Monday, September 26, 2011

A Critique of Trickle-Down Economics

Recent use of the term "class warfare" reminds me that I still have some posts to write about language (in which, incidentally, I will be able to explain more fully the name of my blog). For now, I will once again set language aside and focus on one particular argument being made by those who decry "class warfare."

The essence of their argument is that taxes should not be raised on wealthier people because it will reduce their incentive to keep doing the things that made them wealthy in the first place - the very things that create jobs and grow the economy, thus raising the standard of living for everyone. Hence, the wealth of the country's richest citizens must be protected for the sake of the economy as a whole.

The first point (taxes reduce incentives) is more obviously ridiculous. It mirrors the argument that intellectual property rights are necessary to cultivate creativity, which I have already refuted. But beyond this, just think about what this claim is actually saying: in effect, that people would willingly choose to have less money (post-tax) so that they don't have to pay more in taxes. (Think, just as an example to illustrate a general principle: if somone could make $100,000 and pay $10,000 in taxes or $100,000,000 and pay $250,000 in taxes, who would really choose to have $90,000 rather than $750,000??) If someone really desires a lot of money, the likelihood that they will be deterred by tedious calculations concerning the increase in profit in comparison to additional required effort is fairly slim. Furthermore, there actually is not a proportional correlation between rate of profit and time/energy expended, so one cannot assume that "efforts" are any real consideration in this trade-off. It would really just be a matter of someone settling for less money overall so that they could pay less in taxes, and that is just silly, if the whole problem with taxes in the first place is that it diminishes one's income.

What about part 2 of the argument, then? Does capitalists' ability to accumulate large profits create jobs and grow the economy? The answer is "yes" according to neoliberal ideology. It is "no" according to empirical evidence and structural analysis. First, one must consider what "job creation" and a strong economy means, from a structural standpoint.

I have already commented on the role of fluctuating employment rates in a capitalist system. The important points are that 1) there is an optimal unemployment rate (and it is not zero!) to maximize profitability, and changes in employment are driven primarily by changes in productivity (in large part a matter of how the production process is organized); and 2) the creation or growth of a succesful business does not by any necessity result in more jobs. Business owners and entrepeneurs are not in that sense "job creators."

The strength of an economy is a matter of regional constraints to competition and the global organization of space/division of labor that is required for the capitalist system to function. Thus, while the economy in one area of the world may be strong, higher purchasing power/wages in one locale requires poverty in others. As a capitalist gets wealthier, some other people may become richer as a result, but overall, a lot more people will become impoverished. Everyone is linked within the global system.

Economic expansions (of the system as a whole) occur when, for a variety of reasons, capitalists are able to maintain regional constraints to competition, widen inter-regional inequalities, and keep supply within the bounds of demand. Yes, capitalists will become more prosperous, and, yes, so will some people in some regions of the world (most people will become significantly poorer), but that does not mean there is any causal relationship between capitalists' profits and the perceived "strong economy" in the "lucky" regions. Both are effects of the structural manipulations that allow for economic expansion.

For the past few decades we have been experiencing a global economic contraction. A LARGE one. It is, at its root, a crisis of overproduction. That means, quite simply, that capitalists have invested in the capacity to produce far much more than what there is demand for (or even what demand could be manufactured by the government). Our economic crisis is a crisis of too much stuff! Encouraging enterpernuership and investment will not save the economy. It will make it far, far worse.

At this point there can only be massive structural reorganization. Wealth will have to be redistributed, if only because the current distribution is so skewed as to render it unsustainable. Ironically, it is redistribution of wealth that could actually create the conditions that would allow capitalists to once again construct exploitative relationships from which they could glean massive profits. I hope that doesn't happen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jobs Cannot Be Simply Created

One thing that is a near constant in all discussions regarding the current economic situation is that they entirely neglect consideration of ultimate causes and instead focus on particular manifestations of the underlying problem. The result, of course, is always failure.

Take recent discussions about jobs. It has not, at any point, been off of people's minds the past couple years or so, and president Obama just released a new jobs plan. The common belief is that a few policy decisions - a tweak here, a tweak there - can "create" more jobs. And then the economy will get better. The end.

Everyone ignores the relationships and tensions between employment levels, wages, productivity, and profitability. For example, the fact that under capitalism there is a necessary ("natural") level of unemployment, without which the system would cease to function. Or the fact that new jobs will ultimately be superfluous if the system lacks the general conditions necessary to sustain the profitability of capitalist enterprises: conditions that relate more to the current organization and scale of production than to simple considerations of supply and demand.

