Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What's the Point of Education?

If you ask Chicago's Rahm Emanuel—known locally as "Mayor 1%"—the point of education is to provide for the specific needs of the owners of big corporate firms. The owners sketch up the job descriptions, they decide what will be produced, according to what modes of organization, when and where. Schools, then, are nothing more than publicly-subsidized training centers whose curriculum matches the fleeting demands of profit-hungry corporate leaders.

In their classic, must-read book on the topic, Schooling in Capitalist America (2011, Haymarket Re-issue), radical economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis elaborate more on this perspective:
How can we best understand the relationship between education and the capitalist economy? Any adequate explanation must begin with the fact that schools produce workers. The traditional theory explains the increased value of an educated worker by treating the worker as a machine. According to this view, workers have certain technical specifications (skills and motivational patterns) which in any given production situation determine their economic productivity. Productive traits are enhanced through schooling...

...The motivating force in the capitalist economy is the employer's quest for profit. Profits are made through hiring workers and organizing production in such a way that the price paid for workers time—the wage—is less than the value of the goods produced by their labor. [If the price paid for the worker's time (i.e. the wage) wasn't less than the value of the goods the worker produces during her shift, the boss would have no reason to hire her in the first place -t]...

...Schools produce workers...Schools foster types of personal development compatible with the relationships of dominance and subordination in the economic sphere, and finally, schools create surpluses of skilled labor sufficiently extensive to render effective the prime weapon of the employer in disciplining labor
—the power to fire and hire.
In short, according to the 1%, the basic goal of education—which includes everything from curriculum to methods of student and teacher evaluationshould be to foster and sustain corporate profitability. Considerations such as human development and flourishing are irrelevant. Developing the talents of students and enabling them to lead free lives doesn't even enter into the picture.

Moreover, to the extent that music, arts, and the humanities fail to provide corporate owners with the sorts of traits that the 1% is looking for, they should be completely eliminated. (Although they're less commonly the object of direct ruling-class ire, I note that the natural sciences are distorted and abused by this educational program as well—especially on the question of how grant money is allocated and so forth). This is just a way of saying that the knowledge and skills woven through disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, art, anthropology, languages, culture and so on are—as far as the 1% is concerneduseless at best, and dangerous at worst. What's needed, instead, is a surplus of people who empathize with orders, defer gratification, respect the authority of bosses, come to work on time, who possess the technical skills needed to do whatever the boss needs them to do. (For more on this see this (esp. 6:40-onward) as well as this (as yet unreleased) book Capitalism and Education)

It's clear that there is no space in this educational vision for the interests of educators, parents and students to be voiced. Their job is to take orders from above. The goals are set for them in advance. Their only use lies in efficiently maximizing those ready-made goals.

It comes as little surprise, then, that more and more of the people charged with running school systems and universities are drawn directly from the corporate world. For example, in the case of the Chicago City Colleges (which used to be called "Peoples' Colleges") a corporate business executive with no specific expertise in higher education, Cheryl Hyman, has been charged with overseeing their "reinvention." In this task, Hyman been assisted by a slew of corporate consultants. As the Reader reports:
[Hyman] was assisted by consultants from McKinsey & Company and the Civic Consulting Alliance (the consulting arm of the Commercial Club of Chicago) who worked, initially pro bono, to "dig into the metrics" with her. By midsummer she'd hired former McKinsey consultant (and Renaissance 2010 Fund official) Alvin Bisarya as vice chancellor of strategy and institutional intelligence. In March 2011, Donald Laackman, a principal at the Civic Consulting Alliance, was installed as president of Harold Washington College. And last January, McKinsey was awarded a half-million-dollar contract for work on City Colleges changes this year.
The idea is that educational institutions should be completely subordinate to, and take their orders from, corporate "experts". Accordingly, the "ignorant" public—students, teachers, and parents—have no meaningful role to play in determining how schools are run. After all, as far as the corporate "experts" are concerned, the students, parents and teachers are noting more than the passive objects of "reform" rather than agents whose interests the school system should serve. For those parents, students or teachers who dare to dissent from this ruling-class consensus, the reply—which is actually a threatis something like this:
Look, if you're going to survive in this society, you need a job. But to get a job, you have to do what exactly we say. We—the "job creators"—decide what jobs there are and who gets them. If you disobey us, we'll freeze you out of the system and leave you with nothing. So it's either a life of obedience to ready-made goals and (if you're lucky) precarious employment, or a life of destitution and marginalization.
This goes for students and parents as much as it does for teachers. Students and parents are denied a voice and threatened with marginalization if they don't do what the system asks of them. And if educators themselves speak up and try to resist the corporate re-structuring of their curriculum, they are scapegoated, threatened, attacked and punished. Rahm Emanuel and his brutal assault on the Chicago Teachers Union is a case in point.

