Bureaucracy and its influences on the purpose of education

It has been reported that a black child born in California in 1988 is three times more likely to be murdered than to be admitted to UC Berkeley (Ladson-Billings, 1994).  This grim statistic displays the severe racial inequality, which exists in the American society today.  That  inequality has been self-perpetuating through the state policy in the last one hundred years.  The sources for inequality are complex, and are beyond the scope of this paper.  I intend to examine the vicious replication of inequalities in the United States, as results of a system wide bureaucratic method.  The concept of bureaucracy will be defined thoroughly in the next few pages.  The issue of perpetuating social inequalities in America is rooted within the bureaucratic policies implemented in the late nineteenth century.  More specifically, the problem of replicating inequalities originates from the bureaucratic system of schooling.  Bureaucracy is a convenient method of educational organization, which has in it inherent problems that indiscriminately perpetuate unwanted and wanted societal issues.  This paper is an examination of that premise as well as the methods and effects of bureaucracy on the purpose of education in the past one hundred years.  I will define and examine bureaucracy in the nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.  Finally I will examine the solutions to the issues discussed.

I. Introduction: Terminology

It is imperative to define education first.  Education, as Mark Twain put it, is “what you must acquire without any interference from your schooling.” (Baji, & Holms, 1998 p. 24)  Pure learning constitutes education.  Children in schools receive a schooling.  Their “education” is infused with agendas.  Agendas include, but are not limited to, wide spanning concepts such as a bureaucratic methodology, as well as methods of assessment and evaluation.  Both of these concepts will be discussed further.  Agendas are often political as well.  The indoctrination of a young mind is done less painstakingly than a fully matured individual.  Throughout this paper, the terms “education” and “schooling” will be understood as having different meanings, as defined above.  Schooling is the institution, where as education is the act of learning.

II. Definition of Bureaucracy: Nineteenth Century Definition and Implementation

Bureaucracy, as defined by Max Weber, is a strict method of rational organization for large-scale enterprises.  There are several elements to the bureaucratic methodology.  A satisfactory definition of that idea requires the episodic analysis of the multiple facets of bureaucracy and social structure.  These notions will be discussed in the following.

The initial step in founding a successful bureaucracy is the establishment of a clear hierarchical order.  It is imperative that the bureaucratic system is comprised of a well-defined system of stratification.  The explicit definition of a hierarchy aids in the foundation of an orderly method of managing the organization.  This definition clearly designates each position’s worth, relative to others in the establishment.  When this type of explicit definition is used, each employee clearly knows his location within the stratum.  In an industrial setting, the managers realize their authority, and the labor force realizes its duty to obey the managers.  With this kind of lucid knowledge of stratification, confusion is minimized.  The labor force knows that it has to take orders from the proper authority.  They know that their function in the bureaucratic system is to obey the instructions of their masters.  It is important to emphasize a person’s function, as opposed to his personality.  Personality is of little consequence to productiveness of the bureaucratic machine.  The job of the person is to perform his task to a preset standard.  This is clearly stated in the writings of Max Weber (1978).  He writes that a position in a company “is devoted to impersonal and functional purposes” (p. 959).  The idea of valuing a person’s “functional purpose” is observed in all bureaucratic institutions, including systems of schooling.

As applied to the educational system, the hierarchical method of organization is observed perfectly.  The head of each educational district is a superintendent.  His duty is to supervise the overall function of the district.  He mainly presides over the principals of individual schools.  The principals oversee department heads, who, in turn, oversee teachers.  Students are at the bottom of this pyramid.  Each level of organization has a particularly defined role.  The social stratification of schools is manifested in other methods as well.

Another hierarchical facet of education is the implementation of a graded school system in the late nineteenth century (Spring, 2001).  Previously, schools were run in a non-differentiating manner.  There was no distinction between the various age groups.  Schools were one-room buildings with many differently aged children learning the material (Tyack, 1974).  There was no separation based on age.  Everyone learned the same material regardless of age.  However, when the bureaucratic methodologies were implemented students were separated according to age.  The reasons for this development (evolution) were purely based on the inherent definition of bureaucracy.  As stated before, the bureaucratic system requires a well defined hierarchy in order to minimize confusion.  The graded system created the ideal method of hierarchical categorization in a school setting.  A higher grade was defined as superior as compared to a lower grade.  There were clear advantages to this system.

