Schools require money. The basis
of school funding is surplus value, the massed amount of wealth left over
after the ruling class has paid the workers and covered its costs in building
machinery, buying land, and so on. The availability of surplus value to
the schools depends on the size of this entire pie and the political importance
attached to education at a given moment.
A society which readies for war
and depression sees certain educative works as very important. But the
American pie is shrinking. Profits are indeed lower and the frantic greed
of the 1980's left little behind for future capital investment. There is
less to be divided and it must be divided more unfairly. For example, recent
cuts in federal, state and local funding for schools begat an operative
system of privatization in education. In the 80's, the federal share of
the education budget shrank from 11% to 5%. Some functions in public schools
like music education were abolished and later picked up by private school
entrepreneurs , while other school roles, like some sports, became pay-as-you-go
projects, open only to students with the cash. (McNeil/Lehrer Report on
Mount Holyoke, Mass. Schools, 1-23-92)
School funding, the tail of the
weathervane, pushes the arrowhead in the most probable direction. Under
Lyndon Johnson, federal school spending hit $16.2 billion. It grew to $28.5
billion under Nixon (remember these were years of big inflation following
the U.S. debacle in Vietnam) and $32.3 billion under Carter. Reagan gutted
federal spending on schools to $27.8 billion ( a 17% cut). In l990, Bush's
appropriation was $28.5 billion. He continued a strategy designed to force
the U.S.S.R. to match the U.S. dollar for dollar in the arms race and thus
bankrupt the Soviets, a subtle plan of mutual destructiveness that worked
but blew back in the form of today's American economic and social collapse.
Federal spending on all domestic programs , "at the end of the 1980's was
30 % lower than at the beginning of the decade...a decline of sixteen per
cent in federal funds for education (New Yorker, 1-20-92, "The Disorders
of Peace", by Richard Barnet). These cuts represent the declining amount
of available surplus value in the U.S. and the political impact of increasing
The federal cuts force more reliance
on state and local governments and drive school systems to beg in the private
sector. The immediate effect of the funding cuts, tied to the intensified
political direction of the ruling class, is to widen inequality in the
schools. Schools in rich neighborhoods get more. Bake sales in Beverly
Hills do better than those in Watts. Schools in poor neighborhoods get
less. To whatever extent schools were once integrated, school funding cuts
For example, especially in the
urban north, aging populations of white people with children grown and
fixed incomes frequently reject calls for tax increases to subsidize education
when they see the beneficiaries of schools to be the growing number of
black and Latin children in their neighborhoods. While there is some ambiguity
about their motivation, that is whether older whites resent school funds
"wasted" on bureaucrats who will not funnel the monies to classrooms or
they take the essentially racist position that educating minority kids
is a waste itself, is not the issue. The issue is that the minority kids
get less funding and worse schools. It is important to point out, however,
that surveys of retired populations around Miami, Florida indicate that
older people on fixed incomes are willing to pay taxes for education, without
discrimination, if they see that the tax is fairly obtained and distributed,
that is, progressive taxation that reaches into the classrooms equitably.
(Florida NEA Research, 1990)
Whatever the tax bite , $28.5 billion in federal funds isn't small change. The ruling class, the rich people who own the politicians, doesn't give money for nothing, even when they don't pay their share of taxes. They want schools to perform certain tasks. At the same time, the ruling class is met by millions of parents, children and teachers who have their own plans for schools. The resolution of these tensions, always won by the ruling class as long as capitalism exists but modified by the degree of fight among some communities, is what we finally call education. So what are schools for? How did they get there to begin with?
public education has a tense history in the U.S. For the most part, the
idea of public education, if not the practice, was supported by the working
class and ruling class alike. But workers have always had their own goals
for schools; bosses had others. For example, the original expansion of
vocational education programs was designed to wreck skilled trades unions
which controlled entry into their crafts. Hence, the unions fought against
vocational education--and lost. Early schools, supported by local communities,
gave teachers considerable control over their tasks and integrated kids
from different grade levels, but not races or classes. As the social base
for U.S. capitalism, surplus value, grew, so did ruling class interest
to control schools. (Bowles and Gintis)
The American ruling class, led
early on by people like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, quickly recognized
their own needs for a variety of direct and indirect influences over education.
