What are the objectives of education in a challenging diverse world?
By Fernando Lanzer
The objectives of education have been described differently in different cultures by many educators and policy makers. However, more often than not, this has been done without an awareness of the underlying cultural values that support and influence these written concepts.
One of the unwritten objectives of education in every culture is to perpetuate that culture through educational content, teaching students to value the symbols, rituals and heroes of that culture, plus the stated values of that culture. Yet culture perpetuation happens not only through transmitting educational content from one generation to the next, but perhaps even more strongly through the style format of educational activities, as the way education is carried out reflects the culture’s underlying core values, mostly unconscious to educators.
This paper will examine the formulation of educational objectives and make explicit the respective links to the underlying core values of their cultures, using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images (1) as a reference framework. It will subsequently outline the need for a more comprehensive enunciation of educational objectives that can take into account core culture value differences and still offer functional effectiveness across cultures in a challenging diverse world.
Key words: flexibility, performance orientation, educational objectives, institutional mission, hierarchy, relationships.
When we look up the enouncement of what the objectives of education, we will find collections of very nice words, palatable phrases that seem quite universal (2). It takes some deeper digging to uncover the differences among cultures, often found in nuances hidden behind the plain vanilla coating of official statements on the topic translated into international English, that ultimate varnish attempting to hide the beautiful warts of cultural diversity.
Teachers are “keepers of the faith,” along with priests and Human Resources Management professionals. Whether aware of this aspect of their role or not, they tend to perpetuate the values of their culture. As such, they tend to be conservative in the sense that they are striving to maintain the established values. It is true that there are some teachers who try to “rock the boat” by proposing and practicing approaches that are different from that culture’s traditions. These boat rockers typically get a lot of attention from the media, because they are perceived as threats to the system. Threats always get more media attention than those who are the majority and trying to keep the boat steady. Therefore, one must discount the headlines about revolutions in education. Even when such revolutions are needed and desired (by a minority) they do not represent the mainstream values of any culture.
This “keeping the faith” mentality is not just prevalent in classroom teaching; it pervades the whole institutional apparatus of education sustaining both private and government-run schools at every level. It is quite evident in educational policy-setting organisms existing at national and local levels, all of which have their own “educational objectives” official statements, and all of which are consistent with the prevailing national culture values.
The ultimate objective of education might be described as the development of good citizens according to a culture’s concept of “a good citizen.” This concept can be rather different from one culture to another. And this concept, often unwritten and not quite crystal clear, is what guides, rather invisibly, the ideas about what children and teenagers need to learn at school in order to become “responsible adults” and “good citizens.”
Let’s take a look at what it is that education is aiming for within different types of cultures. In other words, what do kids need to learn in order to fit well within each culture?
Confront, compete and perform
In Contest cultures, kids should learn to confront and compete. This is not the priority among learning needs in other cultures, as we will see. In Contest cultures, also referred to as “the Anglo-American cultural commonwealth” that includes the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, a good citizen is someone capable of “standing their ground” (there is even a specific law in Arizona about that) in terms of confronting others about their point of view, eventually to the extent of physical fighting and using lethal weapons (3). All of this is regarded as a legal right of any citizen, and as such enjoys protection by the State.
Learning to be competent and motivated by competing to win, repeatedly, on a daily basis, is more important than confrontation. Therefore, in Contest cultures kid must learn how to compete at school, in their neighborhoods, at work once they grow up, and basically in every situation. Naturally, the enunciation of educational objectives reflects those values.
The US Department of Education states that “Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” (The emphasis in bold is made by the author) (4).
For competitions to be fair, everyone in these cultures should perceive that there is “a level playing field” where opportunities to win are equal for all participants. This is the basis for the concepts of Equal Opportunity Employment and Affirmative Action. It is reflected in the US Department of Education Statement by the expression “equal access.”
