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.

No comments:

Post a Comment