They reaffirmed their ownership
of politicians to exert direct control over schools and they established
philanthropic (i.e., deductible) foundations to represent their selfish
educational interests. As early as 1900, for example, the foundations initiated
standardized intelligence tests that really only served to locate children
on a spectrum of race and social class, but which claimed to be measures
These fellows are still at work,
embalmed in widely publicized works from groups like the Carnegie Foundation,
which issues professional opinions on educational solutions even today.
Now respectable, the foundations create goals for the entire education
network and benchmarks to judge the national progress. Now most respectable,
the foundations do so with the full cooperation of teachers and their unions.
So the schools grew, sometimes
despite the efforts of remnants of ruling classes whose time had passed.
In 1840, the Pope declared his infallibility, his opposition to abortion
and his stand against public schools, all on the same day. (Bowles and
During Reconstruction, an era
worth a detailed analysis to witness the importance the poorest of citizens
attached to education, one of the primary goals of all state conventions
in the south was to secure integrated, compulsory public schools as a sword
or a shield for children born in a time of hope and fear. (Dubois, "Black
Educators, mostly young women
fully conscious of their role in a massive attempt at social change, worked
throughout the south to lay a foundation for further resistance to the
return of the plantation system. ("We Were There, The Story of Working
Women in America")
As schools grew, so did the school bureaucracy and the people who fed on it. Today the bureaucrats make up a huge constituency (take another look at those opening figures) with interests of it own. But school bureaucrats do not set the mission of the schools, they just try to grab their slice of the pie. The pie itself belongs to the ruling class.
School has four purposes:
Ideological training. School is a weapon of social control. The
key ideological functions of the schools are to mask class struggle, to
build anti-communism (many states, like Florida, have constitutional provisions
requiring entire classes on anti-communism) to teach capitalist values
(individualism, the separation of knowledge and practice, importance of
private property, indeed, knowledge as property) to create divisions (based
on race, sex, age, "merit", wealth, whatever) among people, and to prove
that this is the best of all possible worlds.
In pacified areas, people are
made instruments of their own oppression. The prisoners become the guards,
marshals in demonstrations replace the police. People actively reproduce
their circumstances from day to day with no intuition that things could
be better. People not only reproduce their circumstances, they become complicit
in making things worse. This partisanship in reverse is the key ideological
goal of school.
The flip side of the ideological
assault is equally essential. Schools create false hope, the idea that
every kid is given a broadly equal chance to move up in society based on
school performance. That, as will be shown, is a hoax.
These two sharp edges compose
the cutting sides of the ruling class saber in the schools.
Skill Training. This is a secondary aspect of the key ideological
work that occurs in school. While U.S. society today willingly creates
a sizeable population for which it has little or no real use, schools also
need to overproduce
a group of skilled, and highly-skilled (but intellectually uncritical),
workers, like electrical engineers or atomic scientists, who will be used
to drive down the wages of their counterparts.
The American ruling class actually,
if stupidly, believes that their economic future, derived from military
power, lies with technology; that technological expertise can end,or at
least dominate, class struggle. This misconception splits the ruling class,
one sector believing the U.S. must enter a period of massive reindustrialization
to recreate the industrial base (rebuild the steel industry for example),
while another sector, relishing the techno-smashing of Iraq, simply wants
to spend more on Star Wars. Whatever the case, virtually every elite agrees
on the need for more, many more, technologists.
It's no accident that over one-half
million kids are enrolled in ROTC, building skills to attack working class
people here or abroad. In the same vein, most major research universities
rely primarily on defense money.
The ruling class cries wolf when
they claim the public schools fail to produce technocrats. It simply isn't
true. In both the K-12 arena and public colleges, the U.S. still creates
top-quality technicians. The two-part problem is that the technicians must
work above a collapsed industrial base and, worse, they are not being overproduced,
yet. Technologists, in short supply, demand extraordinary wages, more than
the bosses want to pay. When the pecunious cry that schools are failing,
they mean the schools are failing them.
(See the debate over the condition of America's schools in Education Week,
Schools are critical publicly funded back-ups for attacks on wages and
income in the U.S. In short, schools baby
sit. In some large states like Texas and Florida, 60% of the families
are single-parent. In every state, it takes two parents to earn what one
parent earned in the sixties. The social price for all those kids roaming
the streets in urban areas could be very,very high. So, in traditional
ruling class manner, the people are taxed to resolve a problem their bosses
created and from which managers find profits. Workers pay to warehouse
their own kids.
