Monday, August 29, 2016

Secondary schools: educating for conformity (1980)

From the September 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the time of writing, a by no means insignificant proportion of the nation’s young, along with their parents, friends and relations, are holding their breath. The cause of this trauma, which occurs annually, is the impending announcement of the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examination results.

Ever since the examination answers were written, markers drawn from the ranks of the teaching profession — retired and active — have been busily scratching away with their black and red pencils. Their job is to sort out the relative merits or demerits of the scripts they have been given and to deliver the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ as the occasion warrants.

And a great deal hangs in the balance. Some students wish to enter their sixth-forms to attempt the next hurdle. Others have a conditional offer of a place at a university or a polytechnic. Many more hope to enter industry or commerce, or the “public” services. All, however, share an overriding concern: the nature and quality of the meal-ticket they must, if they are to live, acquire at the end of it all. For this is what the exercise is all about. Put another way; what, in effect, is happening is the ‘intellectual’ classification of the working class for and on behalf of the only other class—the capitalists.

It is important to remember also that by far the larger proportion of working class youngsters have already been weeded out. They are now performing the intellectually less-demanding—and usually lower paid—tasks imposed upon them by their capitalist masters and by their own circumstances. Or—more likely—they are unemployed.

From the foregoing it is evident that it is at examination time that education most clearly reveals itself in its true guise—as a transparent device for facilitating the grading and selection of wealth-producing units (sometimes described as ‘hands’) in the capitalist machine. We can forget all that cant about a ‘broadening of the intellect’; or the ‘widening of one’s cultural awareness’; or the ‘ability to express oneself; or ‘the flowering of one’s personality’. Teachers may sincerely believe that such inflated and plainly hypocritical claptrap is the prime purpose of their ministrations: it’s a dead certainty that the employers and their executive committee, the government, do not.

And if it appears that the three r’s are receiving less attention than, in the eyes of the prospective employers, they ought, then we can confidently expect some political hack at the Department of Education and Science to launch a campaign to put matters right. (Under Labour this duty was enthusiastically prosecuted by that darling of the media and doyenne of the Labour Party’s right wing, Shirley Williams).

It is no accident that the practice of, and instruction in, religion is compulsory in schools. This has been and remains a bare-faced and utterly cynical attempt on the part of the master-class to inculcate in the minds of young people a suitably docile and submissive attitude towards life under capitalism. Usury; exploitation; power-seeking and corruption in high places; culminating in the conditioning of the working class to accept war, with its possibility of a nuclear holocaust: such things require a foundation in ‘morality’ if our masters are going to get away with it. The Church and its handmaidens, the educators, have always proved ready and willing to perform the useful task of supplying it. It is relatively unimportant that the vast majority of young people reject out of hand the ridiculous incantations of the ‘lay brethren’ in their schools; (most of whom don’t believe a word of it themselves anyway); the fact remains that capitalism will have been provided with a mask of respectability, however superficial.

Another necessary pre-condition in the process of training the workforce of the future is an unquestioning acceptance. of competition as an essential fact of life. In the majority of schools this is taken for granted. There have to be winners and losers no matter what the consequences. The humiliation and sense of failure which afflicts so many of ‘education’s’ victims, so often expressed in belligerence or apathy, are accepted as unfortunate but unavoidable side-effects.

In fact, this state of affairs constitutes the beginning of a deliberate process which is essential to capitalism's survival—the division and sub-division of the working class against itself. (And what could be more dangerous and alarming to the capitalist class than a workforce which stands united in a common interest and understanding, alert to its conditions as a class and ready and willing to subject that condition to critical scrutiny?).

Schools, then, can be compared to the nurseryman's greenhouse; by the time the seedlings have reached the stage where they are ready to be introduced to the harsher environment of the garden a great deal of thinning out will have been achieved. The tougher plants will have been suitably conditioned to face their new circumstances. Likewise the products of our schools, moulded into shape and unquestioning in their acceptance of the society into which they were born, are ready to join the bigger rat-race of the world of work. Those who enter the institutions of ‘higher learning’ are as yet one stage removed from this world; the remainder, compliant and unrebellious, are only too ready to sell their labour power to the highest bidder—or to don the uniforms of capitalism’s forces of oppression and repression.

It is clear that this is possible only up to a certain point: the capitalists may have no call for the services of the school-leaver. This is the case at the present time. Capitalism is in the latest of a lengthening line of periodic crises. Unable to find markets for its increasingly uncompetitive commodities it reduces production or closes it down altogether, throwing workers on the dole. And if there is less demand for ‘educated’ workers there is clearly less need to spend as much as hitherto on schools and schooling; hence the harshness of the education cuts. (No doubt when boom time comes around once more, new cash will be forthcoming to pay for the higher standards which will then be demanded).

So what do the employers get for their money? (and it is their money which, in the form of taxation, pays the educators to do their preparatory work for them).

The first thing they get is choice. They are now able to select from the available pool of suitably sieved and classified labour and brain power those qualities and skills which, following a further period of training and conditioning (but minus the religious bunkum, of course) are best calculated to provide them with the highest return. Or they can, if they happen to be, say, the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence, select potential policemen or soldiers or whatever, from among those who by background, inclination and malleability are most likely to prove reliable in their determination to conform to and co-operate with the status quo.

Another quality the employers can be confident of commanding is a fair degree of punctuality and endurance. The school day is deliberately designed to match, more or less, the normal working day its charges will later experience. Children who have ‘clocked on’ at their school for many years are conditioned to accept without query clocking on at their future place of employment. And having arrived they are unlikely to abscond especially if the result of any such absenteeism is a loss of earnings and/or the receipt of their cards.

Again, young people who have been subjected to the approved interpretation of economic and social life under capitalism, and who have been carefully shielded from any objective and free discussion of possible alternatives, are hog-tied. With no basis upon which to challenge the existing order of society they are neutered before they are even able to begin the inevitable struggle with their future exploiters. (The unemployed will have received the same conditioning and, provided they can be kept sweet, they offer the capitalists a fine opportunity to keep down wage-costs in the scramble for jobs).

What, then, must we learn from our school-days? It is that compulsory secondary education, contrary to what we are frequently led to believe, is not primarily intended to benefit its recipients. Its main purpose is to provide the capitalists with a docile work-force, trained and conditioned up to a level necessary to achieve the highest possible rate of profit. Alternatively, the ‘educators’ must supply the ruling class with the obedient and conformist policemen, soldiers, civil servants, and so on, essential to its surviving as a class. These conditions are obtainable only given a thorough grounding in competition, doctored history and phoney moral rectitude, backed up by coercion—with or without corporal punishment. Success can be achieved only given the absence of a proper examination of alternatives, and in circumstances which preclude truly hostile or analytical questioning in open debate. Such a regime is amply exemplified by our secondary schools.
Richard Cooper

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