In many developed nations, education is one of the greatest expenses of government. In Great Britain, for instance, about £88 billion was spent on education last year, ammounting to 17 percent of the kingdom’s total budget. In the United States, where education is partly privatized, the federal government still intends to invest over $46 billion in education this year on a total budget of $3.5 trillion. What’s more, hardly ever is the government’s role in education contested. Rather it has come to be regarded as vital a task of the state as national defense.
The success of private schools and colleges sufficiently counters any claims that only government can provide quality schooling. A more convincing argument for state-run education is made by Ernest André Gellner (1925-1995), one of the twentieth century’s greatest scholars of nationalism and author of Nations and Nationalism, published in 1983. In this volume, Gellner argues that centralized education is necessary to sustain industrial society and he assumes that only government can provide it.
When the nation was just a state, writes Gellner, its monopoly of legitimate violence defined it. In the age of nationalism however, “Not the guillotine, but the (amply named) doctorat d’état is the main tool and symbol of state power.” The monopoly of legitimate education has “gelded” all of society. Where ancient rulers employed eunuchs and foreigners as advocates of high culture and state power, “the Mamluk conditions has become universal” today. Man is no longer loyal to a monarch or a religion or even a land; he abides to a culture.
In such a culture, advantages gained through ancestry, birth or connections are “explained away” and “viewed at best ambivalently.” Where “idle privilege was proud and brazen” in the past, modern nation states uphold the illusion or reality of social mobility. It is no coincidence that nationalism emerged alongside industrialism. “Industrialization,” claims Gellner, “engenders a mobile and culturally homogeneous society, which consequently has egalitarian expectations and aspirations.”
Gellner admits that “just how much reality there is to this appearance of upward and downward mobility varies” but key is the notion of egalitarianism inherent to it. Industrial society, he argues, “is rooted in a certain kind of division of labor, one which is complex and persistently, cumulatively, changing.” Indeed, “the persistence of occupational change” is “the one permanent feature of [the] social order.” To be able to cope with it, social mobility is an absolute necessity while people must be educated generically rather than trained in one specific profession. “Industrial society may by most criteria be the most highly specialized society ever,” notes Gellner, “but its education system is unquestionably the least specialized, the most universally standardized, that has ever existed.”
This is a good thing because the content of professional activity has changed as society moved from the agrarian into the industrial age. In the latter, work no longer means ploughing, reaping and thrashing. It is no longer “the manipulation of things, but of meanings” that workers are concerned with: communicating with other people or manipulating the controls of a machine. “Most jobs, if not actually involving work ‘with people’, involve the control of buttons or switches or leavers which need to be understood, and are explicable […] in some standard idiom intelligible to all comers.”
“In a traditional social order,” or the pre-industrial society, “the languages of the hunt, of harvesting, of various rituals, of the council room, of the kitchen or harem, all [formed] autonomous systems.” The use of language differed per profession and was shaped by the segment of society in which one lived. Nowadays, instead, “it is assumed that all referential uses of language ultimately refer to one coherent world, and can be reduced to a unitary idiom.” The homogenization of language, of culture, is what makes industrialism possible. This is how Gellner understands the notion of “nationalism”. It represents “not the awakening of an old, latent, dormant force” therefore, “though that is how it does indeed present itself.”
[Nationalism] is in reality the consequence of a new form of social organization, based on deeply internalized, education-dependent high cultures, each protected by its own state.
This theory has received its fair share of criticism, especially from academics who have pointed at pre-industrial forms of nationalism to discredit Gellner’s thesis. According to Gellner, such early instances of attachment to king or country were not quite nationalism although nationalist movements from the nineteenth century onward did claim their heritage. Only the industrial state makes nationalism, not the other way around, and in order to sustain it, government must at the very least ensure access to education if not outright monopolize it.
Gellner is, in the end, indecisive on the necessity of state-run education. “The notion of education or a viable modern high culture is […] fairly loose,” he admits in the final chapter of Nations and Nationalism. “Literacy is no doubt central to it,” as well “elementary numeracy and a modicum of technical competence.” This minimum of intellectual capabilities, required to function in an industrial society, “presupposes a well-maintained and effective centralized education system.” But nowhere does he unequivocally demonstrate that government, and only government, should organize it.