Each grade had a greater possibility of specialization.  Since the ability levels of each person in each grade were uniform, the teachers gained the option of teaching more specific material.  Teachers could develop ideas to a further extent.  They could trust their students’ abilities when designing exercises.  For instance, a teacher could develop mathematics problems further, since he could be sure that every student in the class has the proper background mathematical skills.  This trust in students’ knowledge of the material was essential to teachers.

The main disadvantage to the development of a graded system was the challenge of proper learning.  The notion of progress from one grade to another appealed to students and teachers.  The purpose of graded education evolved toward a quest for the next grade.  Education was no longer exclusively utilized for the attainment of knowledge.  The purpose was now geared more toward advancement to the next grade.  If a student performed well in one grade he was allowed to continue onto the next, regardless of how much he had learned.  It is important to emphasize that the incentive of pure social mobility did not guarantee mis-education.  A great number of students learned the material to a satisfactory degree.  However, the convenience of simply moving through grades with no intention of learning was created.  The graded system of schools also created a more focused group of students and teachers.  The goal of schools was to produce the highest number of graduates.  This goal oriented view point brings up the point of centralization.

The definition and pertinence of a centralized system of organization are crucial to the development of a bureaucracy.  A bureaucratic system of organization, when fully implemented, is clearly focused.  The system has a purpose.  In an industrial setting, all employees of the bureaucracy strive to achieve a uniform goal.  A factory strives to produce its product in an efficient manner.  All the managers and employees try to reach their goal in the best way possible.  This concept of clarity of function has been termed as a centralized methodology.  The large enterprise has a center of focus.  Individuals have responsibilities, but the organization has a focal point.  The educational aspects of centralization lead to defining the purpose of education in the late nineteenth century: the purpose of education was social conformity (Spring, 1972).  This phenomenon was observed in school activities of the time.  The following is a song sang in primary schools at the turn of the century:

What did you learn at school today

Dear little boy of mine?

I learnt our country is good and strong!

Always right and never wrong!

I learnt our learders are the best of men!

That’s why we elect them again and again.

What did you learn at school today… (van Creveld, 1999 p. 224)

This song demonstrates the effect of social indoctrination present at that time.  To fully analyze the purpose of education as a means of social conformity through indoctrination, one must first examine methodically the social changes of the era.

The end of nineteenth century was witness to the magnificent emergence of industrialized societies.  It is important to consider the industrial revolution and its social effects with respect to social change.  The industrial revolution was a response to the growing world population.  The world population was growing at an astonishing rate.  The populations of Britain and Germany were increasing at about one percent a year (population doubling every seventy years), and the population of the United States was increasing at about three percents a year (Rempel, 2000).  This dramatic increase in population required a greater rate of production in a shorter amount of time.  Industrialization was the only means of reaching such an end.  The fatigue factor was eliminated with the use of machines.  They could keep producing products as long as there was a legitimate need.

All industrialized systems were managed by a strictly bureaucratic method.  In factories, there were laborers and bosses.  The difference between these two groups was clearly defines, as in any other bureaucratic system.  However this method of managing the workplace did not reflect the social methods of organization.  The social methodology of organization, before the industrial revolution, was agrarian as compared with the newly founded industrial economy.  The agrarian ways of social organization differed on several matters.  For instance, the agrarian methodology did not require the rigid orderliness of the bureaucratic system.  The agrarian culture was managed on a comparatively smaller scale.  There was a smaller degree of management involved in farms.  Therefore the owners did not need to implement a strict plan for structural organization.  Another differing point was in the individualism of businesses.  In an agrarian setting, individuals mattered, as compared with a bureaucratic setting.  In bureaucracy, the individual is not at all important, as long as the goal of the system is reached.  In a farm the individual mattered to a comparatively greater degree.  Individuals communicated readily with the owner.  They knew one another on a more personal level.  There were exceptions to this rule.  Due to the complexity of the matter, as well as space constraints, those exceptions will not be discussed.  The rule, however, holds true regardless of that fact.  Another aspect of consideration is goal orientation: each farm had a specific goal of prosperity, but this goal did not depend on all other farms in the area.  The society at large was not concentrated on the methods of prosperity.  The system of organization was decentralized.  The community did not have a business-oriented focus (or center).  The implementation of bureaucracy upon society changed those concepts.

