The Contradictions of Public Education: Teacher Organization in Communist Strategy

BY ETHAN DEERE

INTRODUCTION

Perhaps no other state institution shows such marked contradictions, both ideological and actual, as the public school: as a place of learning and a preparatory for menial work; a center of community and a formal-political arena; a site of development and a dominating ideological apparatus. Marxists, and indeed Marx himself, have recognized the complex nature of education within capitalist society from the beginning and emphasized its importance.[1] In the United States, the initial roots of public schooling are often traced to working class and Black struggles for equitable and accessible education, part of a broader movement for justice and equality.[2] This premise is a likely source of the natural sympathy of communists for teachers, their struggles and potential, developing from an understanding of the necessity of education in levelling the disparities of class society. But even the staunchest advocates of this position would not fail to recognize the hijacking of the public school by bourgeois and racist elements, and starting in the early 1970s, with a significant shift in the Marxist-Leninist analysis of public education shaped by the ascendant Althusserian theory of ideology, a special attention has focused on the role of education and schooling in the reproduction of capitalist relations. While these developments have advanced a nuanced critique of the school and contributed to a general Marxist-Leninist theory of education, a coherent organizational strategy surrounding teachers has yet to manifest. Communist parties and organizations have and are currently forging links with teachers unions in their labor struggles and do not fail to note the inequities engendered by the farce known as public education in the United States.[3] This is no doubt a commendable step, but nonetheless there remains a particularly wide gulf between communist politics and the mass of teachers who operate within the schools on a daily basis. Teacher unions focus their efforts on mounting a defence against the assault on public education by the neoliberal regime. At the same time, the communist position recognizes the school as a tool of class and racial domination, as a critical component of capitalist reproduction, a point which is recognized by teachers in only the fuzziest outline and has not concretely informed how the communists should politically organize teachers. This points to a confusion within and between Marxist-Leninist theory and practice surrounding education, the schools, and the teachers. How can communists support the teacher’s struggles if those struggles are almost universally limited to a defense of public schools without also implicitly reinforcing an ideological apparatus which helps to maintain the status quo? Further, if it is correct to view the public school as an ideological state apparatus, why does the neoliberal state seem so driven toward the historic negation of public schooling via austerity and privatization?

If, for now, we may grant that the basic Marxist analysis of education is not so easily discounted, even in the light of these seeming limitations, there remains a clear importance for communists to actively organize teachers to overcome this political incongruity, to focus collective efforts on the ultimate goal of dismantling the class society which creates, among its many monstrosities, inadequate, inequitable, and ideologically-driven schools.[4] In order to achieve this lofty aim, it is first necessary to articulate the position of teachers in capitalist society.


THE ECONOMICS AND POLITICS OF TEACHING

While we must be careful not to reduce the question of education solely to the domain of economics,[5] it is an obvious but essential acknowledgement that the practicing teacher is dependent on the school as a workplace, and like all those who must work in capitalist society, they are dependent on their workplace for their economic survival and well-being. Starting here, it can be seen that a communist politics of education stands opposed in many ways to the spontaneous politics of teachers, which grows, as every union movement does, due primarily to raw economic interest. But what complicates any economic or class analysis of the teachers, what separates the teachers’ movement from other workers’ movements, is the employment of the majority of professional teachers within the bureaucracy of the capitalist state. The teachers occupy a distinct position within the state structure, and thus are dependent on the continuation of the current state.