The educational curriculum in the US is decentralized to the states and districts; therefore, there is no centralized national curriculum in the sense that one might see in other countries. Yet, anyone familiar with American schooling will attest that in every school there is an abundance of competitions, organized by teachers for their pupils to learn by competing with each other on a regular basis, from the first grade to the end of High School. The underlying concept is that by learning to compete, youngsters will be ready to be successful in the labor market as adults. And since performing is a core value of Contest cultures (in detriment of quality of life and caring), once again the emphasis is placed on competitiveness.
Organize and comply
In Germanic cultures, known as Well-oiled Machine cultures, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, among others, the objectives of education reflect underlying values by focusing on teaching kids to organize themselves (and the world around them) and to comply to norms through heightened self-discipline. These are seen as the path to excellence, the ultimate goal. Machine cultures are performance-oriented, but they stress planning, organization, structure, and discipline as necessary to obtain the desired results. The focus is on perfecting processes to reach results, rather than on results regardless on how you get them.
Therefore, the objectives of education are to develop specialists who from an early age will learn to be disciplined and well organized. The high Uncertainty Avoidance value dimension underpins the approach to education as it does to life in general. This means also that teachers must be experts on content and follow well-established methods rigorously.
In Germany, the Ministry of Education and Research has a page with 404 words describing its “Objectives and Tasks” (the choice of these terms is already saying something about the culture). None of those words are “enjoy” nor “experience.” Instead, the term “excellence” appears three times. (5)
Question, discuss, and care
When we look up the objectives of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, this is what we find (6):
“The Ministry has the following objectives:
- To ensure that
- everyone gets a good education
- everyone is prepared for personal independence and responsibility
- everyone has the opportunity to experience and enjoy culture
- teachers, artists and scientists are able to carry out their work.”
The Network cultures’ core values of egalitarianism, individualism and quality of life are clearly visible in that statement. The statement is also very inclusive: it repeats the term “everyone” three times, and then specifically mentions teachers, artists and scientists. This is quite typical of Network cultures: to emphasize the agents and not only the clients.
Note, also, the use of the terms “experience and enjoy culture;” these are hallmarks of caring & quality of life cultures, as opposed to performance-oriented ones.
So, what do kids need to learn in Network cultures in order to be “good citizens?”
In the first place, they need to learn to question. Nothing should be taken for granted, and in an egalitarian environment children learn to question and be assertive from an early age. They also learn to discuss and be persuasive.
Some years ago, ABN AMRO assembled a task force of senior executives to design a set of competences to be used as a standard for leaders in the organization. These competences would be the answer to the questions: “what should ABN AMRO leaders be capable of doing? What competences should they have in order to succeed?”
The task force was made of mostly Dutch nationals, but there was also an Australian, a couple of South Americans and someone from Eastern Europe. The group was presented with a list of ten competences that had been designed by Dutch Human Resources professionals. The group’s objective was to review that list and adapt it, wherever necessary, to be used internationally across the 65 countries where ABN AMRO had its network of branches.
The first item on the list was immediately the subject of heated discussions. It was “persuasion.”
The Dutch members of the task force were quite convinced this competence should be the very first on the list. In their opinion, persuasion was an essential competence for a leader. How else would someone be capable of mobilizing people to follow them, if not by persuasion? The Australian colleague agreed.
The members who came from hierarchical cultures disagreed strongly. In their view, leaders did not need persuasion in order to mobilize people. Leaders were in positions of authority and did not need to persuade anybody to obey them. There were other competences that were more essential to leadership, such as “vision,” “charisma,” or “business acumen.”
The point here is that in Network cultures, being egalitarian, indeed kids need to learn to be assertive in order to engage in the frequent discussions characterized by individualistic and egalitarian cultures. If they don’t learn to question and discuss, they will not succeed in an environment that demands such skills. (“Lack of assertiveness” has been listed as a mental illness covered by health insurance in the Netherlands). At the same time, the emphasis on these skills perpetuates the culture.
The contrast with Contest and Machine cultures is that in Network cultures there is less emphasis on performing and competing to win. While there is a strong emphasis on winning and being “number one” in American schools, for instance, in Dutch schools kids are told to “do their best” and be content with that. There is a lot of emphasis also on living together in Network cultures, and this includes fostering empathy and caring for those who did not come out at the top in school competitions.
