The Social Function of Failing Schools Under Capitalism

The debate over education reform in the United States has been unfolding for so long that it’s hard to identify a starting point – if there really even is one.  The crisis in education is often described as a failure of American schools (most notably in the inner-cities) to prepare their students to get jobs in the increasingly competitive global economy.  This debate, however, remains limited in its scope, such that it misses the real point. That schools are shaped by and limited to the needs of a system based on the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth for the few at the expense of everybody else.

The most raucous and controversial front in the education reform debate is the charter school vs. public school issue, which is most urgent in inner city urban areas where graduation rates and standardized test scores are low.  In Detroit Public Schools, for example three of every four students drop out and posts some of the worst test scores in the nation.  The shape of this front in the debate over education is especially illuminating, insofar as it illustrates how a “failing school” is defined.  “Failing schools” have low graduation rates and test scores.  However, most students from a “successful” school could tell you, the thing they learn most is how to memorize information until they “regurgitate” it back on test day and then forget about it about two weeks later.  Any student, in a “successful” school or not, could tell you that school is boring, alienating, monotonous and extremely stressful.  Yet these schools aren’t considered “failing” for their inability to hold their students’ attention, to meet their students’ interests, or to teach them information they can retain.  Is a school considered “failing” when its students feel hopeless, depressed, or attempt suicide because of school-related stress?

Hundreds of thousands of students who rightly complain about the boredom or depression they feel because of school’s sterile, routinized environment are pathologized and prescribed expensive, addictive, and dangerous drugs (to the great profit of big pharma companies), and yet the standardization and routinizing of schools continues to increase.  Put another way, the English educator Sir Ken Robinson points out that,


Excerpt begins at 4:27

“It seems to me that it’s not a coincidence totally that the instance of ADHD has risen in parallel with the growth of standardized testing.  These kids are being given ritalin and adderrall and all manner of things–often quite dangerous drugs–to get them focused and calm them down … We’re getting our children through education by anesthetizing them.  And I think we should be doing the exact opposite.  We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep; we should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.  But the model we have is this: I believe we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it.”

Schools aren’t really designed to educate their students but are designed to do something else entirely.  Modern education (free, publicly financed and mandatory), was largely a product of industrialization.  Agricultural workers at the dawn of the industrial revolution began to move from the countryside to the cities for work, but they weren’t prepared for the new environment of the factory.  For one, they weren’t used to the discipline and obedience of industrial labor (and they frequently resisted it).  Many often lacked the basic knowledge required for factory labor (e.g., simply arithmetic, basic literacy, etc.) also.  This led to the development of a large public education system that would not only train their workers in arithmetic and literacy, but also discipline and condition them for industrial labor.

When talking about this with friends I sometimes ask them to consider what an average student and office worker do in their average days:  Students sit at a desk, listen to somebody talk, and perform dull, repetitive tasks for about 7 – 8 hours a day (with a half hour for lunch).  Likewise, the average office worker sits at a desk, goes to meetings and listens to somebody talk, and perform dull repetitive tasks for 8 – 10+ hours a day (with a half hour for lunch).

Of course, this isn’t a big secret.  We’ve always known that the point of school is to train you for the workforce.  You remember that old story from way back when, don’t you?  If you stay in school and do well, you’ll go to college and get a good job.

But then what do you with education when there are no jobs anymore?

Educating the Outsiders

With the rise of things like robotics, globalization, computers and the internet, the number of available jobs in the U.S. has been steadily shrinking.  This phenomenon was a decisive foundation of the urban crisis that started to strike Detroit, Flint, and other cities starting in the 1960s.  As robotics and other new technologies were introduced to manufacturing, jobs that used to take five workers now only took one.  While this increase in productivity could have been used to shorten the length of the work day, or increasing wages, workers were laid off by the thousands.  Even more workers were laid off as advances in communications technology allowed companies to ship production overseas where industry could exploit cheaper foreign labor.  In an era of unprecedented economic growth more and more workers were finding it difficult to find a job.