From this vantage, the professional organizations of teachers can be understood to occupy a reactionary role, though, in recent times, very rarely a consciously reactionary role. The complex relationship developing in public education, that is, the conflict between teachers unions and the neoliberal state, does not justify the position that the spontaneous politics of teachers arising from this conflict can be seriously understood as necessarily or really radical, let alone revolutionary. No matter how easy it may seem, it is a mistaken tendency among communists that enables viewing teachers as an inherently progressive force in society. It is a matter of acknowledging the success of ruling ideology when we consider how completely the idea of teachers as a neutral or inherently positive force has penetrated public consciousness. The demands of the professional organizations of teachers today rest, in the last instance, on the securing of guaranteed and expanded state funding and do not rely on any fundamental change in the state or school as bourgeois formations, only on an ideological shift from the neoliberal to liberal position, both firmly within the capitalist paradigm.[6] From this perspective, it is evident that a communist politics of education goes far beyond the normal politics of teachers, and is therefore unlikely to be immediately appreciable to most teachers. Our position that fundamental changes in the structure and practice of schooling are necessary to modify the function of the school as a state apparatus, to facilitate its transition from a tool of bourgeois domination to one of proletarian hegemony, develops out of the revolutionary necessity of an upheaval of the state as a totality. Even teachers that advocate substantial reform to the school system fail to couple that approach with a broader revolutionary sentiment. Such a question is unnecessary, nay currently unthinkable, for most teachers.[7] If teachers are improperly exposed to communist politics in general and to revolutionary politics of education specifically, two options appear: (1) the current situation, where it seems that the school will be released to the whims of private interests by the neoliberal regime, or (2) the seizure and destruction of the state would destroy the foundation of the school , i.e., the workplace which employs teachers. In the first case, while the teachers lose their economic privilege,[8] the school still remains and in fact develops as a bourgeois institution, in its delivery from the capitalist state directly unto the capitalist class. That both teachers and communists are generally opposed to this new course should be noted, though it also must be emphasized that this opposition originates from very different sources. In the second case, the revolutionary movement would have made enormous strides, but it is not inconsequential that the teachers will appear to lose the very basis of their economic position and be thrown into a nebulous haze of what comes next. There is necessarily a period of confusion before the reestablishment of essential services under the control of the revolutionary state, and it is leading up to and during this time that we should expect to find teachers most sensitive to the sways of counterrevolution and liberalism.

Such a conclusion drives us to the question: if the communists and teachers are not natural allies, from where can such an alliance arise, and how complete can it be?

PROGRESSIVE TEACHERS AND RADICAL PEDAGOGIES

What can be understood as progressive within the teachers as a mass is not necessarily equivalent to the teachers unions or professional organizations, as we have stated briefly above. Instead, it appears that the most progressive elements are also the most fragmented, operating primarily within their individual classrooms, lacking any degree of organization outside of periodic professional conferences and journals. These educators are informed not by raw economic desire or in the reproduction of a docile workforce, but in the production of subjects capable of enacting social change, and in this way, are potential allies in the broad front against capitalism-imperialism. In most cases, such educators are informed by the popular currents of progressive pedagogy, oftentimes in a simplified form, though they lack the essential theoretical and political contexts from which these pedagogies developed. And thus, unfortunately, despite remarkable intention, the notion that these progressive pedagogies can, in the context of the capitalist school, solve the issues these teachers set out against is not sound.


The theoretical distance between progressive teachers in the capitalist classroom and contemporary developments in Marxism-Leninism, in theories of social reproduction, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism leaves an indelible mark upon their practice, blunting any effectiveness their pedagogy might otherwise have. Progressive educators reduce the potential of their practice by steering away from material analysis and instead embarking from subjective and localized understandings of power, failing outright to conceptualize power in a scientific sense. The teachers remain in the domain of informed citizenship and critical thinking without being themselves informed or critical of their social context. Much of contemporary progressive pedagogy descends from the Frierian tradition,[9] whereby schooling under capitalism is said to follow the banking model, i.e., a bombardment of irrelevant and ideological information whose main function is the reduction of subjectivity and obscuring of class consciousness in the student.[10] In contrast, the Frierian tradition aims to utilize experience as a basis for constructing an overarching critique of society and knowledge, an education that inspires and empowers the student to investigate and ultimately transform reality. Such a notion appeals to both the educator on the periphery of the dominant ideology and the communist: if students are given the genuine opportunity to reflect on the conditions they find themselves thrown into, they will develop a kind of social consciousness and an opposition to injustice.[11] So what exactly is the problem? If we can distance ourselves from the romantic appeal of critical pedagogy, we quickly come to realize that the progressive pedagogists, among other problems, especially in the context of the United States and the imperial core, overestimate the role of the school, or more accurately, underestimate the influence of other social factors in the production of subjects under capitalism. They do not see the forest for the trees.


Althusser argued that the school had a primary position in ideological reproduction, taking over from the religious institutions before it.[12] I am arguing that the expansion of new technologies has enabled a once unimaginable penetration of media, and as a result, it seems the centrality of education in its role as primary ideological apparatus is giving way. The school maintains an important role, but not necessarily the dominant one, in the neoliberal era.