School is a huge market to sell goods, hire relatives and steal things.
It's the base for several billion-dollar industries: bus transportation,
construction, food service, texts and tests and flags and security firms
and televisions and cable TV. Burger King opens on-site franchises. Kids
are introduced to consumerism by teachers who can't afford the better commodities.
And, of course, drug dealers enroll in school to meet their biggest market.
Given these four key purposes
of education, ideological and skills training, baby sitting and a place
to sell stuff; the remarkable thing about schools is that they aren't worse
than they are.
That's because , just as on the
shop floor or at any other job, the boss isn't entirely in control. The
class in power which must provide a minimum amount of education, even if
only to deceive people and protect profits, has some serious problems.
For example, in order to veil the day to day realities of class struggle
and inequality, the gentry constantly repeat a commitment to democracy
and fairness. Some people develop a fondness for the for those values and
look eagerly for signs of them in real life. Seeing none, citizens get
angry. The resultant possibility for struggle in school is what most activists
To compete in the technological
arena, managers must have at hand considerable scientific data, ever more
so in a complex universe. Only trained experts can create that detailed
information. Given their training, its sometimes hard to convince those
folks that their black colleagues are genetically inferior or that an angry
God rules the universe or that capitalism is the highest stage of human
development. Capitalist elites, with their own profits drawn from conditions
in the real world, must teach some individuals to examine facts and draw
rational conclusions. In their struggle for the truth, not just a few trainees
become critical thinkers.
Organized parents, students or
teachers can affect the quality of education within certain limits, just
as workers can win at least temporary wage hikes or safer working conditions.
Because some organized groups
of parents, teachers, or even kids do fight harder than others, and because
resources vary, schools differ, even within the poorest neighborhoods.
So school is full of contradictions.
Capitalist schools serve capitalism but, like any capitalist institution,
inherent in schools are forces which lend to the production of resistance.
School necessarily brings people
together in a singular setting. While individual teachers do frequently
prefer to just close their doors and teach, it's fairly clear to most of
them that only their COLLECTIVE efforts educate kids (though most teachers
are generally unaware of the importance of the bus driver in getting the
kid there, the cook in feeding the child, the aide in speaking to children
in their own language, the custodian in keeping the place clean, etc.).
Many educators have a sense of
the unity needed to create their product and, occasionally, they make demands
for limited control over what they create.
In addition, school does claim
to be a focal point for the struggle for the truth. Every issue that exists
in society, from war and the draft to aids and welfare policies, is intensified
and a subject for discussion in school. While wealthy elites want the struggle
for the truth to end in a call for faith, many people, inspired by their
hopes to understand and test the world at hand, aspire to go further.
Even if our four point outline is fairly obvious, most American parents still send their children to school because they believe the classroom is a vehicle for a better life, a chance to compete and learn on a fairly equal field for an opportunity to make good. It isn't. Education won't move you up. Neither will being smart. Let's look at three important myths about schools:
#1)Education will move
you up in society. Education may let you roam around a little more
freely within your inherited social class, but school is not the method
to move up. The best way to do that is to be willed money and invest. The
second best way is crime. There is no evidence to show a correlation between
school and real social mobility. This is even more true among minority
As the U.S. economic system collapses,
true social mobility for most people , no matter how many degrees they've
collected, is down. There is more social inequality, and there are more
kids in school, than at any time since the opening of the century. If you
are middle class, you are about to become lower middle class, even if you
become a lower middle class person with a Master's degree. The escape from
the factories is only real today in that are virtually no industrial jobs.
The children of working class parents are graduating into the military
While school may indeed make
a young person a teacher or a social worker, the two key realities are
(1) that the competition for those jobs is intensified by the children
of the upper middle class moving down the ladder and (2) the pay for those
jobs, in real wages, is actually less than the pay for yesterday's factory
jobs, when one factory income would support a family. Your hands may be
cleaner, but you'll be hungrier. In short, schools cannot defeat economic
inequality. They reflect it.
Myth #2)Advancement in education is based on merit. Inequality in the system is based on lack of opportunity or poor parentage.
Good performance in school is
based on tests which measure (1) social class (2)race (3) sex (4) willingness
to persevere and obey. That's true in grading on tests from texts, in nationally
standardized exams like the IQ, SAT, ACT or GRE, and it's true in comparative
evaluations from teachers and bureaucrats who are overwhelmingly white
and almost entirely middle class.