Perhaps a way to summarize the difference regarding educational objectives is to say that in Contest cultures kids are taught to argue, discuss and confront with the purpose of winning a discussion. There should be an outcome, with winners and losers. By contrast, in Network cultures kids are taught to question and discuss with the purpose of asserting their opinion and being heard. The expected outcome is that everyone has been heard, but often there is no conclusion and there are no winners and losers. People agree to disagree, and then seek to reach a consensus around something that they all can live with. Regardless to say, this is all happening already since an early age in the family and at school. The “caring” aspect is demonstrated by encouraging discussion without having to destroy your opponent; it is sufficient to state your position.
Make friends, climb and maintain the system
Social Pyramid cultures are based primarily on relationships and hierarchy. The purpose of life in such societies tends to be seen as climbing the pyramid to the highest position possible for each person. Not everybody can get to the very top, and accepting that as a fact, is the very definition of Power Distance.
The path to the top is paved by relationships with people holding positions higher than your own. Make friends with everyone; you never know when one of your friends might help you on your way up.
The objectives of education in Pyramid cultures are usually more explicitly focused on hierarchy, rather than relationships. Sure, kids are taught to avoid confrontation and conflict, but that happens indirectly and implicitly.
An example follows. In my native Brazil there used to be a class-wide award given to Fifth Graders. This award was called “the Best Companion Award,” because it was basically a choice made among peers (a bit like the Oscars, one might say): the fifth graders nominated a classmate and whoever got the most nominations got the award. However, it was not given out to the kid who had the most friends or was the most popular; it was actually given to someone who was thought to be the best pupil: the kid with the best grades and the best behavior in class. What some would call “a teacher’s pet.”
So, the lesson here was not about relationships; rather, it was about obedience to authority and doing your best while not getting in trouble with anybody.
Therefore, the purpose of education in Pyramid cultures can be summarized as climbing the pyramid and keeping it in place… If there is no pyramid anymore, there is no purpose in trying to climb it.
This contributes to explaining why most Pyramid cultures tend towards the conservative side. Keeping the hierarchy in place is part of everyday life, and one of the objectives of education.
Take this excerpt from Charles Darwin’s travel diary during a visit to Brazil in 1832 (7):
“It has been gravely asserted by Brazilians that the only fault they found with the English laws was that they could not perceive rich respectable people had any advantage over the miserable & the poor.”
Since hierarchy is perceived as part of the natural order, it must be maintained or risk the impression that chaos would ensue without it.
When one seeks to find something about the objectives of education in Brazil, as an example of a Social Pyramid culture, the contrast with the websites of the previously mentioned cultures is striking.
The Ministry of Education has an introductory page with 977 words, but none of them mention the objectives of education, nor the mission and vision of the ministry (8). Instead, the text describes the history of the ministry, its areas of responsibility and its structure. In other words: it describes the pyramid that is the ministry, and its history.
The subsequent pages of the website describe (a) the Minister of Education’s calendar appointments (so that people can check who the boss is going to see); (b) the calendar appointments of the Minister’s direct reports (who the other bosses are going to see); and (c) the ministry’s organization chart (shaped like a pyramid of reporting lines).
It is quite clear that the focus is on the history and structure of the institution, plus the people at the top (in order to guide your relationships). The mission and purpose of the ministry are never mentioned, nor the objectives of education. This is not regarded as important; knowing the hierarchy and who is involved, this is what is important.
The purpose of education, implied but not made explicit, is to teach kids to know the hierarchy and the people involved, and to respect it. This is what they will need to know in order to establish relationships and start climbing up the pyramid.
Conceptualize and play the system
In Solar System cultures there is a constant tension between respecting the hierarchy and allowing for individual freedom and autonomy as well. Robust concepts serve the function of allowing people to manage that tension, wherever they are in the hierarchy and whoever they are dealing with.
Therefore, the objectives of education emphasize very much the understanding of theoretical concepts and the accumulation of knowledge content (rather than pragmatism). The accumulation of knowledge also helps to maintain the hierarchy: the more you know, the higher can your position be on the social hierarchy, and you must also frequently demonstrate your knowledge to others as a way of asserting your position. Kids are taught very early that this is important, and they are also incentivized to read and accumulate knowledge as much as possible.
