My parents had (probably still do) a very peculiar translation of “War and Peace” – only the Russian parts were translated. When I say ‘only the Russian parts’, I say so because a large part of the book is, from its very inception, in French (specifically, dialogues between characters). The language of the Russian aristocracy was French, and Tolstoi thus used French in a lot of the dialogue to add realism to the book. Yes, you read it right, Russian aristocracy spoke French. They did so to mark themselves as above the uneducated masses who could only speak Russian or any of the many other languages spoken in Russia natively. Obviously even the translator of the book though that a reader of this kind of literature would surely speak French, an elegant twist in the use of education as a mark of social distinction and class affiliation.
The reason why I bring up these two examples is because education, far from being just a means to expand one’s horizons and to have a better understanding of the world, has been extensively used as a mark of social class affiliation. European nobility used specific mannerisms (i.e. ‘manners’) and education to readily identify who belonged where in the social hierarchy. The education of choice for the upper classes was an education in classical Greek and Roman literature, language, history and culture (this in part due to the fact that the establishment of various Christian denominations had already created a scholarly tradition in these subjects, and themselves used them as a mark of rank). If people are asking why Universities offer education in liberal arts, it is because that was the education sought by the upper and ruling classes as a mark of social affiliation. If we now think that the ‘ancien regime’ fell in 1789, we can get an idea of how long the arm of tradition is and how well established the European ruling classes really are.
Obviously education for the masses did not exist, because people were in general too poor to afford to take time off work. Those who could afford an education got something on the lines of the education devised for the upper classes (which was the gold standard anyway) with more technical and scientific subjects thrown in for good measure. As we can see the creation of a ‘common culture’ across the whole society was first and foremost dependent to the general improvement in living standards: higher living standards meant more people in education, which was itself devised and modelled on the ‘standard’ provided by the education received by the ruling class. The other homogenising factor was obviously religion, which was more a mean of indoctrination, rather than education.
Keeping in mind that we can always find a few counterfactuals where people of humble extraction did manage to rise in society (for instance Newton was the son of a wealthy farmer), the important thing to keep in mind is that the simple fact we have these well known counterfactuals actually means that there were *so few* people able to move up in society, and that is why these few examples are well known. We can then broadly say that, historically, in Europe education was a sign of social distinction, and education was for most of the time a byproduct of money and power, rather than a way of getting either (more on that later).
Imperial China on the other had a substantially different approach. Starting from end of the Sui dynasty and the beginning of the Tang dynasty (~650 CE), any man (women were excluded) passing the Imperial Examination test would enter the Imperial civil administration. The test required extensive knowledge of what we would describe as ‘classical Chinese culture’, that is, Confucian texts and other Chinese classics. Even before the creation of the Imperial exam, the Imperial university founded by Emperor Wu ~124 BCE was open (at least in theory) to any promising young man, and thus could open the doors to the ranks of the civil administration to anyone. Obviously the theory that “anyone” regardless of class could enter the university or sit the exam was counterbalanced by the hard fact that only people with the time and money to study could do so – the overwhelming majority of the population was cut off from this avenue of upwards social mobility. In addition, the actual number of candidates passing the Imperial exam every year was small, and often they were simply the offspring of families already part of the Imperial bureaucracy (the system incidentally started out with a specific need for a recommendation for commoners wanting to take the exam – this requirement was lifted by the Song dynasty). Despite all these caveats the Imperial exam was potentially a way to end up as official in the imperial court itself, so its importance cannot be overemphasised. The Imperial exam system was so impressive that when the East India Company became aware of it, it promptly copied it, as a way of selecting prospective employees. Due to the success of the company the idea of an examination to select civil servants based on merit was then taken on by the British Empire, France and Germany. Because this development took place as these countries started to develop into modern nation states, which then required a civil service, it created jobs in the very institutions of the state based in part, or completely, on education. This development was how the idea that education could be a mean of upward social mobility on a large scale entered Europe.
Within its limits the Chinese system had a number of important and positive differences from the Western approach to education. First off, it formalised the use of education as a means of upwards social mobility. Secondly, it gave any (male) subject, at least in theory, a chance of upwards social mobility through education. Being promoted up to the Imperial court was pretty unlikely, but someone was at some point. It was a bit like playing the lottery, an activity which has no shortage of takers in the modern world. Third, while most of the people sitting the Imperial exam failed, they all ended up sharing a common language and a common culture. Education was not something that rich and successful people sought to be accepted as rightful members of the ruling class, education was a necessary condition for people aspiring to upward social mobility.
