Education and Capitalism, part 1

This summer, the Coalition to Defend Public Education here in Rhode Island is holding a book discussion on the new book Education and Capitalism, published by Haymarket Books.  The discussion is taking place in five sessions—details on the discussions can be found on the Facebook event.  What follows is a list of questions that I formulated and posed to the group, and some of the discussion that ensued.  Please feel free to add your own answers and comments below!


Foreword, Preface, Chapter 1 (pp. 1-39)

What is the contradiction at the heart of public education?  What are the contradictory interests imposed on the system from without that are in a constant struggle against each other?  How do we see that playing out in our own experience as educators?

  • There’s a contradiction between “critical thinking”, which they claim they want us to teach, and the actual act of making students into test-taking robots.
  • There’s a narrowing of all our teaching down to English Language Arts and Math.
  • Teachers who go through the traditional teacher training are less valued than those that enter through the back door, e.g. Teach for America, emergency certification, etc.
  • With everything so geared toward “college readiness”, kids have no real options in their learning.  Their own interests and desires are ignored.
  • Full-on student-led education, e.g. Montessori-type education where the teacher steps back altogether, doesn’t seem like the right direction either—students do need to learn some things that may not interest them.  But why not integrate students’ interests with literacy?  (Granted, teachers especially in urban schools are not allowed to follow this course.)  If our classes can be a source of inspiration, then perhaps we can open students up to the stuff they don’t want to learn.
  • Public education goes back to the 1800s, when the British labor movement made demands on the government to limit child labor in factories and instead provide children of workers with public education.  But the industrialists who ran the government turned the implementation of this demand back on itself.  If you can’t have the kids working in the factories, why not use the schools to prepare them for life in the factory?  Hence the “factory model” of education.
  • The contradiction is between a demand that education make students into whole people, well-rounded, educated, cultured individuals who can participate fully in a democratic society—and the reality that schools are run by those who don’t want students to be able to fully participate in a democratic society.
  • It may not have been that students always had more choices than they do now, but teachers used to have a lot more freedom in their instruction, and are more restricted in what and how they teach.  Teachers used to have the freedom to use their creativity, and to really make an impression on their students—that’s much less now.
  • Lack of space for creativity affects teaching, and makes everyone more miserable.
  • Schools talk about being “diverse communities of learners” with many different learning styles (which teachers are supposed to reach via “differentiated instruction”), but in reality they are crushing students with uniformity, as imposed by the tests.
  • Even in kindergarten, students are introduced to the testing juggernaut—in one person’s son’s kindergarten, the teacher had held on to centers, but only by pushing back against the demands of the administration.  She was the only one of the kindergarten teachers in that school to do so—all the rest were afraid and pliant as a result.
  • There’s tremendous willful ignorance of what’s developmentally appropriate for kids in our schools today—for example, kindergarteners held back in kindergarten because they can’t yet read, even though it’s perfectly normal for some kids not to start reading fully until later.
  • We got onto a tangent about food and eating in schools at this point…

What are the competing models of learning and knowledge at play in our schools?  Are there others that the first chapter does not mention?

  • Rote learning versus creative, investigative, inquiry-based learning.  But inquiry-based learning doesn’t work well if students don’t bring prior knowledge and experience to the inquiry.
  • The model in force in our schools is the “banking model”, where the students are blank slates into whose heads the teachers are supposed to dump information.  The alternative is the cooperative, collective, working model of Marxist theorists like Vygotsky and Freire.  Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory makes it much clearer how teacher and student should interact, so that both are advanced through the educational process.
  • Both Vygotsky and Freire are popular in educational theory and Ph.D. programs (though they are never labeled as Marxists!).
  • There’s a need for skills, but also for the ability to know how and when to use the skills properly, i.e. “number sense”—the “drill and kill” model is utterly useless on both counts
  • There should be cross-curricular connections made, and clear answers to the question about why you’re working on a certain type of skill.
  • The division of school into subjects—making it difficult to make inter-disciplinary connections—mirrors the division of labor and the splitting up of areas, operations and tasks under capitalism.  Students internalize these divisions as well, making it difficult for teachers when we do try to integrate subject areas.
  • Kids don’t retain anything under the current system.
  • How much has technology changed the way kids learn?

What do you think of the exposition of dialectical materialism, or Marxism, as the most useful liberatory approach to understanding education under capitalism?  What questions or disagreements does it raise?

  • Dialectical materialism is about how peoples’ actions are limited by their material circumstances, and how the contradictions in those circumstances play out in their ideas and their actions.  The most effective action to change society starts by identifying the key contradictions, and then working to resolve those contradictions not in thought, but through struggle to physically change reality.  That struggle gets going when people collectively hold similar ideas and agree to act on them in concert.
  • There’s a contradiction in US society between, on one hand, the fierce belief that we are all individuals, and on the other that we are collectively organized in schools and workplaces where we have to cooperate
  • The problems in education and schools will not be solved simply within the walls of the school.  It’s a social problem.  You’re not going to change the “culture of poverty” through education, but through alleviating poverty directly.
  • There are different experiences between the older teachers and the new teachers who are often only able to get into the profession through charter schools or “transformation” schools, i.e. through contingent openings in a system that’s hoping to make teaching into a low-wage non-profession.  This difference will have a big impact on how educators engage in the fight to defend public education.
  • Teachers out of context can be completely different.  Given the right context, they can be wonderful; but take a high school teacher and stick them in middle or elementary, and the results can be disastrous.
  • They’ve misused seniority to undermine tenure, to screw over older teachers by putting them in bad assignments, and then when those assignments go sour, to turn around and say, “look!  the union defends bad teachers!”
  • The revolving door in administration doesn’t help matters either.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of Stalinist-style bureaucrats, administrators were actually chosen by the teachers from among their own ranks?  After all, who knows better how to run a school?

How can we as educators work to build an educational system that’s about liberation?  What do we think of the solutions proposed in chapter 1, and how does that fit with our experience (or not)?

  • Schools are getting less and less liberatory, as they become more rigidly structured from the top down.
  • We need to get more young teachers involved in things like the CDPE—only by involving young teachers in the fight to defend public education will we advance all teachers and have any hope of making public education into a tool of liberation.
  • It matters who controls the changes that are made to public education.

(At this point, it was two and a half hours into the discussion, so the last question was…not as thoroughly addressed.)

Please attend the next session on Chapters 2 & 3, the fight for racial and linguistic justice in education, on July 24!


About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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