As a result of bureaucracy’s rise in popularity, the societal norms of agrarianism were modified to satisfy the stringent strata of bureaucracy.  This was a great social realignment.  Social realignment is a relatively rare occurrence.  These social realignments were in need of a vehicle of communication.  Society needed a method of teaching its members the design of the new social system (bureaucracy).  The best vehicle for this task was the system of schooling.  Schools were utilized at this time to train new workers for the upcoming factories.  Schooling was used as a way of producing (and reproducing) bureaucracy.  Educators often admitted this fact.  A St. Louis superintendent and later the U.S. Commissioner of education, named William T. Harris was quoted as saying, “each pupil must be taught first and foremost to conform his behavior to a general standard.” (Tyack, 1974 p. 43)  It is clear from this quote that the intent of the educator at this time was to train workers.  Educators were minimally interested in developing students with the ability to think independently.  This fact could be understood when the future of these students is examined.  Most of these students worked in factories, which required them to perform a certain task repeatedly.  These tasks did not require independent thought.  The workers simply followed a routine.

Another purpose for the implementation of a bureaucratic system was its organizational appeal.  According to David Tyack, “the pressure of numbers” influenced the implementation of the bureaucratic system (Spring, 2001 p. 149).  There were too many students for the decentralized method of education.  The village settings of organization could not maintain the large number of students entering schools.  Bureaucracy was an appealing method of structuring the educational system from the perspective of the administrator.  There were also pressures from the increasingly complex industry to produce workers who were skilled in the tasks required by the modern workplace.  School was the ideal medium for producing workers with the correct skills.  In order to produce the most efficient workers, the school had to implement a systematic method of assessment.  Systems of assessment included written examinations of the students as a measurement of their skills.

The notions of evaluation and assessment are decisive parts of a successfully implemented bureaucracy.  To examine this fact, one must return to the basics of bureaucracy.  A premier feature of a bureaucratic system is its objectivity.  In an ideal bureaucracy, there is no subjective means of consideration.  Everyone and everything is evaluated through purely objective means.  In order to develop a reasonable method of evaluation, the administrators of the bureaucratic system must quantitate everything.  They must translate everything into calculable pieces of information, which can be analyzed in a non-discriminatory fashion.  According to Max Weber (1978), a perfect bureaucracy “succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.” (p. 975)  This objectivity is why factory workers have numbers.  They are identified by a calculable means: a number.  Using names is too subjective for the ways of bureaucracy.  In much the same way, students are given student identification numbers.  As applied to education, this notion of calculable quantities manifests itself as tests and grades.  Every student is evaluated, using a uniform exam.  Based upon the exam, each student is replaced by a number: his grade.  The student is no longer an individual.  The student has been conveniently transformed into a calculable quantity.

The impersonal aspect of this methodology cannot be ignored.  When a student is given a number, he/she could be treated with less enthusiasm.  It is much easier to mis-educate a number than a face.  Education (learning) is not an impersonal entity.  In order for education to be effective, an intimate relationship should be established between the student and the teacher.  A relationship is not calculable.  The student/teacher relationship cannot be considered using a pre-defined numeric system.  The bureaucratic organization of schools has impeded the effective relationship formation between the student and the teacher.  There is so much emphasis placed on materialization of emotions, that students cannot have intimate relationships with their educators.  Intimacy refers to the bond, which is established between the educator and the learner in the process of pedagogy.  Bureaucracy severely hinders that bond formation.  This inhibition is further perpetuated through the specialization of teachers and administrators.

