Education and Economic Crisis: The Quest for Human Empowerment

11/08/2012 12:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

Economic inequality -- the gap between the rich and the poor -- is no longer a buzzword about capitalist economics; it is a palpable reality backed by research studies and reported in many books and newspaper articles and can be observed in urban environments throughout the world. The financial crisis that rocked the globe in 2008 has made strikingly evident the growing disparity between rich and poor and has deeply and adversely affected world democracies.

As an educator I wonder when we will take crises of capitalism seriously and look to see how education can ameliorate social inequities, a divisive and insidious malady that consistently undermines all possibility for true social cohesion.

We are enmeshed in a number of societal dilemmas difficult to address, but let me say from the outset that education is not a direct answer to economic inequality. Yet without the contribution of educational systems, policies and practices cannot solve inequality in society, particularly if social and economic public policies fail to do their job. Education is not a lever of development, but without education there cannot be any real economic growth.

But what is the state of education today?

One central problem is that the traditional "banking" schooling model of the industrial society, in which the teacher is the sole possessor of knowledge and the student is simply a depository of that knowledge, is exhausted; while there are few notable exceptions, no new national or worldwide model has yet emerged to replace it.

A second problem, magnified by the current economic crisis, is that we continue to extend educational opportunity and access to the underserved, which demands more and more resources be drawn from wealthy individuals, families, and societies. Yet the world's system of production and consumption is unable to produce sufficient job opportunities for what has now become a highly qualified population of workers. For instance, the unemployment of youth in Europe is twice as high as the rate for the overall population, and in some countries like Spain it's even higher. Half of the last year's U.S. college graduates have either not found jobs or have found part-time jobs below their level of education.

Early school learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic continue to be serious challenges for children and youth who come from non-schooled cultures such as those of some African nations and other third world countries, and who find an alienating curriculum in schools, more so when high stake testing is in place, as in the U.S.

Teachers are under attack in the United States and many other countries, their status diminished, the teaching profession badly paid, and they are blamed for the low academic performance of students and schools. Teachers' training, while recognized as a major factor for the improvement of educational systems, lack integration of theory and practice, few if any of the multiple research findings in educational research about teachers are ever disseminated let alone implemented, and teaching and learning methodologies continue to be implemented as top-down models in schools, very often lacking basic institutional foundations, particularly in the developing world.

Findings and recommendations of educational research works only when it reaches the right person at the right time and through the right platform. Otherwise, tons of pages (and tons of megabytes) are shelved in real and imaginary archives with the hope of impacting practice some day.

Educational reform and transnational regulation has emerged as the last conundrum. There is talk that education is in crisis, which has led many governments to attempt a series of cyclical and episodic reforms. Teachers, many parents, and public opinion alike feel a serious mistrust about political action -- and politicians in general -- and doubt any real or credible process of change can happen in schools.

Education has been overlooked as a tool for transformation of economic inequities for far too long. I wonder if I will see in my own lifetime a revolutionary movement of education as the practice of freedom in this country and elsewhere, in which the technocratic tools are subordinate to a democratic political rationale and strategy of an education for human empowerment and liberation.

It would be wonderful to see happy children and youth who are eager to learn and enthusiastic about attending school, engaged in dialogue and intellectual explorations. Students as learners should not be seen as depositories of knowledge to be tested through the high stakes testing movement that predominates in the U.S. and elsewhere. Like the banking industry, high stake testing expects that students will profit from that knowledge imposed upon them through authoritarian methods, and through this model of resource of allocation and selectivity, we will compete globally with an added value advantage. This is a technocratic dystopia that not only undermines the true value and purpose of education, but also produces an impoverishment of minds and wealth of a nation.