Public education in the capitalist system

Donald Trump has chosen billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the US Department of Education. She comes from the extreme right wing of US politics that is committed to destroying the public education system in the US.

Trump’s appointment immediately provoked objection, with writer and historican Diane Ravitch slamming DeVos as someone who “does not hide her contempt for the public schools.”

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, declared Wednesday that DeVos has “done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers—which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”

Destroying public education has been a long-standing goal of the American elites, partly in order to siphon off some off the vast amounts of money spent on it into their own pockets, and partly because of ideological reasons, because public schools are, or at least have been and still could and should be, bastions of egalitarianism, where anyone, however poor, is given a chance at getting a decent education and upward socioeconomic mobility.

This is not a new movement. It has bipartisan support and even president Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan were part of the move to increase charter schools. But where their efforts were incremental, we now can expect to see an all-out assault. As I wrote in my 2005 book The Achievement Gap in U.S. Education: Canaries in the Mine about how, in the US capitalist system, it was clear from the beginning that the role of public education was largely to produce workers to satisfy the needs of the capitalist system, rather than the intellectual and emotional development of children.

I will give some extended excerpts from that book to make my point.

After all, the present stratified society can only be sustained if there are a large number of people willing and able to work at low-paying, low-skilled jobs so that the rest can live much better lives doing challenging and creative work with much better rewards. In other words, the system is designed to take the entire set of eager and curious young children and, over time, create a stratified group of young adults, most of whom believe they are incapable of achieving anything meaningful in their work lives and look for emotional and intellectual satisfaction in recreation. It could be argued that the greatest “success” of the educational system is that it produces people who believe unquestioningly that the educational system is meritocratic and that their lowly station in life is natural and they should accept it. (p.169)

[I]nfluential liberal educators like John Dewey saw the purpose of school as seeking to fulfill three main goals:

  • Developmental: Achieve growth in the physical, cognitive, emotional, moral and aesthetic qualities of children
  • Egalitarian: Give everyone a chance to compete equally, by enabling education to overcome differentials in income and family background
  • Integrative: Enable children to achieve a smooth transition into occupations and political and social life.

There can be no doubt as to the worth and appropriateness of the first two goals. The third one is also unimpeachable, provided that the “occupations and political and social life” that we prepare our students for are compatible with the first two goals. What happens though when this third goal, because of the nature of the occupations and social positions that the students are being prepared for in the modern corporate state, is in opposition to the other two? Therein lies the fundamental contradiction.

I have argued that the modern corporate state needs large numbers of people who are subservient to authority and who can be controlled by rewards and threats. It is this that makes for short-term efficiency in the marketplace. But in order to achieve that integrative goal, the developmental and egalitarian goals of education have to sacrificed. Children have to be persuaded that school and work are not places where one achieves satisfaction. They have to seek meaning in life outside of work and school and must be persuaded that emotional and intellectual enjoyment in life must be sought with their families, friends, and the consumer culture, with its emphasis on sports and entertainment. Furthermore, children have to accept that inequality is a fact of life and, most importantly, that it is perfectly natural that many should be at the bottom of the ladder.

Hence Dewey’s goals are mutually inconsistent for our society as currently structured. We cannot simultaneously achieve all three. Something has to yield, and given the way political power is wielded for the benefit of the corporate world, it should be no surprise that the last goal is the one that wins out at the expense of the other two. (p.171)

[John Taylor] Gatto points out that much of the regimented schooling we see today arose from fears (around the birth of the twentieth century) that the growth of widespread, spontaneous, but unregulated education was resulting in a population that was asking too many inconvenient questions and was leading to social unrest as people started demanding what they felt was rightfully theirs. While unrest could be temporarily suppressed with force using the police and the private Pinkerton security agency, such a solution was messy and unstable. The educational system was perceived as being able to provide an invisible means of control, provided it was properly designed and implemented. (p. 174)

As I have mentioned before, the thesis that in order to understand the structure of the educational system, we need to understand the needs of the economy is hardly new. A little thought will convince anyone that it can hardly be otherwise. Is it really conceivable that the educational system can evolve independently of the needs of the workplace? Most people will accept that such a link must exist but will think the link is more benign than portrayed in this book.