The concept of specialization was an important outcome of the industrial revolution.  At the end of the nineteenth century, jobs became increasingly specialized.  A person was no longer responsible for multiple tasks.  The person did not have to tend to many different operations because of the complexity of the tasks at hand.  In a factory, no one worker was an expert in all the tasks performed.  In schooling, this notion was manifested through the hiring of specialized teachers and administrators.  Previously teachers had a general knowledge of the material, which they were to teach.  However, they were not specialized in any field.  The implementation of the bureaucratic system forced the teaching profession to be specialized.  This was done to accommodate the newly founded graded system of schooling.  Each teacher was responsible for one grade.  As discussed previously, the graded system of schooling made it possible for the teachers to delve into topics more.  In order to do that, each teacher had to be specifically trained for a position.  And thus the profession of teaching was created.  Specialized teachers required more training than the generalized teachers of the past.  This was achieved only through professional training.

The increasingly complex school required the attention of an especially trained task force.  The professionalism in this task force dehumanized the relationship between the student and the teacher.  Professional teachers were not necessarily from the schools’ communities, and thus did not understand the dynamics of the society.  They were foreigners, who were allowed to teach because of their factual knowledge.  This was a great barrier to the development of a healthy relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher did not live in the same community as his students, and thus he could not effectively relate to the students’ everyday experiences.

III. Twentieth Century Bureaucracy: Principles and Problems

The purpose of education in the end of twentieth century is the same as it has been for the last one hundred years: social conformity.  In the late nineteenth century, a bureaucratic system was the proper method of managing a newfound economy and a booming population.  It was a methodical system of organizing a large number of people.  However the effects of this system has been reprehensible in the twentieth century.

The issue of social reproduction has been especially problematic in a bureaucracy.  The problem arises from the purpose of a bureaucracy.  Bureaucracies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were designed to produce a specific product.  The bureaucratic system of production was designed to reproduce itself.  This is inherent in the definition of production itself.  One cannot effectively produce without reproducing the means of production (Althusser, 1972).  The structure of production loses support unless the system is designed to reproduce the means necessary to sustain itself.  Therefore the notion of social reproduction is inherent to the concept of a system with the goal of production, such as the twentieth century bureaucracy.  Since educational bureaucracies were designed after the industrial models, schooling was a means of production as well.  Schools were designed to produce a workforce, which was ready to partake in the increasingly complex world of industrialization.

In the late nineteenth century social reproduction was an effective means of successfully implementing a new system of management.  Due to the novelty of bureaucracy, the methodology of social reproduction worked well.  There was no foundation to the bureaucracy at that time.  Therefore having a system to produce (and reproduce) a basis for the new methods of management was beneficial.  However the reproduction concept has changed the social structure for the worse in the twentieth century.  One of the biggest factors in the failure of bureaucracy was the introduction of race issues into the educational process. 

Books such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities display the true effects of reproductive aspects of bureaucracy and education.  In that book Kozol examines the conditions of several colored poor neighborhoods around the country.  The social stratification is especially clear in his description of East St. Louis, Illinois.  He states that the community is stratified into two geographical locations: the Bluffs and the Bottoms.  The Bluffs are located at the top of hills and thus drain their sewage into the Bottoms.  This results in the formation of open cesspools of raw sewage.  Years of uncontrolled chemical dumping have led to high levels of heavy metals in the soil.  These metals, although not fatal, lead to severe learning and behavioral defects in children.  The poverty in the bottoms is rampant.  The average child receives $2.40 worth of food every day.  These are reprehensible conditions of living.  A child cannot be expected to learn well with these situations.  A disturbing fact is that neither the city, nor the federal government is willing to do anything about these cases.  No one is willing to provide the capital to mitigate these conditions (Kozol, 1991).  The physically decrepit conditions of life inhibit children from receiving a socially competitive education.  Children living in such cities are not presented with the opportunity of success.  Their education cannot compete with other children of the same age group.  And thus they fail as adults.  They are physically pushed into failure by their geography.  They are the very agents of social reproduction.  They pass down the legacy of doom.

