Working Papers from the Textbook Colloquium, No. 2 

The Revival of Learning?

David Hamilton
Department of Education
Umeå University
901-87 Umeå



This article is a provocation. It focuses on the learning society, its substance and rhetoric. Protagonists of the learning society advance the idea that schooling is dying, and that education should undergo re-engineering. A new infrastructure is proposed around the concept of on-line learning. This vision of the learning society suffers, however, from at least three defects. First, it assumes that what can be imagined can be delivered; secondly, that making something work is as easy as designing an infrastructure; and finally, that the learning society can be freed from the power relations that marked its predecessors.

 ‘Why are you going to South America?’ my colleagues asked. ‘To share my research on the beginnings of modern schooling (1500-1650)’ was my simplest answer. But, later, I found another reason. The city of São Paulo was founded by Jesuits in 1554, a time when the order was begin to reform schooling in Europe. ‘Therefore’, I concluded, ‘A visit to Brazil will be good for my research’.

My colleagues persisted. ‘What, then, does your historical research mean for the 21st century?’. I answered that my wider interest in schooling was shared by my hosts -- the postgraduate programme on ‘education, politics and society’ at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Moreover, my Brazilian colleagues also share my belief that to reflect on schooling in the past is also to deliberate about schooling in the future.

In this article, I combine these interests. I use an historical analysis to illuminate the uncertain future of schooling. In short, I ponder the question: ‘If modern schooling had a beginning, does it also have an end?’.


My views on the beginnings of modern schooling stem from a simple observation. The language of European education changed significantly during the 16th century. Certain terms came to prominence, as shown below. 

 Key word


(circa) 1500
(circa) 1540

‘Syllabus’ and ‘didactic’ were Latinised forms of older Greek words; ‘class’ and ‘curriculum’ were words from classical Latin borrowed from other fields; and ‘catechism’ was a word from classical Greek whose new meaning began to included formal responses as well as formal questions.

Modern schooling took shape around this new infrastructure of ideas and practices. Wealthy patrons invested in these modern methods. Public memoranda, handbooks and manuals of method listed and elaborated their assumptions. City bylaws endorsed them, enterprising school-teachers adopted them and, not least, the European trade in educational ideas assured their dissemination. A new instructional technology was created.

The appearance of the words ‘syllabus’ and ‘curriculum’ marked the pedagogical reorganisation of existing bodies of approved doctrine; while the attention given to catechisms and didactics reflected the reorganisation of teaching to ensure the efficient delivery of doctrine. With the help of such innovations, it was assumed that doctrine could be smoothly delivered into the ears, eyes, minds, bodies and souls of learners. In its simplest form, this 16th-century transformation marked a shift of public attention from learning to instruction. Before the foundation of São Paulo, for instance, European educational writings focused on what and how children should learn, whereas later writings gave much more attention to what and how children should be taught.

Two texts from the Jesuit’s early history, the Exercitia spiritualia and the Ratio studiorum, illustrate this instructional turn. The Exercitia spiritualia was developed by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, in the 1520s. It took shape as a manual of self-instruction or self-discipline, a preparation for the spiritual life. St Ignatius introduced it while studying in Paris in the 1530s, a time when he not only founded the Society of Jesus, but also came under the influence of discussions about the reorganisation of teaching and learning. Early versions of the Exercitia spiritualia was written in crude Castillian, but a more literary Latin version appeared in 1548.

The Ratio studiorum is a contrasting text. It is characteristic of the second half of the 16th century. It gathered together Jesuit experiences after the publication of the Exercitia spiritualia and the foundation of the College of Messina, both in 1548. Its title can be translated as ‘scheme of studies’; and the final version placed stronger emphasis on scheme than on studies. Indeed, it was this feature of the Ratio studiorum -- its reorganisation of existing practice -- that brought it to prominence. It first appeared in an agreed form in 1599; it underwent minor changes in 1615; and it remained unchanged until 1773.

The educational changes symbolised by the differences between the Exercitia spiritualia and the Ratio studiorum are a focus of my research into the 16th century. The Ratio studiorum, however, was not the only source of pedagogical reform. Comparable changes took place throughout Europe.

 A New Revival of Learning?

