Reclaiming the Radical Critique of Education

The left has a long history of critiquing not just the content of schooling, but the very concepts and institutions foundational to formal education. Sometimes incompatible but sometimes complementary, radical arguments have marched along side by side over the centuries. Some claimed that the working classes deserved open access to elite education, others that what schools taught was actually nothing more than indoctrination in service to elites and that schools needed a total overhaul in content, while yet others argued that the concepts of school and teacher were in themselves tools for indoctrination and disempowerment and should be abolished. Sometimes one person would adopt more than one, even all, of the above views, depending on the situation or moment. Sometimes radicals just argued the principles among themselves. But there were loud voices for every one of these ideas, as well as many in between and beyond.

That glorious noise of radical discussion on education has been becoming more and more monophonic since the 1960s and 70s.

As the social services we could expect the state to provide vanished one by one in the wake of elimination of welfare as we know it, radicalism seems to have been in retreat, circling the wagons to protect liberal concepts, institutions and processes that were previously subject to sometimes withering critiques. Emma Goldman’s slogan “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” used to be found on T shirts and bumperstickers; now those who used to scoff at electoral politics pour their efforts into undoing gerrymandered districts or fighting voter ID laws. Net neutrality campaigns, defending such no-brainer basics as anti-monopolism and free speech, absorb activists who might otherwise have been paying attention to the Congressional January re-authorization of another 6 years of the government surveillance of Americans. Providing immigrants with housing and legal support has far too often displaced the analysis of and resistance to the foreign policy that brings immigrants to our shores.

Without challenging the importance of defending our shrinking services and rights, I believe that we should wonder and worry: are our larger visions at risk of being eclipsed or even bankrupted by the immediate daily, weekly or monthly struggles we are engaged in to defend the most minimal standards? What happens to our thoughts and our conversations when we are preoccupied defending the very institutions and systems that we recently categorized as bourgeois liberalism? Are we maintaining our deeper and more radical critiques, essential to offering real alternatives to capitalism?

Education is a case in point. The coverage of public schools in Baltimore left without heat during a recent cold snap was abundant in the mainstream press, but also in the independent and left media—as it should be. Articles about test scores gaps or about unequal school funding are easy to find as well. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like the paradigm-shifting conversations and proposals for education that flourished on the left several decades ago.

In the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to a combination of the G. I. Bill and the civil rights and women’s movements, the academic disciplines opened at least partially to working class students, to racial and ethnic minorities, and to women. Radical intellectuals grew up through the academic ranks, and in the 1960s turned their critical eyes to educational institutions and compulsory schooling. The mainstream view of education as an always-benign, universal good that simply needed to be made equally available to all was shattered.

The radical critique of education is longstanding; Thorstein Veblen and Sinclair Lewis wrote acidly on schooling at the start of the 20th century, but were preceded by Tolstoy in the 19th, William Blake’s plaintive poem “The Schoolboy” in 18th century, and on. Nevertheless, the second half of the last century provided a boom in radical critiques that is worth remembering and resurrecting.

Some historians were skeptical that publicly funded and compulsory schools were a benefit provided by a newly benign state interested in the welfare of its people, and instead connected the spread of compulsory education with projects of nation building, the need for willing military conscripts, and the rise of the universal franchise, or right to vote. As governments were forced by democratic movements to admit more and more of the populace into the electorate, they realized that they needed to train, inculcate, and tame the citizens that they would now allow to have a voice in elections. Mandatory attendance at government schools provided a handy tool to create a sense of national belonging and thereby legitimize the state, as well as offering a chance to instruct youngsters in government-friendly civics, American history, and Western Civ (a course initially invented in the wake of dismay at the ideological state of U.S. soldiers in World War 1).

Heterodox economists began to wonder how compulsory schooling interacted with the labor force, identifying the industrial discipline of public schools, right down to the factory-like bells that move children from one room to another, as preparing and sculpting children for the life of an obedient worker. They scrutinized the educational curriculum and concluded that schooling was aimed at producing skills that employers, rather than citizens, parents or students, wanted. They assessed what the educational trade calls “the custodial function of the schools”, what we might call school-as-daycare, as an important means for the state to free up care-taking parents for incorporation into the capitalist workforce.

Social commentators discussed the ideological importance of a universally available educational structure. They remarked that if capitalist societies want to offer a viable meritocratic myth that class mobility is possible for all, through hard work and innate abilities, the existence of public schools is essential “proof” that there is a level playing field; with universal access to education, it can be claimed that the best and brightest of any group clearly do have the chance to rise to the top, if they are truly worthy. And when the vast majority of people land, as they inevitably do, in low social circumstances, public schools provide critical ideological validation; they are the foundation for the claim that everyone has had a fair shot at success and society is merely sorting citizens into the social classes they “deserve”, as evidenced by their school performance. If class mobility proves to be minimal, the blame can then be conveniently laid at the feet of poor schools, not structures of power. Demonstrating the success of this strategy, endless battles over educational policy currently substitute for discussions of economic equality: poor kids end up in jobs that pay less than a living wage? Increase educational standards and re-write the core curriculum!

