Institutional Purpose

Taking Prisons and Schools as Case Studies

If we think of institutions at all, we usually assume that they were created to serve a particular purpose, even if they are flawed in fulfilling this purpose. Carroll Quigley postulated the social process of the “institutionalization of the instrument,” according to which institutions are created as instruments to attain a particular end, but these instruments are then transformed into self-serving institutions that are increasingly poor instruments because their purpose shifts from fulfilling its instrumental purpose to fulfilling a self-defined institutional role. I do not disagree with this — Quigley made an important observation — but it isn’t the whole story.

Small institutions can retain a sense of purpose that remains focused and true to the intent of the founders (though small institutions do not invariably retain their purposes intact), but large institutions, or institutions that grow large over time (often as a result of their success as an institution (which could be understood as a refutation of the institutionalization of the instrument, or which could be understood as the success of the institution at the expense of its functionality as an instrument), usually cannot maintain a tight focus on a purpose. As larger numbers of persons participate in an institution, and in doing so bring with them their particular ideologies and biases, institutions sometimes shift their focus, or acquire multiple purposes, some of which are at odds with each other.

A particularly clear example of this is the function of prisons in a large nation-state. Prison systems can be large institutions, employing thousands of persons, and housing millions of inmates, over an extensive and diverse geographical region. A little reading about prisons will make it clear that there is no consensus as to the function of a prison, but there are at least three paradigmatic functions, each entertained by a distinct interest group, and these three purposes are separation, reform, and punishment.

The efficacy of the prison system is reduced by its failure to coalesce around a single purpose; prison is clearly a separation from wider society, but it is not clearly punishment and it is not clearly reform. Some prisons tend more toward punishment, some toward reform, and no doubt there are institutions that try to tread the neutral line of merely separating the prison population from wider society without punishing or reforming inmates. Moreover, it would be entirely consistent to maintain all three purposes at the same time, e.g., if one holds that miscreants must be separated from society so that they may first be punished and later reformed.

While the situation with schools is similar, the entirety of the educational establishment is even larger than the prison establishment, and so the purposes of schools are even more diffuse and difficult to pin down than the purposes of prisons. Ideally, we can summarize in a single word that the purpose of school is education. But what is education?

A little reflection on educational institutions possibly reveals another tripartite division of educational purposes (like the tripartite division of the purposes of prisons), though, again, the situation of schools is less clear than that of prison. The whole problem is wrapped in layers of history and ambiguity that make it difficult to discern the fundamental conception of education implicated in any one school system or any one curriculum at any one time. Despite these ambiguities, we can, in any case, discern idealistic, pragmatic, and traditional purposes in our educational institutions.

The idealistic conception of education is that it is concerned to inspire children to attain their highest potential, to bring out their creativity, and not merely to allow them to express themselves, but actually to facilitate their self-expression, to advance this self-expression and to celebrate it. This idealistic conception of education is usually found alongside the mantra of teaching children how to think, and not what to think. The point here is to develop and event to improve the child’s mind so that child can go on to achieve great things in life.

The pragmatic conception of education can be expressed pragmatically or cynically. Pragmatically, it is about educating children in skills that they will need in the workforce, enabling them to obtain gainful employment and thus to stand on their own two feet. The cynical expression of the pragmatic conception is that the purpose of education is to produce useful drones for society who will work hard, not question their betters, and accept their lot in life meekly. In this conception, the school system also serves as a de facto babysitter as a place for parents to dump their children while they are at work fulfilling their own purpose as useful drones. Thus school “prepares” children for the workforce, not by improving their minds, but by providing them with an analog of adult society: while their parents to go work each day, they go to school each day, drumming into their young minds the lessons of unalterable and unimaginative routine.

The traditional conception of education is to impose the “primary mask” upon young people, that is to say, to force them into conformity with the standards and norms and values of the society into which they are born. Education shapes individuals, and the traditional conception of education seeks to shape them into upstanding citizens who can fulfill their role in society. This conception of education also has its inspiring component, in so far as education is understood as passing along the legacy of a culture to its youngest members, so that they can, in their turn, transmit this legacy to their children. This was powerfully expressed by Matthew Arnold in the 19th century:

“…culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.”

