Below is an excerpt from The Working Class and the Transformation of Learning: The Fraud of Education Reform Under Capitalism by Jack Barnes, one of four books offered at reduced prices with a subscription to the Militant. The book is based on a talk given in April 1993 at a regional socialist educational conference held in Greensboro, N.C. Copyright © 2000 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY JACK BARNES
In the United States today, under capitalism, the only future we can count on is one in which education will worsen—in which education will fuel rather than retard social differentiation. There will only be “education” to squelch curiosity and creativity. There will only be “education” as regimentation. There will only be “education” as preparation to rationalize—or simply resent—class polarization.
I am not saying that everybody involved in education intends for this to happen. There are human beings in this society who are not communists and who are not workers but who genuinely, in their own way, would like to see children and other people have a better education and become more self-confident. I have had some teachers like that, as many of you have. But such individuals are not the norm, and they cannot and will not change the character of education in bourgeois society.
Instead, people are reduced under capitalism to hoping things will be different for your child. Your child somehow will get a decent education, somehow will get to college, somehow will not have the desire to learn beaten out of them. Your child somehow will be able to compete with everybody else and have a better life.
That is what the president of the United States did, isn’t it? Clinton spent nine months campaigning about the importance of public education—and the whole working class knew what the Clintons were going to do when they had to choose a school for their daughter, Chelsea. … [They] sent her to an exclusive private school in Washington.
Class-conscious workers bore no resentment toward William, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton because of this decision. Envy of the propertied classes and their spokespersons is not a revolutionary or proletarian trait; it is encouraged not by communists but by fascists. But in watching the Clintons go about selecting a school for their daughter, thinking workers recognized further confirmation of two fundamental realities of class relations under capitalism. First, there is no connection between the values and public policies sanctimoniously espoused by the ruling layers and the lives they and their families lead. Second, there is no such thing as classless “education” in capitalist society; schools for the working class and schools for the ruling class are qualitatively different things.
If education is not discussed this way, then revolutionaries can never be convincing. If we start where reformers and liberals throughout the capitalist world begin—with my children, my neighborhood, my schools, my problems—then we get nowhere. And when the reformers start jabbering about defending all children, reach for your wallet and your watch! …
If we do not explain education under capitalism as a class question (that is, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, two totally separate and unrelated questions for two different classes); if we do not present working-class schooling as the social destruction of human solidarity, as the organization of a society based on class differentiation, where human beings late in their teens become units of production in the minds of personnel managers and social planners; if we do not point to the fundamental issue of truly universal, lifetime education—if we cannot explain education this way, then we cannot explain it at all.
But understood and explained correctly, there is no more important question for communists. Education as a lifetime experience—I cannot think of a better reason to make a socialist revolution. What better reason to get rid of the capitalist state, to begin transforming humanity, to begin building human solidarity?
This approach to education is what we have to explain to students, to young people, and to others. If they went to school to get a leg up in life, then they did so due to a misunderstanding—unless they are from a class background that already gives them a leg up, and attended a school that teaches them they deserve it. But youth can be convinced of this working-class perspective, especially as they become active in a few political tussles, and if they haven’t yet been totally coarsened by this society. Young people want to match deeds and words. They still have vitality—they have not had it ground out of them. They can be attracted politically to the working class and communist politics, but only if we argue with them in this way.
Rightist movements, as I said, always try to play on the disappointments and resentments of youth from the lower middle classes or slightly better-off sections of the working class. That is one of the ways fascist movements are built.
“You worked so hard for your education,” they say. “Soon you’ll be raising your children. And now you’re going to have to pay more taxes for their children and their elderly.” And the list of “thems” keeps growing.
I’ve been convinced for a long time that explaining the communist approach to education is part of preparing the working class for the greatest of all battles in the years ahead—the battle to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize that we are capable of taking power and organizing society, as we collectively educate ourselves and learn the exploiters in the process.
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