One popular idea is that the government should make it less expensive for employers to hire new people (e.g. by reducing the payroll tax). This is yet another move in the several-decades-long trend toward shifting the costs of labor more onto the laborers themselves. If the government makes it less expensive for employers to hire people, what they are doing, in essence, is further subsidizing the cost of labor. Instead of employers bearing all the burden of the costs of the labor from which they derive their profits, the responsibility is pooled with other employers and all of the laborers themselves. And since some major corporations and wealthy individuals get away with paying practically no taxes at all, that is quite a large shift in burden.

Capitalist enterprises have become far less profitable over the past few decades. Capitalists respond to this situation, not by addressing the structural problems that are ultimately responsible, but by trying to reduce the costs of labor bit by bit in order to keep turning out a profit. Of course this is unsustainable in the long run (for one thing it reduces demand), but capitalists do not think about the long run (particularly when the long run does not look good for them either way). They think about how much money they can milk out of the system here and now, even as they watch it collapse.

So, we focus on making it "easier" for capitalists to hire. And easier for capitalists to hire also means easier for capitalists to skim off the last bit of profits before everything falls apart.

If you want to talk about jobs and capitalism, consider this: capitalism was only able to develop as a result of unemployment. If there were no mass of landless, unemployed peasants, capitalism as we know it would not exist. Clearly, seeing everyone employed is not a capitalist's top priority.

The best way to keep everyone employed is to get rid of capitalism.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Basis of the State is Violence

[Note:  I actually wrote this yesterday but didn't get a chance to post it.]

For the past few days I have wanted to write something about Troy Davis, but didn't think I was capable of doing anything other than emoting and ranting. I think I will try to take a stab at it now.

It is difficult, at the outset, to not feel outrage that a man convicted on such flimsy evidence could be put to death. Just to recap: there is no physical evidence linking Troy Davis to the murder; there were 9 witnesses, most of whom were not even present at the scene of the crime (just claimed that Davis confessed to them), 7 of whom have recanted their testimony (one was at the scene of the crime), and one of whom has been accused by 5 others of being the real culprit; several of the jurors involved in the original conviction have said that they now regret their decision. Thus, there is beyond reasonable doubt that this man is guilty, and still he is going to be executed today.

However, this need only seem outrageous if one buys into the ideology of the justice system.

All the talk of "due process," the practice of having trials by jury, and the like, are ways of legitimizing the system - making it seem like it is in the hands of the people, and designed to protect everyone's rights at all costs.

In reality, the "justice" system is part of the apparatus of legitimate state violence, upon which the state's sovereignty rests. As such, it is also inextricably linked with the prison-industrial complex, which, in the United States, serves as a sort of internment camp or concentration camp for people of color, particularly young black men, who are dispropotionately represented by an astronomical margin. (I will come back to this point if/when I write a post about the war on drugs.)

So why should I feel surprised or scandalized by the outcome of the Troy Davis case? Killing black men is quite a normal function of the "justice" system. Is this not just another example of the system exhibiting it's "true colors" (even while it is being interpreted as a "perversion" of the system)?

Just as the nation-state is a necessary component of the global capitalist system, and efforts to effect change through the state result in further absorption into the system, the same can be said for the legal system. That is the one fatal flaw of the concept of "human rights" and associated organizations such as Amnesty International.

Troy Davis does not represent a perversion of a good system. He is not merely a posterboy for policy change (abolition of the death penalty). Instead, he represents the distopian society we live in.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Education Industry

Since the crisis of overproduction set in, capitalist interests have been scrambling to exploit any last bit of potentially exploitable territory, seeking to find some source of water amid a major drought. The arena of education, both public and private, has been one such source of profit throughout the past couple decades. Who has "made out"? Just to name a few...

-Textbook Companies: Constantly churning out new editions and taking advantage of the ever-changing fads of school reform; defining curricula and making arrangements at the state level in order to cultivate monopolies

-Testing Companies: Hugely benefiting from NCLB's mandates for frequent assessment; offering increasingly more extensive and expensive test prep services

-Private school management and charter school chains: taking advantage of the availability of public funds; in some cases, mirroring what happened in the financial sector, individuals have been able to make out like bandits while their schools fall apart.

