19 July 2013

(Un)Education in America

Tomorrow's schools, today
In June I wrote a post about the internship and its role in the redefinition of labor and training. Widespread divestment from training, in which the cost of training is transferred from the employer onto workers, is manifesting itself as a demand for prior experience. Workers are to have been trained elsewhere, and are expected to hit the ground running. Paired with a general job shortage, these demands for experience can only be met at the workers’ expense, by paying for training programs or by working for free. The internship is a perfect example of this trend.

But there is another, arguably more important aspect of divestment from training—the turn toward cutting and streamlining public education. Primary and secondary schooling is intended to foster good citizenship, to provide care for children while their parents work, and to train productive future employees, among other things. Today, we are seeing a redefinition of the government’s role as educator and trainer that could prove vital to any future economy.

Universal education is one of the quintessential features of a modern state. It seeks to educate every child with the same skills and information, to prepare them to be functioning citizens. This model of state-sponsored education originated in the early modern era and grew in importance through the 19th century. Truly universal coverage began in Western countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making education an integral part of Fordist and pre-Fordist state system. Totalitarian states blatantly employed it as a means of indoctrination and military training, while in social democratic states the education system was a manifestation of modern values.

Yet, modernist goals aside, education has always been subordinated to the economy. Child laborers were often taught only after their shifts, for example, and the school year itself was based on the assumption that it should not interfere with work. Rural school years were divided in two to allow students to help sow in the spring and harvest in the fall. In the 20th century, education patterns played a major role in globalization, helping to ensure that highly skilled jobs gravitated toward Western states while unskilled labor rolled ever outward toward capitalism’s periphery.

This modernist model has prevailed for over a century, but in the United States and elsewhere we may now be witnessing the birth of a new model, an educational system run outside the state, sometimes for profit, and often with public money. Charter schools are the most obvious evidence of this trend. Run by private institutions with public money, they represent the retreat of the state from the preparation of new generations as citizens and workers. The growth of the for-profit college and university system is another equally important part of this shift. In these institutions education has been fully commodified, and is marketed, bought, and rendered in the same manner as other services.

As austerity further strips all but the most definitional functions from the state, education, too, is on the chopping block. Even in countries that developed not only universal secondary but fully funded and guaranteed higher education, the logic of austerity is rendering these guarantees not only obsolete but actual threats to the countries’ political and economic stability.

In some ways, this move toward the privatization of education is analogous to any other expansion of capitalism into a new market. And, like all under-explored markets, education has witnessed some incredible changes due to capital investment. More than ever before, education is increasingly seen and understood not merely by businesses but by people themselves as an unfortunate and costly necessity, nothing more than the means of production of labor power—debates about whether high school graduates would be better off paying for college or seeking work immediately go around and around. Like other production processes, different firms compete over how to be as efficient as possible in adding value to the product—educated children and youth. Language, history, music, art, and other subjects not directly related to the jobs students might one day hold are to be cut and potentially replaced with more productive subjects such as math and science. This reflects a near total abandonment of the modernist, citizen-constructing goals of the education system. Only knowledge and skills which would produce profit in today’s markets are given any importance or funding.

Education is to be profitable, both for the educator and the student’s future employer. It is to be cheap and efficient. And it is to be quantifiable—measured for evaluation and comparison, perfect fodder for PowerPoint presentations or news show infographics. Contemporary institutional obsession with standardized testing should be understood as the latest attempt to take control of the very definition of education from educators and put it in the hands of business consultants and bureaucrats.

Education is being revalued in a way that is favorable to businesses and the state but unfavorable to many citizens. As mechanization and globalization undermine the middle ground between the highly skilled and unskilled, a middle ground we once called the middle class, the value in educating every citizen is more and more economically dubious. The city of Chicago plans to close 50 public schools, citing budget restrictions, and overwhelming affecting black students. Similar plans have been proposed or carried out in other American cities.

The racist and discriminatory nature of these plans is so obvious that it seems absurd that anyone would deny it. These cities are sending a clear message—they are no longer willing to support the education of racial minorities that society has already largely consigned to a marginal economic position. The investments in personnel and infrastructure needed to rebuild crumbling school buildings and educational systems are no longer vital to the economy, and have been all but abandoned politically. Industrial blue-collar jobs, with their mixture of acquired skills and manual labor, have all but disappeared, and the economy no longer needs children to be prepared for them. Educational resources are allocated for privileged communities and cut for oppressed ones, both reflecting and serving to uphold the social distinctions that the modernist education sought to destroy.