Four hundred years later, the differences between learning and instruction have returned to the agenda of educational policy-makers. This discussion takes place in the claim that the industrial society is being replaced by the learning society. A new educational renaissance is envisaged. Human capital is raised to the same status as finance capital. The new learning fosters capabilities that, collectively, will power the knowledge-driven economies of the future.

Schooling and employment converge. In 2001, for instance, the European Commission launched a diploma in elearning to increase co-operation between schooling, business and industry; while, in 1998, the British government claimed that ‘the UK’s distinctive capabilities are not raw materials, land or cheap labour. They must be our knowledge, skills and creativity.’

The learning society has acquired a dual purpose in the age of globalisation. It is both a source of social developmental and a medium of economic survival. Journalists and speech writers are well aware of this. They highlight its innovative features. They project them as the infrastructure of the learning society.

 On-line learning

On-line learning is the keystone of the learning society. It is the same as elearning. Its introduction, if successful, will mark a new era in schooling. Because it can be used on-campus as well as off-campus, on-line learning implies the death of distance. Because learning can take place at the instigation of the learner rather than the teacher, on-line learning also implies the lingering death of the timetable. And because on-line learning marginalises didactics, its advent also signals the death of the schoolteacher. As a result, teachers do not feature prominently in the economic equation of the learning society. Teacher-pupil ratios, a notable economic indicator in the instructional society, are being replaced by the ratio of pupils to internet connections. The teacher-proof curriculum &emdash; the goal of early educationists like Comenius (1592-1670) -- is being replaced by the teacher-free curriculum. In the words of a World Bank consultant, a curriculum is a ‘plan for learning, not for teaching’.

Processes not knowledge

The rhetoric of the learning society also abandons another pillar of the instructional society. Knowledge as doctrine is rejected, together with the view that ability is an inherited biological or psychological trait. Knowledge and ability become fluid constructs; and the notion of capability builds on these intellectual qualities. It assumes that learners can learn how to learn, and that they can learn how to be flexible in problem solving. The learning society, therefore, places great value on knowledge about knowledge. It prioritises meta-knowledge and meta-cognition. It assumes that learners have a clear overview of the goals of a task; that they will be able to judge when a course of action should be abandoned; and that, when difficulties arise, they will reconsider earlier stages in their thinking.

Integration of learning and assessment

The transformation of the learning society also extends from curriculum to assessment. Labels like alternative or authentic assessment are being popularised. Further, the practices of assessment are rethought. Assessment is given a formative rather than a summative function. It is integral to teaching, leaving examinations as merely an adjunct to teaching. Moreover, the software of on-line learning facilitates the integration of learning and assessment. Ideally, learners believe they are steering their own learning.

Customised courses

 The image of the learning society has another feature. It is presented as a Garden of Eden. Its fruits are freely available to all learners. Further, learners are not constrained to follow prescribed pathways, like the courses or curricula their predecessors followed in the instructional society. Instead, learners are encouraged to find their own way through a branching hypertext of knowledge. Assembled by internet providers, the learning society presents itself as an equalised and globalised organisation. There is only one internet. It is analogous to the baseball cap, another icon of the information age. It fulfils the engineer’s fantasy -- one size fits all. But it also leaves two engineering questions unanswered. Who designed the learning maps built into the software? And who customised the pathways that the learners follow?

Downloadable textbooks

The internet is a body of processed, stored-up knowledge. Learners can assemble and down-load their own textbooks, just as they can assemble and download their own CDs. Yet even the biblical Garden of Eden had its limitations and its temptations. The prior existence of intellectual property rights (copyright) is the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The downloadable textbook may be an on-line source of knowledge; but its configuration also contains forbidden fruit that exploit the curiosity of on-line learners and inhibit the creativity of internet educational providers.

 Skills instead of knowledge

Another key assumption in the learning society is that performance is preferable to competence. The notion of capability embodies this assumption. A person is capable because they can do something. The educational question ‘what is your potential?’ is replaced by the economic question ‘what can you do?’. Moreover, such performance has a double purpose. It serves on-line auditing as well as on-line learning. Performance can be measured, economically as well as cognitively. Learners may feel they are learning at their own speed, but the value of such learning is measured, explicitly or covertly, against criteria beyond the learner’s wishes, aspirations or desires.

 The End of Schooling?

