“Under corporate capitalism, the objectives of liberal educational reform are contradictory: It is precisely because of its role as producer of an alienated and stratified labor force that the educational system has developed its repressive and unequal structure. In the history of U.S. education, it is the integrative function which has dominated the purpose of schooling, to the detriment of the other liberal objectives… It is [the] overriding objectives of the capitalist class—not the ideals of liberal reformers—which have shaped the actuality of the U.S. education and left little room for the school to facilitate the pursuit of equality or full human development… Education has been historically a device for allocating individuals to economic positions.” – Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life
What if everybody could read and write? What if everybody could do basic arithmetic? What if everybody went to college? What if everybody received a quality education which fed their soul and stimulated their mind? Would it change the fact that in order for our society to function we still need people to clean up shit, drive buses, repair buildings, wait tables, operate cash registers, or do many of the other tasks that are usually completed by people who haven’t received a college degree? Would it change the fact that there are more people than there are jobs? No. While I and many of my education-reform colleagues would love to live in a society where everyone has access to a fulfilling, holistic education, achieving that society would not change the fundamental needs of our society and some of the economic realities which have arisen as a result. We’d still need people to clean up shit.
People often refer to education as “the great equalizer.” There is a little truth to that. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, where you grow up, what kind of family you’re born into, and a host of other factors that people have no control over play incredibly powerful roles in determining what station someone will fill in our highly stratified society. Educational attainment is one of the few things that an individual has some control over that can allow him or her to defy the odds. Education is a central theme in many rags to riches stories. In this context, the level of inequity and injustice throughout the American educational system is nothing short of criminal and should be fought wherever possible. The educational system as it exists today, with all of its injustices, serves to perpetuate and legitimize other injustices, inequities, and inconsistencies in the economy and throughout society. So fighting to level the educational playing field is an important and admirable pursuit for anyone interested in creating a just society. But education reform can’t be the only reform going on.
Horace Mann was the first person to characterize education as “the great equalizer.” In 1837, Mann was appointed as the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education which was the first such body to be established in the US. In America, as was the general case throughout the western world, systems of public education came into existence as a direct result of shifts in the economy; namely: industrialization. Industrialists needed their workers to possess basic skills and they pressured the state to foot the bill and ensure that they would have a skilled labor pool from which to hire employees. Mann viewed education as the great equalizer because he believed that “[the] capitalist and his agents are looking for the greatest amount of labor or the largest income in money from their investments, and they do not promote a dunce to a station where he will destroy raw materials.” But an education which serves capital does not translate into an education which empowers. To the contrary, the ruling class of the past and present have been interested in creating education systems which serve their own interests, not the interests of the masses.
For example, public education emerged in Jamaica during emancipation. The planter elite and the rising industrialist class were equally dismayed at their inability to convince the newly freed blacks to come work for them. For the most part, black Jamaicans were happy to lead lives as subsistence farmers on small plots of land. A host of strategies were developed to compel black Jamaicans to work in new industries or return to the plantation. One of these strategies was to develop systems of education which would both imbue black Jamaicans with the desire to work for someone else and also provide them with some of the desired skills.
My point is that education systems have historically been created in response to economic impetuses; and not the economic impetuses of the people, but of the ruling class. Education serves the dual function of both preparing young people for economic life and legitimizing economic stratification. Massively effective and progressive education reforms will not change the fact that McDonald’s needs an army of people flipping burgers or that there are a finite number of living wage jobs available on the market. We’d still need people to clean up shit.
But part of my point is that cleaning up shit is necessary. Feeding people is necessary. Building housing and weaving shirts are necessary. But unfortunately, many of the most necessary functions in our society are not rewarded or respected as such. Education is extremely important. I enjoyed mine and continue to pursue it informally everyday. But the Left is going to miss the point if it doesn’t deal with the economy that students graduate into. Efforts to transform the education system must go hand in hand with efforts to create a more humane economy and larger society as well.