As neoliberalism gives way to its successor or successors, our societies and economies will shift and change in ways we would never have expected. As a manifestation of that, the redefinition of the state’s relationship to its citizens is not more unusual or surprising than the changes that occurred after World War I or in the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism. Though this is no reassurance to those of us who have to live through it, these moments of renegotiation can sometimes be opportunities as well as trials. The future of education is far from decided, and the trends and strategies laid out here are already being challenged by those who believe education should do something more than prepare a child to make a profit for somebody else. I will turn to consider some of these struggles, and their potential consequences, in a future post.


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  2. As far as I can tell, cuts in state-funded education and the imposition of a corporate agenda on what remains are worldwide phenomena. They reflect a long-held fear of the elites, namely that education for the masses inevitably gives rise to what neocon sociologist Samuel Huntington called "an excess of democracy" (check it out, a real classic, The Crisis of Democracy, 1975, p. 113). The current attack thus marks the culmination of a program that emerged at the very outset of the neoliberal period. But the paradox - or rather, the contradiction in Marx's sense of the word - is that there have never been so many people in school as today. In the US, even as outsourcing and automation cut ever more deeply into white collar work, the volume of new student loans has hit an all-time high. Credentials are perceived as an absolute necessity for getting any kind of job at all. But the jobs aren't there, or if they are, the salaries are so low that the loans cannot be paid. Since the last economic expansion was all about computerization and free trade on a global scale, touching off a tremendous development of higher education in the former Third World, it becomes very hard to see where new sources of middle-class employment will come from in the US. Yet students still pay through the nose for university, as they increasingly do in Europe and Asia. Indebted graduates equipped with research skills, not to mention basic concepts of critical philosophy and political science, will want to know why society has developed in this particular way.

    A contradiction is what happens when the core logic of a social system produces trends undermining that system's own stability. Surely the production of a highly educated but increasingly unemployable population is one of those trends. For decades it has been generating a new class fraction, one that is only imaginable in the wake of a collapsing Fordist social democracy. Check out, for example, Guy Standing's book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Classes. It's based on concepts developed by French and Italian activist vanguards in the 2000s. It came out just before the Indignado movement erupted in Spain and Occupy hit in the States. But this is not only a Euro-American issue. The entire global cycle of social movements that began in 2011, right up to the recent outbursts in Turkey and Brazil, has been at least partially generated by this contradiction.

    In the New Left Review, Goran Therborn says this: "Class and class conflict in the 21st century will develop in two new configurations, both predominantly non-European and with their centres of gravity well to the south of Natoland. One is likely to be driven by the hopes and resentments of the middle class. Another will find its base among workers and the popular classes in all their diversity — the plebeians, rather than the proletariat. In both configurations we can distinguish two conceivable paths ahead." Can the aspirant and/or falling middle classes escape the fascist destiny that was theirs in the early twentieth century? Can the precariat strike up a common cause with the plebeians? That may well depend on the theory, the ethics and the politics of alienated college grads, like those who write and read this blog.

  3. I couldn't agree more, Paul. The contradiction you mention above is precisely what motivated my thinking in this and my previous post about internships. It seems to me that we churn out vast numbers of educated young people, and even encourage older folks to return and get the degrees they skipped as youths, while simultaneously pursuing technologies and social systems that render those educations increasingly irrelevant to the production of surplus value. Computerization and programming lie at the heart of a lot of this, decimating journalism, publishing, and other educated fields of business. If (when) programs become able to write copy and grade essays, and nearly all office work is digitized, white collar work could experience the same deskilling and industry collapse that beset American manufacturers over the last four decades. Coupled with government budget cutting austerity as a response to the crisis, larger and larger numbers of educated folks may find it harder to find work that can compensate for the time and money they spent gaining their once valuable skills; they will certainly have a hard time living up to the lifestyle they once enjoyed.

    I'm no optimist about the potential of students or the youth as a revolutionary, or even an oppositional force. Most people go to college not to learn but to make more money, after all. As a student activist I always thought of my goals as being 1) to prepare myself and others to mobilize and campaign after graduation, and 2) to win whatever fight I was fighting at the time - in that order. But I agree that in the sense that the youth are future workers and citizens mobilizing and engaging with them is absolutely vital. As you say, there are few things more politically dangerous than an unmobilized, (self-identified) disenfranchised middle class.

