Present and Future Education

Thinking about education involves two broad frames of reference that in turn generate two approaches of study.


Part of education is intrinsic and oriented to the individual. To think about education starting with the student, we examine the process of conveying information and skills and developing talents in students. We ask what is the best way to educate students given the exigencies of what is taught, the attributes of students, and the abilities of teachers?


But part of education is also contextual and social. To think about education starting with society, we examine the process of transferring information and skills and developing talents from the point of view of society’s needs. We ask, what is the best way to educate students consistent with accomplishing what society seeks?


Ideally we will get the same answer from either of these angles. Ideally society’s interests and those of each new generation of students will accord. If so, we will have a clear agenda. If not, we will have to choose between serving students or serving society’s dictates.


Most readers of this essay live in societies that have capitalist economies with private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision-making, and market allocation.


Because of these institutions, capitalism has huge disparities in wealth and income. About two percent of the population, called capitalists, own productive property and accrue the benefits. What I call the coordinator class of empowered lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, and so on, includes roughly 20% of the population, largely monopolizes empowering work and the daily levers of control over their own and other people’s economic lives. The coorindators enjoy high incomes, great personal and group influence over economic outcomes, and great status. Finally, the bottom 80% do largely rote work, take orders from those above, barely influence economic outcomes, and receive low income. This is the working class.


This threefold class division is brought into being by the key institutions of capitalism. First, private ownership of productive property demarcates the dominant capitalist class. Markets structurally impose on owners a need to accumulate profits. The corporate decision-making structure gives them their ultimate power to dispose over their property.


Second, the low number of owners and large requirements of control propel creation of an intermediate coordinator class. The corporate division of labor defines the coordinator class as monopolizing empowering work and access to daily decision making levers. The requisites of legitimation ensure that this class will also monopolize training, skills, and knowledge – as well as the confidence that accompany these.


Third, all these features ensure that the largest portion of citizens are left with little or no individual bargaining power, having to work for low wages at rote, tedious, obedient jobs.


These features will vary in the suffering they impose as well as the options they permit, depending on the relative bargaining power of the three classes. But in every instance of capitalism, the broad scaffolding of the economy’s defining institutions will be the same. What about implications for education?


If an economy has 2% ruling, about 18-20% administering and defining, and about 80% obeying, then each year’s new recruits from the educational system must be acclimated to occupy its designated slots. It must be prepared to exercise its functions, to pay attention to its responsibilities, to ignore distractions. This is true for those who will rule, for those who will have great but less than ruling power, and for those who will overwhelmingly obey.


A useful word for all this is channeling. Each new generation is channeled into its appropriate destination. The educational system takes the incoming population and processes it so that for about 80% of its members the inclination to impact events is reduced to nearly nil, confidence is nearly obliterated, knowledge is kept minimal and narrow, and the main skills learned are to obey and to endure boredom. Another 20 percent are channeled to expect to have a say, to have confidence, to have a monopoly on various skills and insights, and so on. The elite learn at the major societal “finishing schools” such as Harvard and Oxford how to have dinner with one another, and otherwise comport themselves in accord with their lofty station.


The point is simple. If a society requires its populace to have three broad patterns of hopes, expectations, and capacities, its educational system will divide its populace and provide precisely those differentiated outcomes. In that context, any effort to look at education from the perspective of each individual maximally developing their potentials and pursuing their interests will either be mere rhetoric, or limited by presuppositions that most people have no serious potentials or interests, or will try to attain outcomes against the economy’s needs. Indeed, these are precisely the attitudes regarding education we see in our societies.


Is there any alternative? Will society’s hierarchies always trump pedagogy aimed at the development of each student’s potentials and aspirations? Will significant gains for students only arrive as a result of struggle, and only persist while they are steadfastly defended, being periodically obliterated whenever vigilance diminishes?


When the Carnegie Commission on Education considered the state of U.S. education as part of a governmental effort to understand what “went wrong” in the 1960s, it decided that the problem was too much education. The population, the commission reported, expected to have too much say in society, too much income, too much job fulfillment, too much dignity and respect — and upon getting ready to enter the economy, many members of the population had their expectations trashed and rebelled. The solution, the commission reported, was to reduce the tendency for education to induce high expectations in most of the population. It was necessary to cut back higher education and make lower education more rote and mechanical – save for those who were destined to rule, of course.


If we look at education from the angle of the person to be educated, authors and readers of this book may have differences or open questions about exact methodologies, but I suspect we would all agree on broad aims.


Students should be assisted to discover their capacities and potentials, to explore them, and to fulfill those they wish to elaborate, while simultaneously becoming broadly confident and able to think and reason and argue and assess in the ways needed to be one among many socially equal and caring actors. Others might formulate this mandate a bit differently, but one thing is quite clear. For this type education to happen, society must need this type of incoming adult. It must not want wage slaves who are obedient and passive, for example.