-Private institutions of higher education: accused of marketing programs to people who are unlikely to finish, encouraging them to take out loans, not fulfilling what they have promised in their educational offerings, and then leaving them with massive debt

In fact, both private and public institutions of higher education are guilty of promoting student loans and debt, while churning out more degrees than there is a market for (and making the degrees value-less).

[The more I think about it, the more capitalism seems like a sort of weed, which ends up spreading everywhere and choking out all other life.  Nothing is safe!  Not even education.]

The above examples just happen to illustrate many of the primary characteristics and tendencies of capitalism:

-an endless chain of fads and perpetual obsolescence
-a parasitic relationship with the state
-individual gain at the expense of everyone else
-multiplication of debt

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The New Era of Education Reform

By the time that President Bush took office in 2001, the desire to raise achievement for all students (born out of A Nation at Risk) still remained, but with a distinct tendency to avoid any discussion of what students should know in any subject (a result of the history standards controversy). To satisfy both of these conflicting demands, reformers began to concentrate exclusively on skills - primarily reading, and secondarily mathematics.

The demand for higher standards was replaced by the demand for greater accountability, and this was to be understood solely in terms of test scores in reading and mathematics. It was presumed that the performance of districts, schools, and individual teachers could be measured by changes in students' test scores. Of course, this is not the case, for a large number of reasons, many relating to the nature of the tests themselves. The most fundamental underlying assumption was that all students could succeed given the right teachers and schools. Social structural factors, in the end, did not matter. This, of course, is neoliberal ideology. Social structural factors will always have primary causality, and school-related factors can only have marginal mitigating effects.

The accountability movement joined forces with the school choice movement and the resulting love-child was Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Under NCLB, school progress is measured by student performance on state-designed tests in reading and math. Those who fail to meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" face sactions: students may receive vouchers to attend other schools, for instance, or the school may be "restructured" and placed under different (possibly private) management. One may note that states can set the bar for "proficiency" wherever they want, so that the test results are essentially meaningless, and that simply testing certain literacy and numeracy skills is not an adequate measure of quality education. Hence, NCLB encourages states to lower their standards and teacher and schools to narrow their curriculum to focus on basic skills and test-taking strategies.

However, the greatest implication of NCLB lies in the types of sanctions it employs.  NCLB is basically a covert strategy for privatizing the education system.  Consider: 1) the bar set by NCLB is so high that only the highest-achieving schools in the wealthiest and most homogenous locales could ever reach it (and even that is not certain);by 2014 nearly every school will be considered "failing" and 2) the consequences for "failing" involve the use of vouchers and the transfer of public funds to private organizations. The reason why just about every school will be considered "failing" by 2014 is that at that time all schools are supposed to reach 100% proficiency for all measured subgroups (race-based and ability-based). However, one subgroup - English-language learners - are defined precisely by their failure on tests of literacy. Any English-language learner who attains a level of proficiency will pulled out of the English-language learner subgroup.   Likewise for those with "special needs."  NCLB is not measure progress at all!

Obama has largely continued the program established under Bush's presidency.  He has accessorized it with some similarly-minded carrot-wielding programs, like Race to the Top.  In Race to the Top, certain states - the "winners" - receive extra funding for their schools.  And the basis for this vital funding is arbitrary criteria assigned arbitrary weightings, with a little bit of flawed statistical reasoning thrown into the mix, and topped with subjective ratings.  Obama and his appointees to the Department of Education continue to voice their support for school choice, competition, charter schools, and teacher accountability.

Going back to what I claimed are the primary roles served by education in a capitalist society, it is reasonable to ask, how does the project of privatization - essentially eroding the public school system - serve those ends?  First, education continues to be subsidized.  In fact, with programs like Race to the Top, more federal money is being doled out.  True, privatization and choice seem to undermine the assimilative role of education, yet they also stand as affirmations of neoliberal ideology, and work as effective means to increase social stratification.  Furthermore, with its premise that education reform is about schools and teachers, and not about poverty and society, the new school reforms have absorbed the efforts and directed the actions of those who wish to change society, forcing them to do so set within certain bounds that do not disrupt the social hierarchy at all.

