Why Have School?

An Exercise

Presented by Rich Gibson at the Rouge Forum

Louisville, March 14, 2008

This exercise begins with a series of questions which can be presented to nearly any education-based group, from the upper-elementary grades to Ph.D. programs. The questions are questions that should be asked in any class, but rarely are. The exercise can usually be worked in a 90 minute period, though around 150 minutes is ideal.

In this case, I most surely have a direction that I want the group to take, but every group is different and the initial answers usually need interrogation from one angle or another. The big goal is to apply the viewpoint of dialectical materialism to school, to show people how, in ways drawn from their own immediate experiences, they too can do analysis of any situation, comprehend and seek to change the world.

There are advantages. Beginning a class with these questions will tell you a lot about the students, their own experiences, their standpoints. It sets up a point of reference that can be returned to throughout coming classes.

Since each group is different, I will make here only a brief attempt to predict the answers, but offer my own. I don’t expect anyone to take on my answers, but I do think the questions are good ones.

            *Why Have School?

            *What are the Key Things Happening in Schools Today?

            *What are the Key Things Happening in Society?

            *From This Analysis, What Shall We Do and Think?

Let us begin with the first question: Why Have School?

Depending on your audience, you will get answers ranging from, “to help create citizens in a democracy,” to “teaching people the 3 R’s,” to “reproducing the system of capital as it is.”

A presenter can work these answers in any number of ways, by taking them one at a time and interrogating each as you go, or by amassing a list of answers, then making a “counter-list.”

Since school is a profoundly contradictory place, where social control meets profiteering inside a history that comes right out of the Church, it is not hard to find contradictions to replies, in hopes of offering people more than a one-eyed take on education.

For example, in response to the somewhat jaded, “reproducing the system of capital as it is,” a presenter might respond with, “doesn’t teaching people to read have an aspect of liberation?” It does, of course, but then one must find the dominant side of that contradiction, perhaps in the fact that many slaves were taught how to read in order to keep track of and oppress other slaves. Or, among the most literate societies in the world in the mid-30's were Germany and Japan. Fascism became very popular in both places, fast. Reading may make us more powerful (societies that cannot read cannot produce interchangeable parts for weapons), but there is no direct line from reading to wisdom. Still, literacy is surely preferable to illiteracy.

Or, from another angle, the answer “to produce citizens in a democracy,” a presenter might challenge the very notion of democracy, or citizenship. Where is the democracy in school ? What are its limits? How do societies produce democratic citizens who never operated in a democratic arena?

To me, the answers to “Why Have School?” lies in this:

            *Schools are huge multi-billion dollar markets where profit and loss always influences almost everything. Consider the busses, the architects, textbook sales, consultants, the developers for the buildings, the upkeep, the grounds, the sports teams, salaries, etc. Cost is always an issue in school. This is, after all, capitalism (a maneuver drawn from dialectical materialism, abstracting, looking to history–the Church-- and locating school in its historical place: capitalist schooling).

            This answer can lead to other good interrogations like: Is there a single public school system in the US (or wherever)? Actually, there is not. There are five or six carefully segregated school systems, based mostly on class and race. The capitalist market necessarily creates inequality, not only in the pocket, but in the mind.

            There is a pre-prison school system in Detroit or Compton, a pre-Walmart system in National City, a pre-craft worker system in City Heights, a pre-teacher or social worker system in Del Cero, a pre-med or pre-law system in Lajolla and Birmingham, and a completely private school system where rich people send their kids, like George W. Bush or Mitt Romney.

            Rich schools teach different realities using different methods from poor schools. In rich schools the outlook is: “This globe is ours; let us see how we can make it act.” In the poorest schools, the outlook is, “Tell me what to do and I will do it.”

            “Public schools” are, in fact, funded by an unjust tax system that forces the working classes to pay for their own mis-education. These are not just schools but, again, capitalist schools.

            It is usually easy to track the role of the market in schools by checking the campaign contributors to school board members. The sources of their power are the Men, and Women, Behind the Screen, who have very special interests in determining how schools function.