So to be compatible with worthy pedagogy conceived from the angle of the student, the economy needs to call forth from each participant the fullest utilization of their capacities and inclinations. What kind of economy, in place of capitalism, could do this?


The alternative I propose I call participatory economics or parecon for short. In summary, parecon seeks to fulfill four key values (in addition to meeting needs and fulfilling potentials) via the use of four defining institutional commitments. The values are solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management. The institutions are workers and consumers councils with self managed decision making norms and methods, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning.


In summary, the first value is solidarity. Capitalism is a system in which to get ahead one must trample others. You must ignore the horrible pain suffered by those left below or literally step on them, pushing them farther down. In capitalism, as a famous baseball manager used to say…”nice guys finish last.” Participatory economics, or Parecon, is in contrast intrinsically a solidarity economy. Its institutions for production, consumption, and allocation propel even antisocial people into having to address others well being. To get ahead in a Parecon you have to act on the basis of solidarity. And this first parecon value is entirely uncontroversial. Only a psychopath would argue that all other things equal, an economy is better if it produces hostility and anti-sociality.


The second value we want a good economy to advance is diversity. Capitalist markets homogenize options. They trumpet opportunity but in fact curtail most avenues of satisfaction and development by replacing everything human and caring with only what is most commercial, most profitable, and most in accord with existing hierarchies of power and wealth. In contrast, Parecon’s institutions for production, consumption, and allocation not only don’t reduce variety, they emphasize finding and respecting diverse solutions to problems. Parecon recognizes that we are finite beings who can benefit from enjoying what others do that we ourselves have no time to do, and also that we are fallible beings who should not vest all our hopes in single routes of advance, instead insuring against damage by exploring diverse avenues and options. And this value too is entirely uncontroversial. Only a perverse individual would argue that all other things equal, an economy is better if it reduces options.


The third value we want a good economy to advance is equity.

Capitalism overwhelmingly rewards property and bargaining power. It says that those who have a deed to productive property by virtue of having that piece of paper deserve profits. And it says that those who have great bargaining power based on anything from monopolizing knowledge or skills, to having better tools or organizational advantages, to being born with special talents, to being able to command brute force, are entitled to whatever they can take. But a participatory economy is an equity economy in that Parecon’s institutions for production, consumption, and allocation not only don’t destroy or obstruct equity, they propel it. But what do we mean by equity?


Parecon of course rejects rewarding property ownership. And it of course also rejects rewarding power. But what about output? Should people get back from the social product an amount equal to what they produce as part of the social product? It seems equitable…but is it?


Supposing in each case they do the same work for the same length of time at the same intensity, why should someone who has better tools get more income than someone with worse tools? Why should someone who happens to produce something highly valued be rewarded more than someone who produces something less valued, but still socially desired? Why should someone who was lucky in the genetic lottery, perhaps getting genes for big size or for musical talent …get rewarded more than someone who was less lucky genetically?


In a participatory economy for those who can work, remuneration is for effort and sacrifice. If you work longer, you get more reward. If you work harder, you get more reward. If you work in worse conditions and at more onerous tasks, you get more reward. But you do not get more reward for having better tools, or for producing something that happens to be more valued, or even for having innate highly productive talents.


Rewarding only the effort and sacrifice that people expend in their work is controversial. Some anti-capitalists think that people should be rewarded for output, so that a great athlete should earn fortunes, and a quality doctor should earn way more than a hard working farmer or short order cook. Parecon rejects that norm. In fact, rewarding according to effort and sacrifice, if one person had a nice, comfortable, pleasant, highly productive job, and another person had an onerous, debilitating, and less productive but still socially valuable job, the later person would earn more per hour, not the former.


So, we have our third value, a controversial one. We want a good economy to remunerate effort and sacrifice, and, of course, when people can’t work, to provide full income anyway.


The fourth and final value on which parecon is built has to do with decisions and is called self-management. In capitalism owners or capitalists have tremendous say. Managers, and high level intellectual workers who monopolize daily decision-making levers like lawyers, engineers, financial officers, and doctors, have substantial say. And people doing rote and obedient labor rarely even know what decisions are being made, much less impact them.


In contrast, a participatory economy is a democratic economy. People control their own lives to appropriate degrees. Each person has a level of say that doesn’t impinge on other people having the same level of say. We impact decision in proportion as we are affected by them. This is called self management.


Imagine a worker wants to place a picture of a daughter on his or her workstation. Who should make that decision? Should some owner decide? Should a manager decide? Should all the workers decide? Obviously, none of that makes sense. The one worker whose child it is should decide, alone, with full authority. He or she should be literally a dictator in this particular case.


