[On May 1 2023, various media outlets and organizations co-published an essay titled 20 Theses for Liberation. Thirty progressive activists initially signed it. Five international organizations initially hosted and advocated it. Various other venues displayed it. And its own page at 4liberation.org features all that and additional information and provides a form for you if you visit it and so choose, to add your support as another signer.]
Suppose you support the 20 Theses project based on having strong affinity with the 20 Theses for Liberation, including having your own additions and refinements. And suppose you are a teacher, say, or a student, or in any event concerned about education and interested in fighting for changes regarding educational policies and practices. How might you approach that topic. What kinds of program for educational change might you arrive at, due to applying the 20 Theses to educational concerns. First you might think about education in society or what we now have. Next you might think about education vision or what we want. You might next think about contingent issues due to your locale, position, and means. Finally might think about education program and how you might join with others to attain your aims.
Education and Society—What We Have
Part of education, whether today or tomorrow, is to convey knowledge and skills best oriented to each individual. Graduates of educational preparation, after all, benefit from being who they desire to be. To think about education from this angle, you might examine the process of conveying information and skills and developing associated talents in each student consistent with their capacities and aspirations. You might ask, what is the best way for young men and women to learn given what is available to learn, the students‘ talents, and the abilities and tools of their teachers.
But part of education, whether today or tomorrow, is contextual and social. Graduates of educational preparation, after all, need to function within whatever contexts their society provides. To think about education from this angle, you might examine the process of conveying information and skills and developing talents from the point of view of society’s needs. You might ask, what is the best way for students to learn consistent with their fitting roles that society makes available at work, in homes, in cultural communities, and in politics?
This polarity between on the one hand fostering peoples’ freedom and fulfillment and on the other hand preparing people to fit society’s agenda is captured by the pedagogic revolutionary, 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 was right about education today but in a better future, ideally society’s interests will be the same as those of each new generation of students. The roles society offers will accord with each year’s new entrants’ desires to become what they consider their most worthy, capable, and fulfilled selves. A desirable society, such as that sought by the 20 Theses, will need its members to have whatever skills, insights, and aspirations they desire to have. A desirable society’s roles will not place limits on individual fulfillment and development but will foster it. In that case, education will seek to expand and fulfill each student’s capacities in whatever directions they choose. That is what individuals will desire and it is also what a desirable future society’s roles will need and seek. But as long as that concordance of personal and social aims isn’t present, education will have to choose between serving students’ needs and developing their capacities on the one hand, and serving society’s dictates on the other.
We can see one dimension of the above by noting that most readers of this article likely live in societies that have capitalist economies including private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision-making, and market allocation. And, while this essay will focus mostly on that economic dimension of education, one could similarly and equally legitimately think about education by way of highlighting its sex/gender/kinship, race/ethnic/religious, political, ecological, or other dimensions, or, in a more complete treatment than here, by way of addressing all of these life dimensions interactively.
At any rate, because of its particular economic institutions, capitalism imposes on populations huge disparities in wealth and income. Within a capitalist economy, about two percent of the population, called capitalists, own most of society’s productive property and accrue profits from it. Below the owners, a class of lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, and other empowered employees comprise roughly twenty percent of the population. They largely monopolize empowering tasks and the daily levers of control over their own and over other people’s economic lives. Though subordinate to owners, these “coordinators” enjoy considerable personal and group influence over economic outcomes. They earn high incomes and enjoy high status. In contrast, below this coordinator class, the bottom eighty percent of producers do largely rote and repetitive work. They take orders from above, receive low incomes, barely influence economic outcomes, and have little status. They are the working class.
The key institutions of capitalist economies impose this threefold class division. First, private ownership of productive property demarcates the dominant capitalist class from the rest. Markets structurally impose on the owners a need to accumulate profits. The corporate decision-making structure gives the owners ultimate power over how their property is used.
Second, the low number of owners and the large requirements of exercising control propel the creation of an intermediate coordinator class. Owners can’t oversee their wide-reaching assets without assistance. The corporate division of labor defines the coordinator class as those who monopolize empowering work and dominate daily decision making. The requisites of legitimating control by managers and other coordinator class members ensures that this class monopolizes advanced training, skills, and knowledge—as well as the confidence that accompanies these.
Third, all these capitalist features taken together ensure that the largest portion of citizens are left with little or no individual bargaining power. These disempowered workers do rote, tedious, and overwhelmingly obedient jobs for low wages.
Depending on the relative bargaining power of the three classes, capitalism’s features vary in the suffering they impose and the opportunities they provide. But in every instance of capitalism, the broad scaffolding of the economy’s defining institutions are as indicated. What implications does all this have for education?
