Between the ages of five and sixteen children are compelled to attend institutions where they are indoctrinated, humiliated, regimented and brutalised. Schools are places which strip children of their dignity and creativeness and make them learned in the idiocy of capitalist thinking and obedient to the authorities which govern the system of oppression.
The position of the school child is pathetic by comparison to that of older workers. In employment, wage slaves can combine in trade unions to affect the conditions of their exploitation; the child at school has no such chance. School governors and head teachers do not negotiate with children — and where bodies like “school councils" do exist, they are mockeries of democracy which lead to nothing but frustration for the student who wants to alter conditions. Capitalists are not able to assault the wage slave whose labour power they have purchased — indeed, it is a legal offence if a boss hits a worker. Not so in schools: although beating is now officially illegal in some areas of Britain, there are still many schools where adults beat children too weak and powerless to hit back. Even where children are not the victims of physical attack by adults, it is often the case that verbal abuse, sarcasm and intimidation by shouting are used as methods of control. Under British law schools must carry out religious indoctrination and physical training. These too are fates which wage slaves are spared: you can, at least, get through a day in the office or down the mine without some moralising trickster testing you on the contents of St. Luke’s Gospel or some brainless lump of muscle screaming orders at you to jump over a wooden horse. At school these events occur weekly, and unless you are enterprising enough to consistently find excuses for avoiding them you are unlikely to go through at least five years of secondary education without being affected. Fortunately for many young people, compulsory religious indoctrination persuades them to keep away from the tedious and absurd fairy-stories for the rest of their lives.
What else is taught in schools? Without doubt some of it is useful, but the critical child must watch out for the bias of the system. Geography, for example, is taught in a way which often fails to make the distinction between the natural and the social: it is one thing to study a river or a continent, but too often “countries" and “borders" are spoken of as if they are part of the “map of the world" rather than the social arrangements of capitalism. Although not as bad as it once was, geography teaching is still remarkably nationalistic and racist. There are still text books which depict little black children as “happy-go-lucky” inferiors destined to lifestyles of fitting deprivation. (This is ironic because, as a serious study of world geography will show, many areas of mass destitution are among the most abundant in natural resources.)
What goes for geography applies even more to the teaching of history. There are two basic fallacies conveyed by the indoctrinators of history in schools: firstly, the belief that history is no more than the story of the past; and secondly, the narrow outlook which identifies only those events concerning the British — or, at most, European — ruling class as being of historical significance. If studying history is to be of any use it must present the student with the question: What next? Schools fall in with the conservative assumption of capitalist ideology that history stopped at the present and now we can expect the revolutions and fundamental changes of lifestyle which have been the story of society so far to cease. The emphasis on nationalism not only affects British schooling: the children of every capitalist country are encouraged to see the past from the angle of their own particular ruling class. Not only are the blinkers of nationalism fitted on those at school; it is still the case today that a student can enter Oxford University to do a history degree and leave three years later having studied only British history.
The indoctrination process does not escape the study of English. Some of it is creative and stimulating, but many children are put off reading literature after leaving school as a result of the boring experience of learning by heart large chunks of Keats or Shakespeare to pass exams. The snobbery attached to “appreciating" literature is enough to put anyone off. Why should children who appreciate the genuine dramatic qualities of Coronation Street or Fawlty Towers believe that it is “proper" to think more highly about the dramatic excellence of Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing?
So, schools do not teach children to understand society, but to understand what the ruling class want us to know about society as presently organised. The socialist message to school students is a simple one: just as you probably will not believe everything you read in the Sun and you certainly should not believe everything you read in The Socialist Standard, so you should not accept everything told to you by your educators. Before accepting, think critically and check the truth by reference to your own experience and that of other people; don't believe, understand.
