Socialist Solidarity Home Features Events Theory Links About Donate Contact

December 22, 2012

Education and Capitalism

by Ian Weniger

Education & Capitalism

Learning effectively is nothing without context, so let’s see what public education looks like right now in North America.


In Ontario, the provincial government passed Bill 115. This has done to teachers what some US states have done to their entire public service, namely breach Charter rights and end the right to bargain collectively. This followed two years of “bell-to-bell” or “work-to-rule” protest by tens of thousands of members of the Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Union over contract-breaking, low salaries and increased non-teaching workload. Many teachers believed this passive tactic would pressure the government to abandon claw back proposals, as local school boards didn’t intervene to stop the protest. In fact, the Liberals decided to use the teachers as a testing ground, interpreting their bell-to-bell tactic as a sign of weakness. Elementary teachers are now engaged in rotating strikes in December after failing to succeed in bargaining over similar issues, and their secondary colleagues may join them.


In Chicago, by contrast, an aggressive, confident fight from 29 000 grassroots teachers against Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to save public schools from massive corporatization, privatization, union-busting, and lengthening the school day by 20 percent, ended in less than a week with most of the employers’ demands dropped - like 17 school closures and job security tied to student test scores. American public schools have been under attack for a decade by privateer and charter school bully Arne Duncan, former head of Chicago Public Schools and now Obama’s secretary of education. Duncan and Emanuel support the Race To The Top program of tying federal funding for typically underfunded state school districts to massive testing of K-12 students. CPS were about to be tested in the second week of school on material yet to be taught.

British Columbia

In BC, after very nearly getting rid of union rights altogether in public schools, the provincial government has proposed negotiations to achieve a 10-year-contract with the BCTF. While the offer is completely connected to Christy Clark’s determination to survive the May 2013 election, it is proposed, like almost all labour relations here, without consulting the democratically elected leadership of public school teachers. Unfortunately for BC teachers, the NDP’s only commitment to public education is to criticize legislated ends to labour disputes. The past years of passive struggle while waiting for a Supreme Court challenge to the Ministry of Education’s illegal end to class size and composition limits have translated into demoralization as the BCTF attempts to stay on message with ads and websites rather than mobilizing members to the realities of continental labour relations.


So teachers are under a lot of pressure to deliver a service these days, and the cheaper the better; that is, more students per class, lower teachers' salaries, fewer special-needs and specialist services, and more parental participation via student fees. Yet education is not a commodity to most educators. Quebec students have shown us that education is an investment, which is why it should be free, not just for post-secondary years, but from kindergarten onwards.


During teacher training, one of my instructors asked us to consider a useful paradigm or model for education. I felt alternately inspired and demoralized by the choices. Some people think of shepherding, gardening, or sculpting. I admit my paradigms were manufacturing and corrections. My colleagues and instructor were unimpressed by my cynicism. Some of the authors of Education and Capitalism, however, seem to agree that the purpose of formal schooling is to prepare compliant and functional young workers for their future service to profit.

More Than a Struggle

All of the contributors to this wide-ranging overview of (North) American public education say that teaching is more than filling a pupil with prescribed facts and skills that will permit her or him to successfully pass exams, which are increasingly tied to punishing teachers and schools for failing to produce sufficient numbers of suitable employees based on evaluations. Teaching is also a struggle to provide every child with the opportunity to fulfill her potential as an individual. These experienced and passionate teachers argue that educators must recognize that their success against the machine will be best realized when they bring the issues in children's lives into their classrooms, and make the struggle for social justice part of teaching and learning.


The opening and closing chapters stress the ideas of Paulo Freire, the originator of 'radical pedagogy,' one of those figures who might have received a half-hour's attention in a teacher education lecture. Freire was a Brazilian Marxist and founder of the Workers Party that took power after the end of the military dictatorship in the late 1980s. His ideas were decades in the making, and he was finally able to put them into practice as the superintendent of schools in Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America.