Now suppose instead that the same worker wants to put a radio on his or her desk, and to play it very loud, listening to raucous rock and roll. Now who should decide? We all intuitively know that the answer is that those who will hear the radio should have a say. And that those who will be more bothered – or more benefited – should have more say.


And at this point, we have already arrived at a value vis-à-vis decision making. We don’t need a Phd philosopher. We don’t need incomprehensible language. We simply realize that we don’t want one person one vote and 50% rules all the time. Nor do we always want one person one vote and some other percentage required for agreement. Nor do we always want one person to decide authoritatively, as a dictator. Nor do we always want consensus. Nor do we always want any other single approach. All these methods of making decisions make sense in some cases but are horrible in other cases.


What we hope to accomplish when we choose a mode of decision making and processes of discussing issues, agenda setting, and so on, is that each actor should have an influence on decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by them.


Participatory Economics is built on a few centrally defining institutional choices.


Workers and consumers need a place to express and pursue their preferences. Historically these have been workers and consumers councils. In a parecon, within councils, there is an additional commitment to using decision making procedures and modes of communication that apportions to each actor about each decision, a degree of say proportionate to the degree he or she is affected. Votes could be majority rule, three quarters, two-thirds, consensus, or other possibilities. They are taken at different levels, with fewer or more participants, and using different procedures, depending on the particular implications of the decisions in question. Sometimes a team or individual makes a decision pretty much on its own. Sometimes a whole workplace or even an industry would be the decision body. Different voting and tallying methods would be employed as needed for different decisions.

The next institutional commitment is to remunerate for effort and sacrifice, not for property, power, or even output.  Who decides how hard we have worked? Our workers councils in context of the broad economic setting established by other institutions. If you work longer, you are entitled to more of the social product. If you work more intensely, again you are entitled to more income. If you work at more onerous or dangerous or boring tasks, again, you are entitled to more income. But you aren’t entitled to more income due to owning productive property because no one owns productive property – it is all socially owned. And you aren’t entitled to more income due to working with better tools, or producing something more valued, or even having personal traits that make you more productive, because these don’t involve effort or sacrifice, but luck or endowment. Greater output is appreciated, of course…but there is no extra pay for it. Both morally and in terms of incentives parecon does precisely what makes sense. The extra pay we get is for what we deserve to have rewarded – our sacrifice at work. And elicits what we can in fact generate more of–our effort.

Alright, but suppose we have workers and consumers councils. Suppose we believe in participation, democracy, and even self management. And also suppose our workplace has a typical corporate division of labor. What will happen?


The roughly 20% of the workforce who monopolize via their positions in this corporate division of labor the daily decision making positions and the knowledge that is essential to knowing what is going on and what options exist and to evaluating them, are going to set agendas. Their pronouncements will be authoritative. Even if other workers have voting rights, it will be to vote on plans and options put forth only by this coordinator class. It will be the will of this class that decides outcomes. In time this elite will also decide that it deserves more pay to nurture its great wisdom. It will separate itself not only in power, but in income and status.


So what is the alternative?


Participatory economics utilizes balanced job complexes. Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horribly stultifying, so that some jobs convey knowledge and have authority while other jobs rob mentality and only obey orders – parecon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life effects and in its empowerment effects.


Each person has a job. Each job involves many tasks. In a parecon, of course each job is suited to the talents and capacities and energies of the person doing it. But each job is a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that the overall quality of life and especially the overall empowerment effects of the work are comparable for all.


A parecon doesn’t have someone who does only surgery, but instead has people who do some surgery and some cleaning of the hospital, and some other tasks – such that the sum of all that they do incorporates a fair mix of tasks. A parecon doesn’t have managers and workers. It doesn’t have lawyers and short order cooks. It doesn’t have engineers and assembly line workers – though all the associated tasks get done. A parecon has people who all do a mix of things in their work such that each person’s mix accords with their abilities and also conveys a fair share of rote and tedious and interesting and empowering conditions and responsibilities.


Our work doesn’t prepare a few of us to rule and the rest of us to obey. It prepares us all to participate in self-managing workers and consumers councils. It readies all of us to engage sensibly and productively in self managing our lives and institutions.


But what if we have a new economy with workers and consumers councils, with self-managing decision making rules, with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and with balanced job complexes – but we combine all this with markets or central planning for allocation?  Would that work?


Markets destroy the remuneration scheme and create a competitive context in which workplaces have to cut costs and seek market share. To do this they virtually have no choice but to insulate some people from the discomfort that cost-cutting imposes, precisely the people who are earmarked to figure out what costs to cut and how to generate more output at the expense of fulfillment—and so emerges, again, the coordinator class, located above workers, violating our preferred norms of remuneration, accruing power and obliterating the self-management we desire.


