The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Marxist analysis of education system reform

On his way to a fund-raiser in San Francisco October 15 President Barack Obama squeezed in a few hours to visit New Orleans. He stopped by the Martin Luther King Jr. charter school in the devastated Ninth Ward and gave a five-minute speech.

When he was growing up, Obama told the students, “We weren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot. But the one thing my mother and my grandparents told me was that if I worked hard in school … there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do.”

Obama has plied this and similar themes, especially when his audience is African American, that achieving an education is just a matter of individual initiative—in which social class and national oppression are irrelevant. If your kids get bad grades or don’t graduate it’s because they simply didn’t try hard enough, or you let them watch too much TV.

The book The Working Class and the Transformation of Learning by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, offers useful answers for working people to various schemes for “education reform” by Obama and others, both liberals and conservatives.

Transformation of Learning presents a completely different perspective: that education is a social and class question that can only be resolved as part of the working class mobilizing to carry out a revolution to replace the wealthy families in power today. The title is offered at a 50 percent discount to all those who purchase Militant subscriptions during the paper’s fall circulation drive.

The White House has launched a “Race to the Top” campaign, which promises federal grants for education to those cities that come the closest to meeting the following standards: lifting restrictions on how many schools in a district can be privately run charter schools and using test scores to determine which teachers are kept on and which are fired, an attack on seniority clauses in union contracts.

Charter schools are central to the White House campaign. These schools receive public funding but are managed privately. They determine their own curriculum, set their own work rules for staff, and in most cases are nonunion.

Since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans has become the first major city in the country to have more charter schools than public ones. The government simply never reopened many of the public schools, replacing them with nonunion charter schools instead.

Individual or social issue?
Like education vouchers, the charter school program plays on the frustration of working-class families whose children attend dilapidated schools where many fail to graduate. It tries to get parents to seek an individual solution: how do I get “my child” into a good school where he or she can “get ahead”?

These programs undermine class solidarity and scapegoat the unions for poor schools. They are used to push privatization over government responsibility for basic social needs, part of the overall attack on the social wage that also includes chipping away at Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, all fought for by the working class as social solutions to social problems.

The two national teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, criticize charter schools for the loss of dues-paying members and contracts, but offer no serious challenge to the “private is better” premise. In the absence of a serious fight to defend free, public education—by the teachers unions or any other labor or community groups—many parents resort to charter schools or pay for private schools that are often church-run.

“There is no universal education under capitalism; there is no such thing as education ‘for all’,” Barnes writes in Transformation of Learning. “There is only ‘education’ for the working class, and a completely different kind of ‘education’ for the small propertied minority.”

Capitalists seek obedience
“The purpose of education in class society is not to educate,” Barnes explains. “The purpose of education is to give ‘the educated’ a stake in thinking they are going to be different—slightly better off, slightly more white collar—than other people who work all their lives. In the process, the rulers hope to make those who manage to get a college degree more dependable supporters of the status quo.”

The opposite is the case for workers. “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… . Above all, they need for us to lose any desire over time to broaden our scope and become citizens of the world,” Barnes says.

“Until society is reorganized so that education is a human activity from the time we are very young until the time we die, there will be no education worthy of working, creating humanity,” Barnes writes. “There will only be the pretensions to education or to technical expertise of a small group of people.”

As he writes in the introduction, “This pamphlet approaches education … as a social question. As the fight for the transformation of learning into a universal and lifetime activity. It presents education as part of preparing workers and farmers ‘for the greatest of all battles in the years ahead—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 and learn the exploiters in the process.’”

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