These cases of utter social injustice could be explained through the definition of bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy, as defined previously, is a stringent system of organization, which allows little variations in the methods of control.  There is a strict orderliness.  The original design of the American bureaucracy defined the colored persons as inherently inferior.  As a result of that arbitrary definition, they have been caste as the lower stratum.  This social casting is not easily amended.  Once the bureaucratic system is implemented in a certain manner, change is not easily possible.  One part of the bureaucracy cannot be changed in hope of rectifying the problem.  Change in a bureaucratic system would constitute a complete restructuring.  For educational systems (and other large enterprises), restructuring is often not a choice.  Therefore if any detrimental aspects are initially introduced into the system, the fault cannot be corrected easily.

This fact is also compounded by the utter carelessness toward the individual in the twentieth century bureaucracy.  The national government is not concerned with the well being of people in East St. Louis, Illinois.  The national government is concerned with the overall functioning of the state.  The overall functioning of the state is currently strong.  The economy is growing with suppressed inflation, and the jobless rate is at historical lows.  However for the individuals in cities such as East St. Louis, times could not be worse.  They are the forgotten factions of society.  The wealthiest fraction of society contributes to the incredible boom in the economy.  They invest readily and thus reap the benefits of their fortunes.  They do not, however, do anything about the clear injustice present in segregated districts.  As Kozol puts it best, “dirt and water flow downhill, [but] money and services do not.” (1991 p. 10)  Children can feel their lack of importance in society at large.  They realize that they are invisible to the American populous.  That sense of alienation is a severe detriment to a child’s learning process.  The child is constantly confronted by the images of failure, but he instructed to achieve greatness.  The child is forced to imagine a better world without any precedent.  This task is quite difficult for a student.

IV. Solutions

The solutions offered here are the best offered by this writer.  They are the most consistent with my ideology.  Others offer solutions, which may have the same end result.  But I believe that these solutions reach the most enduring results.

The solutions to the problems presented lay within the restructuring of the bureaucratic system of schooling.  This does not have to destroy a bureaucracy.  After all, the theory behind the notions of bureaucratic organization is quite appealing.  Nonetheless the restructuring of bureaucracy is an inevitable step toward amending pressing problems of schools today.  Problems in today’s school systems have roots in the inherent definition of a bureaucracy.  An example of such problem is the extreme centralization of schools.

Professional administrators run a centralized school system.  They have control of the bureaucracy.  They have the authority to administer schooling.  For these reasons, the administrators favor a centralized system of schooling.  Such system keeps the administrators in power.  However, as previously discussed, these individuals do not take the effort to live within the community of their schools.  They are not a part of the everyday workings of the community life.  This is detrimental to the education of the students.  Therefore a systematic method of decentralization would greatly benefit the convergence of schooling and education.  A successfully decentralized school district would have a staff composed of community members.  These administrators would include the superintendent.  There would be a teacher force from the community, which would be welcoming to the student.  The student would feel “at home” in school.  School would be no longer a place for the exchange of impersonal thoughts.  The quality of teachers in a decentralized system would remain constant.  A person with inferior teaching skills would not be allowed to teach due to the fact that he is a community member.  It is the school board’s duty to determine the worth of these teachers.  Therefore, the school board must be composed of community members also.  The idea of decentralization is known to be efficient, because it has been implemented before.  However, there were problems with the implementation process.  This difficulty was demonstrated in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York, in nineteen sixty-eight.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in New York was witness to the first implementation of a decentralized system of schooling.  The premise of this project was to maximize once again community control over schools.  One of the first actions taken was the formation of a People’s Board of Education: a school board made of community members.  That task was not easy; it met a great degree of resistance from the professional administrators.  Traditionally, the school board is a position of power in a school district.  The administrators who sit on school boards have a great deal of power to control policy.  This high degree of power was the reason for resistance.  The professionals did not want to surrender their power to the people.  This phenomenon was also witnessed through teacher resistance.  A number of teachers were fired from the district due to their lack of cooperation with the decentralization movement.  This was a choice made by the community through their Board of Education.  However the resistance in this instance was quite adamant.  Severe protests ensued, and thus the decentralized system was disbanded in nineteen sixty-eight.  The breakup of the experiment was not a failure by any measure.  The effort set a precedent.  That precedent showed that a community with proper cooperation would have the chance of decentralizing schooling.  This notion is a definitive step in the correct direction (Berube, & Gittell, 1969).