Inequality in the schools' merit
standards reflects the racism and sexism in society. Minority children,
in states which allow it, suffer corporal punishment at a rate of three
times that of white students. IQ and the standardized tests don't measure
a persons ability to size up a given situation and act on it. Rather, they
measure how white or male you are. That's why black children will long
trail their white counterparts in state standardized tests (Washington
Post, 1-13-92). Moreover, most psychological evaluations directed toward
public school kids are skewed to show urban minority children as, at best,
neurotic; not kids angered and sometimes mystified in surroundings they
In short, schools do not create
inequality. Better schools, without fundamental social change, won't eliminate
inequality. Schools do perpetuate inequality. But, again, school itself
is the result of a contest, a conflict over interests and the final sum
represents the power of each of the sides involved.
#3)The bad education system
is to blame for the U.S. economic decline. Better schools can reverse
There is nothing the schools can do to stop the shipwreck of American imperialism. Good schools would not have defeated Ho Chi Minh (General Westmoreland went to a GREAT school, West Point.) Indeed, during the Depression in the thirties, many people sought refuge in schools. Their school work didn't create one new job. It just created a lot of taxi drivers with PHD's. Better schools cannot reverse the inevitable trend of overproduction, open up new markets, discover sources of cheap, passive, labor or raw materials. Schools cannot save capitalism or American democracy. But they can be fruitful work places for people who want to make change. (see Bowles and Gintis)
Over the last thirty years in
the U.S. some popular theorists drew comparisons between schools and the
jails. They argued that schools use prison-like forms of behavior control,
that some teachers act like cops, that schools routinely violate students'
freedoms like free speech or freedom from illegal searches, that some schools
require uniforms, and most school food is, positively, like prison food.
Just like in jail, kids learn not to squeal.
All capitalist institutions are
more alike than different. But schools are not prisons. As anyone who has
wondered about the time of day, or heard a metal door clank shut knows
well, school sends people home at the end of the day. Prisons, just before
death, are the end
of the game. School is the beginning. If there is any analogy at all, the
purpose of school is less to create a potential prisoner that to train
a budding guard.
As the economic crisis deepens,
as the reality of war nears, the ruling class requires a population that
will fight for the owner's interests, not the interests of the majority
of citizens. The majority of the people must be convinced to do battle
for the interests of the real minorities, the rich. That population must
be fooled, that is, the people must be nationalist, racist, sexist; so
fooled they volunteer to die.
Americans have long heard that
all this class war stuff is tripe, that we are in a period of international
peace. Odd, there is a war, still, on every continent but Antarctica and
North America (which sends advisors everywhere) even today. Even so, arguments
that class war is a relic of the past are often based on the notion that
multi-national capitalist companies are so interwoven that capitalism no
longer has a national base.
It is true that a key remaining
contradiction of capitalism is its continuing national base vs. its international
imperialist investments. But the key to any investment is the ability to
defend and expand it. That still requires an army with a home country,
an army rallied around something other than the corporate flag.
World capitalism at peace with
itself is impossible. Capitalism develops unevenly. One country prospers,
another goes jobless. Big fish must eat the small. Any apparent world capitalist-fascist
alliance cannot survive long. And whatever the international viewpoint,
no thinking person can walk the width of any major American city and not
notice some problems between the classes.
Even if the moguls want a fooled populace, they still need a skilled one; experts, not thinkers, racists with computers. People who have internalized capitalist values will be better fighters and more willing to sacrifice than the people who've been jailed by capitalist values.
A second popular analogy is to
call schools factories. The comparison here is closer to the mark. Schools
create products, that is, false hope and future workers. Schools are their
own markets. There's plenty of competition between public and private schools,
but, as in selling soap, the product is much the same. Like workers on
the assembly line, teachers suffer speed-up through increased preparations,
bigger classes, more paperwork, extended school years, expanded testing,
Teachers are alienated, like other workers, in several key ways:
(1) most teachers can't drive
at the truth ("all of history is the history of class struggle" does not
play well in Miami) either by teaching methods to reach it or by simply
announcing it, without fear of discipline. Knowledge in school is broken
into distinct and apparently unrelated parts, English, History, Science,
Civics, and most students are hammered into the seperate boxes with little
attention paid to how these cartegories of thought might fit together.
