The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 36      September 27, 2010

Fight for education as a
universal, lifetime activity
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from The Working Class and the Transformation of Learning: The Fraud of Education Reform under Capitalism, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for September. This pamphlet approaches education from a working-class point of view—as a social question. As a fight for the transformation of learning into a universal and lifetime activity. It presents education as part of preparing workers and farmers for the battle “to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize that we are capable of taking power and organizing society as we collectively educate ourselves,” writes Jack Barnes. Copyright © 2000 Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Capitalist society promotes the myth that education is a youth question. But any society that sees education as a question just for young people can never have education that is meaningful for human beings, including youth. Social solidarity will never exist in such a society.

The working class cannot begin with how to change things so that youth get a better education. We have to begin with how to transform the values of society, not just the economics; it cannot be reduced simply to an economic problem. To be meaningful, education has to create the possibilities for society as a whole to advance, instead of reinforcing the exploitation of the majority by the few. Until then, the only “liberal education” available to any fighter who wants one is political education within the workers movement.

What is taught in most schools today is largely worthless. There are a handful of skills that provide some preparation for life—learning to read, learning to write, learning to compute, practicing to increase our attention spans, learning the discipline necessary to study and use our minds. Reading and studying are extremely hard. It takes discipline to sit still for three hours, two hours, even one hour—not moving, not jumping up—and to work through ideas. Working through ideas is hard; we all have to learn how to do it. But it is part of taking ourselves seriously. It is part of taking humanity seriously. We have to learn how to read and study by coming to better understand how other people live and work, whether they are older or younger than we are.

But most everything else we are taught in school, especially in the so-called social sciences and related “disciplines,” are things we need to unlearn. Civics courses, social studies courses—these are all obfuscation. There is technical training of certain kinds, and applied sciences, that can be OK, with some luck. But these are forms of apprenticeships, not liberal education in the meaningful, universal sense.

Many young people wonder why they should go to school for twelve years in this society. Most never learn anything of value past the sixth or seventh grade. I went to working-class public schools in southern Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s. I never had to write a single essay or do anything like that my entire time in school; I was never given a reason to concentrate on doing so. But I had some teachers who were fine people and who taught me to read, taught me grammar and spelling, showed me by example how to at least sit quietly and work for a while, and encouraged me to do so. They displayed some social solidarity. That is all I can say I ever got from going to school. But that part turned out to be valuable. It was a lucky accident. But because of this accident, I learned to read, acquired the habit of reading, and acquired it for life. At the same time, I hated reading what they crammed down my throat in high school. I hated Shakespeare then; I hated Macbeth the way it was taught.

Most young people never get taught they have anything to look forward to after their compulsory schooling is over. They never get taught in such a way as to make them believe the educational system is based on the assumption that their lives are worth a damn. (Many of us can remember teachers and principals who reeked of this attitude, I’m sure.) Instead, young people learn they have nothing to look forward to. They do not need to be told this in so many words; all they have to do is just watch other workers older than themselves. They just watch people like themselves who are above seventeen or eighteen years of age. Between ages six and seventeen young workers go to school six or seven hours a day; they are supposed to read books, work for good grades, study things, turn in homework. Then, all of a sudden they turn eighteen and they never do it again. First they are supposed to “just say no” to anything that is fun. Then they are supposed to just say yes to anything an employer demands.1

Don’t underestimate young people’s moral yearnings, their openness, human solidarity, and sensitivity. Perhaps they cannot put what they see into words. Perhaps they cannot theorize it. But they know a lot about what’s going on. What does this kind of education have to do with the human race?

To really discuss education is not to discuss how to reform the seventh grade in Canarsie. The seventh grade in Canarsie is not going to be reformed. Or in Louisville. Or anywhere else. I guarantee it, because the rulers have no need, and thus no desire, for workers to be educated in this society. It is not true that the capitalist class needs for workers to be educated; it is a lie. They need for us to be obedient, not to be educated. They need for us to have to work hard to make a living, not to be critical. They need for us to consume all we make each week buying their products. Above all, they need for us to lose any desire over time to broaden our scope and become citizens of the world.

1. This feature of working-class public education has its complement in the schools of the upper classes, which inculcate the idea—and did so long before Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein wrote The Bell Curve—that it will be better for the workers if, in school, they’ve internalized values accepting their station in life and “just say yes” to their “betters.”

Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home