Driving Motives for Reform in Education
John Brownridge Ed.D.
Although the concept of “higher education for all” is a relatively recent idea of reform, arising primarily within the context of 20th century western democracy, the idea of education reform in a wider sense is evident in all developing societies throughout history. A variety of specific reasons can be cited as justification for education reform. Historically, however, reformers have been motivated by the need to address obtrusive societal problems such as poverty, crime, or obvious inequities. They believed with some justification that required societal changes could be instituted by improving education and by making it more accessible to all citizens.
The concept of education itself has gone through many developmental stages throughout history and most people today think of educational reform in terms of academic achievement or skill development. These are certainly part of the whole picture, but fundamental educational matters involve much more than this. Reformers of the past usually addressed a specific section or class of society in order to affect change that would benefit society as a whole. Nineteenth century reformers, for example, realized that lower classes and new immigrants were in desperate need of information about social hygiene. Many diseases and illnesses were clearly preventable and by educating poorer citizens about the manner in which they are spread, dramatic improvements were made.
Juvenile crime was rampant in many European countries during the 19th century. This was due in great part to the fact that most children, especially among the poor, were unable to go to school because of the high costs involved. Governments were slow to recognize this and socially sensitive thinkers were often left to take matters into their own hands. In France, for example, Jean and Felix de la Mennais organized a system of free schooling for children of the poor in order to take them off the streets. Others of a similar mind initiated similar projects. These initiatives were so successful in reducing juvenile delinquency that all European countries were soon finding ways to implement free and compulsory schooling for children in all classes of society.
In more modern times, democratic societies have come to believe that good public education is an essential requirement for the successful operation of good government. Citizens with rights and privileges must have the ability to make informed and intelligent choices, especially when they are called on to choose leaders who will decide the future directions of a sovereign country. Formal education systems with carefully chosen curriculum content enables citizens to partake fully in the affairs of their country and to influence the far-reaching decisions of their democratic leaders.
Throughout the 20th century education has been seen as the solution to multiple socio-economic problems in developing countries as well is in advanced societies in the western world. In many cases, improved literacy has had dramatic results in terms of improved health, wealth and well-being. This has been particularly so in the case of the education of girls and women in societies where female education was considered unnecessary. India is a striking example of this. In the 1950s, enhanced health standards among women was officially correlated to improvements in female literacy. In other countries, even farm efficiency and income were shown to be the direct results of new literacy among the working classes.
Reform is by its nature an on-going requirement for improvement in all aspects of life, but education reform is particularly dynamic and forceful. Education is now accepted as the correct response to so many societal problems and needs that the motives for education reform are provided continuously. Such reform will no doubt continue during the 21st century.