Ideas & Debates
Public Education in Capitalism: A Marxist Perspective
What do Marx and Marxism have to say about education? How can teachers use Marxism to help frame the way we think about our role in the classroom and in society, and how can we fight against neoliberal attacks as well as for the education system teachers and students deserve?
October 31, 2016
The following is an abridged version of the full text that appeared in Argentine magazine “Questioning from a Marxist Perspective: A Magazine of Education Debates” written by Corriente Nacional 9 de Abril (April 9th Collective), a group of teachers formed by the PTS (Partido de Trabajadores Socialistas, Socialist Workers Party) and independents. The text was written in 2008 while the Cristina Kirchner-led government in Argentina was making severe cuts to funding for healthcare and education.
The following article is an abridged translation. The full article in the full magazine appears here.
Image from Esquerda Diario
In recent years, teachers, students, and parents have faced government cutbacks in the education system as well as attacks on working conditions in schools. Teachers work in unsafe, dilapidated buildings that form a backdrop for the horrible learning conditions faced by low-income students. Teachers fight against government cuts while confronting the union bureaucracy that allow these attacks to be carried out. The struggle against cuts to education is not only a teachers’ struggle but also the struggle of all workers and of the community.
However, in each one of these fights, it became clear that the defense of free, secular public education is not enough. Public education is still in the hands of those who rule the country in service to large corporations. International financial institutions, corporate executives, and associated government ministers determine the curriculum and methods — the what, the how, and the when of public education. There is enormous class inequality which results in huge nutritional deficits and health problems for many of our students. Class differences also mean that many children have no books to read. While these conditions persist, we cannot limit ourselves to proposing a few reforms to correct specific problems in education without questioning the institution of public schooling, including its character and function in society.
Argentina’s ruling class has created an education system to serve its own interests. Education has never been separate from class interests despite its neutral and universal appearance. Since the institutionalization of the Argentinian education system, education reform has been designed to more efficiently exploit workers and their communities.
The history of education is irrevocably linked to the history of class struggle. Therefore, we cannot think of education as neutral, but rather as a contradictory system that is governed by antagonistic forces. On one side are the efforts of the bourgeoisie, the corporations, and their governments to build an education system that serves their interests. On the other is the glorious history of education workers’ struggles — workers who have, in some cases, given their lives to defend not only their rights as workers but also the rights of working class and poor students to have access to quality public education.
Our group April 9th wants not only to be part of labor struggles but also to bring about a serious debate about the kind of education system we are fighting for. Teachers constantly ask themselves: “What should be done in education?” and “Whom does our teaching serve?”. We ask ourselves these questions when we are confronted with the harsh reality of our students’ lives and when we analyze whether we are really helping to transform their conditions. We ask ourselves if each one of our students can “beat the odds.” We wonder if we are puppets who falsely believe that we are making a difference in our classroom when, in reality, there are invisible strings that drive our actions.
This text aims to analyze the false promises and real potential of public schools and the education system which exists within these contradictions. We in the April 9th Collective do this while unconditionally defending public schools from any attack and demanding complete access to public schooling, living wages for teachers, and an immediate increase in education funding. We raise these demands with full awareness of the fact that they are necessary but not sufficient.
Marxism and Education?
From a superficial and formal perspective, Marxism has little to say about education as the few writings by Marx that explicitly address it are limited to guidelines about how to develop possible responses to the problems of education. Some would say that on the topic of education and teaching, Marxism has left a great deal to be desired.
We believe that those who take this perspective are deeply mistaken. From our point of view, the contributions of Marx and of other Marxist authors such as Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky are fundamental to an analysis of the problems in education. Yet one cannot seek out their contributions in a superficial way, looking for the words “education,” “school,” or “education system” in the glossary of a book on Marxism. To understand a Marxist perspective on education, one must utilize the roots of Marxist thinking — its conception of mankind and of society, and in synthesis, the materialist conception of history. To understand a Marxist perspective on education, one must understand the material process that forms consciousness and ideology (considering education and schools to be part of that process).
Before moving forward, we must make three clarifications:
1. Schools are central institutions of modern capitalist society. We must reject the idea that they are eternal and immutable and that the “natural” way of learning takes place within the four walls of a classroom with fixed times, grade levels, scores, etc. Schools are products of history. They appear in a specific moment and are therefore not natural or eternal. The learning institutions of today are destined to disappear or change along with the society that gave gave rise to them.
2. Public education is an important mechanism in creating social consensus because it is based on the idea that school offers “equal opportunities” for all citizens. This idea of education is a strong legitimating force of capitalism. The idea of equal opportunity under the capitalist system is, in itself, a fallacy.
3. Teaching has a third role: the socializing role. It is a mechanism used to train students to internalize the values, ideas, and attitudes of the dominant society. Educational institutions are especially efficient in legitimating the current social order because schools play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of giving them skills to be part of the productive labor force but also in the naturalization of the social relations of production.
We must, however, add a few important elements in order to understand schooling in a capitalist society.
When Equality has the Mark of Difference
The education system is built on the basis of a capitalist ideology of “equal” opportunities. Many of those who see that there are different social classes as well as different structures of culture and family insist that all of these issues exist outside of the school; they insist that, within the school, all children have equal opportunities. “According to the ideological discourse around schools, if all children started out in the same place and within the same school system, the differences in their accomplishments would depend only on their particular abilities, motivation and choices. If a child appears to be lagging in the race because of outside issues (family struggles, social problems, economic problems) the school does not play a role in helping them. It is no wonder that the typical bourgeois theories of society, which see the market as a panacea of equality, also see in schools a mechanism of meritocracy” (Fernandez, Enguita).
