The Contribution of Education to Social Progress*

Christiane Spiel, Simon Schwartzman, Marius Busemeyer, Nico Cloete, Gili Drori, Lorenz Lassnigg, Barbara Schober, Michele Schweisfurth, Suman Verma, Bilal Bakarat, Peter Maassen, Rob Reich

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Education is the process of learning and expanding culture, and, as it contributes to the improvement of the human condition through better knowledge, health, living conditions, social equity, and productivity, is a central tool for social progress. Education is expected to foster social progress through four different but interrelated purposes: humanistic, through the development of individual and collective human virtues to their full extent; civic, by the enhancement of public life and active participation in a democratic society; economic, by providing individuals with intellectual and practical skills that make them productive and enhance their and society’s living conditions; and through fostering social equity and justice. The expansion of formal education, which was part of the emergence of the nation-states and modern economies, is one of the most visible indicators of social progress. In its expansion, education created a complex web of institutions distributed according to different paths along the life course, from early education through the school cycles to the final stages of higher education, continuing with the provision of lifelong education. This web of institutions is subject to breaks and cleavages that reflect their diverse and multiple historical origins and purposes and the asynchronous developments in different regions. From primary schooling, education institutions grew horizontally (by learning fields, subjects, or occupations) and vertically (by levels and credentials). The allocation of children and young people to different tracks and institutions, by a mixture of choice and assignment, is a core process in formal education that often reflects and reproduces pre-existing inequalities. The chapter presents the main dilemmas and actions needed to allow education to fulfill its promises. Education policies, informed by the knowledge created by social research, should lead to more equity and productivity, while giving more emphasis to its civic and humanistic purposes, with special attention to teacher education. Governance structures should be flexible, participatory, accountable, and aware of their social and cultural context. The new agenda of Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 established in 2015 calls for a new cooperative paradigm based on the concept of “full global partnership” and the principle that “no one will be left behind.” Sustainable Development Goal 4 for Education aims “to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” This provides a broad framework for education’s contribution to social progress. To achieve this, it is necessary: (1) to expand access and improve the quality of early childhood education, as a precondition for lifelong educational success in all its goals; (2) to improve the quality of schools, in aspects such as the learners’ direct interactions with their peer groups, educators, and the surroundings; institutional characteristics such as group size, student-teacher ratio, teacher qualifications, and spatial and material conditions; and the provision of a meaningful and relevant curriculum; (3) to enhance the role of educators, considering that teachers are not just carriers of knowledge and information, but role models that have a significant impact on children’s dispositions toward learning and life more generally; (4) to make higher and vocational education more inclusive and socially relevant, thereby enhancing the opportunities for students of all sectors of society to further their education in meaningful and practical ways, eliminating social and cultural restrictions to access and reducing the dividing lines between high and low prestige and esteem between institutions and careers. Additionally, appropriate use of the opportunities created by the new digital technologies is recommended. These are not a magic bullet that will replace existing educational institutions and create a new learning world. But they can be powerful instruments to improve the quality and relevance of education and its contribution to social progress.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationRethinking Society for the 21st Century
Subtitle of host publicationReport of the International Panel on Social Progress: Volume 3: Transformations in Values, Norms, Cultures
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781108399661
ISBN (Print)9781108423144
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2018.


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