In traditional manufacturing towns like Detroit, Baltimore, or Chicago’s south side, this left hundreds of thousands in permanent low wage employment or unemployed.  Detroit, for example, has a 50% unemployment rate and has one of the highest poverty rates of any major U.S. city.  A shrunken manufacturing sector left the rest of the working-class competing over increasingly scarce non-industrial jobs, especially in the service sector and the higher-skilled professional sector, resulting in further decreasing or stagnant wages.  This serves as one of the backbones of academic inflation, i.e. increasing numbers of workers with advanced degrees competing for few jobs leading to raising minimum job requirements, stagnant wages, etc.

Trucks at an abandoned General Motors factory in Flint, MI haul rubbel out of the loading dock.

These massive increases in automation, globalization and so on, has created a growing section of the population that is viewed by capital as “superfluous,” or no longer useful to production, and therefore remain in a constant state of irregular employment.  Karl Marx wrote about this occurrence in his 1867 opus Capital, and referred to this section of the unemployed as the “relative surplus population” or the “stagnant” section of the “reserve labor army” who “dwells in the sphere of pauperism.”  Unemployment, according to Marx, was desirable to the ruling class, as it kept competition for jobs high and therefore kept wages as low as possible and maximized profit.  He wrote in 1847 that,

“Big industry constantly requires a reserve army of unemployed workers for times of overproduction. The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it, i.e., when the overpopulation is the greatest.”

According to Marx in Capital as an economy grows larger in wealth and productivity the unemployed population grows also.  As the ratio between real unemployment to employment grows larger, so too does the “superfluous” population (those who don’t get hired back once the booms again), and therefore protracted poverty (or “pauperism”).

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.

If schools are meant to educate students for employment than what do schools do in areas of high structural unemployment like Detroit?  Populations left idle and unemployed make trouble for their authorities.  They can recognize that society is leaving them behind and resist — consider the urban rebellions of the 1960s, or the recent rebellion in London, for example.  So if you’re the ruling class, you have to control that population and make sure they don’t cause trouble.

In the 1980s the US ruling class began a campaign of population control that’s most easily recognized in the form of the War on Drugs.  A massive government campaign of policing, propaganda and militarization.  Mass incarceration skyrocketed as more drug arrests were made.  Fears of violent crime, often heavily racialized, were hyped in media reports and state propaganda, even though crime was on the decline.

A scene from Season 4 of "The Wire"

Inner city schools, intentionally under funded, crowded and alienating by city, state and federal governments, prepare students not for employment, but for a life of repression.  Schools have become hyper militarized through the War on Drugs, with police being stationed in the schools, mandating uniforms, metal detectors, random locker searches and worse.  It’s no wonder students drop out.  Students no longer need to be convicted of a crime before they’re put into prison.  Inner city students, often black and Hispanic, attending schools in areas of high structural unemployment, are left without the ability to gain secure employment in an increasingly competitive economy, are treated like criminals, and left to poverty.  For many, the underground economy is the only stable source of employment available, which almost results inevitably in incarceration.

These schools aren’t “failing” at all.  They’re serving exactly the function they’re designed to in a society that privileges profits and the interests of the rich and the powerful above all else.  All schools function as an instrument of social control.  Some train a few for a life of life of elite privilege and rule, more train their students for a life of obedience and labor, and others for a harsh life of poverty and imprisonment.

The real solution for all schools in this society lies outside the realm of reform.  No one, especially Superman, could save education without addressing the fundamental problem at the root of education’s crisis: capitalism.  Any rational society as wealthy as the United States, genuinely concerned with educating its population, could easily recognize that inner city schools are crucially underfunded, and would redistribute resources to meet students needs.  Any rational society would easily recognize that students are being under-stimulated by schools and that what they need is more creative education, not addictive and dangerous drugs and standardization.  What we need is a revolutionary restructuring of society based on meeting human needs, one that believes in educating students to attain a “critical consciousness,” as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire put it, instead of obedience.

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