    Our culture loves to laugh at new college graduates - political cartoons and jokes are full of grads asking "would you like fries with that?" The message is that they are wrong for the world they live in. I think that , if the left is to win over the youth, our message would have to be that the world is wrong for them.

  4. "It seems to me that we churn out vast numbers of educated young people, and even encourage older folks to return and get the degrees they skipped as youths, while simultaneously pursuing technologies and social systems that render those educations increasingly irrelevant to the production of surplus value."

    In effect, that's one of the basic contradictions of capitalism, what Postone calls the "treadmill" effect: the system depends both on the exploitation of employees and on the mass consumption of commodities, yet it tends simultaneously to eliminate employment through automation and therefore to leave people without the means of consumption. In the periods of growth and expansion nobody notices this; but then the recession comes, and we've all seen it before, the turn of the wheel, the same thing again and again. The treadmill.

    When that dismaying feeling strikes in the realm of education, it hits the core of US society. This country has always been enamoured of education; and credentialization has been at the basis of middle-class formation, which has been stronger here than maybe anywhere else in the world. Through credentials, professionals sought to erect barriers around their economic activities, and for better or often worse, they sought to govern those activities from within. That's the opposite of precarity: it's a feeling (however illusory) of relative autonomy. I'm very interested in the sociology of professionalization, because it explains a lot about the worldview of both the aspirant and the falling middle classes.

    From Johnson's Great Society programs onward, the belief developed that professional privileges could be extended to the entire population. Student loans became the vehicle of that extension. And then they became yet another medium for the predatory financial capitalism that has ruled this country since the 1980s. The quest for relative autonomy became a gigantic trap for millions of people. Here we have a classic contradiction of the capitalist democracies: a social order that embodies both a promise and a stark denial. We have to politicize this contradiction, now. You're right: the world no longer fits people's more-or-less legitimate aspirations. The single most important thing about the current crisis is that it offers a chance - if only we could take it - to change both the aspirations and the world.

  5. I want to introduce a note of caution. I think the analysis is absolutely right, and I also think it's vitally important to figure out how to organize educated youth whose prospects are collapsing before their eyes. But I don't think that the realm of education is, strategically, a very good prospect for that. Two reasons for that. First, I think education is a secondary or tertiary attribute of the society, subject to its logic but not foundational in any sense to that logic. So if we did revolutionize the education system, it would just make education irrelevant rather than change the system in any important way.

    Second, I think that in isolation from a broader transformation, successful interventions in the education system would probably have perverse unintended consequences. Take for example the student debt issue. Let's say we mobilized a lot of pressure on the state to do something about it, what would be likely to happen? Since mobilizing all that pressure wouldn't change the economic pressures that lawmakers are struggling under, it would probably just accelerate the destruction of mass higher education in favor of MOOCs, which would be much cheaper for students (reducing the need to take out loans) and would do just as good a job at what the education system fundamentally is supposed to do within the logic of neoliberalism, which is provide a credential for use in competition on the job market. That's the worst possible outcome, because it would also eliminate universities as a space for incubating critical consciousness on a mass scale.

    That's not to say that the critique of education has no place in the movement we need, but the demands need to exceed the realm of education from the start or they'll just intensify the crisis while degrading our ability to develop a progressive path out of it.

  6. Indeed, to "politicize the contradiction" as I understand it would imply overflowing the initial institutional site, in order to address larger social problems of which that particular contradiction is only one manifestation. This has happened to some degree already with Occupy, whose central figure was the "graduate without a future." The Strike Debt movement that emerged out of the ruins of Occupy was very promising, but it collapsed, possibly through sabotage by the FBI or more likely because it's just so difficult to keep up a social movement in this country.

    If you look back, Occupy was preceded by the student movement in California in 2009, which was the biggest student movement in the US since the Sixties. I think that left intellectuals should push for round 3 of this conflict. Since we live and work in a knowledge-based economy, it's hard to see where any transformative agency can come from, if not from those who stand on the threshold of entry - or possibly, non-entry - to that economy.

