Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital (Part 1), de John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review)

09/09/2011 10:50

Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital (Part 1)

The U.S. Case

John Bellamy Foster


Today’s conservative movement for the reform of public education in the United States, and in much of the world, is based on the prevailing view that public education is in a state of emergency and in need of restructuring due to its own internal failures. In contrast, I shall argue that the decay of public education is mainly a product of externally imposed contradictions that are inherent to schooling in capitalist society, heightened in our time by conditions of economic stagnation in the mature capitalist economies, and by the effects of the conservative reform movement itself. The corporate-driven onslaught on students, teachers, and public schools—symbolized in the United States by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation—is to be explained not so much by the failure of the schools themselves, but by the growing failures of the capitalist system, which now sees the privatization of public education as central to addressing its larger malaise.


We live in an era of structural crisis associated with a new phase of capitalism: monopoly-finance capital. This phase is characterized by: (1) economic stagnation in the mature capitalist economies; (2) a dramatic shift to financialization, i.e., speculative bubbles as a means of economic expansion; and (3) the rapid concentration (and monopolization) of capital on a global scale.1 A consequence of the slow growth endemic to the developed economies is that the giant corporations that dominate today’s economic world are compelled to search for new markets for investment, outside their traditional fields of operation, leading to the takeover and privatization of key elements of the state economy. The political counterpart of monopoly-finance capital is therefore neoliberal restructuring, in which the state is increasingly cannibalized by private interests.


It should hardly surprise us, under these circumstances, that financial circles now increasingly refer to public education in the United States as an unexploited market opportunity—or that the private education industry is calling for a further opening-up of the multi-trillion-dollar global public education market to capital accumulation.2 Education, moreover, plays a crucial role in the development of the workforce, leading to growing neoliberal calls for its restructuring.


The state of emergency of public education and the demand for its restructuring and privatization is to be viewed, then, as primarily the product of the current long-term period of economic and social instability. The structural crisis of capital as a whole is reflected in the struggle over schooling, which, far from being incidental to the system today, can now be seen as lying at or near its core. The result has been a resurgence of the long battle on the part of the vested interests to establish a commodified school system, bringing education increasingly within the domain of the market. Every means is now used to achieve this end, including exploiting the contradictions of race and class, international competition, and economic instability itself.


The Political Economy of Capitalist Schooling


In the mid-1970s, radical economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis provided a useful political-economic framework for the analysis of elementary and secondary education in their pioneering work, Schooling in Capitalist America.3 Although initially influential in left circles, Schooling in Capitalist America was to fall out of favor with radicals by the 1980s as too deterministic and economistic—not accounting for the complex cultural ways in which students and educators negotiated with the system.4 Others on the left criticized Bowles and Gintis’s argument for being too “functionalist” and non-dialectical in its analysis.5 Nevertheless, I believe that Schooling in Capitalist America constitutes a useful springboard from which to address the political economy of capitalist schooling, as this presents itself to us in the neoliberal age.


For Bowles and Gintis, schooling under capitalism—if not countered by powerful democratic resistance movements—tends to evolve in the direction of capitalist-class imperatives, which subordinate it to the needs of production and accumulation. This is evident in what the authors called the correspondence principle, or the notion that the “social relations of education” normally correspond to the social relations of production in capitalist society.6 Schooling, therefore, is meant to service production, and replicates the hierarchical division of labor of the productive system.7 Hence, both the dominant purpose of elementary and secondary schooling in capitalist society—the formation of workers or labor power for production—and the labor process internal to schooling itself, as carried out by education workers, are fundamentally conditioned by the relations of production in the larger economy.


In this view, the forms of consciousness and behavior fostered by capitalist schooling are designed to reproduce existing classes and groupings, and thus are meant to reinforce and legitimize the social relations of production of capitalist society as a whole. Working-class students and those destined for working-class occupations are taught rule-following behavior, while those arising from the upper middle class and/or destined for the professional-managerial stratum are taught to internalize the values of the society. (Those between these two groups are mainly trained to be reliable, in addition to following rules.)8


Very little of the schooling at the elementary and secondary levels is oriented to developing actual skills, much less knowledge—which, to the extent that they are needed for later employment, can be obtained on the job or in post-secondary education (vocational-training institutes and colleges). Schools are, then, less about education than a kind of behavioral modification, preparing the vast majority of students for a life of routinization and standardization, in which most will end up employed in essentially unskilled, dead-end jobs. Indeed, most jobs in the degraded work environment of monopoly capitalist society—even those set aside for college graduates—require precious little formal education.