A pertinent solution to the problem of social injustice is redefining state ideals.  In a capitalistic bureaucracy, it is necessary to redefine the notion of wealth and profit.  Material goods are at the heart of the currently defined wealth and profit.  Owners of large enterprises are concerned solely with their monetary performance.  The stockholders of these companies have the same mentality.  The company’s purpose is to produce something profitable, which has a calculable value.  This item is then sold and the monetary profits are shared by a select few, who are the richest members of the country.  This does not have to be the case.  Monetary wealth has been overtly overrated in the past one hundred years.  This obsession with profit has been a detriment to the educational process.  The definition of prosperity is taught as attaining monetary affluence.  A rich person in today’s America is considered prosperous.  The goals of education should be intellectual affluence.  Money is not the answer to the problems of today’s society.  Children should not be taught that the sole purpose of education is eventual monetary success.  The purpose of education should be geared toward the benefits of knowledge.  Money has not solved world problems yet, and there are no indications that it will.  These ideas are portrayed poignantly by Albert Einstein:

I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause.  The example of great and pure individuals is the only thing that can lead us to noble thoughts and deeds.  Money only appeals to selfishness and irresistibly invites abuse.  Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie? (Einstein, 1954 p. 12-13)

Here Einstein explicitly states that money is not the solution to world problems.  He clearly states that the corrupting tendencies of money (greed) dominate the good intentions.  The overwhelming urge to use money for personal means, destroys any possibility of good will.  That is why the “money-bags of Carnegie” are useless to the humanitarian.  The first step toward a social restructuring of the bureaucratic society must be in effective communication of the message of money’s corruptive tendencies.

Another effective method of realigning social goals for education is to increase student involvement in practical learning.  Engaging in research is an example of this methodology.  The educational value of engaging in empirical research often outweighs the benefits of classroom instruction.  Research requires independent thought and decision making.  It forces the student to think about problems and solve them through rational means of reasoning.  Research also engages students as intellectuals.  Students are currently at the bottom levels of the bureaucratic system of schooling.  They are not regarded as intellectually endowed.  Students are currently thought of as storage units for information (and sometimes knowledge).  Research empowers student to be readily engaged in the learning process.  It gives the students the confidence necessary to learn effectively (Morrell, 2000).

To end the vicious cycle of social reproduction in schools, as institutions of learning, must be changed first.  There is no need to try to change society before the school system.  “Society changes when we change children’s education.” (Duncan-Andrade, 2000)  Schooling is a central social institution.  The changes in the methods of schooling reflect readily upon the rest of the society.  Therefore if the methods of schooling are changed, then the society at large follows.  This is not a rapid change.  However the effort is definitely worthwhile.

The bureaucratic method of school management has had a dichotomous effect on the purpose of schooling.  In the late nineteenth century, the system performed its tasks flawlessly.  It promoted social conformity in an increasingly complex society.  Bureaucracy was an excellent method of organization.  However these same qualities have had detrimental effects in the twentieth century.  The time for social conformity has long passed.  In the innovative world of the twentieth century, there is little room for conformity.  As discussed above, change in the ideals of education in accordance with current thought requires redefining the bureaucratic methodology.  There is not need to abandon that methodology all together.  According to Dr. Perlstein of the Graduate School of Education at University of California, Berkeley, bureaucracy is a necessary part of schools (2000).  In the ideal form, bureaucracy is an excellent method of conducting schools.  However as it is in place today, there is a great need for adjustments.  The most significant realignment of the system is to amend the cruel ways of social reproduction.  As seen in Kozol’s work, social reproduction is the pinnacle of cruelty in the schooling of children.



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Note: All citing was done according to the American Psychological Association's format.  Additional APA formatting, such as guidelines for indentation criteria came from Perdue University English Department (available: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_apa.html).  Additional guidelines were used only in instances, which were not provided explicitly in class references.  The Purdue University English Department provides a complete guide to APA formatting on the above website.

 *This is a translated book with two editors and an author.