Austin Lewis

Socialism and Education

(November 1908)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 9 No. 5, November 1908, pp. 373–379.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


“EFFICIENCY is the thing the world belongs to the efficient” says Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island, and so saying he expresses the representative opinion of modern liberalism, according to which, public education has for its object the production of efficient humans. It must be noted, however, that this production of the efficient is not regarded as a social end, but is directed solely to the formation of efficient individuals as such, – the trying out of human material so as to enable the strong to acquire greater control of their fellows – a conclusion which is sustained by the system of payment by results and competitive examinations in the country to which Mr. Broadbent belonged. This pronounced passion for efficiency also shows itself on one side as the exploitation of human energy for the benefit of those who control the great masses of wealth.

To each is held out the prospect that he may at some time achieve distinction, if he follow industriously the educational lines marked out for him, and so reach success. He can only achieve success however in terms of the society in which he finds himself, and that means, nowadays, that he must make money. That is to be efficient; all else is vanity.

Public education has arisen from the necessities of modern capitalism. The introduction of the machine industry and all the complicated ramifications of modern capitalism have made necessary the development of a proletariat capable of handling the varied machinery of modern production and distribution. Moreover the rise of democracy which is itself also a by-product of the capitalist system “has brought about the modern state and by its proclamation of political equality has made some form of public education necessary.

This public education has been hailed, particularly by ourselves, as a panacea for all the public ills and the public school system has been lauded as the apex of civilization, the great intellectual discovery of modern times. The public school has come to be regarded as a factory of citizenship, so that the children are put through a series of patriotic devotions by means of a flag worship, which is, in its ultimate, the blindest of fetichism. The exigencies of modern life have compelled the community to take upon itself the care of the educational system, with the result that the public school system is often referred to as a practical example of socialism in this country, and together with the post office is made to serve as a rebuke to those bold spirits who would attack the present state as purely individualistic. It may be conceded that the public school is an attempt at social work but it is at the same time a glaring example of the unsatisfactory fashion in which social work is carried on in a community which rests upon a capitalist basis. Still, poor as the work is, it is hailed as the great discovery, and no part of the administrative system of the country has received greater praise so that the inordinate adulation at the hands of the press and the platform have converted the public school into an object of affectionate veneration and the “little red schoolhouse” is frequently carried in parades like a heathen statue on a Roman holiday.

This enthusiasm for the public school is by no means confined to this country, wherever the modern system has spread its paeans are just as loudly chanted. Even as long ago as the French Directory we find the most extravagant hopes held out by the apostles of the new educational idea and Quinette indulged in speculations and prophecies as to its effect upon the national life from which even our own orators could draw inspiration.

But these material results have failed to materialize and instead we find a growing dissatisfaction with life itself, outside of the new revolutionary movement, so that the apostles of civic virtue find themselves confronted by awkward and indeed insuperable facts. As a result, the public school system has been accused of having failed to produce the effects expected of it and which, as a matter of fact, it never could have accomplished, for had it been divinely instituted and carried on by angels, it could not have availed against the corruption and the social disintegration inherent in the very nature of the capitalist system.

The system cannot be escaped. Society is not constructed on the compartment plan. It is an organism, and the disease from which it suffers is an organic disease proceeding from and inherent in the system, not to be produced by the public school and not to be laid at the door of any institution in particular. No reasonable individual can blame the public school, yet, such is the disinclination of men to seek the fundamental causes of social phenomena, that the public school is made to bear an undeserved amount of abuse for evils which it has had no hand in producing. Still there cannot be the least doubt that the actual workings of the public school system have caused the most profound feelings of disappointment even among those ardent democrats who have made an evangel of public education while the snobocracy is by no means sparing in abuse and denunciation of it.

So that there is necessarily somewhat of a reaction against the old enthusiasm for the public school and of this, advantage is being taken to limit the scope of public instruction and to reduce the amounts of public expenditure devoted to public education.

Thus, Comptroller Grant of New York has stated, as his opinion, that a popular system of education should be limited to sending from the elementary school “Graduates having a practical knowledge and habitual correct use of the English language together with such knowledge of mathematics, history and geography as may reasonably be expected ... There can be no knowledge, training or accomplishment, however desirable of sufficient relative importance to warrant its acquirement in the public schools at the expense of what is called a common school education.” This opinion is hailed with great delight by the wealthy and snobbish class of which Whitelaw Reid is an excellent representative. He has not hesitated to put himself on record as favoring this view of public education and his approval may be taken as fairly typical of the ideas of the American plutocracy, which, like its British aristocratic prototype, is particularly anxious that the masses should be kept as ignorant as possible and by no means be brought into contact with that culture and refinement which are to be regarded as the exclusive and distinctive property of a particular caste.

It is worth noting that the attacks on existing institutions come with much greater emphasis from the specialist who has a definite work to perform and who counts all else secondary than from the iconoclast and general fault-finder. Some of the most telling, because, for the most part, unconscious strokes at the present order are delivered by physicians, clergymen and others who find their special labors embarrassed and their progress impeded by the banalities of to-day. Conditions which favor class supremacy and which are manipulated for the benefit of a particular class are not such as render possible the accomplishment of special work of a social character. In this respect the educationalist suffers with the rest. The New York Nation, a journal, which, whatever its drawbacks, has always maintained a high social ideal in matters of popular education, says, with respect to the above opinion of Comptroller Grant:

“Intelligent citizenship! Is that to be nurtured by an education adapted to the production of tally clerks and cash girls? – an education which gives no outlook upon the vast industrial civilization of our time, quickens and aids no aptitudes other than those of the pen and the tape measure, awakens and feeds no interests that are humanizing and civic? Genuine education is scarce begun, the tools of education are furnished – little more – to be used selfishly or socially, criminally or worthily, according as the development of the moral faculties, the sentiments, the energies, the aspirations of the child is directed.”

