1970s >> 1974 >> no-837-may-1974

What’s Wrong With Education: How Capitalism Learns ’em

Recent figures show that there are over one million adults in the UK who are illiterate. When one considers that compulsory state education has been in existence since the 1870 Education Act, that figure is quite startling. Even if one takes into account that possibly some of that one million are immigrants who were not necessarily educated here, the proportion of illiterates is still very high. In many parts of the country they are trying to tackle the problem. In Birmingham, for example, adult education centres are being established to deal specifically with illiterates. But the Mayor of Birmingham has no doubts about the chances of succeeding in overcoming the problem in his town. “We can’t eliminate illiteracy in Birmingham, but we have to try.” (The Guardian 14th March 1974). Why won’t they eliminate illiteracy in Birmingham, or London or Manchester for that matter? To answer that question one has to see education in its proper context.


Education under capitalism is a topic that always demands and receives much attention. As capitalism’s history unfolds, the importance of education to its continuance becomes more and more obvious. Capitalist society now needs a highly educated work force which can adapt itself to the changing needs of the system. The education world, full of articulate enthusiastic people, is one of great activity. The people involved in the process of imparting knowledge are often more aware than many other similar groups of workers of changes taking place in their own sphere. Great debates will sweep through the education world from time to time, about the place of education in society and how it should be organised and structured. Sometimes the debates are between those that are seen as the preservers of the future élite  against the rest (grammar v comprehensive).


More often the debates take the form of priority issues. Most ideas are regarded as good ones, but they can’t all be implemented at once. So the protagonists of the various education reforms line up like competing football teams, but instead of getting on with the game, squabble over which pitch to play on. Nursery v primary, higher education v lower, university v polytechnic, vocational courses v liberal arts courses, etc. In addition to these the age-old, sterile debate about whether education means to “draw out” or to “stuff in” continues. Currently the stuffer-in seem to be losing ground in terms of educational techniques. What the educationists do not appear to realise, and what the Socialist will always be at pains to point out, is that any discussion on education cannot be divorced from the function of the education system within capitalist society.


Capitalism is a world-wide economic system (i.e. Russia and China too) based on private or state ownership of wealth and the means of producing wealth. Education within that framework has a certain well-defined role. One of the definitions of the word “education”, in the Oxford English Dictionary, is “preparation for the work of life.” In other words, education under capitalism is the process of training the working class (that section of the community that has to sell its abilities to work for a wage or salary in order to live) for work. The type and amount of training that the workers will be given (forced to undergo) depends, looking at capitalist society as a whole, on the technological level of society. It did not matter much a hundred years ago (to the capitalist) if workers could not read or write. Now literacy is demanded for the workers. As one “educational sociologist’’ has put it: “The literate factory operative, for example, is not only better able to follow instructions and undertake new tasks but has been trained in the school in habits of order and discipline.” (The Sociology of Education, Olive Banks). Most jobs now require that workers have at least a good basic ability in reading, writing and mathematics.


As well as ensuring that there is a work force adequately trained to cope with the difficulties of production at all levels, the education system also fulfils several other basic functions for capitalist society. It disciplines children into creatures able to control the frustrations that will inevitably arise when faced with dull repetitive processes for forty years. In spreading the education catchment to all children a mass education system also ensures (so far as possible within its own limited horizons) that whatever ability is available to capitalist society gets some sort of chance. The reformists in the education world hail this as their golden land of “equal opportunity.” All it means is that clever children get to the top (where capitalism needs them) instead of just rich ones. The vast majority are still where they will remain all their lives — underneath.


Without this wide spreading of the net, technological advance would not continue. And without technological advance, individual sections of competing capitalist groups (countries) would not remain competitive. The competition between the various nations to sell goods on the world market at a profit, also demands that the workers’ education be continually intensified to create those who are going to be able to produce the technological advance that capitalist society requires. Economists, with callous indifference to the interests of those involved, now call the education process “an investment in human capital.” Above all, the education system has to instil in workers the values, prejudices and concepts of capitalist society. True that society needs some of its workers to think, invent, create etc. But the inventions, thoughts or creations of workers must be channelled into lines conductive to the smooth functioning of a market society.


It is this fundamental point about the purpose of the education system that all the do-gooders and reformists in the education world will never remember. Education as a commodity of capitalist society is not given away to provide some sort of elusive happiness for workers. It is there to ensure that the system of society as at present constituted continues, and from the point of view of the capitalist, improves. Once this is remembered, it becomes clear why not only the teaching methods, but also the subject matter is linked with the status quo. Possibly the best example of this is in the teaching of economics in schools and universities. Economics should be the study of how society works. But if that were taught the recipients might start to question a system that so obviously works against the interests of the vast majority. So instead, economics is taught as a collection of ludicrous theories. None of them bears any resemblance to the real world outside the class room.


Some of the obvious pieces of ideological double-think in standard school and college economics are:


  1. That resources are scarce (they are plentiful — it is just under capitalism production and therefore consumption are restricted to what can be sold at a profit);
  2. That governments somehow play a neutral rôle in the economics they are supposed to control, in that government action is aimed at producing the best results for all in society — this ignores the fact that society is divided into two classes (capitalist and working) and the interests of the two classes are diamertically opposed, what is good for one must be bad for the others. And, most absurd of all.
  3.  that given certain (impossible) conditions, capitalism’s price mechanism leads to resources being distributed in the best interests of society.


This appalling distortion and intellectual juggling that takes place in many subjects (not just economics) can only occur in an educational system geared not to imparting knowledge but to ensuring the smooth running of private property society. This results in children very largely being forced to learn what capitalist society wants them to know. The Badger in The Wind in the Willows neatly summed up the objects of capitalist education: “We don’t want to teach ’em . . . We want to learn ’em — learn ’em. learn ’em. And what’s more we’re going to do it.”


Educationists, like all reformists, have to realise that the particular social problem with which they are concerned cannot have its contradictions ironed out whilst the causes of those contradictions remain intact. Because capitalist society has as its aim, in producing anything, sale with a view to profit (even if only indirectly, as in education) it cannot take into account the satisfaction of human requirements, where no profit is to be made. And the education system, being but a limb of that society, can only function according to the requirements of that society. The net result as in all aspects of life under capitalism is that workers as a whole have a standard of education (and living) far below society’s possibilities. Those at the very bottom of the ladder end up illiterate.


When mankind ends capitalism, and by its own conscious action replaces it with Socialism, wealth that is produced will be freely available to ail in society. Free access to everything will include free access to knowledge. Education as a process of finding out about the total human environment, will not be an action limited to sections of people’s lives, when forced to learn. Instead, there will be nothing to prevent man’s natural curiosity about the world he lives in continuing to be fulfilled all his life. Like everything else, education will be available to satisfy man’s needs, not as now, for continuing the even running of a system of society that deprives the vast majority of fulfilling life.


Ronnie Warrington