[Marxism] good essay on education

Manuel Barrera mtomas3 at hotmail.com
Sat Jul 9 13:09:50 MDT 2011

Michael wrote: "The summer double issue of Monthly Review is on education in the United States. John Bellamy Foster has written a fine overview of the main issues. It is, I think, a model of informed andpassionate scholarship.  It is well worth reading. http://monthlyreview.org/2011/07/01/education-and-the-structural-crisis-of-capital"
 Well, I hesitated either to read or even more so comment on this article because glowing reviews by Marxists looking "inside" into public education from the "outside" of political and social economy always seems to illustrate the utter lack of sophistication too many erudite, but clueless intellectuals seem to have when it comes to the field of "Education". I always tremble to read these articles because so many intellectuals, pro-capitalist or marxist "oriented", seem to believe that because they were educated that they therefore are well-positioned to understand the nature of the education system and its ostensible "trajectory". 

My fears are unfortunately not dispelled after reading John Bellamy's paper; at one, articulate about the "broad strokes" regarding the class nature of education, the education system, its (partial) history and the same time, all too truncated both in its class analysis (Foster repeats the mistakes of Boyles & Gintis in some respects) and in its all too Eurocentric focus on "movement unionism" in which issues such as race, war, Civil Rights seem to play a supportive, but minor, or simply only a modern (post-WWII) role. In essence, the perspective of Foster cannot seem to stray too far from the Post-Modernist view of class (sic) analysis  and class struggle as somehow the purview of "big thinkers" in which Dewey, the AFT, and neo-Deweyites like Giroux are the answer to the, what, "pre-Modern" pro-capitalist "efficiency managers"?

There is much to say on this article, but to try to do it here would simply be too intense and extensive even for folks on this list [that is not a put-down, simply it is meant to say that unpacking and disentangling a comprehensive revolutionary and class analysis is much more difficult than "erudition" in writing "passionate" analysis aimed at unmasking the current trajectory of privatization in the field of education]. I will try to illustrate, unfortunately in annotated bullet points where I believe Foster's (and, for that matter, Boyles and Gintis') analysis falls short and needs to be examined more completely than its incorporation into present-day pro-capitalist designs. These points are necessarily a bit disparate in some cases, but, I believe, essential for in thinking about education:

1. A Complete (or More Complete) History of the field of education: A class analysis cannot be divorced from the class struggle, which is to say that the history of the role of education relevant to the current state of capitalist education begins not with the "managerial efficiency" movement of the early 20th century or even the late 19th century with such people as Horace Mann. An important part of Foster's analysis is specifically truncated in how public education became public--at least with respect to its emergence as a conduit for promoting the class interests of capital. In short, it took the Civil War and the advent of radical reconstruction in which ex-slaves played a role to advance a system of public education. This role was not popular with the emerging capitalist class--witness the distortion of that system into one that ultimately resulted in a racially and class-divided system despite its public funding. At the very least, it was the struggle to end slavery and its social ramifications that played a prominent role in the advancement of public education. A great place to begin understanding this issue is with Peter Camejo's seminal pamphlet "Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction". I'm sure others here can point to later or earlier works as well; I just happen to like Peter's work the best. To be sure, radical reconstruction and the development of public education is not all there is to the early development of what is now our public education system (interesting histories include the development of bilingual education, Indian education, and westward expansion, never mind issues like the Spanish Conquest of the Americas and its role in the crushing of the indigenous and emerging meztizos of the Southwest among others).

2. Teacher Education: A minimalistic understanding of the development of teacher education is very large hole in Foster's analysis, which, to be fair, is not just his problem. Foster describes teachers as "low-paid professionals in a labor-intensive field where they had considerable autonomy and often identified with working-class children." This statement is made to show how the "corporate education" model was challenged by the proletarian nature of teachers and the communities they served. One has to ask how this came to be and whether it was or was not desirable that teachers should be "low-paid professionals" in addition to the historic duality of the teacher workforce as thinking of themselves as either petite-bourgeois entrepreneurs or proletarians whether they be labor "aristocrats" or not (never mind the whole discussion of teacher labor as commodity). How did teachers come to the point of becoming "low paid professionals" who "identified with working-class children" and did they really have "considerable autonomy"? What was the history of teacher development and how did they become the workforce they did and the present role they play? Why is it that teachers seem prone to "band wagonism" as well as prone to battling with parents and the communities of the oppressed regarding "who is at fault" for things like "achievement gaps"? None of this nature of teaching is really addressed in Foster's article, though, to be fair, it probably not fair to criticize it for that. However, what seem to be off-handed comments about "low-paid professionals", "autonomy" and identification "with working class children" simply ring overly gratuitous or even false in painting teachers as more class-conscious and naturally "solidarizing" with the proletariat in contrast to the "managerial efficiency" corporatists. A good place to start in understanding teacher education, how teachers are presently trained, and the kind of role they play within, and without, the working class is "The Trouble with Ed[sic] Schools" by David Labaree in which he describes the history of teacher education, how "normal" schools became the basis for the current state university systems, and the historic point of departure when teachers may have become more like Doctors and Lawyers as opposed to "low-paid professionals" and concomitant proletarianization of the teacher workforce.