In most instances, school and life, or more profoundly, school and work
life, have nothing in common. The spiraling levels of standardized testing
make training in critical thinking at best a sidelight. Students have no
control to follow their own paterns of interest. Perhaps worse, many teachers
are products of weak university education classes, some designed to obscure
reality and hide the ways to gain and test knowledge. Even so, schools
offer a wider margin to build a base for critical thinking AND action than
any factory setting.
(2) Teachers have little control
over either the direction (curriculum, etc.) of their work, or the use
of the finalized product (the kid). While current reform efforts often
give teachers greater control over the form of education (you can now arrange
your chairs in any manner you choose), standardized testing slashes their
control over its substance.
Like factory workers, teachers
generally know that it takes a collective effort from dozens of educators
and other school workers to teach any kid. But few if any teachers have
ever gone beyond petty reform struggles (for example, the currently trendy
site-based decision making) or craft union battles (defense of certification
requirements or higher pay). Teachers rarely challenge the form (dominance/subordination,
competition, etc) or substance (lies, boredom and diversions) which compose
the essence of education.
But there is a sense of decency,
of mutual concern, of nurturing, in most schools that, superficially, might
contradict the harsh noise of a factory, but which really parallels the
solidarity of kindness that exists among industrial factory workers whose
lives and limbs are always at risk. Still, in schools, perhaps because
of the kids, people have a greater chance to talk sincerely about common
Many teachers can isolate themselves
in their rooms. Their ability to simply close the door and lock out their
world differentiates them from other workers. Moreover, schools don't actually
create surplus value--they exist due to it.
Schools do, in many ways, mirror
factories. But school principals, even in urban areas, are viewed less
as the straw bosses they sometimes are than benevolent patrons. The ideological
nature of the work, balanced as it may be by the more material baby sitting
service, means the struggles on the job are less immediate. There is an
old tradition, "The Education Family", that lingers in school. It's the
idea that we, as educators, whether we're the lowest paid elementary teacher
or Harvard's biggest wig proclaiming the inferiority of black people as
discovered in the hierogliphics, are all in this together, facing a populace
of Huns. Lee Iacocca promotes a similar idea among Chrysler workers. But
the "Education Family", of late, saw many more strikes than the entire
Few, if any, industrial deaths
occur in school. Rather than overproduction as an uncontrollable result
of the anarchy of privately owned production, schools deliberately overproduce
Factories don't require people
to speak to each other. There's no pretense that work in a factory is "good
for democracy". Families of workers don't meet in the factory to discuss
trends in production.
Even more stretched is the effort
to call school kids factory workers. While there is, in some areas, an
effort to imbue a subservient, disciplined mind-set, it remains that school
kids enjoy much greater latitude than laborers chasing a line.
Alienation, in its classical
Marxist interpretation, contains three elements: Economic alienation rooted
in the separation of people from the means of production and subsistence,
the loss of control over the direction of work, that is, the necessary
sale of labor to an overseer who regulates what will be done and how, and,
third , the products of collective labor do not belong to the workers.
Instead, what is created by very many people comes to be owned by a very
few. Relations between people become transformed into relations between
In school, students and teachers
often treat each other as objects. Kids avoid "hard teachers" who are turned
into tough sources of good grades. Teachers classify students less in terms
of curiosity than in degrees of potential annoyance. We have seen how everyone
in school is restrained from the prime goal education claims; the struggle
for knowledge. In sum, teachers fit the alientation template, if in somewhat
less severe ways.
Classical Marxists generally
argue that the only way to beat alienation is to make a revolution, set
up the dictatorship of the proletariat, winnow away the classes, build
a level of abundance beyond our imagination and hang on for better days.
There is something religious, pie in the sky about all this. What is missed
is the integrated feeling that derives from a coherent grasp of one's surroundings,
the impudent determination to do something about it, and the plain action
of resistance to injustice. Resistance does not overcome the material basis
of alienation, fundamentally packed up in exploitation, but resistance
does address the depression, the vaporous internalized anger, that necessarily
steams in deeply alienated people. There is no sanctioned sector of society
where there is more opportunity to resist, to struggle for change, than
Let us simply resolve that school is school, with similarities and differences to other parts of the world, but unique. With this agreement to view schools as themselves, specific entities, we can now examine the component parts of schools: the students, their molding, the teachers and other workers, parents, the bogus reform movements and, finally, what can be done.