Publicado originalmente en FaceBook, 2009.

Este es uno de los textos que más me han impactado en el último tiempo. Dejo una pregunta: ¿en qué tipo de sociedad vivimos en Chile?

“Societies tend to develop through three phases: aristocratic, meritocratic,
democratic. The first respects privilege, the second merit, the third humanity.
Today there is little left of the privileged society of the past. Privilege is out of
fashion. No one seriously argues that the best people are to be found in the
“best” families – or that such an elite should be given the best education and
offered the best jobs. Inasmuch as this still seems to happen it is because (unexpectedly,
but not really surprisingly) the meritocratic society turns out also to
favour the privileged. But class, race, religion, sex and age are each in their different
ways an inappropriate basis for educational discrimination in a meritocratic or
democratic society.

The meritocratic principle gives power and influence to those who can demonstrate
the highest ability. In a meritocracy, one of the principal functions of education
is to sort people by “ability and aptitude”. Aristocracies know who the best
people are, and reward them accordingly. Meritocracies search for the best people,
and then reward them generously. In either case, education and opportunities to
learn beyond the elementary level are rationed and given only to the best.3
Of course, both aristocratic and meritocratic societies justify their selective
educational systems by referring to three other relevant factors – employment
needs, the range of intelligence and the presumption that able people learn best
if they are segregated from less able people. The economy of the 19th century
required large numbers of navies, factory hands and domestic servants – and relatively
few managers, consultants or professors. Today, the reverse is true. As far as
we can see, the 21st century will require ever more brain-workers and ever fewer
of us with nothing more to offer than our brawn. In developed nations only very
few jobs today do not require literacy at least to the level needed to read the tabloid
newspapers. That kind of mindless job is gradually disappearing. The workplace
is slowly increasing its demands on the educational system, and on the
lifelong personal learning of each individual.

Intelligence is – or should be – an embarrassing term for educators. Even if, of
course, not everybody considers “intelligence” and “IQ” as equivalent, we talk as
if we understood it, act as if IQ is measurable, classify our students with assurance
– and yet the truth is that not much is clearly known about human intelligence.
Popular and simplistic accounts of IQ theory teach us that our intelligence is a single
entity, fixed throughout life, and (for most people) provides a sort of glass ceiling
which prevents them from making progress in advanced learning. All three
ideas are probably false. The work of Howard Gardner4 has persuaded many of the
idea of multiple intelligence. Daniel Goleman5 has introduced the new concept of
emotional intelligence (EI), which further complicates the picture. Whatever else it
is, intelligence is undoubtedly complex.

Any number of individuals have demonstrated in their own lives and learning
that the idea of a level of intelligence fixed and unchangeable over a lifetime is
questionable, if not downright silly. Many people, having seemed dim at school,
earned degrees later on from distance education institutions and/or later shone in
the workplace. Likewise, some did well at school, only to struggle in adult life.
While it obviously remains true at the gross level that some people learn faster
than others, our speed of learning (which is probably a key element in the idea of
intelligence) is deeply affected by other factors like confidence, motivation and
the compatibility of the learning environment.

The idea that human intelligence is strictly limited or in short supply seems
odd today. Forty years ago, very few went on to higher education in OECD countries.
Today, more than 30% gain entry to universities and colleges. The “Robbins
Report”, published in 1963 in the UK, has been proved right: “If there is to be talk
of a pool of ability, it must be of pool which surpasses the widow’s cruse in the Old
Testament,6 in that when more is taken for higher education in one generation
more will tend to be available in the next”. As more and more people embark on,
and succeed in, courses of advanced learning, the only thing to say with certainty
about the limits of human intelligence (as measured by educational achievement)
is that they are unknown and continue to exceed our expectations.
Such a view does not deny the probability that our genetic inheritance to an
extent conditions our learning potential, or that the early formation of the brain in
childhood plays a large part in influencing later learning, or that success tends to
lead to success (and failure to more failure). What it does claim is that literally no
one is incapable of further beneficial learning.

Although common sense would indicate it, it is not sure that able people
learn best if they are segregated from less able people; but in any case, less able
people seem to do much worse if they are segregated from able people.7 For
more than half a century a debate has raged between those who see the social
advantages of comprehensive education and those who see the educational or
social advantages (for the able) of selective education. They are both right, in
some sense – though neither side finds it easy to do justice to the strength of the
other’s argument, maybe due to the fact that both sides are aiming at different
goals, supported by different worldviews.

The issue of segregation is a critical one for the learning agenda. For, as we
move forward from the meritocratic to the democratic society, the reasons for
selective education tend to fall away. The democratic society seeks the fulfilment
of all its members, not only those who are judged most able. It offers patterns of
employment which demand and reward successful lifelong learning for all. It has a
strong faith in, and high hopes for, the intelligence and learning potential of everyone.
And it is disposed to reject segregation and selectivity – in spite of the perception
(by some) of benefit (often for the same) in selective systems.
Whatever the outcomes of this debate, human groups tend to conform to the
perceived norm. Segregated groups do this even more strongly than diverse
groups. We might compare the behaviour of children in school or in the family setting.
Or adults in the workplace or at home. The presence of the peer group – whether
at school or at work – may lead to conformist behaviour. Our behaviour seems to
be freer in a more diverse setting. We are better able to be ourselves – and fulfil
our distinct potential – unconstrained by our peers.

Some assert that people who achieve exceptional things tend to experience
in early childhood three critical conditioning factors: plenty of interaction with
“warm, demanding adults”,8 an exploratory curriculum of learning that leaves the
learner lots of room for experiment and initiative, and only limited access to peer
groups which would have a negative impact in terms of learning. Of course, it is
true that peer groups can be supportive and provide a positive challenge to the
learner. But the possibility of an adverse effect is at least as strong (if not stronger)
than that of a beneficial effect.

A democratic society, genuinely committed to the encouragement of lifelong
learning for all its people, is faced with a great challenge in the system of education
it inherits from the antecedent meritocratic society. Can a system designed to
sort and reward the most able be reformed in such a way as to help everyone fulfil
their (very diverse) potential? Or, if reform is impossible, is a kind of educational
revolution on the agenda for learning?

Within a democratic society, while there may be agreement about the objective
of encouraging and providing for the lifelong learning of all, there is likely still
to be a good deal of disagreement about its purpose. Some see the strength of
the economic argument. They believe that a “world-class workforce” will spearhead
national prosperity and increased competitiveness in the global economy.9
Others are more swayed by the argument from equity. They hope that a democratic
learning society will help to remedy the inequalities inherited from the
antecedent aristocratic and meritocratic models. A third group is intent on maximising
human fulfilment. They recognise and accept the extraordinary range and
diversity of outcome and achievement that is likely to result from investing in the
lifelong learning of every individual. And, lurking amongst these three contrasting
points of view is a fourth: those who consciously or unconsciously still find value in
the idea of an elite, and seek to preserve some form of selectivity.
It is not possible to satisfy all these different demands at the same time. We
shall have to choose. The arguments from economics and human fulfilment are compatible
and persuasive. Lifelong learning for all may well reduce the inequalities of
the aristocratic and meritocratic heritage, but new inequalities will probably replace
them. True democrats reject elitism – while recognising wryly that they are often the
beneficiaries of such a system. However, it will remain true that, if you do not know
why learning matters, or who should enjoy it, you will struggle to find coherent
answers to the many questions concerning the idea of lifelong learning for all”.

Fuente: OECD (2002) Understanding the Brain. Towards a new Learning Science. Paris: OECD.

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