We have to be able to see beyond the lip service to education often provided by business leaders and their political allies. These people are fond of making pronouncements about how they would like the educational system to provide highly skilled workers who can think critically, manage complex tasks, and work well in teams. What is left unsaid is that they also want such workers to work for minimum wage or less, without adequate health and retirement benefits, and to be docile and obedient, to not agitate for better conditions, to not feel a sense of solidarity with their fellow workers or the broad mass of people, and to be accepting of summary firing and layoffs as part of the legitimate needs of business and the cost of enabling capital to move freely from place to place and even to other countries.

But educators do not have to, and should not, accept those goals. We are teachers, inheritors of a noble and high calling, not the training and enforcement arm of the modern corporate state. We should be maximizing the learning potential and skills of students, not teaching them to aim low, to conform, to think of themselves as capable of only low-level tasks. (p.177)

The process of creating an educational system in which people would learn to be subservient to their corporate overlords has been going on for a long time. But because of the influence of liberal philosophers like Dewey on schools of education, we produced public school teachers who put the interests of students first. This was anathema to the ruling class and thus we see the attacks on public school teachers, designed to eliminate their status as professionals and become more like factory workers who produce cogs for the machine, with the schools serving as the factories. The only exceptions are for about 20% of the students who are needed to be part of the next generation of the elite and the ruling class and thus need a different kind of education.

I have visited urban schools with all their drab and bare environments. I have seen the playgrounds with little grass and few or no trees to alleviate the stark outlines of the buildings. The only grass visible is that which defiantly struggles to grow in the cracks in the asphalt. I have approached windowless buildings, walked past metal detectors, been looked over by security guards. It is interesting that I have always been treated well by the students in those buildings. But the whole atmosphere of the building gave me a sense of unease. What is sad is that this is the kind of atmosphere that some students experience day after day, year after year, and what they thus come to accept as “normal.” The teachers and students are no different from those in any other school. But they have to deal daily with an oppressive milieu. What does that tell them about what to expect, tolerate, and accept when they go out in the world?

It is interesting to compare such schools with a suburban school district I visited that is not particularly atypical. The building is clean, spacious, airy, carpeted, brightly painted, and with framed artwork on the walls. There are big windows that look out on huge campus-like grounds and playing fields, and there are picnic tables under the trees. No metal detectors, no security guards, and no surveillance cameras were visible.

This kind of contrast is not surprising. The vast differences in school resources between rich and poor schools have been amply documented elsewhere, and this point does not need further belaboring. What struck me most forcibly, however, was a small feature. While I was visiting the suburban school, I suddenly heard music coming through the public-address system, and soon after, the students came out of their classrooms on their way to the next class. My host, seeing my surprise, said that they did not use bells (or buzzers) to signify the end of one class and the beginning of the next. Instead, the music began and continued for the four minutes that were allocated for the transition. When the music faded, that meant it was time for the next class to begin. He said that the school district did not want to use bells, since they were teaching children whose future in their expected world of work would not feature them. These children were not expected to enter the world of sweatshops, factories, or shift work where the ringing of bells and buzzers is used to signal a change in routine. They were expected to go into the professions or the managerial sector or to be captains of industry.

In that vignette is captured an important distinction. It was not appropriate or desirable to train these particular students to respond to bells. Furthermore, the students themselves were involved in selecting the music that was played each day. Hence, not only were they not being trained to jump to commands, they were being trained to give those commands. It is hard not to feel that these students are being prepared. for a very different life from those in the urban inner-city schools, and the different kinds of preparation being offered had nothing to do with the educational achievement of these students. (p.162)

At one time, at least some of that elite could emerge from the poor via the public schools, providing at least a semblance of social mobility. But what is clear is that even that sliver of egalitarianism is being eliminated. With people like DeVos, all pretense to the social leavening role of public education is being removed and what is sought is naked subservience to the class structure, with the private and parochial schools producing the elite and public schools producing the workers who will serve the needs of the elites.


  1. kevinalexander says

    Excellent analysis but I can think of a simpler one. Humans are a predatory species of a particularly nasty sort and evolution has endowed us with the love of cruelty. Right wing politics is just the rationalization of our most savage tendencies.
    They can’t argue that it’s about the money since history has shown that the right always shrinks the economy.

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