When education becomes compulsory a natural conflict arises between the interests of members of society and the state. Gaining a deeper insight into the essence of this conflict may highlight problems which are sometimes attributed to the inability of certain politicians or school principals or to the inactivity of society. In reality, the problems stem from the education system itself and understanding these problems may help us discover ways for improvement.
Schools, methods of mass communication and the family are among the most powerful instruments of socialization. They largely influence the formation of human personalities, of our children and of a country’s citizens in general. Different groups interested in education have conflicting views and attitudes about the aims of education. For example, the agreed state objective about the necessity of developing critical thinking among students is not always shared by some parents or religious institutions. For a segment of society, observing traditions is sometimes considered more important than rethinking them.
To highlight some aspects of the existing conflict, let’s review two extremely different concepts about the educational system. According to one concept, socialization is a secondary and perhaps even undesirable result of education. From this standpoint, education is an economic benefit, much like any other product or service consumed by its owner or user and not by society. According to this concept, the benefit obtained from school is, structurally, similar to a benefit obtained from visiting a theatre, a shop or having a private tutor.
According to another extreme concept, education is only a public good. The key function of school is the formation of a person into a member of society. The education system must instill values in students and develop those skills that are important for economic activity and for society. From this standpoint, education is often viewed as an instrument for the progress of society, a process of forming citizens.
Presumably, there are only a few people who consider education as being exclusively for either private or public benefit. It is not difficult to understand that, despite a common interest, families have a preferential right to decide for themselves what values to instill in their children. Fortunately, there is no legitimate way of prohibiting Georgian parents from raising their children as agnostics, for example. At the same time, it is not difficult to prove that literacy, common identity and the existence of voters capable of critical reasoning are necessary conditions for the success of democracy. That’s why for many people it is acceptable when the state restricts parental freedom in certain terms and obliges parents to either take their children to school or have them acquire the necessary skills otherwise.
The conflict between private and public interests often comes to light when the state and representatives of society develop opposing interests. When members of society assume the responsibility to act, this conflict may sometimes even bring about a positive development. Two centuries ago, when the public education system was first established in Georgia, the state was part of the Russian Empire. It was not at all in the interests of the empire to teach the Georgian language in schools. To counteract this approach, the Society for the Spreading of Literacy Among Georgians, a charity founded by a group of leading Georgian intellectuals, opened independent schools that provided greater possibilities to learn Georgian.
A broader aim of this society was the development of a common Georgian identity – something that did not exist to any great extent back then and which ran counter to the state’s interests of the time. “This small and cheap booklet adorned with illustrations and the Georgian alphabet, sails like a torpedo boat to villages, gorges and mountains and generates the requirement for and love towards Georgian literature. At present, this tiny explosive device is spreading throughout villages and cities with 30,000 copies distributed annually. Should the Society for the Spreading of Literacy intensify its activity and use messengers to send this small ‘Mother Tongue’ [ABC book] to the provinces in larger amounts, the annual demand for it will reach 100,000 and reading Georgian books will become a daily requirement of the entire Georgian people. Yes, Mr. Hamut Bey,* our national cause in this sphere is properly served, accurately calculated, and arranged in accordance with our present situation; if we pursue other causes with such appropriateness as well, the woes of our country will gradually decrease and the Georgian people will have a chance of a better future.” This letter of Iakob Gogebashvili, a Georgian educator of the 19th century and the author of a children's primer, clearly shows that the creation of the ABC book was an integral part of a rationally planned national project.
The restriction of various private interests by introducing compulsory education comes from the peculiarity of the system itself. A common interest is that education serves the aim of creating societal linkage, stability, identity, increasing economic possibilities and other benefits. Given these aims and technical possibilities, an education system with more or less uniform goals and content is built. For example, the system chooses a dominant language as the language of teaching and starts standardizing this language, however, in so doing, consequently creates certain problems with cultural diversity in general.
Problems are also created for local existing social relations. For example, modern education systems are established based on the notion of the superiority of rationality. This might contribute to the disappearance of fact-based teaching methods or various valuable traditional means of communication in the name of patriotism and universal progress.
What is the solution to this conflict, how can an education system oriented on both private and public benefits be built? The education system should only be strong to an extent that allows it to maintain diversity and private interest in general. Examples of balance can be found in the existing system. Imagine how regrettable it would be if the education system was so oppressive that everyone spoke a standardized dialect, cooked similar meals, sang the same song and danced the same dance in every corner of Georgia. Regrettably, such regional peculiarities have already been lost in terms of traditional medicine, agriculture and in other significant cultural areas.
Another important thing is the existence of educational alternatives. True, there exists the choice between obtaining education at private or public schools, or even at home. In reality, however, the choice is very limited. The number of alternative schools in many settlements is very small, whilst the costs of private education are prohibitively high for many. It is therefore important that the state, in addition to supporting the development of private education, also thinks about broadening the diversity of public schools.
Diverse private interests can somewhat be supported by giving schools more freedom to plan the education process and develop its content and teaching materials. A more important step would be for the state to diversify its institutional arrangements for obtaining education. Today, the state demands an education process focused on a strictly defined list of subjects, textbooks and tests that are necessarily organized by grades. This system, which was developed in the 19th century, is very outdated, even for Georgia, a country with scarce economic resources.
Finally, no private interests will be taken into account if local communities are not actually involved in the management of schools. Naturally, considering common interests, standard requirements must exist for every school. But the local community must be allowed to participate in the development of its schools. This should imply autonomy, not only in terms of content and financing, but also in the right to establish non-profit community schools which will get a similar level of state support as any other non-profit public school.
*Hamut Bey is the pseudonym of my great grandfather who was a member of the Society for the Spreading of Literacy Among Georgians, working in Abkhazia.