But mostly I believe it is about unions.  There has been a concerted anti-union effort throughout the entire WW2 era, and it has kept the United States economically competitive with other industrialized nations, who have stronger unions and/or higher wages.  However, the teachers' unions are now one of the most powerful workers' groups (which says more about that state of unions in general than anything else).  Most privatization schemes, be they vouchers, charter schools, "restructuring," etc. undercut teachers' unions.  Focus on teacher effectiveness (assigning teachers sole responsibility for student achievement when social factors are far more significant), proposals for merit-based pay, attacks on tenure, the claim teachers should be fired more easily, the de-professionalization of teaching and insistence that there should be no requirements for entering the field - all are direct swipes at teachers' unions.

One thing is certain.  The "biggest losers" in the new era of reform, with all of its haphazard tinkering with poor and urban school districts, is the most disadvantaged students in the country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

National Standards: The Tipping Point

The culminating moment of opposition between the national standards movement (which sought to retain, if not expand, the role of the federal government and the Department of Education) and the school choice movement that countered it, came in 1994.  After A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, national committees were established in every major school subject to create voluntary national standards.  The idea was to raise the quality of public education for everyone by outlining a clear set of common standards that would guide the improvement of curricula and instruction.

One of the last subjects to be tackled was history.  Lynne Cheney, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded and participated in the creation of the history standards.  However, by the time the standards were nearing a state of completion, Cheney quit her position at the NEH and turned her attention to political concerns.   An important mid-term election was approaching (the Republicans would finally gain control of Congress that fall) and her husband, Dick Cheney (also a Republican), was considering a presidential candidacy.  At this time many Republican kingmakers had taken a strong interest in education and were full-fledged supporters of school choice.  If you were a Republican with political ambitions, you had no choice but to take up the mantel of choice.

But Cheney did not just run away from the national history standards.  She launched an all-out attack on them.  She claimed that she had been bamboozled, and that the standards had been "hijacked" by a bunch of academic radicals who sought to use education to undermine the foundations of American society and incite a socialist/communist revolution.  Her supporting examples (e.g. how many times George Washington is mentioned versus Harriet Tubman) are gross distortions of the documents, and sometimes outright false.  Considering the level of her involvement with these standards, I have a hard time believing that she merely misinterpreted them.  To me, the distortions seem completely intentional.  In reality, there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary with these standards, except that they demanded much of students' ability to reason and form  arguments.  In fact, my own history education (which I would consider anything but radical) seemed to resemble the standards, with perhaps less rigor.

The article Cheney wrote for the Wall Street Journal ended up being a huge political cash cow.  The controversy dominated public and political discussion for months and provided a platform for the Republicans to tighten their ideological narrative.  (Just as a side note, the Senate voted to symbolically condemn the history standards; the only "nay" was a Republican who felt the wording was not strong enough.)

What Cheney and those who followed her were able to do was portray a certain relationship between the federal government and institutions of higher education:  that academic radicals had in some way infiltrated or aligned with government bureaucracies and were simultaneously seeking to foment some kind of socialist or communist revolution.  In this way, Cheney et al. were able to strengthen associations that derived from the core of their ideology, most notably the connection between projects and processes of national scope and radical social change, federal control and communist revolution.

With the "curriculum wars" of 1994, the idea of national standards was dead.  The last remnants of what grew out of A Nation at Risk survived in the form of high-stakes testing and "accountability," and quickly adapted themselves to a new world dominated by "choice."

Monday, September 12, 2011

School Choice is Segregation

At the same time that Brown v. Board of Education, the Elementary and Second Education Act, and A Nation at Risk were shaping the educational landscape, another movement was emerging in opposition to these developments.  This counter-movement, premised on ideas of "choice" and privatization, has increasingly sought to undermine the enterprise of public education itself.

The "school choice" movement originated as a means of avoiding desegregation orders, particularly in southern states.  It was one loophole in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.  The states/districts employing "choice" programs insisted that they were simply allowing students to decide where they wanted to go to school rather than mandating school assignments and implementing forced bussing.  The reality, however, was that they had devised a way of maintaining segregation of the schools.

Later, after the federal government began allocating funds for low-income schools, and after A Nation at Risk salvaged the Department of Education and inaugurated a discussion about national standards, the "school choice" movement morphed into an attempt to undercut the federal government's role in education entirely.  "Privatization" and "vouchers" became the buzzwords of the day.

In the 90s the attention started to shift toward charter schools, which are more palatable versions of voucher schools (mainly because public money does not go to religious schools).  Charters schools have become a raging fad, and there have been a number of popular books and documentaries (for example, Waiting for Superman) trumpeting the success of these schools.