            There is, in schools unlike most factories, a tension between elites’ desire for social control and profitability. This can be seen in the contradictions within elite groups about the privatization of schools. Old guards like the Rockefeller Foundation oppose privatization, perhaps because they rightly see they can exert a great deal of control over tax funded schools, while new entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Eli Broad pour millions into privatization schemes. Who will win? I bet on the old guard.

            *Skill and Ideological Training. Most groups will come up with a lot of this and miss the role of the market entirely. Under Skill Training we might list, of course, “the three r’s,” along with music, art, athletics, theater, science, etc. That list comes fast and easy.

            But Ideological Training is another thing. Most people treat the word “ideology, in ways that most philosophers do not, i.e., as just a system of ideas as opposed to a system of ideas that is designed to deceive. So, a presenter may need to work out with the group what it is they mean by ideology. In any event, Ideological Training would include nationalism (the daily salute to the flag, school spirit, etc.) as well as the training in viewpoints established by teaching distinct substance in the segregated schools, using different methods. Beyond nationalism, one clear purpose of most schooling is to make the system of capital natural, almost invisible, and to present it as the highest, last, stage of human development.

            Here too a presenter can note that it is illegal in US capitalist schools to teach the central issues of life: Labor (involving the communist movement), rational knowledge (opposing the many Imaginary Friends that people think are in charge), love (tied to pleasure, sensuality, aesthetics, as well as reproduction), and freedom (which does not exist in school life). Or a presenter might begin with, “What cannot be taught, by law, in schools?” Or, “What are the central issues of human life? What must people do to live?”

            *Baby-Sitting. Warehousing kids. Even naive audiences usually get to this if the presenter is patient. Babysitting is a key role played by capitalist schools. One way to find out, “Why have school,” is to experiment, close them. In our case, teacher strikes serve as a good test subject. In school strikes (no sane union shuts down a football program), the first people to begin to complain are usually merchants around middle schools–who get looted. The second group is the parents of elementary students, quickly followed by their employers. (These realities can help demonstrate to elementary educators their potential power—along with setting up kids’ entire world views).

            The baby-sitting role is, again, funded by an unjust tax system and serves as a giant boon to companies that refuse to provide day care for their employees–but are able to duck taxes as well.

            *Schools fashion Hope: real and false. Audiences rarely get to this. However, on one hand it is clear that societies where Hope is foreclosed foster the potential of mass uprisings: France in the summer of 1968 is a good example of what can happen; uprisings starting in school and quickly involving the working classes nearly overthrew the government. Real hope might be found in showing kids we can comprehend and change the world, collectively, and teaching them how. Ask, “Why are things as they are?” every day. Or, in demonstrating that we are responsible for our own histories, but not our birthrights. False hope might be the typical school hype: Anyone can make it, all you must do is work hard. Nonsense. Inheritance is, more than ever, the key to understanding that.

            *Schools create the next generation of workers. Automatons or rebels, or something in between, a process with some witting direction.

Taken in sum, this is the terrific surplus value that teachers create--and why we are paid fairly well as the last large group in the US that has health benefits(you might ask, “What value to school workers–a better term–create? How do we do it? (collectively) “How do we control what we create? (In solidarity). Who controls what we create now? Why do we not control the processes of our work (inside the market)? Why, when every nation needs more teachers, must we fight with each other for jobs? Why is the school worker force so segregated (90 percent white and growing more-so)?

What are the Key Things Happening in School Today?

It is remarkable that there is such quick agreement about this, from pre-service teachers to students, to profs and all in between.

            *Standardization. The regimentation of the curricula and teaching methods, what people come to know and how they come to know it via, for example, reading or history standards. How these standards came to be is a good question, and the presenter should know the answer.

            *High Stakes Testing. Always racist, always anti-working class, measuring little but parental income, race, and subservience, behind a mask of science and equality. Those familiar with Marx’s Labor Theory of Value will find a useful analogy. A pretense of equality is established. Every child arrives to take the same test and, presumably, if they work hard they will win. But what of the kid arriving hungry, or angry, or abused, in a room with no heat?