And, aside from the fact that teachers unions are the most powerful organized labor force in the contemporary United States today—which makes them a clear target for an employing class on a warpath to smash the union movement entirely—unionized educators are also in a position to resist commands from above demanding that they teach only what corporate leaders want them to teach. Hence, the corporate elites have a clear interest in bludgeoning,discrediting and otherwise attacking teachers unions.

The most perverse part of this is that ruling elites use the threat of unemployment to make it appear as if they're performing some kind of philanthropic service by using educational institutions to shoehorn people into low-paying, precarious jobs. By exploiting high unemployment and the economic misery of the 99% (caused by austerity and the global crisisboth forced upon us by the 1%), Rahm and his goons are attempting to sell themselves as "job-creating saviors" of the 99%.

But it's not hard to see through this sham, even by their own lights. If Boeing wants 100 more workers to enter the labor market today (because, say, they want to drive wages down in order to make hiring new people maximally profitable), there's no guarantee that they'll want those 100 people next year. Maybe they'll change their mind because their profit margins aren't high enough, or maybe they'll leave Chicago in search of a more easily exploitable labor force. Though educational institutions are being forced to serve corporate interests, it's not the case that corporate elites are being asked to reciprocate. There is nothing to stop corporations from benefiting in a one-sided way from public funds in the short-run, only to pack up and leave thousands unemployed at a later date.

Often, political struggles within the sphere of education are struggles over the question of access: who is granted access to which schools, who isn't, and why. The struggle over access is the struggle against school closures, against teacher layoffs, against tuition hikes and user fees. It is the struggle against a university system financed through the exploitative—and fabulously profitablestudent loan industry. Traditionally, working class people and oppressed minorities were completely excluded from the university system. Struggles from below created inroads for previously excluded groups to get a foothold in the university system. But today, the ranks of those being entirely excluded is growing by the day as austerity causes living standards to plummet and tuition and fees to soar. The question of access is a key question. In the context of cruel regimes of austerity being imposed from above, it is perhaps the central question facing millions of ordinary people in the 99% right now.

But the question of access, taken by itself, is only one part of the struggle. After all, what is it that we are fighting to gain access to?

The only way to answer this question is to put forward a perspective on what the point of education is. We already saw the 1%'s answer: educational institutions should either be made to subsidize corporate profits or they should cease to exist entirely. But what kind of answer should the 99% give?

Human beings flourish when they are able to cultivate their talents and exercise their capacities for imaginative thinking and creative activity. Living a rich and meaningful life requires that we have the space to reflect and figure out who we are and what we really care about. Leading a free life means honing one's capacity for critical thinkingfor seeing the world as it really is rather than the way our leaders want us to see it. Living a free life also means learning about our own history, that is, the often untold stories of groups women and men who struggled against forms oppression and exploitation in the past—in contrast to history-as-seen-from-above which focuses on the alleged "heroics" of a small group of "Great Men". These important—indeed necessary—goals can only be accomplished through education. I don't say that education is sufficient to accomplish these goals, since that would play into the hands of those who argue that teachers and educators should be made responsible for solving all the world's problems. The only way to fully realize human potential is to fight for a different kind of society—a socialist societywhere the material conditions for human flourishing could be secured for all. Nonetheless, though hardly sufficient, I do claim that education is a necessary part of fully realizing the promise of such a society.