3. Dewey, Social Darwinism, and the Marxist analysis of learning inherent in the struggle between L. Vygotsky and Piaget: Foster, as do many Post-Modernists (not sure that Foster falls into that category, so, I mean Foster in additon to the Post-Modernists) including the current "darling" of "education reform", Linda Darling-Hammond, seems to wax on about John Dewey as a progenitor of pro-working class educational theory (or, rather, ostensibly so). Foster quotes Dewey about how education is subordinate to nothing "save more education"; a quote that sounds eerily like some of the "progressive" verbiage you might hear from our current U.S. President--furious sound with no real actual fury. Indeed, Dewey's theories and writing can, at best, be seen as "playing both sides against the middle" when it comes to education reform never mind revolutionary pro-working class education policy. There are some who would describe Dewey as a social-Darwinist who seemed to promote elitist (and, therefore bourgeois-oriented) theories of education more akin to the later theories of people like M. Adler. Indeed, Dewey is most well-regarded by various "reformers" who like to promote education without the underpinnings of a class analysis; hearkening to an education of "classics" and "critical thinking" (which is not actually critical but simply doctrinaire on the "left"). At the base of this predisposition toward Dewey is really the divergence of frameworks that contrast different theories of learning (and, therefore, teaching and education in general) best illustrated in the historic struggle on the nature of thinking and language that took place between L. Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, Dewey and E.L. Thorndike (which I believe to be a more essential debate than the one between Dewey and Sneeden on "social efficiency"), and Skinner and, well, all the "cognitivists". Vgotsky and Piaget truly presage most other debates and most accurately reflect the nature of a class vs. class-less analysis of learning. In short, Vygotsky promoted the theory that language development was the basis for learning because it was through meaningful interactions of children with "adults" that thought was developed whereas Piaget (more so early in his career, but essentially remained there) believed the idea that thought promoted learning and language. For Vygostky, thinking was language "going inward" and becoming thought while Piaget believed that thought primarily informed language (he later made changes to this view, though not substantially, as a result of Vygotsky). For an excellent primer on this issue, there is no better work than that of "Thought and Language", Vgotsky's seminal book (the best rendition I know is the 1989 edition translated by Alex Kozulin from MIT Press, most others are truncated versions more prone to the former Soviet censorship) as well as A. Kozulin's foreword in that same book. In short, there is a rich history on the nature of learning relevant to much of what passess for teaching today and Dewey, in my view, is overly placed in a "progressive" light that somehow is more akin to a Marxist perspective. Nothing could be farther from the truth given the decidedly non-class analysis of much of his writings. 

4. The inherent class-collaborationist role of people like Kozol, Giroux, and the Post-Modernist "constructivists": Foster and some of you on this list do seem to go on regarding the positive role of writers like Jonathan Kozol, H. Giroux, and, by association, Post-Modern "constructivist" thinkers. I have had occasion to hear both these authors speak in addition, of course, to reading their works. Kozol, in particular, indeed has created a rich body of work describing both the problems of schooling and exemplars (like Cuba, "Children of the Revolution") for what is best. However, in both cases, I have found that their otherwise excellent descriptive analyses always contrast with their prognoses for what should be done, which often consist of various lesser-evil formulas for "reforming" education. At the very least, one should look beyond an author's literature and gain a perspective about philosophical and political "trajectories" before pronouncing them as "some of the best" thinkers or "intellectuals" on the subject of education and its role in capitalist society. I can certainly agree that Kozol (and, but not so much, Giroux) is excellent at describing the problems of education and the role it plays currently, but eloquent descriptions amount to "admiring the problem", especially if the prescriptions proposed are either absent or rather tepid supports for lesser-evil politics, which I have heard both authors personally espouse (I am willing, however, to be corrected on their recent past as I have not heard them speak personally within the last 10 years, so, they may have "grown" on this issue). In any case, a great description is not a Marxist analysis, especially if there is nothing inherent in it that points to the class struggle inherent in the class nature of the role that education plays in capitalist society. Moreover, in the case of at least one of these authors, I have seen a decidedly anti-teacher perspective, not because of the potential teachers may have on the issues of race and class, but on what he believes is the unwillingness of teachers to jump onto his "correct" notions of the naure of education. 

5.  Finally, the nature of curriculum and democracy inherent in the promotion of education; the role of revolutionary Marxists in a field primarily designed to promote capitalist property relations and class divisions. This issue goes to a particular question on the nature of education, namely is education really about "critical thinking" or about one or another form of inculcation? A class analysis (Boyles and Gintis, as well as Foster do this well) of education points to how the education system in a society reflects the class in power and its interest. However, a class struggle analysis must do more than simply cede this "territory" to the class in power. 

In my view, education, to be education, must be about offering all the choices and perspectives available for thought and reflection; equitably if not equally. In this sense, education, if it is to promote truly thinking workers and youth, must allow for children, adolescents, and adults to develop a full understanding of all points of view to the degree possible so that they can develop the ability to think for themselves and thereby act upon their "social agency" (i.e., in their class interests) that prevents the bourgeois argument that working class politics is not democratic. It is necessary (a) to trust the process of unfettered education and (b) recognize that, contrary to the belief of many "progressive" educators, teaching and education is NOT the basis for overturning capitalist property relations, but that a truly educated society definitely is. For such an education to occur, there must be democracy in curriculum and plurality in the modes of teaching such that one teaches to gain the attention of learners so that they can reflect and build their base of knowledge and skill INDEPENDENTLY--One has to hold a notion of "unconditional positive regard" that learners, and society, will indeed "do the right thing" when presented with all the views, knowledge, and choices possible in a democratic education. In most cases, I have seen way too many so-called "reform" educators who wish to inculcate rather than educate; "organize" rather than free learning from the personal shackles of our inherent biases. A revolutionary educator must fundamentally believe that people, especially youth, will come to a class struggle perspective not on "correct" thinking, but on truly critical thinking, even in the face of exposure to the bourgeois thought and manipulation that tries to prevent it. After all, isn't that how all of "us" came to our views?


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