    As for the problem of unwanted consequences, I understand the concern, but those consequences are already massively underway. That's what the California movement was about, in fact: it was not only protesting the continuing rise in tuition but also the draconian downsizing of the humanities, the chopping of entire departments, the reduction of English to vocational writing, etc. Right now, because of the student loan dilemma and the fiscal crisis of the state governments, there is a tremendous push to transform public higher education through what is called "disruptive innovation" - basically the Silicon Valley interpretation of Schumpeter's classic neoliberal concept of creative destruction. This is not abut elite schools like UofC or Northwestern, but the state universities where 80% of degrees are given. The idea is to introduce MOOCs in order to lessen the cost of a BA (ideally to $10,000) and simultaneously accustom students to the kind of standardized and targeted training that the corporations want. And the idea is also to tap the global education market. Check out Clayton Christensen's recent book on the subject, or this article.

    I'm afraid that universities as a space for incubating critical consciousness on a mass scale are already quite threatened. Without another broad conflict, emerging from and overflowing the universities, the institutional transformation will simply proceed and we will have Neoliberalism 2.0: a fully globalized, knowledge-based, technocratic post-democracy for 15 or 20% of the world's population. Rather than fiddling on the roof, the super-empowered global class will out-compete each other in the stratosphere while the empire burns. A stark scenario but an increasingly realistic one.

  7. I'm actually not inclined to view the poor prospects for current graduates as particularly illustrative of social contradiction. Of course, I agree that the contradiction is there: the immense potential of highly trained and educated individuals to improve society is squandered because of the lack of opportunities for employment. A society that can produce untold quantities of material necessities and potentially render most labor redundant keeps reasserting the necessity of increasingly empty and impoverishing jobs.

    But this contradiction is only evident if we understand society as an antagonistic totality, connected globally through relations of commodity exchange that make us all liable to claims on our objectified time. In this conception, the market is only one form--though a particularly important one--in which these social relations can appear as a reification. Needless to say, this is a conception that is foreign to the thought-worlds of neoliberal society. In our society, the market is seen as a natural, even primal sphere capable of establishing the 'true' value of an individual's labor/time. 'Political' opinion can range from the libertarian ideal of 'just let the market sort it out' to a liberal policy of 'help those at the bottom work their way up.' In either case, the necessity of the market isn't in question.

    I think that this ideological hangover--the understandings of society characteristic of neoliberal society that have stuck around despite the evaporation of their social basis in the crisis--explains the fact that people from politicians to CEOs to regular folks have tended to return to ways of understanding and attempting to address our current problems in ways that are now anachronistic. Thus, the current attempt to enforce austerity as a solution to the crisis despite the many ways in which this approach is obviously counterproductive.

    To return to the issue of recent graduates, it is only too plausible to many that it's up to these graduates to be flexible and adapt their skills and experience to the needs of the market. This is the common sense of neoliberalism... "Need a job? Invent it!" When the economy takes a dive (for whatever reason: too much free spending by the immoral poor, China's protectionist policies, Voodoo...) it doesn't appear contradictory that standards of living will fall, even for the well educated.

  8. Paul C. describes our situation as follows: "Since we live and work in a knowledge-based economy, it's hard to see where any transformative agency can come from, if not from those who stand on the threshold of entry - or possibly, non-entry - to that economy."

    I find this to be insightful and even inspiring, but I'm not at all sure it describes our moment. Rather, I think it describes the moment of the 1960s in which it was precisely the students to whom the contradictoriness of society was most evident, because everything that society promised and asked them to help build--freedom, equality, the end of poverty and want--was being de facto negated in the form of society itself.

    By contrast we live in a society born in that moment of rejection of the bad faith promise of guaranteed freedom and equality, if only you would play ball with the powers-that-be and don't demand everything all at once. Our society promises, and we ask for nothing more than an honest chance, so failure, even spectacular failure comes as no surprise.

    Those who stand ready to enter the knowledge economy are therefore not the most likely to challenge this logic, since their mode of life and the life paths that stand--or stood--open to them are premised on it. Rather I argue that the workers who have thus far been brutally marginalized by neoliberalism stand in a better position to realize their essential importance for a society that desperately relies on an intricate and nimble infrastructure capable of delivering goods and services almost instantly and with great efficiency. A society that must continue to enlarge and spread that infrastructure or perish, and that only seems to have rendered the impoverished masses of humanity irrelevant to its self-perpetuation.