Education as a memeplex

The essay that follows has been written by, and is entirely the work of Csaba Ortutay. This piece was inspired by Steve Fuller’sTEDx Warwick talk.


There are basic units of culture and traditions, which are replicated or inherited from generation to generation. Different schools studying the development or the history of cultures use different terms to identify these units. One of the schools interprets the history of cultures as a form of Darwinian evolution, and they use the term 'meme' to describe the basic elements of traditions coined in the book of Richard Dawkins, titled 'The Selfish Gene'1.
Since the first publication of these incentive ideas, some scholars developed the initial idea of the evolution of memes to form a new discipline, called memetics. There are a large number of supporters and critics of memetics, just like in case of any novel field in science. Some of the researchers actively working on memetics noted that there are groups of memes, which are often associating with each other, their presence enhances each others' success; therefore, they form more complex structures which have stable long term function. These complex structures are called memeplexes according to their terminology2.
I suggest in this essay that 'education' is such a memeplex, which presents a significant variation in time and place. To appreciate this idea we have to remember that education is one of the main ways how memes and memeplexes today propagate (or replicate) from generation to generation. A similar dissemination is already presented in connection with physical education3.

Ways of education

Oral traditions were the main, often exclusive ways for passing information, tradition, skills, or good practices from generation to generation before inventing writing; therefore, during the major part of human history. In certain cases, oral tradition was expressed in folk songs, tales, rhymes, with a clear function to preserve the content.
Invention of writing has happened at least three times independently, in the Middle East (around 3200 BC), China around (1200 BC), and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (600 BC). It has opened new possibilities to record traditions, and help to teach the essential knowledge for the future generations.
It is fascinating to observe that replacing oral traditions by writing is a successive process. In more traditional countries, or in case of nations under the ruling of an oppressive majority, oral traditions still have vital roles in education. Some of the earliest written artifacts are nothing more, than written versions of earlier oral traditions. We can mention the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Vedas, the Book of Enoch, or the Homeric poems4 as examples, although the status of some of these is debated.

Content of education

What subjects are covered by any educational system reflects the needs of the society of the time and place. Earliest formal education focused on the tradition of religion and administrative skills. In many cultures in the ancient Middle East, scribes and priests formed separate classes of the educated elite, and their education, often independently, served the continuation of their status. Certainly, the content of their curricula reflected their situation. During the middle ages, European education was organized almost exclusively by Christian churches. It is not a surprise that theology was the main focus of the studies. In spite of that, many memes originating from this period are used in the modern context too, such as trivium (or trivia) and liberal arts.
On the long perspective, we can clearly observe that in many cultures education moves away from theology, and as finer education starts to be fundamental for more and more professions, wider and more diverse subjects are included in the curricula of different level schools. At the same time, we can see that the schools are more and more specialized. During the earliest middle ages, subject specialized universities were mostly exclusive for India. On the contrary, today relatively few universities teach a full curriculum, including all the seven plus one liberal arts, most of them are specialized on one or few subjects.

Structure of education

Already relatively early in all leading educational traditions it was recognized that not all members of the society need the same extent of education, and the differences were reflected in different ways in the different institutions. In early systems, formal education was focused only on the highest levels, when esteemed people opened their academy. They lectured whoever they were able to pay for it. Later on, local schools were organized by local priesthood, like in Europe or Japan. These schools usually trained the local elite needed for local government. In this system, the highest education was organized by churches or states, providing training only to the richest and the most talented.
The three levels education observable in most of the places is originating from John Amos Comenius. He has divided the time of learning to three periods: elementary school, secondary school, and higher education. In the system Comenius drafted, the different functions and demand levels can be optimized for the needs of a society. These memes survived with changing content the last four centuries. A macro view of the history of education can observe a trend towards diversification and decentralization.

Goals of education

Different societies define the goals of their education system according to their morals and ideologies. Several philosophies left their landmarks on education, many of them being dominant for periods in different cultures: Idealism, realism, scholasticism, pragmatism, materialism, and others defined the desired practices and the final goal of education immensely differently. Idealist education aims to discover and develop the full human potential of each individual while realists focus on more the physical world and how to deal with problems there. Pragmatists stress the goal of solving real life problems while existentialists stress the importance of the individual choice. The influence from all of these can be seen culminating in MOOCs, where the subjects are free to be chosen, but the available subjects are clearly shaped by the demand of the audience: Internal variation and external constrains, well known topics from memetics.

Dynamics during the history of education

All of the aspects of education were keeping changing during the history and inside the different traditions. The observation that finally none of the educational systems is designed, even though from time to time influential leaders tried to do that, they much more evolved entities. Education, as a vital organ in the body of societies, changes details, content, and goals to respond to the changing constraints from its environment. The analogy with genes and species is clear and a detailed analysis of the mechanisms is imperative for the theorists who want to understand what is the education system capable of responding best to the challenges of the 21st century.


1: Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976.
2: Blackmore, S. The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, 2000.
3: Tinning, R. The idea of physical education: a memetic perspective. 2012, Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 17.2:115-126.
4: Parry, A. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Clarendon Press, 1987.

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