The learning society has its own infrastructure. A web-based platform is linked, web-like, to educational and economic performance. Yet, the platform inherits very little from the 16th century. There is little sense of a syllabus as a pre-existing table of contents, or of classes as cohorts of students. Equally, proponents of the learning society’s liberalism would reject the closed dialogue of the catechism. Likewise, they reject the notion of a curriculum as a well-defined course across the map of knowledge; and they pay little homage to the notion that didactics offers a set of principles governing the delivery of learning.

What does this discordance mean? Would the arrival of the learning society herald the end of modern schooling? I have not yet had the opportunity to ask the British Government, the European Commission or the World Bank. But I would expect three responses. The first would be given in capital letters and an unusual font -- forms of emphasis favoured in public relations. The learning society, they suggest, is the Next Best Thing. It is something new, original and futuristic. It is much more than an innovation painstakingly assembled from the lessons of the past.

Secondly, I would expect to hear that the learning society is original because it reflects a wholesale re-engineering of ‘traditional’ schooling. Prophets and gurus have identified the elements of its infrastructure. In meeting such goals, their public relations task is complete. Yet, they continue to suffer a discomfort that plagues all inventors. It is one thing to invent, and another thing to make the invention work.

Thirdly, proponents of the learning society claim their work constitutes a Fresh Start. It supersedes the outdated practices of the instructional school. The infrastructure that sustained modern schooling has outlived its usefulness. Its elements are cultural artefacts that should be relegated to a folk museum. They offer no social or economic advantage. By comparison, the virtues of the learning society are self-evident. Society is released from the shackles of instruction and, in the process, formal education is liberated from the framing of modernism.

 Apocalypse When?

The learning society, however, is merely a vision. Its assumptions about the death of schooling are inscribed in the words, images and assumptions of cultural meaning-makers -- the educationists, economists, public relations experts, market researchers, speech writers and politicians who echo, recycle and shape popular opinion. Nevertheless, the vision is marketed by agencies that have a global reach. The vision is widely accepted because it is appealing, comforting and levelling. The language of the learning society projects a sense of human redemption. Humanity has been recovered from the Fall precipitated by Adam and Eve’s deviance in the Garden of Eden.

The learning society is, therefore, a millennial society. It anticipates, even promises, a better world. It projects the shape of things to come. Like all millennial visions, however, claims about the learning society are a beguiling amalgam of rhetoric and logic. What is lacking in logic, is made up in rhetoric. The rhetorical dimension in the image of the learning society is paramount. It draws attention to certain ideas. It seeks to establish the unambiguous merit of those ideas. And it markets specific notions as a source of human and global salvation.

My own view is that the learning society is a Star Wars fantasy, based on the utopian assumption that what can be imagined can be delivered. Further, a fail-safe guarantee is included with the Star Wars fantasy. The promise of the on-line, learning society is that it is bug- and virus-free. The practice, however, is otherwise. On-line learning will work with some of the people for some of the time. But it will rarely work with all of the people, all of the time. Making the invention successful requires that failure is reduced to levels acceptable to its potential customers. Costly trials are required, themselves jeopardised by the prospect of new inventions. Repeatedly, the Star Wars vision of the learning society is deferred. ‘Apocalypse Now!’ becomes ‘Apocalypse sometime!’.

 Innocent Learning

The popular appeal of the learning society is linked to the advancement of individual freedom. The learning society is claimed to have been freed from the defects of the instructional society. Instruction, so the argument runs, insidiously shaped learners to designs over which they had no control. Learning, on the other hand, is a personal, pure and innocent process.

But, in fact, there is no innocent learning. As learners learn, they shape themselves within a social context. To a greater or lesser extent they are also shaped by that context. Further, a social context is also a psychological or ideological context. It is both internal and external. Features of the social context have already been installed in the learners’ biographies, are embodied in their heads and hands and are realised in their thinking and doing.

Through this mediation, the learning society fosters new life-styles, social locations and cognitive identities. Learning is intimately linked to consumption. What you are, is what you learn on the internet. Participants in the learning society know themselves by their PIN numbers, passwords, and email addresses not by their biological or social relationships. They are more likely to be david.h@milton than David Hamilton.