Philosopher Ayn Rand’s (1905-1982) thoughts on the proper purpose of education align with Gellner’s. In “The Comprachicos,” published in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971), she writes that, “The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life — by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality.” The training man needs, she argues, is “theoretical” or “conceptual”.
He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past — and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.
Believing as she did in the power of the free market, Rand would no doubt have added that there is no place for government in the whole endeavor. Indeed, she repeatedly stressed that the state has to limit itself to the basic tasks of providing defense, policing and courts of law: to protect men against their neighbors and settle legal disputes among them. A government monopoly on education would have been immoral according to Rand and impractical as a free market of supply and demand is better equipped to deliver the best service at the most economic of costs than any army of bureaucrats.
Facts prove her right. During the second half of the twentieth century, government spending on elementary and secondary education in the United States increased rapidly while student performance deteriorated: SAT scores declined by so much as 10 percent between 1960 and 1990. Schools, in turn, have come to oppose standardized testing, arguing that poor performance is harmful to a child’s self-esteem. Rather than allowing quick learners to advance, classes are rarely organized according to ability. Uniform curricula and peer pressure discourage excellence instead. Government-run schools now mass-produce mediocrity.
As much as industrialization fosters egalitarianism and as much as social mobility is a prerequisite for industrial society, many thinkers confuse cause and effect. Gellner himself reminds readers that, “Modern society is not mobile because it is egalitarian; it is egalitarian because it is mobile.” Nevertheless, schools have become an instrument in the rooting out of all kinds of inequality; in the crusade for so-called “social justice”. Striving for achievement is stamped out of children who are taught that winning is irrelevant; that the best is really no better a person than an underachiever. As Gary Hull notes in “Egalitarianism: The New Torture Rack,” (April 23, 2000) the excellent and the exceptional are perceived as a threat to egalitarianism. “Talent and ability create inequality. To rectify this supposed injustice,” he writes, “we are told to sacrifice the able to the unable. Egalitarianism demands the punishment and envy of anyone who is better than someone else at anything.”
In public education, this thinking has led to a dreadful situation. Whereas privately-funded schools and universities reward the most capable and productive of students, government-financed institutions devote evermore funding to “slow learners” while no special credit may be given to the best and brightest lest it hurt the feelings of others. Modern day education leaves young men and women with the impression that the smartest of them ought to repent for the “gift” with which they were unfairly endowed while the inane deserve all the time and dedication tutors can muster. “If you have ever wondered why the number of great artists, intellects and achievers has dwindled,” notes Hull, “you should blame egalitarianism.”
Is this the price society must pay for industrialism? The very opposite is true. It is precisely this mentality that undermines the very foundations of industrialism: the innovative spirit of the brightest minds, allowed to work and to produce and to trade freely on an unregulated market. Gellner is right to stress the importance of homogenized language and high culture but once it has pervaded the whole of society, which, he notes, “is the secret of nationalism,” no polity has to artificially sustain it.
A society speaking the same language does not make nationalism — let alone industrialism. What is further requires is “a common measure of fact, a universal conceptual currency, so to speak, for the general characterization of things.” Gellner draws here from the work of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) who in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) identified the rise of a new “entrepreneurial spirit” — which he linked to Protestantism — as instrumental in the success of mercantile capitalism and later, industrialism. “Two elements are conspicuously present in Weber’s notion of rationality,” notes Gellner: consistency; the like treatment of like cases, and efficiency; the cool rational selection of the best available means to given, clearly formulated and isolated ends. In other words: the qualities of the businessman.
No government schools taught the eighteenth and nineteenth century inventors and entrepreneurs how to industrialize the world. All they needed was to live in a society sufficiently homogenized to allow large-scale production and the freedom to work and trade. Social mobility improved and inequality decreased as industrialism marched on. The sad irony of modern day education is that it seeks to further destroy these perceived ills by fighting the very qualities which diminished them in the first place; that in order to achieve greater egalitarianism, it undermines the very forces which would otherwise promote it freely and voluntarily.