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Tranforming Capitalist Schooling

by Dr Rich Gibson Monday, Sep. 03, 2007 at 2:27 PM

School is back. So are liberals and conservatives, bickering over how to preserve capitalist schooling. At issue is how to get beyond capital, its promises of perpetual war and meaningless jobs. How shall we keep our ideas, yet teach?

Going Beyond Jonathan Kozol's Manifesto:

How Can We Overcome the Weapons of Mass Indoctrination?

by Rich Gibson, emeritus professor, San Diego State University

August 2007

These are harsh times. The economy grinds down and the wars bomb on. In such an era, people define themselves by their actions. Often, there is no reversing the action taken, as a wounded economy and a desperate empire at war have no forgiveness.

This is especially true for educators, school workers, who face the militarization of schooling and the regimentation of what is taught, what kids come to know and how they come to know it, through curricula regulations noosed by high stakes exams. Every educator now faces questions like, “Why am I here? Whose interests are being served? What shall I do?”

Jonathan Kozol was an early inspiration for me and thousands of others, even though he quit as a teacher very early on. Now, he has issued an “Education Manifesto.”

His, Death at An Early Age, and The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home, are wonderful angry classics, as is some of his mostly suppressed work on the revolution in Cuba. I liked his early criticism of free schools, which was supportive, yet sharp. He has worked very hard, produced a great body of work, swimming against the stream of what is called education reform, but is really social reaction.

Since on one hand the issues we face today are very complex and we all have been wrong from time to time, and on the other hand, despite the massive worker/immigrant rights outpouring on Mayday 2006, passivity best describes most of the US working class, I will support with all I can muster nearly anyone who is taking risks and fighting back against the big tests, for school integration, against regimentation of the curriculum, and the racist wars that serve as their foundation--whether I agree with their tactics or not.

However, I think Kozol is likely to lead people into a cul-de-sac, a dead end, if we are to take the last 25 years of his work as a guide.

Kozol’s earlier (1992), Savage Inequalities, followed a path that Lincoln Steffens had traced about 60 years before Kozol in the book Shame of the Cities.

Steffens was interested in the corruption of US cities. He pointed to one form of corruption after another, city officials looting the treasury in a variety of ways, and concluded that what was clearly a pattern was a fluke, could be reformed.

Kozol went around the US much later and pointed out that schooling is segregated, racist to the core, and he even signaled that there is an economic basis to all that (without, as I remember it, using the term "capitalism").

He did a fine job, in popular terms, describing the horrors that are daily life in many urban schools. Then he suggested that inequality could be voted away, as if people could vote away the fundamental Master/Slave relationship of the exploitation of wage labor and the land that is the heart of capitalism. Later on, Kozol got religion, and most recently he mostly reiterated what he said in Savage Inequalities.

He has lost the edge of his earlier days, if his speeches that I attended are any indication. He portrays himself as a "simple-minded guy" (who is a Rhodes scholar from Harvard) and he wants the US, "to not be two societies, to be the good democracy we can be." He wants "teachers to protest the (high-stakes) tests, but do not make your principals miserable."

He wants capitalist schools without capitalism.

That, in my eyes, is a real mistake. Over time, it becomes mis-leadership. I believe the plan behind Kozol is "Vote Democratic," or, at the very least, "vote in mass."

The Masters will never adopt the ethics of the Slaves. Never. Not without a bitter fight. That fight has to be a real fight and some principals will need to be made more than miserable.

Voting will not solve the problems we face. Worse things could be done than casting a ballot, but voting should be at the bottom of the activist list.

Why? The answer lies in a practical answer to what appears to be a philosophical questions: Why have government? Why have schools? Who are "we" and what is our relationship with others in this world? That is a question usually absent in social studies classes; the US government or something like it is assumed to be the highest form of human development.

However, in my eyes, Marx, Engels and many others answered that question more than one hundred years ago, and Kozol (and Steffens) would do well to learn from them (see the quote from Engels appended below).

Our society is a capitalist society. The best description of our government is capitalist government. Capitalism requires inequality and, over time, it systematically creates greater and greater inequality. In order to preserve the system that demands inequality, government arises to protect the powerful and maintain domination. That is why government exists, all government. Behind the carrots of smiling politicians and glib school superintendents lies the force and violence of the capitalist state, the military and the cops. Don't come to school and we will arrest you. Your students fail the test and you lose your job. Or, remember the Troop Surge in San Diego schools last spring, with military recruiters on the hunt for bodies everywhere south of I- 8.

In the US, government is not a neutral body.

Government is a weapon of the rich. That is true of every aspect of government schools, cops, the military, politicians and the political processes , the laws, the courts, and I will toss in the press as well.