I stress that these goals I describe above are not "luxuries". They do not describe a life that should only be available to a select few. On the contrary, the goals described above speak to basic human interests that exceed the the narrow goals imposed on us from above by capitalism. As G.A. Cohen puts it:
We have needs beyond the needs to consume and these aren't recognized by capitalism. We have a need, for example, to develop and exercise our talents. When our capacities lie unused, they don't enjoy the zest for life that comes from having one's capacities flourish. People are able to develop themselves only when they get good education. But in a capitalist society, the education of children is threatened by those who would contort education to fit the narrow demands of the labor market....We shouldn't stake our children's future on the hope that the capitalist market will need what's good for them.

...There's a lot of talent in almost every human being. But in a lot of cases that talent goes undeveloped, because people lack the time, energy, resources and facilities to develop it. Throughout history, only a leisured minority has enjoyed this fully. And they did so (and continue to do so) on the backs of a toiling majority...

...The ruling class wants education to be geared toward restoring profitability to the system... But it's dangerous to educate the young too much, because they will become cultivated people who are likely to be less satisfied with the low-paying jobs the market offers them. This might create aspirations that capitalism can't match.... Therefore, people must be "educated to know their place"...
This is a powerful diagnosis of the problem and a vision for how things should be different. The most basic claim is that we shouldn't cater to the tendency in capitalism to view people only as sources of profit, and when they can't be profitably exploited, as redundant and expendable.

Even the members of the ruling class cannot deny the power of this argument. That is why, by and large, the arts and humanities are well-funded and relatively protected at elite colleges and universities. If Rahm and the 1% in Chicago are openly and publicly calling for the complete corporatization of the City Colleges—largely populated by working-class people of color, a large number of them recent immigrants—they are not suggesting that the University of Chicago be transformed into a training facility in which professors and administrators are the mere servants of corporate leaders.

Of course, there are trends—even in the halls of so-called "elite" institutions—toward corporatization. And they need to be rooted out, criticized and fought against. The systematic underfunding and debt-financing of graduate programs in music, creative writing, visual art and film (among other endeavors) is a grave problem even at the "top schools".

But it remains true that the "plan for transformation" of the City Colleges in Chicago
—and elsewhere—evinces racist and anti-working-class assumptions on the part of those at the top.

After all, Rahm isn't sending his own children to the corporatized charter schools or public military academies that he favors as models for the Chicago Public School system. He sends his kids to an expensive private school where students have full access to art, music and other "luxuries". And we can bet that he isn't going to send his children to the City Colleges when they graduate from high school. So, for the children of wealth and power, there's one kind of education. But for the children of working class people
—and especially working class people of colorthere's another kind of education. For Rahm and his buddies, the people at the bottom should be "educated to know their place" so that they can effectively and willingly fill the role that the 1% has selected for them—whether it's as a temporary part of the corporate workforce or as member of the unemployed industrial reserve army.

There's a profound contradiction between what the capitalist system—premised as it is on profitability for the employing class—requires and what flourishing human beings require. As long as the basic priorities of society are determined by forces outside of our control, we will be faced with this contradiction. The proponents of the system as it is will say that education should be a mere means for efficiently satisfying ready-made goals determined by the employing class. Proponents of the human interests of the 99% will insist that education be part of putting ordinary human beings in a position to decide for themselves what the basic goals should be.

As long as the priority of the social system is shackled to the ready-made goal of profit maximization for the rich, it will always be possible to paint "non-productive" forms of knowledge as "useless", "irrelevant" or, at best, mere "luxuries" available only to the children of the rich. It will possible to make high-stakes testing and corporatized school structures look necessary and unavoidable.

But right now these market ideologies that are regularly used to legitimize the system are ringing hollow for millions of people. Masses of people rose up and took to the streets last Fall in the US because they are sick and tired of living underneath an economic and political system dominated by the 1%. The Occupy movement awoke a sleeping giant which, although disturbed from its slumber, has yet to realize the full extent of its power to change society. Millions of people are coming around to the idea that the system doesn't serve their interests—and they are hungry for alternatives. The only way to resolve the contradictions plaguing education in a profit-based society is to fight for a different kind of society—one in which the social forces of production are controlled democratically and made to work for human ends rather than for the iron laws of profit accumulation.