The authors take great pains to show that Freire's ideas are feasible anywhere, and that they were in flux over his career. This flux is the core of useful educational theory. Any teacher will admit that she must learn from her students as much if not more than the students take in from her. Education and Capitalism stresses the effective teacher will take the socioeconomic status of children into account when planning lessons, not simply as an adaptation to deliver curriculum. Public schools are not in crisis in North America as long as teachers are formally and legally required to provide an equitable learning environment in spite of a generation of funding cutbacks. The crisis is in Obama's "Race To The Top" attacks on authentic evaluation and their predecessor, Bush Jr's "No Child Left Behind" program, which provide private industries access to the half-trillion dollar public funds to supply tests, texts, food and other resources, above and beyond the near-depression of the post-global economic meltdown.

Hard Knocks

My mother told me she never finished high school, but went on to the "school of hard knocks," by which she meant the uncompromising opportunities of learning on the job, and subsequently learning in the world of the jobless. The authors refer to the need for decent jobs instead of the decades-old practice of funding job training for positions that don't exist. The crisis in our schools is a result of “child poverty”, which is really code for blaming workers for raising children on poverty wages. Since too few well-paying positions are available, even with job retraining, Education and Capitalism advocates the only effective way to improve wages and conditions so that kids can come to school fed, clothed, rested, less stressed, etc. is for their parents to organize into unions. These are the realities of exploitation and oppression that teachers must incorporate into their lessons if they want to contribute to end it, beyond traveling the demoralizing bureaucratic path to dwindling slices of school resources for increasing numbers of needy students.


Many teachers in BC, from my experience, will welcome this collection of educational theory, history and analysis. The Marxist analysis will surprise some educators who would agree with 99% of it without thinking they were that far left. There is a section by playwright and teacher Brian Jones on the African-American educational experience, which will reveal an unknown chapter of US history for most readers. Another section develops the response to anti-Latino and anti-First Nations racism as a role for parents and teachers.

The most important things this book taught me was that, firstly, teachers should not expect a handy curriculum-compliant textbook for social justice or sheaves of easily adaptable, no-fail, administrator-proofed lesson plans to support radical pedagogy. Secondly, teachers who want to engage their students in real-world inquiry need to take the time to customize those lessons and dignify the learning with patient, meaningful activities. This need for patience is a massive challenge even to those educators who have the confidence to face school officials who would challenge the propriety of such an approach. Developing a way for a specific group of students to study a specific aspect of their world is far more time-consuming than even the most progressive textbooks and handouts.


Education and Capitalism attempts to show that the time spent allowing children to explore and interact genuinely with their social environment can be at least as efficient and effective at delivering prescribed learning outcomes in any subject. The authors insist that teachers will have to work hard not only to set up their classes so that students’ inquiry into their lives is supported without being guided, but also to trust their students to make reasonable observations and become a community of learners who can come up with a feasible plan to interact with their neighbourhood.


The authors' remark about student participation in their neighbourhoods reminds me of what I had wished to read about in Education and Capitalism. First off, I want to see something about play-based education in the current era. Physical education, the classical game-playing in schools, is not mentioned at all, which is surprising given the North American childhood obesity epidemic. While play-based learning is mentioned briefly as being consistently supported by research into academic progress, teachers have been struggling for decades to adapt games, especially computer gaming systems, into their practice. Few educators seem willing to embrace the learning opportunities of the most engaging massive multiplayer role playing game going: social networking. As schools compete with sexting, Facebook, and cyberporn for student loyalty at an increasing younger age, I would like to see a discussion about how social media teaches students using the risk and rewards that trigger rushes of endorphin and dopamine we usually associate with activities outside school.


The authors of Education and Capitalism want to show teachers that students' futures depend on their ability to make a difference in the world and to work with their peers for change. Since the only thing certain about « 21st century education » is digital media, making a difference would mean guessing students’ needs. I think a discussion of ethical methods of developing students, as networked participants in their neighbourhoods instead of GPS-tracked consumers is critical.

Humans are naturally inquisitive and will learn what they need to know by any means available. School traditionally demands that children must curb their enthusiasm and learn as the teacher directs, if only because teachers have stuffed, sparse classrooms and an overflowing curriculum to cover in a finite time. Education and Capitalism shows how this situation has come to be and how overcoming it requires not only a change in teaching and learning but in society itself.

Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp, editors, Education and Capitalism, Haymarket Books.