Education, the professions, and a lousy compromise

Statue of ancient Egyptian scribe, 1500-1450BCE. Photo: Walters Museum

Statue of ancient Egyptian scribe, 1500-1450BCE. Photo: Walters Museum

The world’s oldest profession is – contrary to the popular saying – the scribe.  The scribe arose together with the rise of written language and number in antiquity, because reading, writing and counting were such difficult and complicated skills, it took a lifetime dedicated to learning in order to master them. Obviously, not all members of society could spend their lives occupied in this way – someone still had to harvest the crops and milk the cows – and so the educated scribes carved out a special place in the evolving social hierarchy.

The professional scribes, exempt from the obligation to manual labour, found great advantage in the authority of the written word and their monopoly of it, and so they guarded the gates to their profession closely. As custodians and interpreters of the laws and written knowledge on which the fate of society depended, the scribes had the ear of kings and landowners and drew close to them, and, if the bible is anything to go by, found themselves heartily detested by the productive population. (According to Kautsky, they were adept forgers too.)

It is well to remember this when we consider the place of education in the present day. Culture – the sum of human knowledge, learning, and practice in common – is as old as humanity itself. Education, on the other hand, only began with class society about ten thousand years ago, when the productivity of labour developed to the point where it could support unproductive classes, and the equality of poverty characteristic of primitive communism came to an end.

Ancient Greek physician. The symbol on right is still used by physicians today.

Ancient Greek physician. The coiled serpent symbol on right is still used by physicians today.

Education has been, since the dawn of class society, inseparably tied to the development and maintenance of the professions, the learned specialists. Many of today’s professions have been remarkably constant for thousands of years – the physicians, teachers, lawyers, priests, accountants, and military officers. The content of their knowledge has changed with the growth of technology (less so for the priesthood), but the social roles they perform are essentially unchanged.

Vase painting of physician at work, ancient Greece.

Vase painting of physician at work, ancient Greece.

The professions differ from the skilled trades not just in the degree of their privileges, but in the fact that they do no productive labour. This is not to say that they are useless parasites on society; far from it. If that is all they were, they would have disappeared centuries ago. The knowledge they embody is needed by the whole of society; they are indispensable – or at least, they have been up to now.

The professions have always been exclusive. The basis of their authority and privileges has always been that they keep to themselves knowledge that the rest of society needs and lacks. They build systems of regulation to ensure that their knowledge and skills remain permanently in short supply. The education systems serving class society have been built around that function: education for the privileged few, no education for the great majority. Right down to the present day the function of education in class society is to separate the population into a small layer of thinkers who do not work, and a larger mass of workers who do not think.

Medieval scribe Jean Mielot, 1472.

Medieval scribe Jean Mielot, 1472.

Today, of course, access to education is not as exclusive as it once was. As a consequence of both technological developments and the struggle of classes, broader social layers have access to learning than in ancient times. With the invention of the printing press and wider popular access to the written word, the profession of scribes, already partly merged with the lawyers and the priesthood, became extinct. Such technological developments continue to erode the monopoly of knowledge on which the professions rest. I enjoy baiting my doctor by telling him that I have already looked up my symptoms on the internet, and know what is causing them. If I really want to make him angry I tell him exactly which remedy I want him to prescribe.

Printers, 1568.

Printers, 1568.

The biggest expansion of access to education took place in the last hundred years, not by technological advance per se but as a consequence of the struggle of the working class. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Communist Manifesto inscribed on its banner the right to free education for all children in public schools. Education needed to be both free, to overcome the chief means of exclusion, the prohibitive cost of buying an education, and compulsory, because without that the economic laws of capitalist society would act just as surely to exclude the children of workers.

The working class fight for free education for all was part of a much bigger struggle for the complete emancipation of the class. By opening up education to all, the working class aimed to destroy the monopoly of learning by the ruling class and its ‘professional’ courtiers, and beyond that, to break down the separation of mental from manual labour, which Trotsky calls the main curse of capitalist society, and which cripples the creativity of workers and non-workers alike.

Adult literacy class in wake of Russian revolution of 1917

Adult literacy class in wake of Russian revolution of 1917

What was actually won over the following 150 years fell far short of that emancipatory goal. The greatest gains were achieved where the revolutionary struggles went deepest: the gains in mass literacy achieved by the Russian revolution of 1917, the Chinese revolution of 1949, and the shining example of the Cuban revolution of 1959.  To a lesser extent gains in literacy were also registered by the anti-colonial struggles throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Demonstration celebrating successful conclusion of Cuban literacy campaign, 1961. Demonstrators carry giant pencils.

