Education for a Classless Society

For the last week and more I’ve been pondering the following passage from an essay by Mortimer Adler, in which he’s arguing for the unprecedented problem of education in contemporary society.

With the advent of democratic institutions in the twentieth century, universal suffrage was established for the first time, and the distinction between a ruling and a subject class was abolished. With the maturation of industrial production in the last hundred years, human life and energy has at last been emancipated from grinding toil, and the distinction between a working class and a leisure class has been effaced. If the capitalist revolution in the next fifty years completes what the industrial revolution began, we can look forward to the first truly classless society in history — a politically classless society in which all men are citizens and members of the ruling class; and an economically classless society in which all men are capitalists and members of the leisure class.

It is the extraordinary difference between such a classless society, emerging now for the first time in history, and all the class-structured societies of the past, which helps us to understand why an industrial and truly capitalist democracy is confronted by a novel educational problem and one it will find so difficult to solve. This contrast between the classless society of the future and all the class-structured societies of the past also helps us to understand the nature and difficulty of that problem.

~ Mortimer Adler, “The Schooling of a People” in Reforming Education, p 115-116

In so many ways this statement is clearly dated, even naive. Have we really reached a classless society? Have industrialization and capitalism really given capital and leisure to everyone? Probably not. But the deeper claims here are that: 1) every human being is now a politically responsible person; and 2) every human being now has an opportunity (and need) to develop human capital, i.e. through education, and now has enough time (“leisure”), more or less, to do so.

Education used to be entirely aristocratic, designed for the ruling classes and accessible to them as persons of wealth, property, status, and genuine leisure time to study, starting from earliest youth and continuing through active adult lives. How can all earlier schemes of education, designed for such aristocratic people, adapt when the situation changes entirely? What happens when all human beings everywhere require education not only for political and economic purposes, but also for philosophical, artistic, religious, and humanistic reasons? This is the question Adler is asking.

How will humans today, given the complex range of responsibilities, opportunities, and changes they will face throughout long adult lives, gain the knowledge, skills, practices, dispositions, wisdom, affiliations, mindsets, and so on that they will need?

It’s profoundly not just a matter of K-12 or college-university or graduate-professional school education — what used to be called “formal education.” It’s a question for the whole of human life, starting from the youngest preschoolers continuing through old age.

Fortuitously, as the educational problem has arisen with such a range and scope, so have radically expanding means that can potentially address it. Not that it will be easy, mostly due to entrenched interests in the current systems. Experimental proposals will come piecemeal and from unexpected directions. The proof will be in outcomes, perhaps creating a new sort of aristocracy after all, but one that is entirely non-exclusive, open to all by choice, and continuously innovative.