Schools in capitalist society are capitalist schools although, as on any job, people fight back, resist. We resist on fairly common grounds with industrial workers. We fight about class size and hours of work (the speed-up and stretch out), we fight for supplies, for better wages and working conditions. We fight for freedom, too, just like all workers fight for freedom. However, our fight for freedom is a little different as, at least in the case of some of us, we fight for the freedom to make our product (kids) free. Ford workers have no real reason to take the side of the Mustangs they build, but we have every reason to ally with parents, kids, and community people, not only because that is nice, but they are key to our winning any form of power.

Why have school? Capitalist schools serve a variety of functions. It’s helpful to see schools as missions for capitalism, and many educators as capital’s missionaries. It does not have to be that way.

Schools are huge markets (think of the salaries, the costs of busses, the architects for the buildings, the land, the textbooks, etc). As markets, the processes of capital always intervene, pitting people against people in a struggle for profits, jobs, and status, power. The market requires inequality, as we can see now.

Two key forms of inequality in school are easy to see: race and sex. Schools and the teacher work force are segregated by race and sex, with kids of color getting the most regimented forms of schooling, and women doing most of the front line work. Beneath that works social class, allowing those who arrive in life with the least capital to be hurt first and worst. But the rest are sure to follow.

Schools are huge tax-funded day care centers (with the tax system aimed away from the rich, we can see how the government, the capitalist government, taxes poor and working people to subsidize what should be company-paid day care).

Schools warehouse kids, keeping them out of the labor market, which is largely what the California community college system does.

School do skills training (reading, writing, math) in inequitable ways (segregated by race and class, then segregated by the substance of the curricula and teaching methods) and ideological training (nationalism, racism, sexism, the myth of US democracy, etc).

But above all, schools fashion hope, real or false. A society that can offer no hope to its youth will face upheavals, like France in 1968 demonstrated. A society that can dangle false hope to youth can hang on for awhile, as we see today. Many kids, though, know there is little real hope for them. They can look forward to lousy jobs or the military, fighting the enemies of their enemies, but they do not know why things are as they are, and their teachers often do not either. Kozol is no longer helping on that question.

There is an unbroken spiral of a line from capitalism to imperialism to war to racism to segregation to curricular regimentation to high-stakes testing to the role of school to the nature of government and, finally, to social change. To try to split out any one part of that and ignore it, obscure it, is, I think, misleading. It has deadly results, i.e., thousands of US kids serving in Iraq really never heard of imperialism. That is no mistake.

Teachers are relatively privileged people, among the last in the US with regular wages, some job protections, and health benefits. So far, elites in the US have succeeded in creating a teaching force that is mostly made up of those missionaries for capitalism.

However, capital always seeks to diminish everyone it touches, even those who think they are riding it. In the case of teachers, the goal of the boss is very similar to the goals Henry Ford had in his plants in the 1920's (and still today)to replace the mind of the worker with the mind of the boss, right down to every movement the worker (teacher) makes.

The next step in that relationship is to convince the worker that there is no boss/worker relationship, the old Master/Slave allegory is no longer valid. If that goal is achieved, then subservience is freedom.

Even those workers who appear to win within capitalism (skilled tradesmen in the US up to, say 1990) lose in the short term (tying their humanity to the accumulation of possessions when, in most cases, the more we have the less we are)and the long run as well (skilled tradesmen--and they are almost all white men become obsolete because capitalism is as fickle to its allies as the US is---remember those US allies in Vietnam).

School workers will endure the same fate, unless we fight back--with wisdom. That means, at bottom, making those connections about capitalism noted above.

The reason that some working people in the US are able to live much better than most of the workers in the world is because US imperialism was fairly successful in the last century (by staying out of most of WWI, profiting from arms sales, etc, staying out of the European wars in WWII until the end, defeating the state-capitalist system in the USSR, but then losing in Vietnam, and never recovering). Since Vietnam, as US imperialism grew weaker economically, politically, morally, and militarily, there has been less and less available to the ruling classes to turn over to labor leaders and some workers in the form of bribes, to betray the rest of the working classes of the world.

There is a direct connection from the fruits of imperialism (won through war, looting raw materials, forcing cheap labor, brutally opening markets) and the relatively high wages that, for example, National Education Association's labor leaders earn, some at 0,000-plus a year. That is a bribe from imperialism, and those union bosses know it.

Teachers, however, usually do not know they are being bribed by the fruits of imperialism to offer children to the processes of capitalism, but that is what is happening, and they need to be told in ways that will show them that, over time, they will lose, which is a fact.

