ParEcon Questions & Answers

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Education in Capitalism and Parecon

The material here is adapted from the book Realizing Hope

cWhat is the connection between education and economy and the individual?

Part of education is intrinsic and oriented to the individual. To think about education starting with the student, we examine the process of conveying information and skills and developing talents in students. We ask what is the best way to educate students given the exigencies of what is taught, the attributes of students, and the abilities of teachers.

But part of education is also contextual and social. To think about education starting with society, we examine the process of transferring information and skills and developing talents from the point of view of society’s needs. We ask, what is the best way to educate students consistent with accomplishing what society seeks?

This polarity between enforcing society and nurturing the freedom and fulfillment of the individual is captured by the revolutionary of pedagogy, Paulo Freire, when he writes, “There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the practice of freedom – the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with the reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Freire is right about education today, but in a better future, ideally we will get the same answer seeking the best educational practice from either of these angles. Ideally society’s interests and those of each new generation of students will accord rather than the former entailing the limitation of the latter. If so, we will have a clear agenda. If not, we will have to choose between serving students needs and capacities or serving society’s dictates.

What about capitalism and education?

Most readers of this q/a live in societies that have capitalist economies with private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision-making, and market allocation.

Because of these institutions, capitalism has huge disparities in wealth and income. About two percent of the population, called capitalists, own most productive property and accrue the benefits. What parecon’s advocates call the coordinator class of empowered lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, and so on, includes roughly 20% of the population and largely monopolizes empowering work and the daily levers of control over their own and other people’s economic lives. The coordinators enjoy high incomes, great personal and group influence over economic outcomes, and great status. Finally, the bottom 80% of producers do largely rote work, take orders from those above, barely influence economic outcomes, and receive low income. This is the working class.

This threefold class division is brought into being by the key institutions of capitalism.

  • First, private ownership of productive property demarcates the dominant capitalist class. Markets structurally impose on owners a need to accumulate profits. The corporate decision-making structure gives owners their ultimate power to dispose over their property.
  • Second, the low number of owners and large requirements of control propel creation of an intermediate coordinator class. Owners can’t oversee their wide reaching properties without assistance. The corporate division of labor defines the coordinator class as those monopolizing empowering work and access to daily decision making levers. The requisites of legitimating the authority of managers and other coordinator class members and of their being able to fulfill their roles ensure that this class will monopolize training, skills, and knowledge – as well as the confidence that accompany these.
  • Third, all these features ensure that the largest portion of citizens will be left with little or no individual bargaining power, having to work for low wages at rote, tedious, and overwhelmingly obedient jobs.

These features will vary in the suffering they impose as well as in the options they permit depending on the relative bargaining power of the three classes. But in every instance of capitalism, the broad scaffolding of the economy’s defining institutions will be as indicated. What are the implications of all this for education?

If an economy has 2% ruling its outcomes by owning, about 18-20% administering and defining, and about 80% obeying, then each year’s new recruits from the educational system must be prepared to occupy his or her designated slot in one of these three classes. Recruits must be prepared to exercise assigned functions, to pay attention to designated responsibilities, and to ignore distractions. This is true for those who will rule, for those who will have great but less than ruling power, and for those who will overwhelmingly obey.

A useful word for all this educational preparation is channeling. Each new generation is divided into segments each of which is in turn channeled into its appropriate destination. The educational system takes the incoming population and processes it so that for about 80% of its members the inclination to impact events is reduced to nearly nil, confidence is nearly obliterated, knowledge is kept minimal and narrow, and the main skills learned are to obey and to endure boredom. As Bertrand Russel aptly summarized, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.”

Another 20 percent are channeled to expect to have a say over their own lives and other people’s lives as well, to have confidence, to have a monopoly on various skills and insights, and so on. The upper reaches of the elite learn at the major societal “finishing schools” such as Harvard and Oxford how to have dinner with one another and to otherwise comport themselves in accord with their lofty station.

The point is simple. If a society requires its population to have three broad patterns of hopes, expectations, and capacities, its educational system will provide precisely those differentiated outcomes. In that channeling context, any effort to look at education from the perspective of each individual maximally developing their potentials and pursuing their interests will either be mere rhetoric or will be limited by presuppositions that most people possess no serious potentials or interests, or it will try to attain better educational outcomes against the economy’s needs. Indeed, these are precisely the attitudes regarding education we see in our societies.

Regarding the largest part of the public, as the great satirist H. L. Mencken summarized, “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everwhere else.”

dIs there any alternative?

