An Occupy Proposal for a Global People’s Collective University

Published online 10 December 2011.

The idea for this diary came out of the concept of the “People’s Collective University” that one could see at Occupy LA before the raid of November 30th.  The idea was that, as the Occupy movement was a start toward a solution for the political problem, the People’s Collective University would be a start toward a solution for the educational problem.

Now, the education problem here in the US is of course part of the political problem.  A good place to start discussing education in America would be this classic George Carlin routine:

Actually, I rather suspect that Carlin overestimated the desire of the owners of America for “obedient workers.”  Specifically: the owners of this country, the top 1%, want obedient workers, but not really all that many of them.  The great unwashed masses who suffer from 10% unemployment and 20% underemployment are there for a reason: they keep the employed ones in line.  Stay in line, they can be told, or you will end up among their ranks.  In his masterwork “Capital,” Karl Marx pointed out the role of a reserve labor army in keeping wages down, and nothing has really changed in that respect.  In other respects much has changed.  (And, I suppose, if the multitudes get really restless, they can be threatened with indefinite detention without trial:)

Once upon a time, when the capitalist system was a young and rapidly growing entity with vast new frontiers to assimilate, the owners decided that they wanted education for the masses, to keep said masses “in line.”  The early literature on American education bears out this motive.  Later, it was decided that, as the capitalist system became more and more increasingly dependent upon technological advances, the public was to be granted more advanced forms of education, and a universal system of access to college was created after World War II, in the golden age of capitalism (1948-1971).

Today, however, the 1% do not really need a vast educated class.  Mostly, what they need is a class of people who own nothing and who will demand nothing — thus austerity planning is the vogue, in the US and in Europe.  Government policy is no longer directed by the doctrine that “a rising tide will lift all boats,” as the growth rate has shrunk from decade to decade, and the desires for profit have thus far outstripped the ability of the capitalist economy to grow.  Therefore, in the future, the system will be geared increasingly toward enabling the 1% to steal, more and more, wealth from everyone else, so as to maintain the profit rates.  Eventually the resultant system will no longer be capitalism; thus you have articles such as this one (by a former IMF economist) which pretend to ask a really pertinent question: is modern capitalism sustainable?

Of course, the answer is “no,” and so the writer cited above offers up heaping portions of old platitudes so as to ward off a real answer.  But what we can see in education today is the real planning for the post-capitalist world the 1% knows is coming.  The catch is that the post-capitalism desired by the 1% is a system geared entirely toward them and their desires, and so the public school system is oriented toward profit rather than anything else.  Education is becoming more and more of a ripoff.  No Child Left Behind was intended to benefit Bush’s buddies in the McGraw family by creating lots of testing opportunities, and thus lots of profit opportunities for McGraw-Hill; Race to the Top doubles down on the corporate-government educational partnership by promoting a proliferation of corporate charter schools.

To be really specific, the regime of high-stakes testing (of which NCLB and RttT are specific examples) act to replace proven-effective methods of teaching with methods of teaching which address testing situations.  Linda McNeil’s comprehensive study of testing-based reform in Houston (courtesy of Rod Paige) in her book Contradictions of School Reform fleshes out the effects of high-stakes testing well — the new teachers are selected on their ability to teach to the test, and the old teachers find themselves in need of two curricula, one for actual learning and one for the tests.  Eventually some of the old teachers burn out because they can’t deal with the workload of teaching two curricula at once.

Also, one of the biggest concerns of critics of the public school system is in said system’s treatment of the children of low-income parents.  One of the major selling-points of the No Child Left Behind Act was the claims of its promoters that it would “close the achievement gap,” as if the purpose of education was already defined as its students’ “achieving” high scores on standardized tests, and as if all that needed to be done was that the scores of the lower-income student strata needed to go up.  Publications such as Rethinking Schools occasionally discuss how pressures placed upon teachers of the children of low-income parents to do well on tests combine with pressures to “teach English” placed upon teachers of “English language learners,” and the districts employing such teachers often coped with these combined pressures by requiring them to use canned curricula such as Open Court which at one time scripted whole years of instruction for teachers.  This, in turn, leads to more profits for — McGraw Hill.  (Among other corporate sponsors of teaching materials, I suppose.)

Now, I suppose that if the government tells its teachers what to teach on each day of the school year so as to cope with pressures to increase test scores, it might solve problems arising from “teacher incompetence” — yet I’d also imagine that what might be valuable about having free, creative teachers is also lost in such a process of standardization.  At any rate, the pressure placed on teachers by school “reform,” which leans politically upon popular stereotypes of what teaching is (the standardized tests only measure “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic”) tends to devalue the ultimate product.  We can see this more distinctly in the public school devaluation of subjects which aren’t Math or English.