We do not need to build a get out the vote movement to rescue capitalist schooling. We do not need to urge people to choose a somebody else to act for them, to alienate the solution of social problems, which is what voting is about. And surely we do not need to get people to pick, again, which millionaire will oppress them best, as is the case in almost every election.

We need to rescue education from the ruling classes, reason from un-reason, freedom from oppression. This is a practical social question that is finally a pedagogical problem. What is it that people need to learn, and how do we need to come to learn it, in order to create the transformation that allows a future world to be reasonably caring, free through human connectedness rather than separation, equitable, and democratic? Since all learning combines theory and practice, it is a problem of doing and thinking---what school should be.

I think a key element of this is to show people that we make our own histories, but not in conditions we choose. We are responsible for our actions. We are what we do. History judges us against an ethic that did not fall from the sky, but an ethic that can be torn from the past: internationalism, reason, anti-racism, opposition to personality cults, anti-sexism, equality inside democracy, working class solidarity (it is wrong to exploit people, selfishness is bad), for freedom in production--and reproduction. We are what we do. It is an ethic that tests us, not at the gates of heaven, but in our lives, because when working people behave otherwise, we lose. We lose morally, and practically. An articulated ethic can be used to measure leadership.

I believe we need to show people where power is. Alinsky said, "power goes to two poles, those who have money, and those who have people." That is mostly true.

In order to decipher where power is located for working people, in any society, we need to look for its "choke points," the places where change could be reasonably be expected to originate, and where change might extend centrifugally. It is important that people learn how to do this kind of analysis themselves, on their own, so the process of discovering that is significant.

However, it appears to me that in the US now, there are quite a few choke points: schools, the military, prisons, the immigrant rights movement, the transportation system (tied to immigrant workers) and to a limited extent the health care system. I am not Cassandra, gifted with prophecy but cursed because nobody believed her, but I think these are good guesses.

Students whose hope is daily eradicated, soldiers sent to die by witless officers in service to the rich, prisoners in US gulag jails, and those who have no hope because the health care system is in ruins, are likely to fight back---especially people of color and immigrants. In most cases, people fight back because they must fight back. Entire cities, like Detroit, are so destroyed that the people who live in them have little to lose but to fight back. That is why Detroit teachers, who do not want to strike, went on two wildcat strikes in th last five years.

Teachers are very well positioned to play a historical role in those fights, although I am quite sure many will not. I will bet my house that most, by far most, professors will not. These people are of little matter.

Power has a geography. School workers' power is based in and near schools---not in distant ballot boxes. School workers' power lies in our solidarity with each other, with kids, and parents; against the interests of wealth. Power at work is demonstrated by the ability to control the work place, specifically to be able to open and close it. That can only happen when we take responsibility for ourselves and our colleagues' actions.

School workers create value collectively, in a relationship with each other, with kids, with parents, and communities. In order to gain power over the value we create, to rescue education from the ruling classes, we need to act collectively, on the job and in communities. We need to build close personal, trusting, ties in our school communities, which can take time, but can also be speeded by collective, sometimes sudden, action. The best way to do this is to walk door to door in school communities and talk to people, hand out a leaflet, share some coffee, etc.

The choke points of school are, now, the Big Tests, curricula regimentation, immigration and attendance sweeps, cops and the military in schools, issues about books and supplies, class size, free health care and food, and the unjust tax system. Racism infests every one of those issues. It is clear any movement to oppose oppressive schooling must be integrated, often led by the people at the shortest end of the stick--since they usually best understand the stick. Margaret Haley, who founded the AFT and helped build the NEA, fought about most of these issues more than 75 years ago, and often won---so these fights are winnable.

We can shut down the big tests and drive the military recruiters off our campuses. The tests are designed to teach lies to kids using methods so obscure that kids learn to not like to learn–a key goal of elites, and currently their success. The military and the struggle for what is true have only contradiction in common, meaning they have no business in schools, urging kids to go fight the enemies of their real enemies, the rich in the US.

I think the Big Tests and the military are the main things school worker-activists should focus on. Shut down the tests and couple that with the kinds of Freedom Schooling that the civil rights movement showed us are possible. Even if we cannot conduct freedom schooling, we can shut down the tests with boycotts (as in Michigan) and do the best we can with Freedom Schooling. Confront the military recruiters and move them away from the youth.

The method of that Freedom Schooling should be critical and purposeful, seeking to show people how to do analyses of the processes of capitalism and how to get beyond it (see related links below).

We need to show masses of people that we can understand and change the world through mass, collective, direct action---and reflecting on what we and others have done.