If an economy has roughly two percent of its members ruling through their ownership of property, about eighteen to twenty percent administering and defining outcomes due to monopolizing empowering circumstances, and roughly eighty percent obeying due to doing only rote tasks, then regardless of their personal inclinations and desires, when each year’s new recruits enter the economy they must be prepared to occupy their designated slot in one of these three classes. Recruits must be prepared to exercise assigned functions, pay attention to designated responsibilities, and submissively accept their place. This is true for those who rule, for those who have great but less than ruling power, and for those who obey.
I wish to at least note (lest I give a wrong impression regarding other core features of societies) that I am not suggesting economics alone contours education. For example, in societies in which familial sexism, community racism, and political authoritarianism bend us into hierarchies that intersect, mold, and are molded by each other as well as by the three-class economic system, each year’s new recruits entering society will need to be prepared to occupy their designated sex/gender, race/ethnic, and political as well as class slots. Recruits must be prepared to exercise their assigned kinship, community, and political as well as economic functions and responsibilities. They must expect to enjoy the advantages but also accept the limitations of their roles. This is true for those on top, for those who have intermediate but less than dominant power, and for those who will overwhelmingly endure from below gender, community, and political as well as economic hierarchies.
A useful word for all this educational (and social) preparation is “tracking.” Each new generation is divided into segments, and each segment is tracked into its appropriate destination. Thus, when we consider the capitalist economic dimension, we see that the educational system processes the incoming population so that about eighty percent lose their inclination to determine events. Their confidence is severely limited. Their knowledge is kept minimal and narrow. The main skills they learn are to obey and to endure boredom. As Bertrand Russell often joked, “People are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.”
Another twenty percent of the incoming population are tracked to expect to have a considerable but not ultimate say over their own and over other people’s lives. They become confident and enjoy a monopoly on various skills and insights. The upper reaches of this privileged group, like the future owners above them, learn how to have dinner with one another and to otherwise comport themselves in accord with their lofty status at the major societal “finishing schools” such as Harvard and Oxford. They also become ignorant of and oblivious to social desires that run contrary to their advantages and callings.
When we consider sex/gender, racial/ethnic, and political dimensions, we see that education involves similar tracking, but now oriented to folks fitting society’s sexist, racist, and authoritarian roles, whether up top or down low, so they accept their attendant benefits, responsibilities, and limitations.
The point of all the above is, for example, if a society requires its population to have three broad patterns of economic hopes, expectations, and capacities, its educational system will be designed to provide precisely those outcomes. In that context, any effort to describe education as a system by means of which each individual maximally develops their potentials and pursues their interests will either be mere rhetoric or hamstrung by presuppositions that some people possess only highly circumscribed potentials and interests, which are therefore all they are welcomed to pursue. Of course, whether as students or as teachers, people can try to attain better educational outcomes against society’s role requirements, but this will entail acting against the logic of capitalism, sexism, racism, and authoritarianism.
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 everywhere else.”
As just a bit of instructive real world evidence for the perspective offered above, when the Carnegie Commission on Education considered the state of U.S. education as part of a government effort to understand what “went wrong” in the 1960s, it decided that the problem was too much education. The population, the Commission reported, had been educated such that it came to expect that it would have significant say in society and ample income, job fulfillment, dignity, and respect. With such expectations, upon entering society, most members of the population had their high expectations trashed and in response, many rebelled. The solution, the Commission reported, was to reduce the tendency of 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 few who were destined to rule and needed both capacity but also the callousness toward others to do so. The result of this inclination has been a steady diminution in the quality and reach of education and its composition and sense of compassion in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
Education Vision—What We Want
Is there an alternative? Will society’s hierarchies always largely crowd out education that seeks to develop each student’s potentials and sympathies in accord with his or her aspirations? Will gains for students only arrive as a result of struggles against systemic dictates? Will gains be periodically obliterated by economic, gender, cultural, and political pressures whenever vigilance in defending them diminishes?
If we look at education from the angle of the person to be educated, we may differ over issues of exact methodology since it is unlikely there is one best universally optimal approach. We suspect, however, that we would agree on broad aims.
Worthy education would assist students to discover, explore, and fulfill their capacities and potentials while simultaneously enhancing their confidence and expanding their ability to think, reason, assess, and empathize in the ways needed to function effectively among socially aware and caring adults. Other people might formulate a mandate for worthy education somewhat differently than that, 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, for example, wage slaves (or women, minorities, or citizens) who are obedient and passive. It must not have elite owners or coordinators (or men, whites, or political elites) who are callous and commanding.
We do not need education to bend and mutilate people to abide or impose oppressive structures. We need education to facilitate people becoming their fullest, best selves who worthy society welcomes and fulfills.