This conception of the best that has been thought and said in the world thus contains within it a criticism of the pragmatic conception of following mechanically our stock notions and habits, and this is the sense in which the traditional conception, despite its profound conservatism, also involves an inspiring element. In order for a child to eventually pass along the cultural legacy that is made available to them, they must master and understand that legacy, or they are merely parroting back what has been said to them.

While each of these conceptions of the purpose of education can be found in isolation — in its pure form, as it were — we are more likely to find some admixture, and probably there are even those who combine all of these conceptions of education into one vision: inspiring young minds, preparing them for the world, and conveying to them the legacy of tradition.

In the American tradition of the one-room schoolhouse, in which multiple age cohorts were educated side-by-side, we can most readily see the traditional and the pragmatic functions of education in action. This was always an institution that was jealous of retaining local control, and was directly responsible to parents in the area whose children attended the school. These parents would be eager for their children to be acculturated into their tradition as well as preparing them for their roles in society. However, the idealism of teaching and education was always present, on the part of the teachers if for no one else, and this vision could be said to have triumphed insofar as it is the “official” purpose of education, however far actual education departs from this ideal.

As the US school system has grown to gargantuan dimensions, all of the features of traditional American education have been lost. Curricula are adopted on a national level, parents often have no idea what their children are being taught in school, local school boards no longer have the power they once wielded, and the schools and the educational responsibilities now resemble a highly-specialized industrial facility in which children are broken down into single age cohorts, and different specialized subjects are taught in different areas of a rambling building usually covering several acres — with children’s lessons almost perfecting mimicking the division of labor that their parents experience in their employment. Thus while the idealistic doctrine has triumphed in the vision of professional educators, the actual practice of education today most closely resembles the pragmatic conception.

In this dystopian reality of contemporary educational institutions, not only has the instrument of education been institutionalized, but the tightly-focused purposes of small schools have been replaced by slogans, ambiguity, and diffuse efforts that point in no one particular direction. As with prisons, schools are less effective as a consequence of having many different purposes, some at odds with each other, driving competing educational agendas. Just as there are fundamentally different conceptions of what a prison is, what it is for, and what its role in society is, so too there are fundamentally different conceptions of what a school is, what education is for, and what the role of education ought to be in society.

What is true of prisons and schools is also true for other large institutions, especially for the largest of the institutions that human beings have created — civilizations. Civilizations are informal institutions in contradistinction to the formal institutions of prisons and schools, but all institutions are of the same genus, whether formal or informal.

I often say of civilizations that it is difficult to discern their purposes (which I call the central project of a civilization), and it is especially difficult to discern the purpose of our own civilization, partly because we cannot see clearly something so close to us — we look upon our own civilization from the inside out, as it were — and partly because we cannot be objective and impartial about something that constitutes our identity. I also sometimes define a civilization as an institution of institutions, i.e., civilization is an institution comprised of a multitude of subsidiary institutions. Given that these subsidiary institutions are often large institutions like prisons and schools, which themselves cannot be clear about their purposes, it holds a fortiori for civilization, the sum total of a multitude of institutions, that it cannot be clear about its purposes.

It would probably be true to say that individuals within a given civilization may hold fundamentally different conceptions of their civilization of which they are a part. Moreover, it is likely that, because of this failure of reflexive self-understanding of civilization, our interpretations of other civilizations — both past civilizations and other civilizations today, as well as future civilizations distinct from our own — are probably faulty. That is to say, we probably project purposes upon other civilizations that do not reflect the actual purposes of these civilizations.

If we are to understand civilization to any extent, we must have recourse to the scientific use of the appearance/reality distinction, recognizing that civilizations may have a certain appearance of purpose, whereas their true purpose may be difficult to discern, hidden as it is behind the veil of appearances.

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