Since “educational reform” is concerned with a reconfiguration of educational practice, it behoves us to be guided by a proper educational purpose and particularly important if we are to contemplate education as being life-long.

Existing educational thought and practice is problematic in two ways.

Firstly, the idea of education invariably reduces to the existing systems of universal, compulsory state schooling. Many structural elements of the model work against its educational possibility – not merely in the institutionalizing conformity of behaviour within a confined site, and the surveillance required – but also in terms of who decides what is taught, and how it is assessed. The constant flow of concerns, on Twitter, about “listening to students”, “giving them a voice”, and “student engagement” are clues to enduring structural flaws. The simple contrivance of formal authority “to teach” divorces the undertaking from the realities of learners’ experience.

In schooling the young, we readily dismiss such difficulties by appealing to vague, general considerations. Children are vulnerable dependents. We are their caregivers. We have their best interests at heart, and we know more than they do. The world is complex, and they must fit into it. Our beliefs about what they should become seem entirely noble to us. They should contribute to society and improve it while pursuing successful careers. The details tend to favour our convictions.

This brings me to the second concern for the idea of education; the purpose of education itself.

Few teachers work with their students through the entire span of compulsory schooling. Mostly, they just pass them on to the next teacher. It is uncommon for most teachers to have the experience of standing face-to-face with them as adults, in a position of moral equality.

Consider an adult situation whereby two people, eye-to-eye, both free to say – “you do not have the right to tell me what sort of a person I should become, what I should value, what my identity should be, what I should do with my life. You do not have the right to ‘mould me’ into anything, without my consent”. The fact that both might think they know more than the other, and that their intentions are noble, has nothing to do with the circumstances of mutual respect in which they must now stand.

In our practice, of course, most of this demand for respect either comes at a later stage or does not come at all. By becoming egocentric as educators, we have been committing an act of violence towards that equal self-determination and respect to which our learners are entitled.

Education is a profoundly ethical enterprise. We are of equal intrinsic value. We are not a means to the ends of others unless we freely consent to it. Education, if properly understood, is an undertaking of respect for the learner – including ourselves, when we undertake it on our own behalf. The possibility of any of us achieving good lives for ourselves depends upon the learning that would enable us to do so. It is not, then, a playground for the dreams of adults about how they might wish other people to be.

The world we share in common is one filled with people who are pursuing lives different from our own, each with their own values, understanding life differently as a consequence of the differences in our experiential histories, and what we have made of them. That is what we must appreciate when we stand eye-to-eye, considering each other with respect. It means that we cannot create conditions for others to bring them into conformity with our preferences about right living. We must equip others to decide for themselves, just as we must equip ourselves. We must focus on the right processes of thought and enquiry and experience for deciding well, and not on the content of “desirable” conclusions.

Conventional schooling is worse than “poor” at this. Two preoccupations have been at the centre: vocational preparation, and social conformity. Conventional schooling has never been serious about critical thinking – markedly, so when it comes to critical thinking about one’s own life, or about the good society. This absence of attention to the worth of our own lives and our ability to pursue that worth is not a protection against selfishness. It creates it. An abundance of social problems flows from this.

The most important clue lies in our paradoxical unwillingness to study education in schooling. Wouldn’t we have to master educational decision-making for ourselves if we were to make decisions about what should become of us – for the rest of our lives? There is literature critical of schooling, and the glaring absence of its consideration in schools tells us something about schooling-as-educational.  (Neill & Lamb, 1996), (Holt, 1976), (Kozol, 1995), (Gatto., 1992)

However, if the purpose of education should be about the ability of each to decide worthwhile lives for themselves, then it should be evident that this could never be a task for schooling alone. Educational considerations would arise everywhere we live – certainly in every corner of public life, in the workplace, and all commercial activity. We would have to consider it in journalism, social media, political behaviour, sport, entertainment, publicly available facilities and resources. Moreover, now, we begin to glimpse through the window of life-long education.