In other words, to be compatible with education conceived from the angle of the student, a society needs to seek from each participant nothing less than the fullest utilization of their capacities and inclinations in whatever ways they desire, whatever those capacities, inclinations, and desires may turn out to be. This observation pushes us to ask what kind of society would do this because only that type of society will allow, welcome, and support education for liberation.
Consider the economic dimension of the question. In current class divided society, roughly eighty percent of us are presently taught in schools to endure boredom and take orders because that’s what capitalism needs from its working class. We watch the clock hoping the school day will end. We get punished for disobedience. Working together is cheating. Another twenty percent or thereabouts are made ambitious for themselves as well as callous to the conditions of those below and ignorant about their own callousness because this is what capitalism needs from its coordinator class. And at the very top, roughly two percent are made at least willing to becruel and self seeking as those traits are essential to ownership. Similarly for other dimensions in current sexist, racist, authoritarian society, women and men, members of different races (religions, ethnicities, etc.), and political authorities and their subordinates all come through education prepared for their elevated or subordinate lot in life. Of course all this isn’t perfectly cut and dried. It is, however, the overall average picture.
So while it is true that in any society, education will need to fit well with society’s broad defining institutions, in a society with a desirable, worthy economy, for example, that society will want everyone to be as capable, creative, productive, and empathetic as we can be while pursuing all other ends as we choose. Society will in that case, want us to each participate as full and equal citizens. But what will constitute a desirable, worthy, economy (or, you might ask, extending the scope of this discussion, a desirable, worthy kinship, culture, or polity?
Some seek a solidarity economy, others a diversity economy, some an equity economy, and others a self-managing economy. Each of these would require classlessness. In these respects, such a worthy economy’s educational system will be based on and need to generate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management—as well as rich and diverse capacities for comprehension and creativity. Everyone in a such an economy would benefit from every worker and consumer being confident and well educated. Add to such an economy renovated kinship, community, and polity, (or, vice versa, add to renovated kinship, community, or polity a renovated economy) and you have a new type society that needs a new type education.
Under current society, talk of desirable pedagogy means pedagogy that is consistent with the desire to reproduce the hierarchies of society. In that case, desirable pedagogy is more about control and tracking than it is about edification and fulfillment. On the other hand, pedagogy in current society could try to seek edification and fulfillment, but that would contradict the basic needs of the current economy, kinship, culture, and polity because it would seek to establish outcomes inconsistent with current private ownership, remuneration for property and power, corporate divisions of labor, markets, gender hierarchy, sexual norms, racial relations, and political structures. In current society to get desirable education one must overcome undesirable sexist, racist, authoritarian, and classist pressures.
Consider the last, the classist pressures, not as most important, but simply as indicative of the sorts of needed changes. In current economics, good personal education is something we have to win and then perpetually defend because the underlying institutions of society are at odds with it. Good personal education in a classless economy is instead part and parcel of the logic of that society’s collective economic and social life.
Do these observations implications for the actual structure and procedures of schooling and education implicit in the structures of a liberated economy, and, for that matter, the implicit in the structures of liberated kinship, culture, and polity? Surely the answer is yes, not least but also not confined to the fact that of course educational institutions would themselves be self managing, would interface with participatory planning, and would incorporate a classless division of labor.
Put differently, there would not be some staff of schools and universities who only teach, others who only administer, and still others who only clean up. But the specific features of changes in how we teach, learn, and share will no doubt emerge only from the actual experience of teaching, learning, and sharing in a new society, and will no doubt also have a myriad of shapes and forms. Maybe occasionally the familiar memorization approach to learning will make sense. But likely more often an approach that emphasizes doing and interacting with those who can already do, where students learn from each other and from mentors will make more sense. Likely, lectures will play a role, and certainly reading and collective projects will play a role. Perhaps some kind of evaluative grading will be sensible. Without doubt, however, there will be standards.
If we consider economics, kinship, community, and politics, a good economy would certainly not have people who are poorly equipped to undertake tasks they wind up doing, whether it be to fly passenger planes, compose music, build houses, drive trucks, or conduct cancer research. Or whether it be to parent, engage with different cultural communities, or participate in law making and collective political projects, and much more of course.
How much education will people get? How many years? What will be the balance between generalist preparation to be a full citizen and specialized training in a field of major pursuit or in broader life requirements? To what degree will resources go to raising the comprehension and capacity of less able students as compared to advancing students pursuing cutting edge intellectual insights? To what degree will resources go to expand peoples’ comprehension and capacities as compared to advance other social ends? These choices and countless others are not a matter of a priori determination. They are what free people in context of free institutions will decide for themselves in a better future.