The highest quality elementary and secondary education in the United States, meanwhile, lies outside of the public schools altogether in a very small number of extremely elite private schools devoted to the education of the children of the very rich, whose goal is to generate a governing class. A prep school like Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (with alumni including both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) costs $32,000 a year for tuition alone, without boarding. It has a student-teacher ratio of 5 to 1, with 73 percent of the teachers holding advanced degrees, and a full curriculum. Such schools are seen as red carpets into the Ivy League.9


The education system can thus be viewed as corresponding in many ways to the increasing inequality, alienation, and job gradation/degradation of the larger system of production. This argument, as developed in Schooling in Capitalist America, was not intended to be deterministic, but rather to raise issues of class struggle. “The extent to which the [capitalist] educational system actually accomplishes its objectives,” Bowles and Gintis observed, “varies from one period to the next….In most periods…efforts to use the schools to reproduce and extend capitalist production relations have been countered both by the internal dynamic of the educational system and by popular opposition.”10


The historical part of their book dealt extensively with both the internal dynamics of the educational system—that is, the struggles, mainly of teachers, to retain autonomy within the system in the interest of educating children—and the popular movements that periodically arose in opposition to the main drift of capitalist education, in the form of the counter-hegemonic movements of educators, parents, and community members. Yet, both forms of struggle tended to be mere rearguard actions (or, at best, wars of position), almost never taking the form of forcible assaults (wars of movement) on the underlying principles of capitalist schooling. The result was that the corporate agenda dominated overall.


Monopoly Capital and the Rise of the Corporate Model of Schooling


The significance of such a broad political-economic approach to public education is that it allows us to perceive the underlying logic governing the development of capitalist schooling in the United States and elsewhere. Public education arose in the United States early in the nineteenth century. But the education system as we know it today only emerged, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its modern development thus corresponds in time to the rise of monopoly capitalism, an economy dominated by giant corporations. It has been estimated that “between a quarter and a third” of all U.S. capital stock in manufacturing underwent consolidation through mergers and acquisitions between 1898 and 1902 alone. In the largest of these, the formation of U.S. steel in 1901, as many as 170 separate firms were brought together in a single year to create the first billion-dollar corporation, controlling 65 percent of the steel industry. This represented the great era of corporate concentration, marking the rise of big-business capitalism.11


A key element in the evolution and stabilization of this new stage of accumulation, lay in the opportunity it afforded for what Marx called “the real,” as opposed to the “formal subsumption of labour under capital.”12 In nineteenth-century capitalism, workers were in a position to retain within their own ranks the knowledge of how the work was done, and therefore exercised a considerable degree of control over the labor process. Hence, control of the labor process by owners and managers was often more formal than real. As corporations and their workforces and factories got bigger with the rise of monopoly capitalism, however, it became possible to extend the division of labor, and therefore to exercise greater top-down managerial control. This took the form of the new system of scientific management, or “Taylorism,” within concentrated industry. Control of the conception of the labor process was systematically removed from the workers and monopolized by management. Henceforth, according to this managerial logic, workers were merely to execute commands from above, with their every movement governed down to the smallest detail.13


The chief result of the introduction of scientific management into industry, as Harry Braverman explained in 1974 in Labor and Monopoly Capital, was the degradation of working conditions for most workers. Increasingly, monopoly capitalist society was characterized by a polarization of skill, with only a limited demand for a relatively small number of highly skilled workers, as compared with masses of unskilled workers. The corporate-designed education system was constructed with the aim of producing workers tracked to these different labor-market segments. But scientific management was also seen as a way of directing the labor process within the schools themselves—subjecting teachers to new forms of corporate management.


Scientific management first became a widely known concept in the United States after Louis Brandeis, arguing before the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1910, publicly extolled the magic of efficiency engineers in increasing corporate profits. This was followed in 1911 by the publication of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, initially as installments in American Magazine. Scientific management and efficiency experts soon became the rage among corporate executives and public officials alike, quickly spreading to the administration of public schools, where standards, testing, and Taylorized schools became the defining principles for a new utopia: the corporate-model school system. Thus, efficiency expert Harrington Emerson gave a speech to the High School Teachers Association of New York City in 1911, which he entitled “Scientific Management and High School Efficiency.” The last seven of his twelve principles were: standard records, planning, standard conditions, standardized operations, standard instructions, standard schedules, and efficiency reward.14 In 1913 Franklin Bobbitt, a specialist in educational administration at the University of Chicago, wrote in The Supervision of City Schools:


The worker must be kept supplied with detailed instructions as to the work to be done, the standards to be reached, the methods to be employed, and the appliances to be used….Teachers cannot be permitted to follow caprice in method. When a method which is clearly superior to all other methods has been discovered, it alone can be employed. To neglect this function and to excuse one’s negligence by claiming the value of the freedom of the teacher was perhaps justifiable under our earlier empiricism, when the supervisors were merely promoted teachers and on the scientific side at least knew little more about standards and methods than the rank and file.


