From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
At every level of formal learning we are taught to conform—without mass indoctrination the profit system could not exist.
Tony Blair knows the value of education—it was the only word he used when listing his three priorities for running the profit system. Education is an integral part of any social system. In one that is dominated by commodity relationships and values, education both reflects and contributes to those relationships and values. Those who wish and work to replace capitalism with socialism need first to understand how education sustains the one and how it can help to bring about the other.
There is a conventional mythology surrounding the noble ideals of education. Schools are said to be places where young minds are nurtured, where boys and girls are prepared to become responsible citizens. Sir Sydney Caine writes that universities at their best are "the 'soul' of the country and when they have been independent of government and inspired by some vital and independent philosophy." The reality is, of course, much different. Schools, colleges and universities are not independent of society—they are an essential feature of it.
Feudal society required little of the peasants by way of education. The Industrial Revolution demanded more—workers who could make, tend and repair machines, and some who could keep records and books. The schools taught the virtue of attendance, the children were to know their place and sit still in it—a suitable preparation for working life in the factory or office. In the 20th century the process was continued—mass education was fashioned into an increasingly refined training and selection mechanism for the labour force.
For the employer class the education of workers is a cost that must be borne as economically as possible. In a book called The Education Dilemma, edited by a member of the World Bank, we are treated to the following remarkably frank admission (boast?):
"It is true that schools have 'inputs' and 'outputs' and that one of their nominal purposes is to take human 'raw material' (i.e. children) and convert it into something more valuable (i.e. employable adults)."
The cost of education is a particular problem for governments of Third World countries, most of whom are saddled with huge debt repayments to international banks and with the costs of choosing to put domestic guns before butter. One answer they have come up with is to use what is called non-formal basic education as an inexpensive alternative to universal primary education. This is a rural-based, vocationally oriented form of education relying heavily on instructional technology (useful if you can't afford to pay teachers). One contributor to The Education Dilemma offers the advice that, since television seems to work no better than radio and is much more expensive, it should almost never be used for instruction in low income countries.
This leads us to the question of whether the increasing use of more costly forms of instructional technology in the economically advanced countries is a good thing or not. From the point of view of school and university administrators and the governments and corporations who are their paymasters, instructional technology is a good investment. The recent worldwide growth in distance education is an example. Apparently, national and multinational corporations like distance education because it can link employees via electronic means for training, and they can save on the costs of transporting employees across the country.
The rhetoric about the university is that it is a community of scholars. While some of the medieval universities were no doubt founded on this ideal, today the label "academic capitalism" seems more apposite. Academic capitalism denotes market behaviour on the part of universities and faculties. There has been a shift from state block grants to grants and contracts targeted on commercially useable results. Centres within universities that form government-industry-university partnerships are encouraged. Faculties are obliged to look for commercial research funding—projects that are applied rather than basic, that are tied to the needs of national or multinational corporations.
A few years ago George Ritzer wrote a thought-provoking book on The McDonaldization of Society. The basic principles of the ubiquitous McDonald chain of fast-food restaurants are efficiency, quantified and calculated product, predictability, and the substitution (as far as possible) of non-human for human technology. Ritzer shows how these principles are exemplified in education. Schools and universities are required to be cost-effective; league tables give evidence of which institutions get the best exam results. Exams themselves are increasingly boiled down to multiple-choice questions, the answers to which are machine graded. The best-selling textbooks are "customised" and contain easily-digested McNuggets of information.
The subjects taught are prone to the same commercial pressures. Economics—aptly named the dismal science—focuses its theories, concepts and examples on the world of buying, selling and exchanging property, including intellectual property. If alternatives to the status quo are considered (which they rarely are) they equate socialism with nationalisation and communism with state capitalism. In a University of the Third Age economics group the speaker expounded on multinational corporations: their names, the industries and countries involved, the technologies they used, and so on. In view of their failure to meet basic human needs, I raised the question of whether they should be replaced by a system of common ownership and free access. My question was ruled out of order.
Other subjects are also heavily influenced by monetary calculation and property relationships. The comparatively new field of conflict resolution is monopolised by texts and teaching on "deterrence" to war, leadership policies, business strategies—not a word on the conflict between capitalism and what could be its practical alternative if enough people were given the opportunity to know and understand it. Leisure studies gives undue weight to the provision of leisure by commercial companies and government bodies—the idea that we can make our own leisure, individually or collectively, is largely discounted.
The inherent inequality between teacher and pupil has led some critics of capitalism—and indeed some socialists—to question the value of "schooling". In New from Nowhere William Morris expresses his objection to the way children are taught in capitalism by predicting that in socialism there will be no schools offering "a niggardly dole of not very accurate information; something to be swallowed by the beginner in the art of living whether he liked it or not, and was hungry for it or not". No blanket rejection of education was implied, but the critique of authoritarian schooling as simply preparation for employment led to a movement for "deschooling". The concern has been that hierarchical and autocratic teacher-pupil relationships concentrate power in the hands of teachers and lead children to acquire attitudes of docility and submission to authority.
What can we say about education in socialist society? It is easier to foresee what will no longer take place than what will positively develop. With no employment, schooling will lose its function as preparation for employment. No more McDonaldisation of education, no more economics (though economy history, as part of history, may well survive). The knowledge and skills needed to run a society which inherits the best from the past and rejects the worst will be circulated and developed among adults, and the ability to think creatively and critically transmitted from generation to generation. There will surely be different approaches to—even controversies about—what task.