Treating students who come from different contexts and cultures the same in school is actually unequal treatment because it is a way of perpetuating the existing inequality in schooling opportunities. The child begins to learn that equality has no material basis and only exists in the sphere of ideas. The same grading system for all children, the right to vote every four years, and the right to sell one’s labor, taken together, form the basis of a very superficial understanding of the concept of equality.
“To state this in more scientific language, I will say that the reproduction of the labor force demands not only reproduction in teaching workers skills, but also in simultaneously reproducing submission to the dominant ideology” (Fernandez, Enguita).
The school apparatus was formed to fit the tenets of capitalist production and is configured not only with explicitly ideological components but as the creation and consolidation of the idea that the alienation of the labor force is natural. Students are taught not only by the formal curriculum in their classes but also by the organization of the entire school system.
This is an important part of the historical explanation for the formation of public schools. Public education is part of a complex relationship between the interests of and resistance from the capitalist class. Much of its formation occurred in a struggle between the capitalists and a large workers movement demanding free and expansive public education. Part of public education is rooted in the need to form a work force and to satisfy social demands made by the working class. No former mode of production posed the need to create a workforce that could comply with requirements of daily timeliness, repetition, and attention. Education and schooling play an important role in developing these “skills.”
Despite the reflection of the dominant classes’ interests in the current formation of schooling, the path to public education was not one dictated by the bourgeoisie, nor was it a gradual and passive path along which the bourgeoisie slowly conceded funding for schools and allowed workers to spend time on education and culture. The labor laws of the 19th century were a response to demands arising from the working class and were imposed despite the resistance of the bosses who sought every possible way to break these laws. Public schooling is a concession from the bourgeois state, although it also serves their interests.
We must discuss the issue of education from the point of view of working class and low-income communities. We must face the contradictions that have been unleashed via the struggle for free, quality public education for the children of the working class. The current form of education is very far from being politically neutral because it cannot be disconnected from class interests. Education is not for a neutral “mankind” and is not on the margins of politics or class struggle — it is a central area of that struggle.
This is why it is necessary to think about the objectives of education projects that come from the state. We must examine the interests of those who only fight for the expansion of “quality” public education.
We have explained the goals of public education for the bourgeoisie and its government. These are not the same as the goals of the parents and families who, with enormous effort, send their children to school with the hope that they will get a degree. They are also not the goals of those of us who dedicate our lives to supplying children with the best education possible.
Modern schooling is a product of the needs of the bourgeoisie. But it is also a product of a huge struggle to make it expansive and free as well to defend it from corporate encroachment. It cannot be denied that in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist state, school tries to be (and in most cases is) one more tool for the legitimation of the system. The bourgeoisie is not willing to give the working class the means for a real education — instead, it limits the potential of the working class by dividing manual and intellectual labor, spending a limited amount of money on education, and creating biased content as it constantly tries to limit access to quality public education.
In a class based society education is class based
According to Lenin, “The more cultured the bourgeois state, the more subtly it lied when declaring that schools could stand above politics and serve society as a whole. In fact the schools were turned into nothing but an instrument of the class rule of the bourgeoisie. They were thoroughly imbued with the bourgeois caste spirit. Their purpose was to supply the capitalists with obedient lackeys and able workers...We say that our work in the sphere of education is part of the struggle for overthrowing the bourgeoisie. We publicly declare that education divorced from life and politics is lies and hypocrisy” He also says, “The bourgeoisie themselves, who advocated this principle, made their own bourgeois politics the cornerstone of the school system, and tried to reduce schooling to the training of docile and efficient servants of the bourgeoisie, to reduce even universal education from top to bottom to the training of docile and efficient servants of the bourgeoisie, of slaves and tools of capital. They never gave a thought to making the school a means of developing the human personality.”
The bourgeoisie sees knowledge as part of their own monopoly and tries to convert it into an instrument of their domination. Lenin affirms that only the wealthy receive a “quality” education, but the education for the poor and working class is merely training for work. It in no way has the goal of making people “the true owners of their lives.”
“The true owners of their lives” has both literary and profound meanings. To the working class and to the poor, access to education is not only important but necessary. In order to accomplish the true liberation of the working class and oppressed sectors of society, we must profoundly break with our separation and the separation of our children from the huge arsenal of scientific, technical, philosophical, economic and historic knowledge that humanity has developed throughout history.
In Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx addresses this issue. He says, " ‘Equal elementary education’? What idea lies behind these words? Is it believed that in present-day society (and it is only with this one has to deal) education can be equal for all classes?”
He goes on to say, "’Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc… is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school…”
As Marx says, on one hand, it is necessary to change social conditions to create a new education system. On the other, we need a new education system to change current social conditions. As a consequence, we must begin our analysis with an understanding of the current situation. This leads to demanding and defending public, secular, and free education. It means fighting for an education budget based on student needs, not the dictates of corporations or international financial bodies. Although we demand that the state finance education and guarantee access to the population, we do not accept that we need to leave the management of education in the hands of the State that represents the interests of the capitalist class.
Education can be public without being in the hands of the government.
It is necessary to fight to rip control of the curriculum, of the budget, and of the allocation of funding from the hands of the capitalist government. We must put it in the hands of the people who are truly interested in our children’s education: the parents, teachers, students, community organizations, and working class organizations. We defend, but we also question, the existing education system because we fight for equal opportunities and the freedom for young people to access and build upon the knowledge accumulated by humanity. We do not fight for an education system like the one to which we are accustomed. “Equality” in education is a cynical and prejudicial lie. Until equality includes an end to class-based society and exploitation, we are know that it is just an empty phrase. We are fighting to bring an end to class society, and in this struggle, we are truly fighting for equality. This is why we fight for a workers government that will expropriate the bourgeoisie and establish democratic planning of the economy and education.
Translated by: Tatiana Cozzarelli