Pathfinders: Tomorrow’s People

To those unfortunate enough to be waiting for exam results, their whole future turning on a single envelope, this summer’s heat-wave can’t have brought much pleasure. In the event, A level grades were slightly down on previous years as the government has striven to make exams harder (to combat the so-called Flynn effect of rising grades with no accompanying rising ability), but university admissions have gone up, as governments have continued to push more students into higher education despite the crucifying burden of costs now expected to be borne by those same students.

Those still at school can hardly fail to be aware of ongoing changes to education policy with the introduction of holiday fines for parents taking ‘French leave’ from term-time attendance. And there has been ominous talk of extending the school day until, horrors, 6pm.

So for anyone reading this who finds themselves wondering why the government just can’t seem to leave education policy the f*** alone, and why they keep interfering with child and parental rights in such a petty, condescending and high-handed manner, we present the business guide to the capitalist school.

It all starts with evolution. There’s not much doubt that genes play a part in innate ability or ‘predispositions’, but nobody knows which and by how much genes are involved, say, in making someone good at maths or music. No single gene ever does one single thing, but performs multiple operations which themselves have cascading effects on other genes, in a process known as pleiotropy. Lucky for us it’s so complicated, in a way. If science were ever able to untangle the byzantine complexity of gene expression it would certainly lead to a Brave New World, akin to genetic feudalism, where you were feted to be a space scientist or fated to be a street cleaner and there wouldn’t be a damned thing you could do about it.

In the absence of this marvellous state of affairs, the captains of industry who are interested in mining future generations of talent have a bit of a problem. Capitalist cultural institutions are organised hierarchically, with rich kids getting into all the best schools and universities, their lives set fair for comfort and privilege, while poor kids are  generally directed towards the Gates of the McJob Underworld with the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ over the portal.

The problem for the captains is that evolution doesn’t follow social hierarchies, and ‘good genes’ tend to be distributed randomly, and horizontally, through the population. Nobody knows where they are or what they look like, and only careful development and processing will bring them to the fore. In consigning poor kids to poor education, capitalist social hierarchies are effectively throwing away more than half the potential talent. Any mining company knows that you don’t make money by chucking most of your gold on the slag pile.

But there’s another problem, which is that old workers are refusing to die off in the obliging manner they used to, and the costs of keeping these generally unexploitable people alive are spiralling, costs which are ultimately borne by the same captains of industry who are trying to reduce wastage. Future generations of workers are going to have to work harder, faster, smarter and longer to make up for these increasing costs, as well as pay back their student loans. After six years of recession, with no guarantee of a decent job, the educational incentives are shrinking. Among those with student loans (ie students without rich parents) the current loan write-off estimate stands at 45 percent, barely above the state’s break-even level (Guardian, 21 March). The kids are not alright, and the captains are not happy about it either.

The captains’ union – the Confederation of British Industry – regularly updates the government (it doesn’t matter which one) with their requirements. Tomorrow’s worker is expected to have a skill set that would have looked like science fiction a generation ago. But above all, the state must do something about wastage. Hence all the tinkering, for example the following:

Poor kids tend to leave school earlier in order to bring money into deprived households, and they have lately been doing so in increasing numbers. Now the law has changed so that they will have to remain in education until 18. They’ll probably end up working nights, the poor sods.

Everybody knows about the law of supply and demand. Holiday companies tend to make a loss in the off-peak season and recoup their losses in high season, tripling or quadrupling prices. Naturally this doesn’t affect rich kids, but poor families, if they want any kind of decent quality of life including an annual holiday, have been in the habit of playing truant from school to get the low-season prices. A day here or there may not matter too much, but across a generation of kids the weeks and months add up. Poor kids miss school more than rich ones. More disadvantage, more wastage.

In secondary schools, kids get around 2 hours of homework per night. This is not a problem for rich kids, who have supportive and motivated parents to help. But poor kids frequently have home environments which are not conducive to homework, and the social attitudes of poor families are often hostile to academic achievement (after all, what did school ever do for them?). So rich kids do their homework and poor kids don’t. But if the 2 hours homework was done in school time instead, the advantage enjoyed by rich kids would in theory evaporate. Hence the desperate talk of extending the school day, in the teeth of union opposition (‘Michael Gove’s plans for longer school day dealt ‘huge blow’, Telegraph, 13 February).

The capitalist school system is essentially an extractive and refinery business, confronted in the world market by brutal competition on all sides. The traditional institutions of class privilege in individual countries tend to blunt their competitive edge, which is why capitalism, from the individual standpoint of a poor worker, can sometimes look progressive and even egalitarian. Money talks, not birth or background. Capitalism wants to plunder the workforce for everything it’s got, and it expects tomorrow’s people to be the smartest that have ever lived.

If you don’t like the idea of being mined and extracted, processed, refined, developed, graded and squeezed dry your entire life, join the club. And there is a club. You should join the people who want to abolish the commodity system. To get off the conveyor belt, you have to help shut down the conveyor belt.

Socialist education won’t be like this, because socialist society won’t be an endless competitive war of all against all, but a supportive and human-centred environment where a child’s development could proceed naturally, at its own pace and in the direction of the child’s own inclinations. Children learn best what they want to learn most, and socialism is defined by the philosophy that individuals blossom when able to determine their own needs, and shrivel when they are not. The people of tomorrow’s socialism won’t be commodities to be bought and sold, used and discarded, like so much pig iron and slag. They will be people whose desires, motivations, hopes and genetic predispositions are allowed to shape an individual path towards fulfilment and self-realisation, producing a flowering of art and science we can only guess at. These people, not their enslaved forebears, will be the smartest who ever lived, and quite probably the happiest.


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