Kids also learn that the social system is actually quite complex and requires more than just the accumulation of knowledge to become successful. They learn to “play the system” by respecting hierarchy and yet finding loopholes in rules and legislation that allow them to get what they want without crumbling the pyramid. They become experts in “savoir-faire” rather than just “know-how.” They learn how to be diplomatic and say things without being blunt; they discuss concepts instead of attacking each other personally; and they become adapt at winning arguments with grace, without making others lose face.
In other words, the objectives of education are for kids to learn the concepts behind the hierarchy and individual freedoms; and to use that knowledge in order to play the system with elegance at all times.
When we look at the French as an example of a Solar System culture, we see that they have a code de léducation (education code) which compiles extensive laws and regulations over the topic, far too extensive (true to form to such a culture) to quote here. However, we can quote a summary from items in that code (Articels L111, L121 and L131) resulting in (9):
“À partir du code de l’éducation, on peut identifier quatre grands objectifs : transmettre et faire acquérir des connaissances, préparer à la vie professionnelle, éduquer les futurs adultes à être citoyens et à vivre ensemble, viser l’égalité entre élèves dans la réussite éducative.” “From the education code we can identify four main objectives: transmit and enable the acquisition of knowledge, prepare for professional life, educate future adults to be citizens and to live together, aim for equality among pupils seeking educational success.”
As stated above, acquiring knowledge comes first. Then comes professional life and after that the values of the republic (égalité, fraternité).
Climb and adapt to changing system
Traditional Family cultures share many characteristics with Social Pyramid cultures. The main differences relate to lower scores in Uncertainty Avoidance, which are linked to greater flexibility and risk appetite.
When we look at China as a prime example of a Family culture, we should remember what Professor Yuen Yen Ang mentioned during her brilliant 2019 presentation at the Camden Conference titled “How the West and Beijing got China Wrong.” She said: “What everyone needs to understand is that China’s strength lies not in brute power, but in its flexibility.”
Chinese culture emphasizes adaptability. Yes, the Chinese perspective on the world (what Freud called Weltanschauung) is that there is always a hierarchy in society, and you need to climb it (much like in Social Pyramid cultures). The difference is that in the Chinese perspective the world is constantly changing, and people need to learn to adapt constantly to the changes around them. The world is perpetually dynamic and the purpose of education is to teach kids to understand and go with the flow. Power is not distributed equally, but the distribution is constantly changing depending on circumstances. This is the essence of Michael Harris Bond’s “Confucian Dynamism” value-dimension, incorporated as Hofstede’s Fifth Dimension: Long Term Orientation (LTO).
This perspective on the world includes the notion that one should focus on long-term objectives and be patient. The path to that long-term objective will be fraught with twists and turns, so don’t worry about short-term deviations and detours; just keep your mind on those ultimate objectives which you will eventually reach if you can adapt to changing circumstances along the way.
When we look up the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education website, the landing page tells us about a press conference in which the MOE presents a “sea change in China’s educational landscape.” Other aspects of the website are quite similar to the Brazilian example of a Social Pyramid culture previously mentioned: extensive description of the ministry’s scope of responsibility and copious mentions of officials and staff members (the collectivistic aspect). Change is also mentioned when saying that “the CPC’s 100-year history is a journey of seeking happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation.” The words are carefully chosen in China’s official statements, so it is no accident to refer to change and rejuvenation.
While international educational entities, such as UNICEF and UNESCO, can be praised for their efforts in enunciating “universal” statements about educational objectives, the reality is that different cultures have their own way of expressing these objectives. This includes, albeit unconsciously, the objective of perpetuating cultural values. One should not dismiss the sometimes-nuanced differences between one culture and another’s way of referring to educational objectives. We will find that these subtleties contain the very essence of cultural value differences.
- Wursten, Huib: The Seven Mental Images of National Cultures. Hofstede Insights, Helsinki, 2019.