Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Schools at the Crossroads

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Schools at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

Schools often seem to be standing still while the rest of the world moves on. However, a number of social changes now look set to challenge educational systems and the functions of education.

Schools are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the state seems unwilling to go on financing and directing education; on the other, schools and local authorities would like to have more of a say in these matters themselves.

In these circumstances, the role of schools and their place in society become less straightforward than they were. In competition with other institutions such as the family and the workplace, which are themselves in the throes of change, schools no longer have a monopoly on the dissemination of knowledge. New information and communication technologies are putting teachers to the test and making them re-examine their approach to education.

The ways by which young people acquire knowledge have changed. Acquisition by absorption, a process encouraged by the media, is taking over from the traditional process in which the family and the school acted as the intermediaries. But the media appeal to young people's curiosity and emotional responses in a random fashion, and schools find it very hard to put knowledge acquired from the media into some sort of order so that schoolchildren can benefit from it.

The concept of skills has also taken on a broader meaning. As well as transmitting knowledge and know-how to their pupils, teachers must train them to find information for themselves and to make use of it. Pupils' skills are now defined in terms of their self-reliance and their ability to adapt to different types of training and jobs.

In a society where there is more and more cultural intermingling and where there are fewer and fewer fixed points of reference, teachers are expected to show children how to form their own values.

Lastly, the phenomenon of students "working their way through college" is a typical feature of life in North America, where the school population is drawn from mixed, multiethnic backgrounds. All these factors have a strong influence on thinking about what is required of schools and about ways of achieving integration.

Education and politics

The situation raises a number of socio-political questions, such as how to reconcile elitism with democracy without widening social cleavages or how to expound a universal culture respectful of national identities without encouraging racism and intolerance.

In this context, how should the roles of the state, the school and the individual be defined? A definition of a "common public culture", encompassing a set of non-negotiable values that are necessary to social cohesion, is perhaps called for. This set of values could serve as a common core for the education of all groups, minority or majority, sedentary or nomadic, without infringing the basic rights of any of them. These consensual values could justifiably be invoked to challenge the authority of schools designed to emphasize religious or ethnic differences. Again, instead of introducing new subjects into syllabuses, would it not be better to reorganize existing syllabuses transversally to encourage knowledge and understanding of other languages and cultures? Education could in this way become truly a factor working for peace.

On a matter more directly related to the social and economic context, the kind of general knowledge that opens pupils' minds to the world around them needs to be combined with vocational qualifications enabling them to find a place in economic life. …

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