It is in this historic development that we see the root of the neoliberal drive to privatize education: privatization of education and schools is made possible as other ideological apparatuses[13] develop under new contexts. The absolute necessity of public schooling is diminished by the rapid development of other ideological apparatuses, ones that more neatly fit within the overarching ideologies of the neoliberal state. Leading into the modern neoliberal context, the contradictions of public schooling sharpened, and as it turned out, some schools did periodically serve as sites of genuine class struggle,14 though often in complex ways that did not directly involve teachers as a progressive force.

Lastly, whereas it has been noted that the activities of the teacher unions do not necessarily align with a communist politics, a real friction does exist between the unions and the neoliberal state. Without calling into question the power of capital, the teacher unions do advocate for a social role of capital that is inconsistent with the neoliberal vision. And with the National Education Association forming the largest single union by membership within the United States, the teacher unions do form a significant, though not radical, political force in national politics.[15] In this sense, the public schools have three major weaknesses for the neoliberal state: (a) they require extensive financial support from the state for their continued existence, (b) their efficacy as a stabilizing force in capitalist society has been irreversibly called into question, and (c) their degree of unionization offers an obstacle against the implementation of neoliberal policy. Likewise, the dominant ideologies of neoliberalism, and especially the penetration of consumerism in all spheres of life, find home more easily in the new media than the schools, granted these ideologies do of course impact schooling.[16] On the other hand, the enclosure of the schools offers a growing site for capital investment, one historically limited by the presence of the public sector, i.e., the state, within education.[17] The progressive teachers, armed only with the methods of so-called radical pedagogy, remain incapable of recognizing and acting upon the limits of that theory, limits that can only be overcome when the politics of teachers is brought in line with a revolutionary theory of society. In advanced capitalist societies, these pedagogies are inadequate, failing to achieve their liberatory goals because of their failure to correctly analyze the social context in which they operate. For these teachers, pedagogy takes the place of political strategy; it is the communist task to reverse this trend. The school is a site of class struggle, not the site. What is lost when the Freirian tradition is brought into the context of the bourgeois school is clear: its revolutionary context and therefore, content. All of the progressive pedagogies that have grown up, so to speak, in the context of the public school under the auspices of the capitalist state, are either (a) inherently limited by the confines of the dominant ideology, failing to establish a sound critique of education in bourgeois society and thus a sound basis for action and strategy, or (b) lacking realistic utility for teachers in the classroom due to the repercussions of conflict with dominant ideology and the reduction of state support. In the second case, the trend toward the "professionalization" of career teaching and the education system, which may be seen as a massive expansion in administrative oversight, plays a critical role. In the schools, this trend is expressed and reinforced through the use of arbitrary assessments of both student and teacher performance, either of which ultimately justifies the use of economic coercion, e.g., further funding cuts, school closures, and terminations of employment.


CONCLUSIONS: TEACHERS IN REVOLUTIONARY STRATEGY

When communists investigate and discover the potentials and limits of various segments of people within the complex structure of modern capitalist relations, it is a first step toward new methods and strategies of organization. In the case of teachers, a potential ally remains, though perhaps not one as natural or close as might be assumed. As has been established, the teachers are, by and large, at a distance from any genuinely revolutionary politics. They are under the assault of the neoliberal regime, ideologically confused, and all the while still reinforcing the reproduction of capitalism. What, then, can be the value of the teachers to the revolutionary movement and what is the role of teachers in revolutionary strategy? Firstly, communists must recognize they cannot confine their activities to passive support of the current demands of public educators against the neoliberal state, though critical support of and sympathy with these struggles is a critical inroad in establishing initial links with teachers. Once said links are established, activity must be expanded and directed toward identifying the most radical elements within the teachers and aiding these elements in establishing organizational capacity inside and outside of the school, classroom, and the professional unions. So far, little progress has been made on this front, with only vague statements of support, with only the weakest of links established between revolutionary organizations and teacher organizations, with only a tailing of the teacher unions in the political sphere. Work on this front is indispensable, serving a definite purpose in strengthening revolutionary forces and hampering reactionary forces. In the context of public education in the United States, this struggle takes on vast importance when considering the current vulnerability of the school as a state institution. As Lenin noted, education is a major component in revolutionary struggle.[18] A current revolutionary task in the United States is achieving an overall increase in the number of organized revolutionaries. Such a task depends on how successfully a rigorous communist education can be carried out among different contexts and elements. The recruitment of dedicated educators into revolutionary organizations and the fostering of their radical pedagogical spirit, something which can be facilitated infinitely better in the schools of revolutionary parties and organizations than in the bourgeois schools, serves a valuable organizational purpose. Parties and organizations can utilize creative pedagogies to refine both internal and external education programs and move into more accessible and more practical modes of teaching beyond the old reading and study circles. For the teachers, the intimate connection between the failures of public education and the fundamental nature of capital, and the limits of progressive pedagogies in the current context, must be made clear, and in this sense, it is the communists who must teach. For broader organizing efforts, despite their limits, the size and relative success of the teacher unions warrants further study by Marxist-Leninists interested in mass organization within the United States. Mobilization of mass elements will almost certainly require the use of existing organizations; therefore, radical elements in these unions should be identified and organized at once. Genuine links between the communist parties and the teachers unions should be formed, but the communist parties and their front organizations should always lead rather than tail when developing these relationships.