Demonstration celebrating successful conclusion of Cuban literacy campaign, 1961. Demonstrators carry giant pencils.

Elsewhere, the struggles of the working class throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and the spectre of the Russian revolution) succeeded in extracting from the ruling class a compromise: state-funded public schools were established, in one form or another, throughout the imperialist countries – albeit with all manner of concessions granted to the religious institutions. Free, compulsory education for all children was more or less won. The gates to the universities were also opened a little wider, but tertiary education largely remained exclusive (with the partial exception of Cuba).

In short, access to education was widened significantly, but the class character of education persisted. The professions held their ground, with slightly reduced privileges. The separation of mental from manual labour continued to widen. Instead of striking a blow at the foundations of class society, ‘education for all’ was reduced to small change; an escape route from the ranks of the working class for a lucky few, nothing more.

With the accelerating decay of capitalist society in this century, this compromise, like the other great compromises that marked the second half of the twentieth century – the Cold War, social insurance, subsidised health care and housing – has outlived its usefulness to both sides. Public education is now under sustained attack, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. The attacks are also mounting in New Zealand.

The attack has already passed through several phases internationally, at varying pace in different countries.

Schools have become increasingly compulsory and decreasingly free. A school I taught at in England had razor wire all around the perimeter, and it wasn’t there to keep intruders out. Parents who regularly failed to get their children to attend were prosecuted through the courts. At the beginning of every school year in New Zealand there are arguments over ‘free’ schools humiliating or denying full participation to students who have not paid the ‘donation’ demanded.

In various forms, a free market of competing schools has been set up, requiring schools to devote scarce time and resources to marketing themselves, poaching students from neighbouring schools, and puffing up their academic achievement statistics. Winners and losers in this competition are increasingly determined by performance in new government-imposed standardised testing regimes. The consequence of this has been a suffocating narrowing of the curriculum down to literacy and mathematics, because only those areas of learning are tested, and a vast re-allocation of students’ learning time to ‘test preparation.’ The oppressive testing regime has reached such obscene proportions in the US that many people are calling it a form of child abuse.

Universities have been turned into service industries, drawing increased enrolments, raking in fees and selling diplomas and degrees. Whereas in the past these degrees conferred assured entry to a profession, the very expansion of tertiary education has rendered that impossible, and so the degrees and diplomas being marketed have become paper tokens of highly questionable value. ‘Careers evenings’ at high schools these days resemble trade fairs, dominated by salespeople from the universities (as well as a plethora of competing businesses calling themselves ‘tertiary providers’) eagerly signing up customers – with hardly an employer in sight, let alone a ‘career.’

The profession at the centre of education, the teachers at schools and universities, has itself come under attack, and is being driven down to the level of workers. School teachers, especially in the United States, have been forced into the most degrading forms of competition against each other, such as having their salaries and job security based on the performance of their students in tests. University academics as well as school teachers increasingly suffer the same capriciousness and insecurity of tenure in employment as ordinary workers.

The current phase being rolled out is the privatisation of primary and secondary schools. Cash-starved, under-staffed, bureaucratically-strangled public schools in the US suddenly find part of their premises turned over to generously-endowed, un-regulated, state-funded profit-making businesses called Charter Schools, with whom they must compete. The same rort goes under he name of Academy Schools in the UK and Partnership Schools in New Zealand.  As Charter schools open, public schools shut down.

And the Charter School capitalists are not the only entrepreneurs casting a greedy eye over the state funds allocated to education. Computer makers, software developers, textbook publishers, traders in students’ personal data, and others are jostling to advance their profit interests through the education reforms, as suppliers of ‘a tablet for every student,’ publishers of the standardised tests, or the software needed to administer them. They see a large cash cow in need of milking.

Some honest educators have spoken out against the dismantling of public education, presenting clear evidence for the harm these ‘reforms’ are inflicting on children, picking apart the political justifications and the cherry-picked ‘evidence’ used to support them. One such voice is that of Diane Ravitch, whose recent book Reign of Error and its related blog have become a pole of opposition to education ‘reforms’ in the US. Ravitch is an interesting case: she was once a high education official in the Reagan administration, and an early proponent of these reforms. She has had to undergo a deep internal struggle to arrive at her present beliefs, not to mention breaking with friends and colleagues from her past. Her book consequently carries strong conviction.

The best critique of the language and political justifications of this assault in the New Zealand context that I have read is this blog by Jolisa Gracewood.

