Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Extra note: revolutionising education

In a broad historical overview, capitalism has greatly increased the general level of education. In closer focus, however, today's capitalist societies appear as doing this very patchily and inefficiently.
Why? It is of concern to us. In this field as in others, socialism will have to build on what has been developed by capitalism.
Some common explanations are only partial.
1. Capitalism demoralises, brutalises, and exhausts a large part of the working class, so that successive generations have no confidence in their ability to acquire wide learning, and do not even try. Yes: but a large pool of working-class people with very limited literacy and numeracy is a drag on capital. A moderate increase in the literacy, numeracy, and self-confidence of these workers would be of advantage to capital. Governments plainly strive to achieve that moderate increase - only, with very limited results.
2. Capitalist governments fail to do many things which would be in the long-term interests of capital, because those things cost money, they lack a powerful particular capitalist lobby to promote them, and so they fall victim every time budgets are tight.
3. Capital fears too wide a diffusion of critical thinking. Yes, but it also fears too narrow a diffusion. By the very nature of capital - fluid, dynamic, ever-changing - capitalist thinking is not monolithic. In almost every sphere of thought other than those immediately touching on capitalist privileges, capital positively welcomes critical, imaginative, outside-the-box thinking.
4. Capital cuts down on general education, such as philosophy, in favour of promoting narrower vocationally-oriented education. I'm not sure that this is even true. Even if philosophy courses are cut back, media studies courses proliferate, and most of the media-studies knowledge is as useless to the bourgeoisie as it is to the working class. Universities build up media studies and cut back philosophy not because of some grand capitalist plot, but because media studies is more popular and brings in more "customers".

There are plenty of immediate issues to be campaigned in relation to the above points, particularly the first and second. But there is more to it.

The Bolsheviks, in their educational experiments (which largely failed, because of poverty, in the short time they had before the counter-revolution), based themselves not only on Dewey's learning-by-doing, but on the ideas which Marx develops in Capital (attributing them to Robert Owen) on the integration of education with productive labour. They called it "the unified labour school".
In all human history until relatively recent times (the point is made by Bruno Bettelheim), children acquired their education, their work discipline, and their concept of what work was and education was for, by first observing and then, gradually, more and more, working with their parents and other nearby adults.
This pattern had many oppressive features. It tended to socialise the children of the great majority into thinking that life could have no possibilities other than a narrow circle of endless, back-breaking toil in the fields (plus, if they were female, further back-breaking housework).
Yet the sudden disappearance of the pattern has strange results. Most children, today, never see their parents or adult neighbours working (except in housework). If they visit a parent's workplace to have a look, very often what they see will be incomprehensible: the parent just sits at a computer. If the child asks a parent what he or she does at work, the parent may be hard put to give a comprehensible answer. (In my impressionistic experience, it is quite common to find that children, even teenagers, do not understand at all what their parents do at work).
Education is thus separated off from work, or even from any well-understood image of work. Hence the constant talk about making schooling "relevant", and the ineptness and often destructiveness of the attempts to make it "relevant". (Mathematics in schools, for example, has been reduced to a collection of "problem-solving techniques". The core of the subject, the idea of mathematical proof, has been scrapped. Yet the problems which are used to practise these "techniques" are almost always, and more or less perforce, highly artificial: "Jessica's daughter is one-third Jessica's age. In 11 years' time Jessica will be twice as old as her daughter. How old is Jessica now?")

Children, from the age of 14, still are inducted into work: but in a very special way. Overwhelmingly, as teenagers, they work in a very narrow range of workplaces - fast-food places, car washes, supermarkets, video shops - with very few other workers much older than themselves.
There is almost none of the fruitful-on-both-sides interaction which could happen when teenagers move to and fro between "real" adult workplaces and the classroom.
Increasingly, mainstream workplaces are set up so that even when a teenager comes in on "work experience", there is nothing for the teenager to do except marginal, menial tasks (photocopying, making coffee, etc.)
Where direct manual labour plays an important part, especially if the manual labour has become light and delicate because of mechanisation, child workers are readily valuable to capital. That is how it was in the 19th century textile mills.
In many modern capitalist workplaces, especially in the richer countries, it would require considerable, and expensive, redesign of the work process to make it possible for teenagers to do work, alongside the adults, from which they would learn.
No capitalist wants to bear that expense. No capitalist government wants to try to impose that expense on recalcitrant capitalists. They confine themselves instead to ineffectual "work experience" courses.
Socialism can and should transform the relationship between work and education.

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