            This is like the “fair day’s work for a fair days’ pay,” myth of capitalism which throws the mass of people into ruthless competition for jobs, then never pays the full value of labor–thus the origins of profits. Each fashions an appearance of equality, and an essence of deepening inequality.

            *Militarization. Since the September 11 2001, the military invaded schools with a vengeance. Their relentless recruiting is, not surprisingly, running along class lines, enforcing he economic draft, demonstrating that there is an inequitable schools-to-war pipeline.

            *Privatization. This is a distant fourth, for reasons described above, but the reality of the privatization of New Orleans, as elites moved fast to wipe out poverty by vanishing the poor, cannot be ignored.


            *Layoffs, cutbacks in libraries, books, supplies, etc.

What Are the Key Things Happening in Society?

Here a presenter may find some very interesting dialogue and dispute. Let us use a re-ordered list from a recent presentation, understanding that the audience was a group of skeptical profs and grad students:

            *The Promise of Perpetual War is real.

            *Rising inequality, CEO pay vs mass layoffs of industrial workers.

            *Economic crises like the national debt, inflation, mortgage and personal debt crises, booming gas, transportation and food costs.

            *A decaying ability of families to hold together with people working more and more hours with less time for kids, divorce, etc.

            * Deindustrialization. The dominance of finance capital.

            *Rising irrationalism, i.e., fundamentalist churches or the national election when mysticism is a candidate requirement.

            *Hyper nationalism and racism as a backdrop for everything, including the election.

            *Spectacles—Super bowls, World Series, or just drunk days like St Patricks.

            *A near zipped up relationship of corporations and government.

            *Abolition of old labor and civil rights laws like habeas corpus and the construction of outlaw prisons like Guantanamo and secret prisons as well.

            *Violence in entertainment like “Cops,” or “True Tv,” or video games.

            *Fascination with exploitative sex.

That will do. Jean Anyon famously says, “Doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities is like washing the air on one side of a screen door; it just won’t work.”

Surely this statement nicely sums up a clear relationship of school and society that is routinely denied, both by the disingenuous powerful as well as too-kind people who work in schools.

The role of de-industrialization means that school workers are centripetally positioned in a powerful spot: the place where most people organize their daily lives. Schools do not just teach, but in many cases offer food, medical care, meeting places, etc. There are 49 million students in k12 schools now, all with parents, most with siblings. One-half of them are draft eligible in the next four years. Schools produce, presumably, ideas. Perhaps they could be ideas about new and better ways to live. In any case, school workers have incredible potential power. What we do counts more than ever. Since good teaching and organizing are very much alike, school worker potential power is redoubled.

Once people have worked through some of the daily realities of school and social life, it makes sense to ask them to place schooling in its context, to Abstract, or step back and see the big picture again. The big picture, I think, is that this is capitalism, these are capitalist schools, missions for the system of capital, but that education workers, who have more freedom than most workers, can choose whether or not they will be missionaries for the system of capital. Of course, they have to consider carefully how to teach against capital’s motive forces, fear and greed, by gaining the power to do so.

And this then leads to yet another demonstration of how capitalist democracy, which is a perversion of democracy and not democracy, works. In the schools of capitalist democracy, as with any other form of capitalist government, lies the violence that is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of the system. That violence can be portrayed as the kind of drill and skill pedagogy that succeeds in making kids learn to not like to learn, or more graphically, it can be see in truancy laws. If you do not come to school, you or your parents face arrest and fines: cops.

What Have We Done?

We have used the systematic approach of dialectical and historical materialism to schooling. We have located schools in their historical and social context. We have examined the contradictions in schooling using, for example, the processes of moving what appears to be to what is, appearance to essence, or the interaction of form (big tests) and content (lies). Our next step is to ask the question below:

What to Do?

In my eyes, justice demands organization. Organization must be propped up on legs of reason and passion in order to win the power all working people need to transform the world system of capital into a social system where all can live freely through mutual care, where creativity can be unleashed, reason celebrated, sensuality and aesthetics come out in the open. There will be sacrifice to get from here to there, but within that sacrifice we can find our own ways to be fully human.

Your conclusion is, of course, yours.

Up the rebels.

Those interested in a further look at dialectical materialism can check here:


and a longer version: