Education, education, alienation

by David Broder, from November 2006

The demand for free education is often linked to the assertion that “education is a right, not a privilege”. The right of access to education for all represents a great social conquest for the working-class, a gain perhaps even akin to healthcare. That right must be defended. But it would be short-sighted to think that the education system represented everything we want, or was not in its own way alienating, a weapon in the armoury of bourgeois ideology designed to serve the needs of capital.

Marxists oppose the division of intellectual and manual labour inherent in bourgeois society. This division is perpetuated by an educational system which divides young teenagers into those “better suited” to “academic” subjects and those deemed fit only for vocational courses. It could even be said that this government’s education agenda poses the division even more crudely than the imposition of “career paths” upon children under the old 11-plus system.

The UK now has 2,800 specialist schools, city academies and city technology colleges — 80% of all secondary schools — replacing what Alastair Campbell famously referred to as “bog standard comprehensives”. Examinations are used as enforcement for the targets and quotas of a technocratic régime. Education has become about competition, not intellectual enrichment.

Such schemes are nothing new – the not dissimilar technocratic Fouchet “reforms” of French education in the 1960s were a central cause of the student revolts culminating in the May 1968 general strike, which saw over 10,000,000 workers on strike, and occupations of factories, lycées (colleges) and universities.

One event key to the radicalisation of French students came in November 1966, when “Situationist” students elected to the leadership of the Strasbourg students’ union used university funds to produce 10,000 copies of a pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life: considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy.

The pamphlet too crudely condemns naive students as unaware of bourgeois ideological manipulation. It sees trade unions and workers’ parties as nothing more than part of the system. It lashes out at everything. Perhaps the charge that students are willing to be “treated like babies” seems less harsh when we consider that the university system at that time included curfews and single-sex halls of residence where, in some cases, no visitors were allowed after 10pm… and most students didn’t make a fuss. But such conditions are even nowadays in force under régimes such as the Iranian theocracy, where students have fought bravely against the repression of their political and social activities, as well as in defence of the labour movement.

What On the Poverty of Student Life… does offer is a scathing critique of the social role of the university. Students are allowed to live in poverty, while they are inundated with the information deemed necessary for them to play a productive role in capitalist society. They are not exploited as such, for they do not produce value. But their role is both transitory and firmly within the framework of the needs of business.

“Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation. An initiation which echoes the rites of more primitive societies with bizarre precision. It goes on outside of history, cut off from social reality. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and his future role(…)

“Protected from history, the present is a mystic trance. At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of ‘economic life.’ But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our ‘society of abundance,’ he is still a pauper.”

The special freedom of youth is simply a myth, the manifesto goes on. Where is the freedom in escaping the authoritarian family only to come under the authority of the technocratic university? The role of the university system is not to inspire, to promote critical and independent thought, but to churn out specialists with a narrow, but utilitarian, world-view:

“A mechanically produced specialist is now the goal of the ‘educational system.’ A modern economic system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking… In time, if critical thinking is repressed with enough conscientiousness, the student will come to partake of the wafer of knowledge, the professor will tell him the final truths of the world.”

These two extracts are not merely a throwback to a different age where students were respected less and could not say as they thought. The Blairite government has an identical attitude towards education “reform” as the French right did 40 years ago. “Education, education, education” comes with the condition that education serves profitability.

Upon coming to power in 1997, Tony Blair outlined his vision for education, “The focus upon education is not something that we plan for one term, one year, one Parliament. It is there for good. For there is no greater task as we face the challenges of a new global economy and a new Millennium. The countries that invest in their young people are the countries that will succeed. And if there is one issue on which I wish to be judged above all, it is this one… Business needs our schools and universities to be successful, which is why I have been keen to involve them more and more in developing our thinking — and in providing resources”

You bet he has. Aside from the marketisation of secondary education, New Labour has consistently made efforts to provide university courses which are economically useful.

Its ministers have hardly been equivocal about expressing how much better this is than so-called “education for its own sake”. In December 2004, facing criticism over course cuts, the then Education Minister Charles Clarke outlined his plan to protect just six key categories which qualified as “safeguarded courses”. This moniker implies that everything else is under threat — and the courses left behind aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Fancy “courses relevant to EU accession states”?. Or maybe you’d prefer “vocationally oriented courses, especially for technology and creative/cultural industries”? Courses suited to building economic ties with the Arab world (sorting out contracts in Iraq?) and the Far East were also touted.

Clarke comments that “it is the wider social and economic role of universities which justifies more significant state financial support”. Clearly the “social” impact of medical training programmes, which universities are having to cut back as strategic health authorities trim their budgets to reduce the NHS deficit (The Times, 28 October 2006), is secondary to the “economic”.

The biggest joke in all this, of course, is that the government is keen to get more people into further and higher education — the aim is for 50% of young people to reach higher education by 2010, and Education Minister Alan Johnson has suggested that the school-leaving age be raised to 18 for anyone who doesn’t meet a certain “standard”.
Capital needs a well-educated workforce, particularly key for British governments as low-skilled manufacturing and service sector jobs move abroad. A vocational education is thus central to the Blairite-technocratic plans for working-class kids. The bourgeois-liberal classical education, which even now has not totally capitulated to post-modernism, is reserved for a lucky few bourgeois.

Given all this, the government’s attempt to portray subjects like history, literature and classics as élitist is more than slightly hypocritical. Charles Clarke doesn’t mess around with those woolly old-fashioned notions of study (an “adornment to society”) for its own sake. “One of the main purposes of university is to encourage people to think. But education for its own sake is a bit dodgy, too. The idea that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right.”

Strasbourg students commented on this change in the system’s imperatives: “There was once a vision — if an ideological one — of a liberal bourgeois university. But as its social base disappeared, the vision became banality. In the age of free-trade capitalism, when the ‘liberal’ state left it its marginal freedoms, the university could still think of itself as an independent power. Of course it was a pure and narrow product of that society’s needs — particularly the need to give the privileged minority an adequate general culture before they rejoined the ruling class (not that going up to university was straying very far from class confines). But the bitterness of the nostalgic don… is understandable: better, after all, to be the bloodhound of the haute bourgeoisie than sheepdog to the world’s white-collars. Better to stand guard on privilege than harry the flock into their allotted factories and offices.”

In the face of technocratic “reforms” of education, it would be foolish, as much of the bourgeois media does, to hark back to the earlier pre-technocratic age of fewer students and governments happy for working-class kids not to get into higher education. The much-decried “media studies” type-courses are not the “fault” of today’s students — deemed stupider than ever by the Mail, Express etc. — but have been created to fit new types of job which workers must do.

There was never anything like universal “study for its own sake” in any case. But what would education be like in a communist world, where the economic reality is a society of abundance and the detritus of the class order, bourgeois ideologies — whether authoritarian or post-modern — and alienation had been cleared away?
That there would be equal opportunity for all and an open, critical, reflective culture goes without saying. Hard as it is to envisage that future, I think a tempting glimpse is offered by the way in which students ran occupied universities, above all the Sorbonne, during the general strike of May 1968.

Of course, it was a creation of largely middle-class students within the parameters of a deeply inequitable economy, and there can be no “student power” over education as an island in a sea of capitalist exploitation and alienation. The best elements of the student movement realised this at the time. The experiment collapsed quickly. But. for a few weeks, revolutionaries of all flavours attempted to make the Sorbonne something radically different from the seat of indoctrination and preparation for work (whether as exploited or exploiter) which it was run as by the ancien régime.

They got rid of the old ideologies, the boring “traditional” philosophy and social sciences. The university was opened up to everyone — young workers from Paris’s great industrial plants, above all Renault and Citroen, flocked to take part in the huge democratic discussions on revolution, culture and sexuality which took place in the occupied lecture theatres. Some accounts show that most of the “public interest” in the events was morbid curiosity in the latest activities of “the revolutionaries” rather than participation. But at least in May 1968 the students announced an end to the division between workers and students, between the university‚ and the rest of society. Anyone who wanted to be a “student” could be. Why, as the Stalinists in the French Communist Party would have it, stop workers from being able to engage in inspiring debate and ideas?

The Sorbonne Occupation Committee abolished all of the university’s petty regulations, decreed the end of exams and made progress from one year to the next of a course automatic.

Important too, if perhaps underemphasised by the students, was the idea of transforming the workplace. Why should it be a site of drudgery and boredom, rather than one where workers can express themselves?

The students and their “worker-student action committees” did all too little to attempt to bring this seed of revolutionary, independent thinking into the factories themselves. The university had become “social”, but they recognised the division of intellectual and manual labour by leaving the factories closed, under the stewardship of the union bureaucracy. Although virulent opponents of the Stalinists, they complacently they allowed them to smother the general strike, failing to put up a fight as the “Communist” CGT union’s heavies guarded occupied factories from the student activists who came in solidarity with the workers.

The union bureaucrats said they needed to keep the machines safe, but what they really needed to do was keep the workers’ consciousness firmly in their own hands, away from student influence (“provocations”).

In 1966 the bourgeois courts had been equally keen to suppress dissident students, and in response to On the Poverty of Student Life… took action to assuage the fears of “worried parents”. Upon shutting down the Strasbourg student union for “misusing funds” the judge neatly summarised the pamphlet’s points. “These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with ‘unlicensed pleasure’ as its only goal.”

I do not claim that a communist education system would simply mean that students, or indeed “everyone” would debate anything and everything in a completely unstructured way without any guidance at all (perhaps that is Blair’s plan, given that lectures and tutorial hours are on the decline). Five-year-olds will still need direction. But what we will see will surely be a radically realigned common understanding of why we as human beings want to educate ourselves. Education will then be free, open and democratically controlled, not forced to “pay its way” either through fees or through the need to submit itself to profitability.

One thought on “Education, education, alienation

  1. As I suspect you already know, active participation by the student must take place for learning to be effective. Imagine how forcefully students would fight to gain entrance into schools if education were denied, except under stringent conditions. Certainly, this is the case in Africa and Iraq, where opportunities for schooling has been denied to women for generations. Somehow, education takes on greater value when the potential for denial becomes a reality. The quality of education in America has diminished over the years, due largely to the unwillingness of students to actively participate in the learning process.
    The potential, challenges, and obstacles that currently litter the public education landscape are discussed in the novel, The Twilight’s Last Gleaming On Public Education, a portion of which may be viewed online by contacting the publisher at, clicking on their Bookstore line, then Searchbing by title. This intriguing, socially relevant, and enlightening story possesses many of the elements commonly found in just about every school system throughout the United States. Check it out for youself. See if you can identify with the characters and situations presented. Discuss it with your friends. See if you agree with the proposed solutions.


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