All flying in the face of the fact that now there is undeniable evidence that voucher systems and charter schools do not do what their advocates claim they do.  A handful of charter schools are very good; but most aren't any better than the average public schools, and some are far, far worse.  Furthermore, even with non-discriminatory admissions policies and established under a guise of helping the neediest students, charter schools still tend to exclude the most disadvantaged students:  either directly in the admissions process or by "weeding them out" after they have enrolled.  [For more information about charter schools, vouchers, and school choice, I would recommend the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch (a former proponent of these reforms).  It is, at the very least, a much more accurate account of the past few decades of reform than films like Waiting for Superman.]

The reason the "choice" movement has become so successful (in terms of its popularity only) is because it is neoliberal ideology in unadulterated form.  "Choice" advocates claim that competition will spur a "race to the top" (shout-outs to Obama's education policy!) in which bad schools "die out" and good schools proliferate.  But that is not how free markets work, number one, and number two, capitalism has strangled the freedom of the market.  What choice and competition actually do in every case is reinforce the existing socio-economic hierarchy and make it much harder for those on the bottom to "rise up."  Choice and competition in the realm of education is a case in point.  The real effects of vouchers and privatization of the education system, as far as it has been implemented, are increasing segregation and widening gaps.

In fact, the "school choice" movement is a perfect demonstration of the way in which education is used to reproduce the social order.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Creating "Problems" as Strategy

Although in the 1950s and 60s expanding the federal government's role in education (albeit only slightly) was preferable to allowing what could have been a major challenge to the existing socio-economic hierarchy, by the time Reagan took office in 1981, a powerful movement had developed, in opposition to the past decades of Keynesianism, devoted to "reducing the size" of government.  Although this monetarist approach (which was actually inaugurated during Carter's term) resulted in stark economic decline and Keynesianism had to be resumed as a last-ditch effort, Keynesianism was pursued in the form of massive military spending and the ideological commitment to cutting government programs and agencies remained.

What happened with education at this point is a good lesson in how the government is not a unified entity.  While members of the Reagan administration were eager to get rid of the Department of Education, those who were employed by the agency, of course, were dependent on its existence.  I mentioned previously that the creation of problems often serves as a strategy to garner human and material resources in the service of some end.  What happened in the Department of Education is a great example of how this can work.  The Department commissioned a study of the state of education in the U.S.  Conveniently, considering the fact that they were being threatened with non-existence, the department found that there was a crisis in American education, one that jeopardized the very future of the nation and necessitated action, thus re-establishing the importance of the Department of Education.  The report that it distributed with great fanfare in 1983, A Nation At Risk, used hyperbolic language and was designed to create hype and engender fear.

The first of the report's main arguments was that achievement levels were dropping from what they were in the past.  Statistics based on SAT and other standardized test scores were used to support this claim.  The problem with these statistics, however, is that they are comparing different people in different contexts.  For example, college was becoming less exclusive and more people were taking the SAT.  Furthermore, as times change, so do the skills and knowledge that are relevant to current conditions.  Tests necessarily have to change over time (the same test is never used repeatedly without updates), and so not only are different people being compared, but they are being compared with different tests!

The second major claim was flawed for similar reasons.  The report argued that U.S. students were not performing as highly as students from other countries, and that threatened our economic future.  Using extreme rhetoric, the report warned, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."  Once again, the comparisons being made (this time global rather than historical) are not valid.  The tests from which these global comparisons are drawn are not administered to comparable groups of people in each country.  In the U.S. all students take it, whereas in countries like Japan, only the best-performing students do.  Furthermore, in some countries students face consequences for their performance, while in the U.S. they do not, and are thus less motivated to do well.  Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. has a much more diverse population.  In particular, it has one of the largest income gaps in the world.  Because educational achievement gaps are reflections of income gaps, one would expect measures of average academic achievement to be lower in the U.S. than in other places, because the average is brought down by these disadvantaged groups.  On the other hand, it does not seem reasonable to assume that the American education system is significantly worse than other countries, as the nations with supposedly better systems still do not dominated the global domain of academic research in higher education, as the U.S. does in many fields.  The fear of "falling behind" other nations in terms of the quality of education has been salient ever since Sputnik was launched.  But that does not mean it is anything more than fear.

If there is any problem with American education it has only and always been the achievement gap.  However, as argued in my previous post, this is a problem that has roots entirely outside of the educational system, and therefore cannot be resolved via education reforms.   It is not a problem of education, it is a problem of poverty and inequality, and that requires full-scale systemic change.