As an academic I think there are a number of important lessons in this historical perspective. Academics are struggling to justify why their work matters to society. This is a demand that many retired or retiring professors might not recognise. I suspect many academics are approaching the problem desperately hoping that the public will finally see the light and recognise the importance of their work – that is, that even if people cannot fully understand or appreciate their work, it is a valued part of the general consciousness. Obtaining this result is basically achieving the equivalent of what the Imperial exam achieved for classical Chinese culture. Yet the Chinese approach did not try to make people appreciate culture for its own sake, on the contrary it created a common culture because people were opting in as actively as they could, and this opt in was first and foremost due to the opportunity of upwards social mobility.
What could academics do, or at least suggest, to make education something people want to opt in on again? Let’s keep in mind that as I write these words there are flourishing climate change deniers, anti-vaccination, or flat Earth movements (just to name a few that people should be aware of) – people are not simply failing to opt in, they are actively opting out of whatever benefits formal academic education might provide.
In keeping with the theme of this blog I cannot provide simple solutions to such complex problems – so I won’t – but I’d like to highlight a few things.
To start to make sense of the situation I believe it is important to understand why education, especially academic education, is becoming less and less important in everyday discourse, and whether the people in power still have a common language, culture and education, or if that is not the case.
Modern education is costly, either directly on the student, in form of enormous debt, or on their families, who need to invest a large amount of money for their children’s education, even when this education is nominally free. It is also a period when students are not earning. Compounding this problem is the fact that a lot of jobs that are poorly paid or temporary come with a demand of some level of higher education. This demand creates an expensive obligation that is much more likely to create resentment than appreciation – let’s not forget that the Imperial exam was taken as a choice, not as an obligation. When education is an economic burden and not an opportunity it is natural that its value decreases. After all why bother when the result is crippling debt (or at least a good deal of money frittered away) with little chances of getting upwards social mobility? Upward social mobility is more than simply a well paid stable job, it is a situation where one has more opportunities thanks to their improved circumstances, and a greater stake in the institutions of the state (bluntly put, greater political power). When expensive education becomes a demand, it becomes part of a cynical charade where nobody cares about actual knowledge (often reflected by education focusing on students being able to pass an exam as a means to an end, not the understanding of knowledge). The loss of stable employment, ideally, well paid stable employment that can be obtained through education, and the erosion of social mobility is not something academics can fix. Though one thing academics can do is to fight for free education. The freer the education, the lower the economic penalty people genuinely interested incur. Not only it is a step towards greater social equality, a truly free education is a step towards giving education a value. People invest immense amounts of time, resources, and meaning in activities that are meant to be done for fun. Making education accessible for free might be a great step to make education something the public at large gives meaning to.
The other face of making education accessible economically is making education intellectually rigorous. Academics need to up their game when it comes to educating students and approaching the public. In both cases, providing collections of facts is just not enough. Real education requires passing on a deep understanding of the ideas, principles and processes. Students, and the public, need to be given an opportunity to understand and learn how things are done, and why. Students need to finish their education not simply knowing the factual basis of their discipline, but with the competence to participate actively in the creation of knowledge. In many ways passing on to the general public the conceptual underpinning of how knowledge is created is even more important because of the competition of fake news and pseudo science, which dilute the value of education, pushing real knowledge to the level of opinion. The goal of education needs to empower the audience, rather than just pass on information that will have to be passively accepted. Whether spreading this kind of education, based on active understanding, will result in more and more people demanding fact based policies and decisions is impossible to say, but clearly we cannot do worse than what we are doing now.
Finally, we might want to ask whether the people in power have a common language and culture. It is for everyone to see that a minority of people have a disproportionate ability to affect decision making and the economy. We are all aware that there is such thing as career politicians, who are generally from a privileged background or are old enough to have benefitted from more generous times. Broadly speaking career politicians have a background in the (in)famous PPE – philosophy, politics and economics, or similar subjects. Alternatively we have people running, or trying to run, the economy, and these people have MBAs. Obviously these are great news for those academics providing this kind of education. But for those who are not so fortunate, it is clear that just providing some form of ‘technical advice’ whenever their expertise is (grudgingly) needed in policy making is not working out. Academics, especially those working in subjects not normally close to the levers of power, need figure out how to take the lead in those situations where their knowledge and expertise are needed, and they should not let other, more pushy or media savvy people dictate the agenda. I also believe that the public would trust academics more if academics were to talk to the public directly, without the intermediary of politicians or people with partisan goals.
I believe that there is a real lesson for academics in looking back at the Imperial examination of China. Education can create a common language and common culture in society, but to do so it needs to give people a reason to choose education. In specific times and places the main incentive was the fact education could provide upward social mobility. This specific benefit of education is slowly being eroded. Yet it is possible that taking specific steps (working for a free and very rigorous education for instance) could stop or even reverse this trend. It is also possible that we could find other reason why people might start valuing education. Social and economic forces undermining the social appreciation of education are strong, and academics are facing an uphill battle, but unless they at least try to look in the right direction their chances of having their day in the field are even fewer.