The general line of these critics is that contrary to the panic-mongering propaganda of the education ‘reformers’ asserting that there is a crisis in education, the schools are in fact doing a better job than ever before, and the ‘reforms’ are only going to inflict damage on this fundamentally healthy system. Diane Ravitch makes this case very convincingly, because there is in the US an unusually objective measure which has mapped student achievement over a very long term, and is relatively unaffected by ‘dumbing down’ of standards, biased selection, and other factors that make most educational data so contentious. Not only has average student achievement been raised over a long period, but there has also been substantial progress more recently in narrowing the extreme racial inequalities of the past.

However, defence of the compromise of the twentieth century is not a tenable position. There is a crisis in education. It is not so much a crisis in what the schools are doing, but a crisis of the class society that the education system serves. The capitalist class has never had any need for universal education. With their profits under pressure, and now that the organisations of the working class have been pushed back sufficiently, they see no reason to continue to spend money on it. They have clearly signalled that henceforth, they will make sure that their own children receive an education, and the children of anyone else who can afford to pay, and that’s all.

The professions, including teachers, will be powerless to lead any serious opposition to this assault on public education, because the kind of education which they defend, and on which their professions rest, is precisely the class education which excludes the vast majority of workers. So when the education ‘reformers’ demagogically claim that ‘the schools are failing your children; something must be done!’ and the defenders of public education respond, ‘No, the schools are doing fine,’ it is the reformers who tend to get a hearing among workers. Because no matter how much better the schools have got – and I accept Diane Ravitch’s evidence on this point – the bourgeois education system does fail the working class, and always has.

The working class is still absorbing this enormous blow to education. Its voice has not yet been heard in this debate. When it does intervene in the fight over education, it will not be to defend the corrupt universities, or the entitlements of their graduates, nor will it be to try to patch together the lousy compromise of the twentieth century.

It will be a struggle to re-establish education for all, certainly, but it will also be a fight for the overthrow of class society and the whole education system that bolsters that society. It will fight for lifelong education, and for combining education with industrial production (that other great measure from the Communist Manifesto,  all but forgotten – except for the monstrous caricatures of it imposed by the Stalinist regimes of the last century), for a society of workers who think. When the working class enters the fray along these lines, it’s a sure bet that the best of the teachers and other professionals will be fighting by its side.

2 responses to “Education, the professions, and a lousy compromise

  1. This brief article covers the fundamental class conflict, and political economic forces that are at the root. Missing though is a particular characteristic of the struggle of workers for education for their children. In the US this took the form of workers demanding Universal Public Education so that they would not have to compete with their own children in the workplace– where hyper-exploitable child labor drove down the wages and working conditions of all workers.

    Though there were laws purporting to forbid child labor on the books late in the 19th century, it was not until the late 1930s that the demands of the mass of workers, advanced by organized labor with communists and anarchists in the forefront of the struggle, tipped the balance from universal child labor to universal public education.

    My own family history was an unexceptional microcosm of this struggle over three generations. Which explains why, in the early1950s, Self was working heavy road construction in Chicago at age 10, my mother left home to go into domestic service at age 13, and my grandmother was pulled out of school at age 6 to work in a box factory.

    These jobs were no walk in the park. My first day on the job I suffered a fracture of a thoracic vertebra– but finished my shift. Ma’s task, as a domestic servant, of raising three boys who were older than she was, was abusive by any measure and stunted her education, experience, socialization and emotional growth. My grandmother, overnight, went from elementary school to a hellacious workplace where her little school chums were having their arms and legs chopped off by the machinery when they were not killed outright. Her father was faced with the choice of delivering his children up to their capitalist exploiters or being blackballed and watching them starve while he was barred from all wage work.

    • Thanks for your comment, Craig. It really helps to fill out an important side of the struggle which my post didn’t cover adequately. In between the two demands listed in the Communist Manifesto that I quoted was “Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form” – which I didn’t comment on, but is totally connected to the other two, as you point out.
      The ‘in its present form’ is important, too, of course. Marx and Engels were in favour of integrating the education of children with industrial production – once it has been separated from the horrors of superexploitation and denial of education that is the immediate problem with child labour under capitalist rule.
      I recall reading about efforts to carry out this integration of education and productive labour in Cuba in the 1970s. Children, predominantly from urban schools as I recall, spent part of their school day working alongside peasants in the fields and learning from them, deepening their scientific knowledge of the processes of production at the same time as developing a respect for labour and labourers, and advancing the alliance of workers and peasants which has been a real strength of the Cuban revolution. The account I read was in a book called ‘Children of the Revolution’ by US educator Jonathan Kozol, published in the 1980s. I no longer seem to have the book in my collection, and when I looked on Amazon the cost of replacing it was prohibitive, but anyone interested in this question further would find this instance worth investigating further.

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