Parties and organizations must make resources available toward these ends, targeting appropriate segments for both support and opposition within the teachers and their organizations. Whether work among the teachers means pulling in individual educators and utilizing their specific skill sets to advance revolutionary work, organizing with and within teacher unions toward shared goals, or propagandizing among teachers against the limits of reform, depends only upon the situation communists find themselves, but the necessity of each type of work remains.

ENDNOTES

[1] Marx, Karl. “On General Education”. Accessed 14 Feb. 2020, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1869/education-speech.htm

[2] Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. (New York, Russell & Russell 1963): 637-667.

[3] For one recent example, see Henchenk, Catherine. “Chicago teachers prepare to strike”. Accessed 14 Feb. 2020, https://www.liberationnews.org/chicago-teachers-prepare-to-strike/?fbclid=IwAR0FFIMHu1mZMtpngWdtAphhqOb9ObVHJY5IuPYQ0ZpThVm4uGB8p20lJZE

[4] To be sure, this same necessity applies to every major social sphere, not just education. It is, as we have said, the complex nature of education in capitalist society that warrants a more specific discussion of this matter in regards to teachers.

[5] For perhaps the most advanced analysis of the role of education in capitalist society, see Bowles and Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life.

[6] To be clear, the demands of teachers include reasonable positions on currently-possible reform, such as an end to excessive standardized testing and an emphasis on expanded services offered by the school, but we note that these positions are, again, nothing more than liberal-progressive if the function of the school itself is not called into question.

[7] In fact, each year members of teacher unions receive a letter from their organization's lawyer stating the legal rights of teachers. At the end of that letter is a section insisting that teachers shall not involve themselves in any political organization or activity which seeks the abolition of the current government of the United States. Such sections are a holdover of the old anti-communist oaths once demanded of all state employees.

[8] Note that, as an educator, the author recognizes that although the economic privileges of teachers are incredibly poor compared to those of the capitalist class and even other segments of the state bureaucracy, those benefits dwarf what is available to huge swaths of working and colonized people.

[9] Giroux, Henry. “Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy.” Policy Futures in Education 8, no. 6 (2010): 715-721. Accessed February 15, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2304/pfie.2010.8.6.715

[10] Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New York, Continuum International Publishing Group Inc): 71-75.

[11] I emphasize that this tradition, as expressed in the United States and throughout the imperial core, does a great disservice to the Frierian tradition in general.

[12] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Accessed February 13, 2020.https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.

[13] Though it does not fall within the scope of this paper, the further extension of the repressive state apparatuses also plays a definite role in this historic trend. I posit it is the continued necessity of the military and police institutions to, in the final instance, prop up imperialism and colonialism (especially in the face of the development of anti-US economic and defensive blocs) that explains their expansion.

[14] Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. (Berkeley, University of California Press 2013): 284.

[15] Layton, Lyndsey."Nation's largest labor union: We want 2016 hopefuls talking about schools." The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/nations-largest-labor-union-we-want-2016-hopefuls-talking-about-schools/2015/03/25/2715929e-d301-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html. Accessed February 16, 2020.

[16] Wolff, Richard D., "Ideological State Apparatuses, Consumerism, and U.S. Capitalism: Lessons for the Left." (Economics Department Working Paper Series, 2004): 74.

[17] Fromm, Jeffrey A., and Todd V. Kern. "Investment Opportunities in Education: Making a Profit While Making a Difference." The Journal of Private Equity2 3, no. 4 (2000): 38-51. Accessed February 16, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4350324

[18] https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/28.htm