The idea that there is some sort of "problem" that needs to be fixed has, however, been persistent in the history of education.  Earlier, it was mainly used as justification for educators to tinker around and try out new ideas.  But now the idea has become a fixture of the public consciousness.  It has reached the level of common sense, unquestioned hegemony.  Because we take for granted the "fact" that our educational system is failing and in dire need of reform, we waste time debating, discussing, researching, and trying out all the new ideas and latest fads.  No one thinks to stop and consider what the "problem" really is, and what evidence there is that any problem exists.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Education for Social Equity

The first two landmarks in American education in the post-WW2 era are Brown v. Board of Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Both were reflections of a new focus, during a period of economic growth, on using the education system as a tool to promote social equity.

Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  The result of this 1954 Supreme Court case was an active effort to desegregate schools, with the intent of improving the quality of education for African American children.  As the saying goes, separate is inherently unequal, and segregated black schools suffered from lack of funding and resources.  In actuality, though, the project of school desegregation was another excellent way of placating those who might challenge the system, without significantly altering any social reality.  Desegregation did not close achievement gaps or erase the correlation between race and poverty.  What did end up happening was that African American students were often relegated to lower academic tracks (the tracking system, in which students within a single school receive differential education, supposedly according to their abilities and needs, was still popular for several more decades) and were subject to lowered expectations and discrimination by their teachers.  Of course, I do not believe that desegregation in itself is bad, nor do I wish to see the schools resegregated, however schools alone cannot solve structural racism.  To the contrary, educational reforms are limited by structural racism.

The ESEA of 1965 was part of President Johnson's "War on Poverty."  Among other things, it provided funds (the famous Title I funding) to impoverished schools and districts.  The hope here was that poverty, and the educational achievements gaps that went along with it, were simply the result of a lack of money.  Hence, providing money to those in need would eliminate these gaps and help raise children out of poverty.  Once again, this did more to make people feel good that something was being done, rather than do anything about poverty - or the quality of education received by those living in poverty.  Poverty is a structural problem and cannot be solved with money.  Even with Title I funds, children from blighted areas do not reach the same levels of proficiency, on average, as their more well-to-do peers.

"Panacea" is a word that is commonly used in the field of education.  That is because educators constantly have to remind themselves and others that education is not a panacea for social problems.  In fact, it is quite the opposite:  educational equity begins with social equity.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Role of Education in a Capitalist Society

It is not easy to answer the question, "What is the purpose of education?"  There are so many competing ideas about what education should be.  Furthermore, the history of the development of the institutional apparatus that has become the modern education system is incredibly complex.  However, from a historical materialist perspective, neither the "should" nor the "was" directly explain what is.  The past may provide the materials, and ideology may affect the nuances, but only current conditions (relationships and structures) can account for the role that education actually plays in late capitalist society.

Perhaps the most important and most obvious use of education is its provision of vocational training. Particularly in late capitalist society, many jobs require complex skill sets.  The existence of public and private educational systems, as opposed to apprenticeship and other forms of on-the-job training, shifts the cost of training from the employer to the employee (either directly via private institutions or indirectly through the tax-funded public school system).  Thus, regardless of whether they are public or private, educational institutions serve as a means of reducing labor costs.  Public education may be viewed as a subsidy of the cost of labor.

The second most salient role of education is as a means of "indoctrination," or, in my own preferred terms, transmission of ideology.  Knowledge is not neutral. Human knowledge is never a transparent reflection of reality.  One can only make sense of the world by organizing it according to some framework for interpretation.  In the process of transmitting knowledge, one must also impart and reinforce a particular interpretive framework (ideology).  Educational institutions, in concert with the media, inculcate members of society with ideological frameworks that legitimize, even romanticize, the social order:  most notably social contract ideology, neoliberal ideology, the ideology of progress... the idea that capitalism = free markets = AWESOMENESS.  Or democracy = liberty = SO GREAT I COULD KILL PEOPLE FOR IT.

But not only is this ideological management a means of generating consent, it also places limits (by reducing variability and making certain things taken for granted) on the diversity of beliefs and opinions held by a large portion of the population.  During the early 20th century, amidst rising tides of immigration and heightened class conscious, education was overtly used for "assimilation."  Although the use of this term in reference to education has waned, the assimilative role of education persists.  Assimilation is more powerful than consent.  A large body of shared beliefs and perspectives makes the general population much easier to manipulate and control.  For example, when something new arises, novel arguments can be fashioned from the communal knowledge base which serve to garner new types of consent.