For Bobbitt, “the teacher’s freedom is necessarily narrowly limited,” due to the need for standardized, efficient methods. Bobbitt went on to suggest that students working on penmanship should be tested “by stop-watch as to speed…to determine which of the modes of distributing the sixty minutes of time for teaching the writing is superior.”15 Likewise, Ellwood Cubberley, an influential educational administrator, and superintendent of San Francisco’s public schools, wrote in 1916 in his Public School Administration: “Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.”16


For Joseph S. Taylor, district superintendent of schools in New York City, writing in 1912:

(1) The state as employer must cooperate with the teacher as employee, for the latter does not always understand the science of education; (2) the state provides experts who supervise the teacher, and suggest the processes that are most efficacious and economical; (3) the task system obtains in the school as well as in the shop, each grade being a measured quantity of work to be accomplished in a given term; (4) every teacher who accomplishes the task receives a bonus, not in money, but in the form of a rating which may have money value; (5) those who are unable to do the work are eliminated.17


The primary means by which the efficiency of teachers was to be evaluated under this system was through the testing of their students. Heavy emphasis was thus placed, beginning just prior to the First World War, on developing rigid standards accompanied by standardized tests. The National Education Association (NEA) established a Committee on Tests and Standards of Efficiency in Schools and School Systems in 1911. This coincided with the movement to carry out IQ testing, and various thinly disguised racist forms of assessment.18


This early attempt to create a corporate-dominated, standardized education system was seeded by the new philanthropic, tax-free foundations that arose in the period. Millionaire industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford established private foundations, designed to employ philanthropic financing to leverage major social changes, circumventing the role of government. The Carnegie Foundation was a leading force in both the eugenics and testing movements. It invested $6,424,000 in testing up through 1954. In 1965 it initiated the development of the testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The Rockefeller Foundation, for its part, contributed heavily to the creation of the Educational Testing Service in the 1930s and ’40s.19


The Failure of the Early Corporate Education Movement


But despite the powerful influence exercised by monopoly corporations and philanthropic foundations early in the twentieth century in developing a corporate model for schools, complete with rigid standards and testing, the public schools remained, in many ways, outside their control. Schools were often the focus of democratic struggles emanating from progressive teachers, parents, and communities. Education remained publicly funded, decentralized, and subject to community pressures. Teachers were low-paid professionals in a labor-intensive field where they had considerable autonomy and often identified with working-class children. Teachers’ unions developed, allowing teachers in public schools to establish minimal bargaining power over their wages and working conditions.


The resulting system of capitalist schooling had very serious defects. As a deeply segregated society, the United States remained institutionally racist—constituting The Shame of the Nation, as Jonathan Kozol was to put it in his 2005 book on the continuing role of racial stratification in U.S. schools.20 The curriculum was often degraded to meet the needs of corporations for an unskilled, non-recalcitrant labor force.


Yet, in the interstices, progressive teachers fought against the worst aspects of the system, trying to meet children’s real needs against all odds. The American Teacher, which became the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, carried an article in 1912 opposing scientific management in the schools, which argued:


The organization and methods of the schools have taken on the form of those commercial enterprises that distinguish our economic life. We have yielded to the arrogance of “big business men” and have accepted their criteria of efficiency at their own valuation, without question. We have consented to measure the results of educational efforts in terms of price and product—the terms that prevail in the factory and department store. But education, since it deals…with individualities, is not analogous to a standardizable manufacturing process. Education must measure its efficiency not in terms…of so many student-hours per dollar of salary; it must measure its efficiency in terms of increased humanism, increased power to do, increased capacity to appreciate.21


Education remained, therefore, a highly contested realm, with educators, parents, and community members often organizing in opposition to the main thrust of capitalist schooling. Changing conditions gave rise to a series of progressive education movements: the democratic and experimental education movement associated with John Dewey in the 1920s and ’30s; the school desegregation movement in the Civil Rights Era; and the free school movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Writing in 1916 in Democracy in Education, Dewey declared: “There is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education. The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”22


The year 1916 marked the birth of the radical New York Teachers Union (TU). Building alliances with both parents and communities, the TU fought to end racial discrimination and poverty, recognizing that these were the main barriers to the success of students. It thus aimed at an educational philosophy that entailed the transformation of the whole society. Representing a powerful alternative—what today might be called social movement unionism—the TU was redbaited out of existence in the Cold War. Some eleven hundred school employees were called in for questioning and over four hundred were fired or driven out of the profession. In 1950 the New York Board of Education adopted the notorious Timone Resolution, banning the TU from operating in the schools.23


Although none of these progressive educational movements were able to transform U.S. elementary and secondary education in a truly emancipatory direction—or prevent the education system as a whole from degenerating still further, as inequality, poverty, institutional racism, and economic slowdown increasingly engulfed the schools by the end of the twentieth century—they did succeed in keeping education within the public sphere, maintaining basic democratic values, and preserving hope and the possibility of a more egalitarian educational future.



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