Jon said...

What do you think is a good strategy for educating your own children right now in this environment?

I'm fortunate enough that I can afford to have my wife stay home and home school our kids (aged 12 and 9). We do a lot of it with these things in mind. We want them to explore things that interest them. There's some structure. Maybe too much. They go through curriculum. But they also do things they find interesting themselves.

I'll be encouraging them to read Howard Zinn for history and watch Democracy Now for news. I like that they can sleep in and go do their work when they want. We're flexible with them, allowing them to do work when they want to. But part of me worries about the choice you mentioned in this article. They may not be well suited for the rigid, order taking cubicle world that they are expected to live in. And maybe that's fine. I want them to be happy and fulfilled. That may not mean they are rich.

It's tough to know what is right in this situation. But the idea of sending them to school to become drones is really unacceptable.

t said...

The way I'm thinking about this relies on a distinction between the prudential, individual-level question of "how do I best provide for my children given the realities of the system", and the macro-level political question of "what should the education system itself be set up to do?".

Whether or not there's a movement on the ground, whether or not the system is getting worse, one has to find a way to get one's children the best education possible. This is an unavoidable fact that any parent must confront.

But it is, in my view, very different from the political question of what the educational system ought to do, who should control it, and how we can collectively organize to get where we want to be. The people at the top are regularly making decisions of this sort for us. And, having made them, they then try to force us into thinking that our only role is to decide, as individual parents isolated from others, how to navigate the system they've designed for us. In effect, the message coming from above is: only think of yourself as an isolated consumer, don't think of yourself as a member of a community who should have a voice in determining what education is like in our society.

So, for me, the key is to keep the distinction between these two perspectives from being collapsed. We have to see education as a social and political issue. But, in the mean time, as individuals (or as parents), we have to find a way to survive and do the best we can and that means making prudential judgments about where we can get the best education available to us.

I don't have children (although I'd like to in the future), so I don't know that my musings on the prudential-individual question has much merit. But for what it's worth, I think I might prefer to send my (future) kids to public schools (like I did) so that their socialization will occur in a diverse context. But I would also place a big emphasis on learning at home and outside of school. I agree with what you say about encouraging critical thinking, flexibility and steering clear of having them molded into drones chasing down an empty materialistic life of consumption.

Ideally, I think my partner and I would want to both be equally involved in the parenting/educating process to the extent that it's possible. It's important to us that we aren't reproducing the traditional gendered division of labor in the home.

Richard said...

Jon: my son is about to enter kindergarten, so I have given your question some thought, albeit in a different guise.

I don't worry so much about how my son is going to be educated. He's bright, and he has two college educated parents. His home environment make it overwhelmingly likely that he will do well academically in the conventional sense.

I'm more concerned about what he learns socially, as you appear to be. For me, I went to a junior high and high school in the central city in the 1970s. Both schools had large numbers of people of color, probably almost 60%. Many were from first and second generation immigrant families. My experience going to school with them was invaluable, and something that cannot be replicated very easily either through study or activities outside of school.

Of course, I'm not saying that you have to do that with your children, merely that you might want to think about whether that is something important in terms of home schooling them, and how you might incorporate it if you believe that it is.

By the way, don't exaggerate the extent to which a school can dictate what happens to your kids. The influence of you, your wife an your family will always be primary. If the two of you aren't drones, they aren't going to be either. My young son already has a stubborn, independent streak that, despite the problems come with it, makes me feel good about his future.

Montanamaven said...

Great article. Well written. I'm glad I found this site. This ties in with David Graeber's contention that we have had our priorities screwed up. The "flourishing" of humans and the planet should be our first priority. Making stuff for humans is secondary.

Anonymous said...

hey, what's the GA Cohen work you're quoting from? I would like to hunt it down.

t said...

The GA Cohen quotes are drawn from his BBC video "Against Capitalism", which you can watch for free on Youtube. He talks about education in the second part of the video.

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