It is not only "knowledge” which schools distort. One of the principal purposes of schooling is to mould the child’s character. What sort of character does the capitalist class require? Workers who are obedient, naive, repressed, malleable, submissive . . . the list is endless, but can be summed up in one word: exploitable. The educated wage slave is a willing victim of the legalised robbery of the wages system. Of course, capitalists need different types of wage slaves: some to wear suits and operate the calculating machines, others to wear overalls and operate the factory machines, some to wear white coats and operate the get-you-back-to-work service. But the one requirement is that they must be willing to be used by a minority to produce rent, interest and profit.
Capitalist schooling teaches children to play roles. Because capitalism can make good use of sexual inequality, schools encourage virility in boys and femininity in girls. After years of this conditioning the educators claim these character differences to be natural. Sexual stereotyping is still one of the most powerful forces for the preservation of capitalist ideology.
In addition to teaching boys to behave like Action Man and girls to be birds, schools teach young workers to fit into the obedience role. For a large part of school life children are learning nothing but to stand up when a bell rings, to start eating when a siren sounds, and to jump through hoops when instructed and to feel guilty when they have disrupted the status quo. The obedient wage slave is a bore of historically unprecedented proportions; many readers will remember the school prefects who spent their later school lives exhibiting the after-effects of a short back and sides to the brain.
What about the people who run the schools — the teachers? They are merely salaried workers who are paid to do the ideological dirty work for their employers. Some of them may be attracted to the “profession" because they like pushing defenceless children around but, on the whole, like other workers who have to run capitalism for the capitalists, teachers are sincere men and women who would rather not have to work within the kind of institutions which schools currently have to be. Like the policeman who thinks he is a social worker, there are teachers who hope to use their position to enlighten their students along liberal lines. But. as has been stated in another context, the educators need to be educated, and many of these trendy teachers have nothing to offer children except indoctrination with a touch of guilt.
Unfortunately for the capitalists, despite the millions of pounds which they spend annually on schooling (more than on military defence because they recognise the value of ideological conformity), the young working class is not acting as required. With what horror do the self-righteous guardians of social conformity regard punks who treat with disdain many of the moral norms of the system. A few years ago Pink Floyd’s record, Another Brick In The Wall shot to number one in the charts, serving as an anthem of youth disillusionment with the schooling process. Although it would be far from true to say that school students who show signs of rebellion in their dress, hairstyles and language are necessarily any more opposed to capitalism than anyone else, there is no doubt that a growing consciousness is emerging among young workers that schools are mucking them about and that society is offering them less than it could. Out of this consciousness will come the growth of socialist thinking. He or she who resents wearing a dull school uniform today could be the socialist who rejects the uniform ideology of capitalism tomorrow. While socialists should not exaggerate the significance of youth dissent, which is a hallmark of our age, we should not ignore the fact that it is part of the process of transition — a transition which will end, sooner or later, in social revolution.
What about children in a socialist society? To begin with, they will be economically dependent on no one, for the wealth of the world will belong to them no less than to their elders. There will be no laws forcing children to study, for in a society of co-operation we will be able to rely on children's innate desire to learn. To begin with, respect for teachers will not be based on fear. Learning will not be the means to passing an examination so as to increase the price of labour power, but to enable one to contribute more usefully to society. The process of learning will not be confined to certain ages, so that by twenty-one formal education is over: in socialist society centres for formal learning, and informal learning through practical experience, will be open to people throughout their lives. Freed from the objective of creating workers, socialist teaching will be able to show people how to stretch their humanity as broadly as possible. Socialism will mark the victory of human consciousness over the domination of capitalist necessity; now, we are forced to confine our thinking within the stultifying barriers of the profit system. In a socialist society, instead of killing off that wonderfully creative ingenuity and imaginativeness of childhood, we will be able to learn from it, to let it express itself fully and to allow our own conception of adulthood to include some of the insights of childhood which the present system has such a need to repress. For too long society has seen children as semi-humans, to be moulded into the pathetic parodies of humanity which men and women under capitalism are today. In a socialist society the great task will be to liberate children from their inexperience and to incorporate the joys of childhood into the lifelong experiences of adults.