Cultural theorists framed institutional education as cultural imperialism, both within the U.S. and abroad. Here at home, pedagogues argued that community self-determination and self-sufficiency were undermined as the school system taught poor and working class pupils to disdain their own cultures and social networks, and to instead strive to talk, think, and live like their teachers. Overseas, a vigorous analysis of American foreign “aid” interpreted formerly unassailable ventures such as building schools as the forcible export of a colonizing culture, set on undermining the non-capitalist ways and knowledge in the global South. Iconoclasts like Ivan Illich even argued that teaching was inherently a “disabling profession”, premised on sapping agency and initiative from the populace, and proposing alternate models based on self-sufficiency and mutual aid.

Progressives’ radical ideas about education weren’t just theoretical, they were practical and applied, too. Putting their intellectual ideas to work, teachers and educational theorists of the 60s and 70s with a wide range of leftist political views explored alternative pedagogies and educational structures as a necessary part and parcel of progressive politics in general, following in the footsteps of the anarchist Modern Schools, the workers’ colleges, and many other alternative institutions of the early 20th century. (For more, see chapter 84 of the fascinating 1924 book The Goslings: A Study of the American Schools by Upton Sinclair, digitized at$b273651;view=1up;seq=11 .) They reckoned that if education as-it-was reflected and served the hierarchical social order, then they needed to teach differently if they wanted to create a new world. College professors asked students to create the course syllabi their classes would follow. Democratic schools built assemblies of staff, students, and parents which would set schools’ policies and make important decisions. Teachers eschewed lecturing, competition, and grades in favor of discussions and portfolios. Some of the most heterodox educational rebels opted out of school altogether, creating the homeschooling, unschooling, and deschooling movements.

But since the start of the retreat of the welfare state, radical critiques of education have waned. In fact, to confess nowadays that you are a radical whose children don’t go to school is to risk being called an elitist or a privatizer. Venture a remark that, as institutions of the government, public schools have as their raison d’etre the massification of the working classes, and you will be accused of supporting charter schools’ anti-union tactics. Note that universal pre-schools, touted as a people’s agenda, remove cultural reproduction from communities and hand over toddlers to curricula built by bourgeois bureaucrats, enforced by the economic conscription of poor parents out of the household and into the workforce, and you are branded a reactionary.

It seems that the radical vision for education has shrunken to advocating for better funding and equipment for a system whose inherent mission is to create compliant citizens and a docile workforce.

It’s more than time to resurrect the old, bolder set of radical questions and ideas. If the left abandons an open debate on the nature of institutional education, there will be very few people left discussing how our children fare at the hands of state indoctrination, or how cultural hegemony is built from a tender age.

Of course we need to be clear that the pursuit of a radical critique of institutionalized education is not implicitly lending support to school vouchers or to for-profit charters. Questioning schooling doesn’t mean that we are engaged in defunding public education systems, or that we are part of the attack on teachers’ unions. It means only exactly what it says: that we are pursuing a deep and critical examination of an essential reproductive institution of capitalism, because we are the only ones who will do it.

But let’s take heart. Resurrecting and revitalizing the radical challenge to schooling as we know it doesn’t have to be a negative proposition. Our forebears have provided us with plentiful alternative models and histories to draw on; in fact, many of these models continue and flourish today, uncelebrated by the mainstream left. We have free schools and democratic schools, including some which serve large proportions of poor children. We have organizations of African American homeschoolers and feminist unschoolers. India supports a vibrant alternative education movement linked with the concept of swaraj or self-rule, while Mexico’s indigenous people have a network of autonomous and self-directed “unitierras”, described as places for “learning in small groups how to construct autonomous ways of life, socially just, environmentally sensible and economically feasible”. We don’t need to reinvent the visionary alternative to institutionalized education, we just need to reconnect the socialist conversation with all those people who have been keeping that vision alive.

The left calls vigorously for universal, single payer health care, and yet also describes the deeply problematic nature of conventional medicine which that health insurance would give us access to. We campaign for regulated and subsidized prescription prices, yet simultaneously point out the extent to which pharmaceutical companies have created self-serving medical research that leads to the over-prescription of the very medicines we want subsidized. We push for free maternity clinics, while also attacking the patriarchal and racist shape of the obstetrical care those clinics provide. We have shown repeatedly that we are able to offer fundamental challenges to institutions, while still supporting the social access to basic services those institutions enable. Now we need to get past the idea that it is impossible to entertain and discuss a range of challenges to state-run and compulsory schooling while also fighting for free, equitable, universal access to humane and meaningful education for those who want or need it.

If we can’t, we’re giving up our children and our communities without a fight.

Eva-Maria Swidler is on the undergraduate faculty of Goddard College. Her 17 year old daughter has never been to school.

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