To address this – to attempt to consider the educational consequences of our institutions across the life-span – I will draw on my experience of seven years working in elder-care facilities; or “nursing homes”. There is a symbolic symmetry here. In childhood, because of our dependency, we are institutionalized in schools, where we learn about ourselves through how they are contrived. At the end of life, many fall into dependency again, and in those institutions of elder care, they once again learn what they amount to.

Around these sites, and in between them throughout the life-span, there is a fabric of institutions in and through which we act – and learn. These institutions are not some outside natural force imposed on us. Our forebears and we created them. They could have been different. It is all a matter of human agency, and therefore of responsibility, which includes responsibility for the foreseeable learning consequences.

We might begin with the pre-school child, whose wide-eyed curiosity and enthusiasm, play and exploration we delight. Our delight is entirely appropriate to the ideas of growth and developing independence in which education for the mastery of their good living might be grounded.

We then send them to school, confining them within a narrow sliver of their age-cohort, just as if we want people of other ages and generations to be a mystery to them. All those conditions of growth are now over-ridden with other agendas that must be met; content and assessments preferred by their elders, often remote from them. These agendas firstly have to do with their eventual contribution to the economy and a kind of common knowledge, behaviour and interest that economic and political stability appears to require.

As the learners move into adulthood, schooling becomes even more specifically vocational, and expectations begin to fall on them to make independent life choices – a choosing and independence for which their schooling has done little or nothing. They are left to look sideways at what others around them are doing and look to their elders, who were similarly equipped.

It should hardly be surprising that life-choices come down to choosing among a variety of boxes, or simplistic recipes, or pre-packaged items off supermarket shelves. These boxes, or recipes, or shelves are all prominently displayed. Religion, politics, a partner. Perhaps some travel or overseas experience while we are still “free”. Marriage, reproduction, a house, a car, recreation, career “success”, the relative pursuit of affluence. By and large, they follow the practices of their class – either of birth or adoption.

In middle age, their offspring have left home. Some jobs for which they initially trained will by now be lost to technological innovation, and age will begin working against them. The impoverishment of those recipes and supermarkets and those ideas of success will strike home — the “mid-life” crisis.

The ancient Greeks would have seen a cosmic comedy or tragedy in all of this – the grand and pious talk of growth and self-realization, thinking outside the square, and critical thinking, creativity, success and excellence – while the gods set up the great race established by National Wealth and Private Greed, sending little winds to swirl up sand in the faces of the runners. They thought, running full of confidence, but partially blinded, that they could hear the cheering of the crowd.

The sandy swirling winds die down as the race is half run, and the runners begin to wonder why there is no one else out here after all, why they are all so far apart, and where they have been running to, separated way out in this dark, empty plain where growth, self-realization and thinking outside the square no longer make sense, though loneliness and abandonment certainly do. Not even a finish line, or a cheering crowd? So, a few runners now, scattered and apart. Out here, alone, you are allowed to stop just whenever you like. A comedy only the gods could appreciate.

Also, so they live, separated in the suburbs – dormitories, really – empty during the day while the other inhabitants are at school or work. The possibilities for sociability and stimulation are not neighbourly here. Transport is required to reach them. Partners die, or can no longer stay at home, and their ability to drive becomes problematic. They become cut off. Whatever the conditions for growth might be, they are not to be found here, except through whatever is left in terms of the initiative for these ageing and isolated people and their declining resources.

What we should learn from this process is that “growth” and “fulfilment”, or the “pursuit of happiness” arean ideology of the West not well-grounded in its practices. Such things might be “up to us”, but the culture and its institutions are not designed, educationally, to equip and support us properly to assume responsibility for our good by ourselves. What matters instead is our economic value. “Meaning” and “fulfilment” does not even come a poor second. They barely register at all. It becomes hard to see what our economic value is “of value” for.

As the elderly, alone in the suburbs, become less and less capable of looking after themselves, the demands on family and neighbours become intolerable. Even with the limited “home help” that may be available, many become a danger to themselves. Some are discovered living in squalor. Residential care becomes the only solution.

