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Mass education is a child of a mechanical age

May 19th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

For some time now, I have been saying that the present mass model of schooling is a product of teh indutrial age and is out of sync with the forms of social interaction and knowledge development of the present period. This change is an outcome of the present ‘industrial’ revolution which we are going through, based of digital technologies. This is OK for conferences. But when i have written it in journal articles and book chapters I have been challenged by editors and reviewers to provide citations for my assertion.

So I am delighted to have found, in  Norm Friesens digital except from “The future of education: The class of 1989: by Marshall McLuhan and George B Leonard published in 1967.

They say “Mass education is a child of a mechanical age. It grew up along with the production line. It reached maturity just at that historical moment when Western civilization had attained its final extreme of fragmentation and specialization, and had mastered the linear technique of stamping out products in the mass.

It was this civilization’s genius to manipulate matter, energy and human life by breaking every useful process down into its functional parts, then producing any required number of each. Just as shaped pieces of metal became components of a locomotive, human specialists become components of the great social machine.”

McLuhan and Leanard go on to say:

“In this setting, education’s task was fairly simple: decide what the social machine needs, then turn out people who match those needs. The school’s function was not so much to encourage people to keep exploring, learning and, therefore, changing throughout life as to slow and control those very processes of personal growth and change. Providing useful career or job skills was only a small part of this educational matching game.All students, perhaps more so in the humanities than the sciences and technologies, were furnished standard “bodies of knowledge,” vocabularies, concepts and ways of viewing the world. Scholarly or trade journals generally held a close check on standard perceptions in each special field.”

McLuhan recognised that education is resistant to change. However as the title implies he expected this to have changed by 1969, largely due to the impact of computers on learning. It seems that educations resistance is greater than he expected – but the ideas are alive and still relevant today. Although McLuhan recognised our tendency to reproduce previous pedagogies and social forms through new technology, he underestimated, I think, the ability of institutions to adapt new technologies as a tool for management and control, rather than for change. It has taken the advent of social software to see the dawning of McLuhan’s vision of an “environment …. packed with energy and information – diverse, insistent, compelling.”

Many thanks for Norm for provding a copy of the paper.

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2 Responses to “Mass education is a child of a mechanical age”

  1. ioanna says:

    Dear Cristina, thanks for posting this.
    Just read in a brochure on the New Skills for New Jobs initiative:
    “the composition of skills emerging from EU universities and training systems does not fully support an innovation-driven economy”
    is it any wonder?


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