I do not believe the top teacher union leadership will be helpful in this struggle. They want us to think of the union as a vending machine. We pay money and it acts for us. As long as we think like that, they win. The same is true of politicians. Nobody is going to save us but us.

I doubt Kozol will get beyond voting and, maybe, some pretty restricted demonstrating, but because he has earned considerable respect for his struggles over the years, I hope I am wrong, and may work with his group to find out and to struggle for sharper positions.

However, very few groups anywhere in the world have been willing to make the links of capitalism, imperialism, war, racism, and unjust schooling. The Rouge Forum has done that. Substance News from Chicago does it. Who else? Justice, after all, requires organization. The other side is organized, and ruthless.

The Rouge Forum has moved along with fits and starts. We are not doing nearly enough. We have about 4400 people on our email list. We have had big conferences and little ones, good conferences and not so good ones. We shut down the Michigan tests but did only very limited work with Freedom Schooling, and were self critical openly about all of it. We were instrumental, but not key, in the school walkouts against the war in California, Michigan, Florida, and New York. We play a pivotal role in a couple professional organizations, causing the passage of anti-war motions, etc. We continue a role in NEA and the AFT.

Rouge Forum members work within the Coalitions for Peace and Justice in planning demonstrations on the third Friday of the coming months of this year, and anti-war teach-ins on October 20. We have led direct actions, boycotts, against high-stakes exams around the US, and joined others in driving military recruiters, and ROTC, from campuses. You are welcome to join us.

I have to close by saying that there is urgency in my analysis.

Fascism is emerging all around us. US imperialism is in rapid decline. The vaunted US military is being fought to a standstill in Iraq and Afghanistan by an opposition that has no rational ideology, no truly tested leaders (no Hi Chi Minh nor General Giap), no supply lines, no outside state support, no internal regions to produce arms and munitions.

The Russians (who have nukes, a military, and emerging nationalism of their own), the Chinese, the Europeans, can easily see the debacle that is the US military, and they all desperately need the Caspian, Middle-eastern, Venezuelan oil fields, not merely to fuel their economies, but to fuel their militaries (key to their economies). There is no solution to the oil problem by conserving energy, because oil is, above all, a military tool, vital to rule, social control

Every one of these other powers can see the US has lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, already. The US military is already stretched far too thin. It has to be tempting to competing powers to test the US might. Moreover, the US is incessantly provoking them, especially the USSR, which the US is surrounding, claiming what was Soviet territory is now US-interest territory.

There are also wild card players out there that could set things off very fast: Pakistan, India, North Korea, even G. W. Bush. It is hard to foresee exactly how this will all play out, but unless working class action is taken within the heartland of the most aggressive imperial power, the US, it is reasonable to say that the immediate future looks severe.

The US economy teeters on bankruptcy, dependent on virtual loans from China.

The "civil liberties" and the social safety net that were won in 1930's street battles by the US industrial working class are vanishing because the industrial working class has been dis-empowered, there is little resistance from them or their unions, and because there is much less left over in the imperial pot to share. So, the bosses cut back in every social arena (massive auto layoffs, 2.2 million in jail, etc) both because they must, and because there is little fight-back now.

Moreover, people in the US are under constant surveillance, and gulled by spectacles, already.

I do not think we have an unlimited amount of time to act.

In the long run, capitalism cannot solve its own problems of the endless battles for markets, cheap labor, raw materials; cannot even solve the problems of immigration since it must have cheap workers inside the imperial nations, but cannot stand to keep them inside when they complain about being cheap labor. Capital, however, thrives on crises and death (cigarette production is a good example). Capital does not care who is riding it, who thinks they are winning from year to year. Capital is fickle and will leave one nation for another---whoever exploits best.

In the long run, it only makes sense to believe that the Masters will not forever rule the slaves, the few dominate the many. All it takes to get beyond capital is a massive change of mind, and some very militant action. That, though, is also a lot.

In the short run, though, things can get very, very ugly. Time is short. And Kozol is wrong.

Engels from Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it "the reality of the ethical idea," "the image and reality of reason," as Hegel maintains (Grunlinken der Philosophie des Rechts, § 257 and § 360). Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms and classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict, and keep it within the bounds of "order" ; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

Ollman on What Capitalists Are Hiding http//

Gateways to Understanding Marx http//

Analytical Thinking http//

Questions about the Master/Slave Allegory http//

What is Fascism? http//

More stuff on my www page http//

For materials on Freedom Schools, see Kathy Emery's www page

This essay refers to Jonathan Kozol's "An Update, Bulletin, and Manifesto to the Education Activists who have asked meWhere do we go next?" (see http//

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