By Michael Mirza
In her essay “Imagining Socialist Education,” (in The Future We Want) Megan Erickson lays out an important critique of the current state of public education in America. She contrasts the humanist education reserved for the elite with the dystopian system that “educational reform” is creating.
Reforms inspired by the 1983 study, “A Nation at Risk,” have sidelined efforts to equalize resources in the schools with policies to maximize measurable outputs (student test scores). She correctly connects social conditions outside the schools with the problems going on in them. She asserts that “visions for education that do not involve a socialist capture of the state apparatus to ameliorate the vast material inequalities of our society will be only that: a simulation of socialist education.”
Erickson favors critiquing the system, taking it over, and rebuilding it. She refers to the “freedom schools” of the civil rights era as a starting point. She ends the essay asserting that socialist education will be humanistic education, and not the filtering system of competitive, high stakes testing designed by corporate managers.
The problem of capitalist education is indeed a complex one, and probably cannot be fully addressed in just one short essay. If a second chapter of the essay were written, I think it should delve into the effects of declining capitalism on the prospects for our youth and on the politics of social disintegration.
In the book’s introduction, Sarah Leonard remarks that the “unemployment rate for black people who have not graduated high school is 82.5%.” This is a staggering figure. Unlike the golden age of capitalism, during which the civil rights movement took place, we are in an era of declining capitalism, or at least a capitalism that has less of a need for unskilled labor. As manufacturing becomes more efficient or is outsourced, the American urban working class is becoming as obsolete as small farmers of the Populist era. Perhaps most kids who do graduate will find their way to the jobs of the future (whether they be drab dead-end jobs or something somewhat better), but a substantial portion of today’s working class kids will necessarily find their way into crime and gangs, because that is all that our society is willing to offer them. Of course, the capitalist answer to the chaos is the prison system.
The ensuing social disintegration is real, and in her essay, it is not clear how seriously Erickson takes it. In one passage, while rightly condemning the squalor of poor schools, she puts “disruptive students” in quotation marks, as if to doubt that there are disruptive students in inner city schools. She complains that metal detectors make average kids feel like criminals and divert scarce resources. But is the fault with school administrators for spending money on security, or is it rather with the capitalist system as a whole for creating conditions that require metal detectors? In one sense, we are creating an inhumane and irrational system, but in the narrower sense, we are only doing what is necessary to cope with life under late capitalism.
The attempts of middle class families to move out of the neighborhood or to get their kids into private schools are not purely the result of abstract class or racial prejudice, but are the actions of any family that cares about their childrens’ safety, education, and future. If the boat is sinking, people abandon ship. This situation creates a political split between those who are able to get on the lifeboats and those who sink with the ship. As with so many other issues, splits like this create a conservative constituency, and make the new, worse situation politically acceptable and stable. As progressives, we should try to figure out how to mend this split if we hope to change anything.
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