Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Class confrontation

(May 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.164, Masy 1993, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tories have got themselves into an awful mess over education. It’s worth looking at why.

Education in any class society is always about two different sets of things: firstly, providing people with the skills they need to engage in production and secondly, justifying in various ways the class division itself. The ramshackle condition of British capitalism causes the Tories problems on both fronts. It also means attempts to solve one set of problems can make the second set worse.

The trouble they face with the ‘training’ function of education is that it gets more expensive as capitalism gets older. It may be true, as the American Marxist Harry Braverman has argued, that most individual jobs are less skilled today than a generation ago. But this does not mean capitalism needs workers to have less education. Quite the opposite. It needs a workforce literate and numerate enough to shift from one job to another, able at least to read the training manuals that come with the new machine. And that means ten or 12 years of formal education, rather than the six or seven our grandparents got.

Hence the dilemma for the capitalist state: to raise the profitability of industries it needs more education for the mass of the population but it cannot afford this because profitability is not high enough. Hence also the typical capitalist response to this dilemma – to try to squeeze more schoolchildren and students through the existing education system without increasing its resources. This involves, in particular, an onslaught on the conditions of teachers of all sorts.

The ideological function of education is partly about what is taught in courses like history, geography and literature. The more teachers are proletarianised by the drive to increase their workloads, the greater the danger for the system that they will not be content simply to impose the ideas of the ruling class as the ruling ideas. That explains the decision of Thatcher, Major and successive Tory education ministers to get right wing zealots to supervise the content of history and English courses. They can’t trust teachers any longer to perpetuate the system’s values and so need a team of ideological thugs to police the teachers.

It has been a decision, however, for which the Tories have to pay a price. The higher the level of policing, the greater the alienation and therefore the greater need for more policing. But that is not all. Ideological thugs usually cling to old certainties that no longer correspond to the present state of society, even in capitalism’s terms. In doing so, they try to impose things that are irrelevant or even damaging to the requirements of capital accumulation. They identify the fight against subversive history teaching with a return to the rote learning of dates and kings. They equate high levels of literacy with the ability to remember the arcane intricacies of English spelling – a task beyond the capabilities of writers as varied as George Bernard Shaw and F. Scott Fitzgerald and completely unnecessary in the age of the word processor and spelling checker.

Yet there is some ideological method in their madness. The mystique about traditional standards puts the blame on teachers for the failures of system to work. It also aims to draw together behind the ideological right those who got from their own education a mass of useless knowledge which makes them feel superior.

It is not only the content of teaching that is ideological – so are the methods used. If education for most children is, in part at least, training to obey orders in the workplace, then the logical format for it is authoritarian, with teaching giving order and the children learning that they have to obey. ‘Formal’ education, with the teacher at the front of the class dishing out instructions and punishments to children sitting in tidy rows, makes sense, as does the examination system.

Ruling classes always try to justify themselves by propagating the view that their members are intrinsically superior to the rest of society. Nothing fits this more than a hierarchy in which it seems that individuals with talent can rise and that the great majority who remain at the bottom are stupid. And nothing promotes the ethos of capitalism as much as this taking place through the competitive pitting of individuals against one another.

What is stressed is the solitary individual’s striving to get ahead, not cooperative endeavour by groups of people to come to terms with the world around them. So children are tested not on their ability to work together to solve problems – ruled out as ‘cheating’ – but on their individual capacity to remember facts. And the tests have to be such that they accentuate failure as well as success.

The ultimate logic of this was to be found in the old ‘tripartite’ system. About 12 percent of children ‘succeeded’ at the age of 11 in going to study ‘academic’ subjects at grammar schools; 80 percent failed and were sent to secondary modern schools to be ‘trained’ for manual work; the remainder ‘half-succeeded’ and were sent to technical schools for ‘vocational’ education. The ideological right are using their control of the education ministry to try to revive this system.

But there is great contradiction here. The shift away from competitive exams in the 1960s and 1970s did not take place, in the main, because of radical agitation among teachers and parents. It occurred because the old system could not meet capitalism’s own requirements.

Fear of British capitalism losing out in the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ led Tory and Labour governments to spend a lot of time and money working out how to educate children effectively. Committees stacked full of establishment figures concluded that education is a social not an individual activity, that it takes place best in a non-authoritarian atmosphere where teachers relate to children’s needs rather than trying to exploit their fears, that rote learning rarely provides useful knowledge and that the examination system proves nothing about student’s capacities apart from their ability to pass examinations.

Yet today, for ideological reasons, those who run the system are having to turn their backs on these insights. Or, as Marx might have put it, to defend a system based on individual appropriation, they have to go against the requirements of social production. That is why they have aroused a quite justified upsurge of anger among all those who are concerned with educating children as opposed to drilling them to obey orders.

Last updated on 18 June 2010