And the same would hold for central planning. It too would immediately elevate planners, and shortly after that elevate planners’ managerial agents in each workplace, and then also all those actors in the economy sharing the same type of credentials. Central planning would also impose a coordinator class division and coordinator rule over workers, who would be made subordinate.


The problem is that markets and central planning each subvert the values and associated structures we have deemed worthy. Suppose in place of top-down imposition of centrally planned choices and in place of competitive market exchange by atomized buyers and sellers, we opt for cooperative, informed self managed negotiation of allocation by socially entwined actors who each have a say in proportion as choices impact them and who are each able to access accurate information and valuations, and who each have appropriate training and confidence to develop and communicate their preferences. That would compatibly advance council centered participatory self-management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and balanced job complexes, and it would also provide proper valuations of personal, social, and ecological impacts, and promote classlessness.


Participatory planning is a system in which worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and their consumption preferences in light of accurate knowledge of local and global implications and true valuations of the full social benefits and costs of their choices. The system utilizes a back and forth cooperative communication of mutually informed preferences via a variety of simple communicative and organizing principles and tools including what are called indicative prices, facilitation boards, rounds of accommodation to new information, and other features—all of which permit actors to express their desires and to mediate and refine them in light of feedback about other’s desires, arriving at compatible choices consistent with advancing the values we have highlighted.


Actors indicate their preferences. They learn what others have indicated. They alter their preferences in an effort to move toward a viable plan. At each new step in the cooperative negotiation each actor is seeking well being and development, but each can get ahead only in accord with social advance, not by exploiting others. It is impossible to describe this whole system and all its features, and to show how they are both viable and worthy in a short essay like this. I’d like to recommend the website www.parecon.org which has all kinds of material about parecon, and here provide only a brief summary of the situation…


Participatory economics creates a context of classlessness. I can get better work conditions if the average job complex throughout a parecon improves. I can get higher income if I work harder or longer with my workmates, or if the average income throughout society increases. I not only advance in solidarity with other economic actors, but I influence all economic decisions, including those in my workplace and those throughout the rest of the economy, at a level proportionate to the impact of those decisions on me.


Parecon not only eliminates inequitable disparities in wealth and income, it attains just distribution. It not only doesn’t force actors to violate one another’s lives, it produces solidarity. It not only doesn’t homogenize outcomes, it generates diversity. It not only doesn’t give a small ruling class tremendous power while burdening the bulk of the population with powerlessness, it produces appropriate influence for all.


And so, we arrive back at education.


Eighty percent of us are presently taught in schools to endure boredom and to take orders because that’s what capitalism needs for its workers. The other twenty percent are made callous to the conditions of those below and ignorant about their own callousness, save for those at the very top, who are simply made cruel.


In a parecon, education also must be compatible with society’s broad defining institutions. Indeed, that will be true in every society, always. But in a society with a parecon — assuming that other spheres of social life are comparably just and equitable  – society will need us to be as capable and creative and productive as we can, and to participate as full citizens.


Participatory economics is a solidarity economy, a diversity economy, an equity economy, and a self-managing economy. It is a classless economy. In this respect, its educational system would be based on and generate, also, solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management — as well as rich and diverse capacities of comprehension and creativity.


The point is that under capitalism talk of desirable pedagogy has two possible logics. On the one hand, it may be about pedagogy that is consistent with the reproduction of the hierarchies of society. In that case, it is more about control and channeling than it is about what most of us mean by education, such as edification and fulfillment. On the other hand, it could be about edification and fulfillment, but then it is oppositional. It is trying to establish outcomes contrary to the logic of the market, private ownership, remuneration for property and power, and corporate divisions of labor.


My point in this essay is that if we ultimately want really worthy education — like really worthy health care, or art, or sports, or production, or consumption, — we will need a new economy with a new logic and structure, and I would argue that this new economy ought to be what I have called participatory economics.


With participatory economics, good education isn’t something we win and then perpetually defend or lose because the underlying institutions of society are at odds with it. Good education is part and parcel of the logic of society.


Are there implications for the actual structure and procedures of schooling and education that are implicit in the logic and structures of parecon? I would guess that the answer is yes, not least but not confined to the fact that of course educational institutions would be self managing, would interface with participatory planning, would incorporate balanced job complexes, and so on.


For the specific meaning of all that regarding pedagogy, though, and for related issues regarding more detailed and specific matters of actual methodology of training, learning, sharing, etc., I am not equipped to offer even suggestions. I’d rather stop at this stage. I have made the one broad point about the economic context of education, both as we endure it now and as we might enjoy it in a better future, that I feel secure in asserting. Capitalism annihilates aspirations for worthy education. Parecon actualizes them..


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