these groups into the mainstream culture. Over time, various philosophies of education are apparent in the state’s goals for students; for example, Social Reconstructionism—school as the place to socialize immigrants, as a vehicle for the social mobility of the disadvantaged, or a means to create a new social order; Perennialism—school as the means of preserving the culture and values of the dominant class; Essentialism— school as the place to prepare citizens for participation in the economy; Postmodernism—school as a mechanism for social justice.


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