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. 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.