In New Zealand, residential care facilities are “for profit” organizations, mainly competing for the government funding that residents bring with them. As such they are cosmetically appealing since they have to compete for residents. Underneath, because there is insufficient money for much else, they are medical institutions, and not homes at all. They are preoccupied with the body, with little provision for the mind, since only failure to attend to the body attracts unwelcome public attention. They are, just like schools, places where people are processed in the mass en masse; institutionalized. Genuine activity devised to maintain a mental life, let alone stimulate one, is minimal. Much of the activity is infantilizing and making daffodils out of yellow bits of paper and drinking straws.

The isolation – the near invisibility of these institutions – is instructive. They are not places anyone would enter, except as an (often anguished) visit to a relative or friend, or as a charitable, volunteer helper. Residents are “shut away”.

What would an alternative, more educational practice look like? There is, I think, a simple test. A residential care facility should be a place that offers much to the rest of us. It should be a place that we would want to visit for our good reasons, quite apart from our interest in serving the elderly. It should be a place where we might want to buy a meal, or a coffee, visit our hair-dresser, participate in a workshop or seminar or play group, work with our study group, practice our instrument, rehearse our play, conduct our book club or philosophy discussion or club meetings; plan our next mountain climb.

We should want to do this because it is congenial to do so, and cheaper and more accessible than other alternatives, with our main contribution being that we respect it as the residents’ home, and that we accept them among us where possible, that we talk to them occasionally about what we are doing, and perform for them when appropriate. It should be a place of all ages, and it should open the doors and windows, letting in the breath of interest, enthusiasm, novelty and diversity that we all need in order to grow. It should appeal to us as the home of choice when we can no longer care for ourselves.

Would this work miracle? Of course not! It is merely an educational test. However, the elderly had already had a long process of loss and been deprived of resources for growth, long before they came. We cannot repair all that here.

Nonetheless, if we have worked to set it up correctly, we should see a new shine in the eyes, and response to enthusiasm, even if they are quiet in the corner. “If you aren’t growing, you are dying”, we say. We should be offering them the chance to grow until they die.

From here, we should look back at our other institutions, taking responsibility for our part in their educational harm. We should, of course, look at our schools, where we prepare to understand across generations; how we will treat each other, and how we, in turn, will be treated, when we are old. We should look at those other institutions in between – from ideas like “success” to urban design. From the distribution of resources for knowledge to our conviviality and experience in our cities and neighbourhoods, including how we separate ourselves into enclaves of mutual misunderstanding. We need to learn new ways of engaging in dialogue – and not just in schools. Disciplined ways that will enable us to benefit from other people’s choices about the things that matter, understanding why they make them as they do – as challenges to our own experience. We talk of human rights, democracy, personal responsibility. We appreciate the dignity in which we are supposed to stand as adults, face-to-face, and we expect it of each other. To do these things, we would need to construct the education that our duty to ourselves to live well would require. We would need to reconstruct our idea of education altogether. Such education would, of course, need to be life-long.

With all our talk of human rights and democracy and personal responsibility; with the dignity in which we are supposed to stand, as adults, face-to-face, we never have attempted to construct the education that our duty to ourselves to live well would require.

We would need to reconstruct our idea of education entirely. So such an education would, of course, need to be life-long.

About the Author: 

Graham Oliver

Graham Oliver

Graham Oliver lives in a small cottage in the mountains at the foot of the Kahurangi State Park in the Tasman District of New Zealand. He is currently developing a theory of education based on the respect all people are due, by merely being human. This work is being posted progressively online and is intended to provide the clarity of purpose that traditional education currently lacks. He completed a PhD in philosophy of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1976 and taught at the University of Waikato for thirty years.,


  1. Neill, A. and Lamb, A. (1996). Summerhill School. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  2. Holt, J. (1976). The underachieving school. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  3. Kozol, J. (1995). Death at an early age. New York: Plume.
  4. Gatto., J. (1992). Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling(1st ed.). New Society Publishers, Limited.


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