This criticism of the educational specialist is unanswerable as a criticism. Its essential truth ‘and validity are undeniable by anyone who has a real vital interest in the cultivation of the social potentialities involved in the proper development of the children of a community. But it is none the less idle and vain criticism. It is helpless in face of the actual conditions and these latter require the labor of the social revolutionist before a path can be prepared for the feet of the schoolmaster. Moreover, it involves an assumption which really unhorses the critic himself and renders his contribution to the discussion of much less value than it deserved to be. The direction of the moral qualities of the child is regarded as the determining factor of education, as that which renders education of value or the reverse. This central truth that the chief value of education is the production of “moral”, that is to say, social, human beings, is not to be gainsaid but how is the development of the “moral” faculties to be directed? The poor school teacher cannot be expected to undertake the task, since he is brought into conflict with social forces against which it would be vain for him to strive, and he, himself, with all his idealism and honest intentions, is, in reality, an integral part of the system against whose effects he would have to contend. He is in the position of one who endeavors to combat tuberculosis in a state of society which is perpetually piling up slums and consequent and unavoidable disease conditions. The pedagogue finally has no alternative but, like the physician and the clergyman, who likewise find their social efforts impeded by society, to turn round and blame the social institutions and most of all the capitalist foundation of those institutions for his failure to realize what he regards as educational ends.

Thus the Nation, in the course of the very article to which we have hitherto referred, goes on rather unexpectedly but really quite naturally to say:

“There is too much naive ignoring of the real and well known causes of our present failure to accomplish the results we have hoped in the elementary school, namely, greatly overcrowded classes, which preclude individual attention; the poor physical condition of the children, due to underfeeding and insanitary conditions in the tenements; the foreign nationalities (twenty-seven in one school) and their varying standard of living and manners, and, we must add, the still insufficient equipment of our teachers, for which the too low standards of our training schools are partly responsible.”

And so even our somewhat idealistic journal directly it comes to examine into a social matter in which it is really interested, and with whose characteristics it is thoroughly familiar, is obliged to leave the realm of abstract speculation and come down to the disgusting and actual facts. And what are the facts which according to the “Nation” lie at the base of the so-called failure in public education? They consist in one word, in the meanness of the community towards education, in the insufficient provision for elementary education in proportion to its requirements as a social institution. All the defects of the educational system are traceable to the fact that society does not spend enough upon education, which means that the dominant class in society does not regard public education as of sufficient value. In spite of all the talk of educational progress and the incessant cant with which we are unceasingly deluged, the fact remains that public education is still regarded as a matter of minor importance. The Nation says that the system is adapted to the production of “tally-clerks and shop-girls” and these, or their equivalents in other branches of life, are precisely what the dominant class requires. In other words, the citizens are not being trained as citizens in spite of all the flag-flapping and patriotic genuflections. The effort is to train servants for the dominant class and while such is the case the education will be that adapted for a servant not for a citizen, and history proves plainly enough that only that education will be bestowed upon a servant which tends to enhance his value as a servant.

The reason then for the educational outlook of Comptroller Grant and Chancellor Whitelaw Reid becomes painfully apparent. They speak not as educationalists, not as men who are interested in the educational problem per se, but as partisans who are anxious that the industrial lords shall be supplied with servants who are just sufficiently trained to perform their behests and no more.

Even though the great magnates were not so well supplied with retainers and even though the comprehension of the necessity of a broader and more widely diffused education were more generally understood still the persistence of the existing economic system would seriously, if not entirely, interfere with anything like a properly and soundly organized effort at public education on more satisfactory lines because the poor physical development of the children due to underfeeding and unsanitary conditions in the tenements would of itself be sufficient to prevent the realization of the full benefit of any system of real education.

The obstacle, which the pedagogue as such can never surmount lies in the poverty of the people or of such a proportion of the people as to render the effects of public education at least dubious; and a system of public education which does not educate can hardly receive the unadulterated enthusiasm of the educational specialist.

Still the contradiction between the system as it is and as it should be cannot prevent the enthusiast from stating his educational ideals and the Nation in unabated pursuit of its hobby goes on to say, “Democracy cannot prosper with parts of men for its pillars; it must produce whole men or perish” and it must do so “in spite of the tendency of modern industrial life to develop and use mere fractions of men, mere ‘hands’, the makers of small parts of things, mere cogs in the great commercial wheel.” To educationalists possessed of these ideals and with such a definite grasp of the fundamentals of education in a democracy, the actual economic conditions which require the sacrifice of so large a portion of the population and the deprivation of its members of the education which the specialist regards as essential to the members of a democratic society must be very unsatisfactory.

Briefly, it appears necessary that the educationalist if he is to be logical, and if he is really in earnest, as, it must be conceded he appears to be, with respect to his educational ideals, must turn revolutionist and attack the economic conditions which paralyze his efforts and render abortive his attempts at reformation. But this the educational specialist obstinately refuses to do. Instead; he continues to proclaim his gospel of platitudes; and drowns his conscience in an ocean of talk.

The specialist disdains and rightly, the “old education” because it promotes “a narrow, routine intelligence, with the emphasis on drill, habit and memory” whereas democracy demands “reason, judgment, observation, originality”. Yes, but the dominant economic class requires less and less of these latter qualities, as the system becomes more and more securely based, and the moneyed oligarchy more and more closely approximates the old static aristocracy. The “new education” cannot succeed in terms of the system of to-day, a fact with which the pedagogue should be as well acquainted as the rest of us. “New education” has no chance against the system, for the faculties which the “new education” designs to cultivate are not the faculties required on the part of its servants by a static class in possession of the main sources of social wealth.

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