The MacroscopeWork and Education

Equality, authenticity and excellence in education

Schools have been public institutions since 1800. Their ‘grammar’ has changed in 200 years, but less than expected. Some of today’s critics argue for more innovation. They say schools do not equip students to function in a digitalized society. Others argue for the need for more education in citizenship. Then there are those who claim education should be reorganized online and outside of school environments. We risk overtasking schools, hence it is not a bad idea to facilitate alternative educational trajectories.

Our observations

  • Economic prosperity and liberal democracy are generally considered to be related to the level of education of a population. However, on a personal level, bachelor’s and master’s degrees no longer guarantee the high salaries they did in the seventies and eighties.
  • We have witnessed an enormous growth of students attaining higher education in the last decade. Roughly 50% of citizens under the age of 40 receives or has received an (applied) academic education in western countries, such as the UK and Netherlands. Over-education, not finding an academic-level job, is a risk for not finding the right job.
  • There seems to be disdain for practical education in many modern countries, such as the Netherlands. Many people think a theoretical education is necessarily better.
  • Some critics argue for more 21st century skills (see our previous note) like critical thinking and global citizenship. Other critics, such as Frank Fuerdi, argue against such ideas and plead instead for more classical education, such as dividing knowledge into identifiable school subjects.
  • The number of ‘non-school based education’ organizations on the web is increasing – such as Coursera, Udicity and Edx – mostly focused on applied skills, such as coding and math. See our previous note.

Connecting the dots

Schools have always been perceived as institutions that help realize visions of an improved future: creating more creative employees, democratic citizens or simply happy individuals. There are, grosso modo, three major historical trends in Western education in the 20th century – on all educational levels – according to educational scientist and historian Daniel Thröler. His history describes how schools have always been asked to solve societal, technological and economic problems – and successfully so. But his history also shows that schools are not primarily meant to facilitate the economy and create technological innovation.
(1) Whereas the classical modern (19th century) school was an elitist institution, modern schools are public. In EU countries, students are obligated to go to school until they are at least 16, sometimes even 18 years old. The goal of this compulsory education system is to create equality. Especially in the EU, studying is relatively cheap (2-10% of the price of a U.S. study program, even at top-notch institutions). From the lower to the higher levels, there is much, and increasing, interest in topics as ethics, equal citizenship, democratic leadership, and so on.
(2) The second major trend in education is that of authenticity. The claim is that schools should not only focus on cognitive aspects of studying but on the integral development of children. This long-term trend is an answer to the development of industrialization and technological innovation with a focus

on the human side of life – being attuned to nature, developing artistic insight, getting acquainted with a certain world-view. The search for authenticity is an aspect of the content of programs, but also of student expectations (especially in higher levels): Studying is never solely a matter of acquiring credentials for the next step in one’s (educational) career. It is also a matter of prestige, belonging to a certain tradition or group of people.
(3) The catchword of the third and most recent trend is that of excellence, denoting the vision that students should develop skills at the highest possible level. The search for excellence is partly a result of societies with so many educated people; how to become better than others? This is why Ivy League universities, difficult tech studies, and ‘gymnasia’ are very popular.
These three trends continue to unfold, for instance, in the interest in Montessori education (authenticity), lower thresholds to university (equality) and creating new double-degree programs and extra-curricular courses in math and music (excellence). What is missing in those three trends, is the attunement to the real world of business and technological innovation. Here lays the opportunity for educational trajectories outside the walls of schools, at work and especially online.


  • Outside-school institutions to help with homework and test-preparation will probably increase. Then, students will want to reach higher and compete with many others, whereas schools will not be able to offer more help.
  • Real live and digital education will merge, for the advantages of online education are cost-efficiency and comfort, and digital-only platforms will probably also grow.
  • Ivy League universities and prestigious study-programs will continue to be attractive, for studying is and always has been a matter of socialization and prestige.
  • Practical skills are underestimated in high-level professional schools, such as in medicine and business. Schools that focus on a combination of practice and theory offer an attractive alternative in a theorized landscape.