Will society’s hierarchies always trump pedagogy that is aimed at the development of each student’s potentials and aspirations? Will significant gains for students only arrive as a result of struggle against systemic dictates and only persist while they are steadfastly defended, being periodically obliterated by economic pressures whenever vigilance diminishes?

When the Carnegie Commission on Education considered the state of U.S. education as part of a governmental effort to understand what “went wrong” in the 1960s, it decided that the problem was too much education. The population, the Commission reported, expected to have too much say in society, too much income, too much job fulfillment, too much dignity and respect–and upon getting ready to enter the economy many members of the population had their expectations trashed and as a result they rebelled. The solution, the Commission reported, was to reduce the tendency for education to induce high expectations in too large a proportion of the population. It was necessary to cut back higher education and make lower education more rote and mechanical – save for those who were destined to rule, of course.

What about good education – and parecon?

If we look at education from the angle of the person to be educated, readers of this book may have differences or open questions about exact methodologies, which is likely quite appropriate as there is unlikely to be any one universally optimal approach, but I suspect we would all also agree on certain broad aims.

Students should be assisted to discover their capacities and potentials, to explore them, and to fulfill those they wish to elaborate while simultaneously becoming broadly confident and able to think and reason and argue and assess in the ways needed to be one among many socially equal and caring adults. Other people might formulate this mandate a bit differently, but one thing is quite clear. For this type of education to happen, society must need this type of incoming adult. It must not want wage slaves who are obedient and passive, and managers and elite intellects who are callous and commanding, for example.

So to be compatible with worthy pedagogy conceived from the angle of the student, the economy needs to call forth from each participant nothing less than the fullest utilization of their capacities and inclinations, whatever those may turn out to be. What kind of economy, in place of capitalism, could do this?

Eighty percent of us are presently taught in schools to endure boredom and to take orders because that’s what capitalism needs from its workers. The other twenty percent are made callous to the conditions of those below and ignorant about their own callousness, save for those at the very top, who are simply made cruel.

In a parecon, education also must be compatible with society’s broad defining institutions. Indeed, that will be true in every society, always. But in a society with a parecon–assuming that other spheres of social life are comparably just and equitable – society will want us to be as capable, creative, and productive as we can be, and to participate as full citizens.

Participatory economics is a solidarity economy, a diversity economy, an equity economy, and a self-managing economy. It is a classless economy. In these respects, its educational system would be based on and generate, also, solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management–as well as rich and diverse capacities of comprehension and creativity. It benefits all in a parecon that each of society’s workers and consumers be as confident and as educated as possible.

The point is that under capitalism talk of desirable pedagogy has two possible logics. On the one hand, it may be about pedagogy that is consistent with reproducing the hierarchies of society. In that case, it is more about control and channeling than it is about what most of us mean by education, such as edification and fulfillment. On the other hand, it could be about edification and fulfillment, but then it is oppositional. It is trying to establish outcomes contrary to the logic of the market, private ownership, remuneration for property and power, and corporate divisions of labor.

With participatory economics, good education isn’t something we win and then perpetually defend or lose because the underlying institutions of society are at odds with it. Good education for the individual in a parecon is part and parcel of the logic of its collective economic and social life.

Are there implications for the actual structure and procedures of schooling and education that are implicit in the logic and structures of parecon? I would guess that the answer is yes, not least but not confined to the fact that of course educational institutions would be self managing, would interface with participatory planning, would incorporate balanced job complexes, and so on.

Schools, universities, and also training centers, would have actors who fulfill balanced jobs, not some who teach, some who administrate, and some who clean up, etc. But the specific meaning of all that regarding pedagogy and more detailed and specific matters of actual methodology of training, learning, sharing, etc., will no doubt emerge only from the actual experience of teaching and learning in a new society, and will no doubt also have a myriad of shapes and forms. Maybe sometimes the familiar memorization approach to learning will make sense, however unlikely I may think that to be. Maybe other times an approach that emphasizes doing and interacting with those who can already do, as mentors, will make more sense. Maybe lectures will play a role, and reading and collective projects. Perhaps some kind of evaluative grading will be sensible at times. Without doubt there must be standards. A good economy does not have people who are poorly equipped undertaking tasks they are unlikely to do well, whether flying planes or composing music or doing research.

The point is, capitalism annihilates aspirations for worthy education, save for a very few and even does so in those cases if we include a moral component. Parecon, in contrast, actualizes educational aspirations for all.

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