Another important, though slightly more incidental, effect of formal education is its contribution to the social division of labor.  Some argue this is THE function of education.  However, I believe that social reproduction can occur in other ways, and that the formal education system just arbitrarily happens to also be useful for these purposes.  The idea here is that the educational system "resonates" with upper/middle-class culture (as that is who maintains the system).  This causes lower status students to become alienated, achieve less, and settle for lower skilled, lower paying jobs, while more privileged students, already primed for schooling, acquire a body of "symbolic capital" (see Pierre Bourdieu), including tastes, manners of speaking, literary/artistic knowledge, etc. that marks them as members of "higher society" and gives them access to strategic connections, better paying jobs, and political influence.  And it appears that all of the latter are acquired through merit (educational achievement) rather than inherited status.

An additional ancillary benefit of education is that it has produced an entire economic sector which can be mined and exploited by capitalist interests (that is why businesses have involved themselves more with education after the crisis of overproduction set in).  It also allows both parents to pursue employment outside of the home while their children are cared for during the day.

Of course, others involved in the educational system have contributed to the particular form it has taken, the manifold details of its existence, in the service of goals that are not actually forwarded by education.  Those goals include the use of education

-as preparation for democratic citizenship
-as a means of nurturing the holistic development of each child
-as a mechanism for eliminating social inequalities (if educational achievement gaps can be closed, then all children will have the opportunity to "lift themselves out of poverty")
-as a tool for inciting awareness of social problems along with development of critical thinking skills (activist educational researchers encourage students of oppressed groups to learn more about why they are oppressed so that they can challenge the system)

The first two are, in my opinion, too vaguely defined to ever be attainable.  The third is impossible because achievement gaps are only a shadowy effect of the brute conditions of poverty, and cannot serve as a point of entry for such deeply pervasive structural problems.  The fourth is not a totally unrealistic goal.  However, the forces that are aligned in opposition to such projects seem insurmountable.  And so far the system has not been challenged.  Thus, while these four goals have had some influence on the course that modern education has taken, they do not explain its actual material relationships to other institutions and social processes.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will attempt in the next series of posts to describe some pivotal moments of the last few decades of educational history.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Historical Materialist Explanation of Social Institutions

One of Marx's most enduring legacies is his approach to historical analysis, commonly referred to as "historical materialism."  It rests, in part, on the principle that at any given time the possibilities of existence are limited and shaped by what already exists.  History is not a random succession of eras, ideas, and cultures.  Neither is it teleological:  in other words, its coherence is not in any relation to any end result (although Marx's view of history is somewhat teleological).  Rather, the "progress" of history is driven by the collective and contradictory attempts of human beings to adapt to a pre-formed world - a world that is not of their own creation - and shape it to their own needs.  Obviously, the least amount of work, the smallest amount of change to accomplish this task, the better.

In this way, historical materialism stands in contrast to functionalist brands of social theory, which explain social realities (often focusing on "the institutions" - family, economy, religion, schools, government, etc.) in terms of a function that may be intended but just as likely is below the realm of consciousness.  Functionalist reasoning goes something like this:  "X [social institution] exists because it functions to ______ [create social bonds, effectively allocate scarce resources, manage behavior, socialize members into particular roles, diffuse conflict, etc.]"  Thus, social institutions come into being in order to serve a specific purpose, and are created and maintained in a rather mystical way (independent of the activities of individual people).

On the other hand, defining an institution as a highly coherent network of people, ideas, material artifacts, processes, and relationships, a historical materialist would emphasize how the same collection of human and material resources can be used by different people for different ends.  Furthermore, the existence of any particular social institution is not a given, it is a historical peculiarity.  If a certain nexus of social artifacts and relationships happens, regardless of the original reason for its formation, to be useful to someone with a certain degree of social dominance, it will persist, perhaps with some alterations to adapt it to new purposes.  Or it might be dismantled entirely, with segments of the network incorporated into other new or existing networks.


I raise these issues as a sort of theoretical introduction to a series of posts I intend to write about education.  Seeing as to how the fall is approaching and school started this week, I thought it would be apt.  My goal is to provide an alternative to the generalized functionalist framework which characterizes public discussion of education and outline how one might view the role of educational institutions in a capitalist society.