The point here is that save for a minority, and in various respects even for them, current society annihilates aspirations for worthy education. In contrast, a desirable society would actualize educational aspirations of all its members. It would simultaneously seek to prepare each new generation for roles that exist in society and also for their own personal development and fulfillment as they desire it—precisely because the former requires and aids the latter, and the latter requires and aids the former. Curricula would be chosen, adapted, and evolve in accord. So too for methods of interaction. All involved would, as with all sides of life, participate in a self-managing manner. But that’s in a better future. From our current positions and circumstances in current society how can teachers, students, others in education institutions, and citizens at large move education toward where it needs to ultimately arrive?
Education Program—What Can We Do Now
A question arises. What now? What might sensibly occur to win gains today that would lead toward a better tomorrow, and how might such steps occur? Consider pre-college public school education or a college campus. What might people do to improve education today and to simultaneously move toward the kind of liberated education noted above? For every educational venue there are some educators, some others who work to make the venue viable, many others who participate to learn, as well as a surrounding population. Given the above observations about education, now and in a better future, what demands or campaigns might activists today usefully pursue?
Consider a college. What are some kinds of change won by what kinds of movements that might not only improve current relations and outcomes but also foster desires and organizations eager and prepared to win yet more?
Of course, what makes sense at any one campus will depend greatly on conditions and available means there. What to demand for any campus is contextual and contingent. But we know that young faculty and graduate students are currently organizing around the country for better conditions and wages. What might be added? A growing role in decision making to move toward making each whole campus self managed by all its participants—support staff, faculty, grad students, and students. A say over curriculum and teaching methods to ensure that all who participate wind up sufficiently empowered, knowledgeable, skilled, and compassionate to partake effectively of their rightful share of immediate decision making and, when they pursue roles in society, to have attitudes and capacities to function well and cooperatively there as well. Establishment of a worker/student councils via which all participants in educational institutions can exercise influence and through which all their aims can be sought. Changes in roles and responsibilities that move toward a new universally empowering division of labor so all decisions are well informed. An approach to wages that moves toward equity for all participants based on effort and sacrifice expended, not on bargaining power or even output. New or refined allocation of tasks and responsibilities and of content of daily life arrangements and of curriculum plus means of pedagogy sought by the worker and student councils to counter existing racist, sexist, and classist behavior patterns and assumptions.
And what about the relation of the campus to the surrounding community and society? What might be added in that regard? Context and means will determine detailed program but the aim will presumably be for a college or university to be a good citizen regarding the impact of its use of land and resources on surrounding communities, and regarding appropriate use of its athletic, cultural, scientific, and educational assets including their use by neighbors when not used by those directly involved.
Consider next a public primary or secondary school. What are some kinds of change won by what kinds of movements that might not only improve their current relations and outcomes but also foster desires and organizations eager and prepared to win yet more?
In many respects it is not only the same question as for a higher education institution, it will also be essentially the same answers, though again, details will differ in different schools that have different assets and condtions. Even so, we know that many teachers and students are currently organizing widely for better conditions and wages. What might be added? Refinements in decision making to move toward making each whole school self managed by all its participants—support staff, teachers, students, and students’ parents. A say over curriculum and teaching methods to ensure that all who participate wind up sufficiently empowered, knowledgeable, skilled, and compassionate to partake effectively of their rightful share of decision making and, when they pursue roles in society, to have attitudes and capacities to operate well and cooperatively there as well. Establishment of a worker/student councils via which all can exercise influence and through which all these aims can be sought. Changes in roles and responsibilities that move toward a new universally empowering division of labor so all decisions are well informed. An approach to wages that moves toward equity for all workers based on effort and sacrifice expended, not based on bargaining power or even output. New or refined allocation of tasks and responsibilities and of content of daily life arrangements as well as of curriculum and pedagogy to counter existing racist, sexist, and classist behavior patterns and assumptions.
And what about the relation of the school to the surrounding community and society? What might be added in that regard? Context and means will determine detailed program but the aim will presumably be for a primary or secondary school to be a good citizen regarding its use of land and resources affecting the surrounding community. For appropriate use of its athletic, cultural, scientific, and educational assets including their use by neighbors when not used by those directly involved, for example, using the school at night for neighborhood education, entertainment, celebration, meetings, etc.
The idea in all the above mentioned cases is for the relevant participants to create organizational means, confidence, and desires to move their respective educational institution’s structure, decision making, distribution of benefits and responsibilities, curriculum, and pedagogy toward preferred educational attainments while also recognizing the need for broader societal change in accord.
The Twenty Theses for Liberation, its signers hope you will agree, can provide a worthy basis for education-related movements to orient themselves in light of education as it is and toward education as it ought to be while simultaneously aiding and seeking aid from others doing likewise in other domains of life. And all the more so as you and others refine, advance, and share the ideas. To those ends, please visit 4Liberation.org.
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