Using education to preserve the status quo?

“Most societies in fact use education to preserve the status quo rather than to bring about change or address inequities.” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007; p71)

Reflecting on this quote, I considered the idea that education is a tool, and just like any tool is could be used for good or ill. I’ve always thought of “education” as a primarily “good” thing, but realized that this is certainly a rather naïve view to take. “Education” isn’t always equivalent to “teaching critical thinking”, as much as I would like it to be! Formal academic education in particular traditionally maintains a hierarchy of teacher above student, and has in the West traditionally been reserved for members of the upper classes of society. In totalitarian societies that have encouraged the formal education of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, state-run institutions seem to default to a brainwashing sort of tactic, focusing on rote memorization over cognitive skill development. From the perspective of those who control those institutions, this would make a lot of sense; they should work to avoid producing too many critical thinkers who could decide that the government was not acting in the best interests of its citizens.

What first caught my attention here was the “most” in that quote. That is, the claim that the majority of societies use institutionalized education not as a means of producing an intelligent, critical, self-reflective, progressive society, but as a means to controlling the population. Given that formal academic education has traditionally been reserved for the upper classes of society, though, it does make intuitive sense. Why would the people with the most power seek to, or encourage anyone else to, challenge that power? It seems any potential for self-reflection, in the absence of dissenting voices from people living with alternative viewpoints, would dissolve instead into misled justifications for maintaining their own position and privilege.

As a result of considering this quote, I realized that if I am to be the sort of educator I want to be – i.e. encouraging cognitive skill development and critical thinking in particular – it is not sufficient to merely follow the curriculum laid out by a school’s administration or external governing bodies. This reinforces the value of continued critical reflection on my own teaching practices, to make sure that I continue to pursue the goals in my classroom that I believe are most important.

On considering this quote, I discovered that I the best way in my mind to paraphrase it was that “societies have used traditionally abused formal education to avoid disrupting the current power structure” really drove home for me my own beliefs about what the main goals of education should be. It also implies that adult educators must pay particular attention to developing the critical thinking skills of adult students especially, who tend to be rather resistant to change (compared to young children, for example), and may be reticent about questioning their own assumptions.

Teaching for me includes helping students learn to question their assumptions but also to be able to successfully address the questions they raise. This quote emphasizes for me that I must remain vigilant in evaluating and re-evaluating my own assumptions and habits, so I can ensure I address those tasks effectively.


Merriam, S. B., Cafarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


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