The learning society is big business. It is deeply implicated in global production and marketing. It also embraces a segmented, divided, unequal world. It is no accident that there is a close association between web-design, web-marketing and on-line learning. The learning society is an umbrella concept that embraces the marketing, delivery and consumption of doctrine. Software engineers, like web-designers, use a growing range of on-line rhetorical devices to capture the attention and interaction of internet users. They are the pedagogues of on-line learning. They have become the new guardians of the socio-digital order. Indeed, insofar as a website provokes desired responses, it is a direct digital descendent of the catechism.

The Journey is the Destination

My final observation on the revival of learning goes back to the beginnings of modern schooling. The key educational purpose of modern schooling was to ensure the salvation of young people. It prepared for their eventual ascent to heaven. Heaven was the ideal state, and schooling was organised according to that distant and long-term goal.

This educational perspective has remained. Schooling always has some kind of higher-order spiritual or secular purpose. It is structured to foster spiritual unity, linguistic unity, national cohesion, active citizenship, participative democracy, and so on. Yet, these goals are always out of reach, like the stars in the sky. In this sense, teachers are like ocean-going navigators. The stars are always there; they are essential to the shared life of teachers and learners; and they are always in place to help with the day to day navigation of teaching and learning.


Education is an empowering process. It is a response to an eternal human challenge. It exploits the potential that human beings have for transcending the limits of biological evolution. Education seeks to ensure that aggregate social change is faster that the biological evolution of the human species.

But education is not a standard process. It is constantly changing. Modern schooling appeared late in the European historical record -- long after evidence for the existence of education. It grew from the work of the medieval church. Formal institutions were created to prepare the next generation of church officials. Later, church schools began to prepare young people for adult life outside the church. The training of these external students gradually began to predominate in the work of church schools. In the process, schooling outgrew the agenda laid down by the church. The state took over as the main force in the organisation and control of schooling. By the late-20th century, however, the national state encountered difficulty in accommodating the new rhythms, modulations and instrumentation that had infiltrated the organisation of schooling.

 From this perspective, the learning society take on a new significance. The rhythms, rhetoric and practices of the learning society are an uneasy convergence of social interests. The mass media acquired educational significance at the beginning of the twentieth century. The spread of literacy provided them with a new market niche. Newspapers and their owners annexed educational (or doctrinal) responsibilities from the state.

During the latter part of the 20th century, however, other media came to prominence. These institutions, notably radio and television, took on a variety of educational responsibilities. And finally, the 1990s was a decade where the educational potential of computer technology came to be recognised. The parallel between the rise of the learning society and the creation of the ‘MTV generation’ is not accidental. Communication is never innocent. Learning is never purely autonomous.

Accordingly, I remain sceptical about the claimed merits of the learning society. I find it difficult to accept that we are returning to a world of learning, any more than I can accept that the work of Gutenberg, Erasmus and Machiavelli marked an historical epoch with moral purity and intellectual innocence. Schooling has always been built on a tension between power and empowerment; and, as I have tried to suggest in this review, the infrastructure of the learning society should be excluded from this judgement.

Learning and instruction, like education and schooling, can be examined through a variety of lenses. Sometimes the lens is marked ‘empowerment’, sometimes ‘power’. The rhetoric of the learning society stresses personal empowerment through education. Analysis of the learning society, however, suggests a contrary interpretation. Power is primary in the learning society, even if its form and substance is masked by an outer layer of empowerment rhetoric.

Throughout its history, education has been bothered by questions of content and method, power and empowerment. These have remained central to education and society. In this article, I have tried to show that they are no less important to the Brazil of 2002 than they were in the years when schooling, like Brazil, began to take its modern form.


This article is an English-language version of a paper that will appear in Portuguese in the Brazilian journal Educaý ão & Sociedade.


Further reading
Bennett, R. E. (2001) How the Internet will help large-scale assessment reinvent itself. Educational Policy Analysis Archives. 9, No. 2 (February 14, 2001).

Black, P. (2001) Dreams, strategies and systems: portraits of assessment, past, present and future. Assessment in Education, 8, 65-85.

Grafton, A. & Jardine, L. (1986) From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-century Europe. (London: Duckworth).

Power, M. (1999) The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification (2nd Ed.). (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Klein, N. (2000) No Logo. (London: Harper Collins).

Mason, R. (1998) Globalising Education: Trends and applications. (London: Routledge).

Mir, G. C. (1968) Aux Sources de la Pedagogie Des Jesuites: Le modus parisiensis. (Rome: Bibliotheca Instituti Historici S.J.).