As for college teaching, one can start with the critique given by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their recent book Higher Education?  How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It.  Hacker and Dreifus suggest that the enormous cost of a college education today (college costs having risen on average by 439% since 1982) is unjustified by the amount of time undergraduates will have to spend taking courses from graduate students rather than from actual professors.  The important part of this problem here is not necessarily the quality of education per se, but rather that the high cost of college (largely added to the students’ tabs in the form of high student loan debts) makes the choice to get a Bachelor’s degree into a financial gamble.  Students can legitimately be expected to ask whether it is really worth it for them to get a degree (and increase their job prospects somewhat in an economy that has tanked) given the student loan debts they will be asked to shoulder.

Meanwhile the liberal arts, the mainstay of education at most US colleges, have undergone serious distortion under the pressures of late capitalism.  The sciences can be said to be financially secure, as the Defense Department will always be hiring science graduates — the humanities, though, will doubtless fall into the disrepair predicted of them in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: they will be pruned until no disciplinary branch is left standing that does not turn a profit.  As for the social sciences, one does well to read the disciplinary critique of social-scientific writing in Ben Agger’s Public Sociology.  Now, Agger spends most of this book critiquing mainstream sociological writing as being written in “secret code,” and as afflicted with “science envy,” but his critique could easily be expanded to all species of social-scientific writing in the academy today.  Social-scientific writing has become privatized, jargony stuff suitable for the acquisition of tenure for its authors, but not a lot more than that.  Much of this jargon, as Agger points out, is also suitable for the construction of positivistic research paradigms, toward the pursuit of grant monies.

My point is this: the “liberal arts,” according to its defenders, are a set of realms of disinterested study free from economic pressures.  But this isn’t at all the case.  In the golden age of capitalism, the liberal arts which had accompanied previous versions of the university experienced a vast expansion, corresponding to the economic doctrine of the time: “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  It should be no surprise, then, that as the period of economic expansion is largely over, and as the doctrines of yesteryear no longer direct government policy, the liberal arts have become increasingly characterized by the pandering after money.

What education has to doAs we can see from the above, late capitalist schooling in this era has faded into a position of decreasing concern with the welfare of its clientele, the students.  Rather, schooling has become a game in which the students are manipulated to produce “outcomes” which are not so relevant to their actual experience of life while the empowered players in the game pander after money.  Circumstances are in charge, and everyone adapts.  This situation shouldn’t be surprising if life is expected to get worse for the 99% in an era of rising unemployment, shrinking growth, and rising profits for the 1%.

What we will need are schooling arrangements dedicated to social change.  People need to be empowered to learn, but not as if “learning” could be anything under the sun, or any of E. D. Hirsch’s lists of facts under the titles of “What Your Third Grader Needs To Know” and so on.  Rather, circumstances (specifically economic circumstances) must be overcome so that we can have a caring government and a society with a future, and schools must do their part.  As politics needs to move away from an obsession with the political class and toward a concern with the public welfare, so also education must move away from institutional reform toward a direct concern for the future of students.

The most obvious example which comes to mind is the People’s Collective University which was set up at the Occupy LA encampment.  Instructors would come to the area of the “university” and conduct hour-long dialogues about particular topics.  The magic about all of this was that these dialogues were “teach-ins” conducted as part of a larger protest, and so the subject matters were appropriate to that: “withdraw your money from the banks,” “Paulo Freire and liberatory pedagogy,” “the history and strategy of nonviolence,” and so on.

Another example of schooling which would be open to arrangements dedicated to social change would be the anarchist free school — the most prominent example of this is the Santa Cruz Free Skool in Santa Cruz, California.  The classes are all free, and teachers pretty much teach what students want to learn.  There are no credentials or degrees, so no credential-grubbing. I have with me here an old schedule here: it suggests classes such as “Food Not Lawns,” “Generalized Self-Defense,” “Luddite Uprising 101,” “Urban Forage,” “Build a Front Bike Wheel,” and so on.  Practical stuff, but with an emphasis upon bringing a new world into being that might even attract participants in the liberal arts.

What I am suggesting is that there should be a People’s Collective University at the major Occupies, and that its political mission should be transformative education.   The goal of this education should be direct action, rather than any bureaucratic submission of papers or test results.  Occupy education should moreover attempt to recruit important educators in every area: “Tired of education for bureaucracy?  Want to see a real change?  Join us!”  Occupies that have experienced eviction, such as Los Angeles, should start to look for spaces, spaces relatively safe from police department raids, to put down People’s Collective Universities.

I know that the educational form I’ve suggested will be no cure-all for America’s educational ills.  But it will at least be a start.  Occupy needs to take more seriously the notion of creating a new society which goes along with the idea of occupying a public space, because its reform proposals will go nowhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s