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The Education and the University We Need Now


A peculiar feature of neocapitalism in America is the presence of large groups which are excluded from production and which, because they are economically superfluous, must be kept in places of detention. The most important of these groups are the blacks and others of the new poor, young people, and women. By considering these latter groups as superfluous people we can discover the way in which old institutions, like the school and the family, have taken on new functions of custody and detention. We are thus brought face to face with the crisis of American society in one of its most acute forms: for it is precisely those institutions that are breaking apart under the revolt of their subordinate members—students, young people generally, and, increasingly, women. These elements currently form the most militant sections of the white Left.

For young people—and, as higher education becomes compulsory for all, this category includes almost everyone between the ages of, say, thirteen and twenty-two or even twenty-five or twenty-six—the condition of being excluded from useful work is historically new. Formerly young people entered the labor force in large numbers. The gradual achievement of universal education, like many other reforms that appear now only to have hastened the coming of the “technetronic society,” was wrested from the ruling class in the face of determined opposition. The struggle for universal education was part of the struggle of disfranchised groups and classes to free themselves. Thus free schools went hand in hand with efforts to eradicate child labor. Feminism contributed a second source of pressure for democratizing the schools.

These struggles, however, might not have succeeded if capitalism had not outlived its early dependence on child labor and female labor (on unskilled labor in general) at the same time as it was generating a growing need for highly trained technicians and professionals. These developments had the effect of rendering the industrial labor of women and children superfluous, for the first time in history. Together with the unions’ monopoly of a shrinking labor market, the changed situation made it both feasible and desirable to exclude women and children from the working force. Both the family and the school were profoundly altered as a result.

In the case of the schools, these changes, together with an already existing tendency to make the schools into a total educational environment (a tendency that goes back as far as the seventeenth century), spelled the slow death of the medieval concept of education, which left the pupil free of supervision outside school hours. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this concept, already feeble in the secondary schools, disappeared even from higher education and gave rise to the phenomenon of the university in loco parentis: the residential college with its close supervision of all aspects of students’ lives.

The segregation of the young in a state of prolonged adolescence means that they are kept in a subordinate and dependent condition (not merely unemployed but unemployable) at a time when they are physically mature and would formerly have qualified for adult status. This fact underlies the peculiarly generational character of the student revolt. It also tends to create a subculture of youth, although this “youth culture” is partly synthetic, created by the corporations and their propaganda agencies for purposes of commercial exploitation—for although the young are unemployable, they command impressive spending power. Young people are thus the victims not only of institutional segregation and low status, but of cynical propaganda that glorifies youth and tries to convince them that they have the best of everything. The official glorification of youth in the twentieth century closely resembles the nineteenth-century glorification of womanhood, which was cynically designed to keep women in a subordinate position, but which many women internalized, just as many young people today internalize the glorification of youth and remain permanently adolescents, emotionally, intellectually, and—not least—politically.

The problem of youth can no more be solved within bourgeois society than any of the other problems with which it is faced, because the solution requires a fundamental reorganization of education, and this in turn depends on a reorganization of the entire economy. What needs to be done is precisely what neocapitalist society cannot do without committing suicide: destroy the custodial function of schools; dissociate education from the process of providing qualifications for work, so far as this is possible, and where it is not, recognize more frankly the character of education as apprenticeship while seeking to improve apprenticeship itself; and, finally, provide acceptable alternatives to formal schooling, both for young people and—equally important—for adults.

Technical training should be shifted from the university to a new system of secondary schools, thereby releasing the university from its custodial responsibilities and freeing it for serious intellectual work. Graduation from the new technical academies or colleges, which students would enter at thirteen or fourteen and from which they would emerge at eighteen or nineteen, should qualify them for most work now open only to holders of a college degree. The object of such schools should be, not to offer the traditional rounded education—which in any case has become a hollow pretense even in the university—but to train scientific generalists, people qualified for technical work but capable of critical and independent thought and, in particular, aware of the philosophical and social implications of scientific work and of modern technology.

In a humane and rational system of secondary education, specialization would not be allowed to interfere with the more basic objective, now neglected at every level of the school system, of relating special scientific knowledge to general scientific knowledge and science itself to human experience generally. By sacrificing its pretensions to classical education, the technical college would be in a better position than the university to capitalize on students’ hunger for “relevance” by offering, for example, instruction in the scientific understanding of society instead of burdening students with required courses in the humanities which seem “irrelevant” to most students for many good reasons along with many bad ones.

The technical school, by retreating not only from the absurd pretense to offer a complete classical training but also from the present swollen conception of the school as the sum of a person’s education, would make it possible for young people to enter the adult world at eighteen or nineteen. It would also be organized in such a way as to free them, while they are still in school, from compulsory full-time instruction, leaving them with time for games, jobs, reading, and the cultivation of the inner life. The possibility of attending a university and pursuing scholarly work should always remain open to those who are interested in and qualified for such work, while the years of technical schooling and apprenticeship should provide time and space in which young people can change their minds about the direction they wish to take.

One of the first priorities of a new social order is variety, a greatly extended spectrum of choices. Higher education, in various forms, needs to be made widely available to adults, while young people, on the other hand, should be exempted from compulsory schooling and provided with other means of qualifying for work. Even today, much technical training takes place on the job itself—tacit proof that prolonged academic training is far from indispensable, even for many highly skilled jobs. A recent study by the sociologist Ivar Berg (Trans-action, March 1969) suggests that in many cases there is no correlation at all between education and industrial efficiency, and that academic credentials are usually more important in getting jobs than in actually doing them. This helps to explain why so many students, both in the high schools and in the universities, experience education as an arbitrary confinement and as something “irrelevant” not only to the search for truth but even to qualification for honest employment.

It also helps to explain why disaffected students, both in secondary schools and in the universities, tend to be concentrated in the humanities and social sciences. In the scientific and technical disciplines, academic training still bears a discernible relationship to work and is often indispensable to the process of qualification. Students in these fields know that their futures depend on mastering an exacting discipline.

What many employers value, however, is not academic training itself but the academic degree, and a large number of students, knowing this, naturally gravitate to subjects which, since they are irrelevant to employment in any case, at least have the advantage of being relatively undemanding. The erosion of academic standards in the humanities and social sciences reflects, among other things, the school’s attempt to provide job training that is irrational even on its own terms; and the restoration of academic standards, accordingly, would directly challenge prevailing arrangements by exposing some of the more glaring absurdities of compulsory education and by making it more difficult than it has been for schools to serve merely as places of detention and custody.

American capitalism nevertheless demands prolonged compulsory schooling, even when it does not directly qualify people for employment, because if prolonged schooling ceased to be compulsory, society would have to find something useful and rewarding for young people to do. Any efforts to desanctify education and to provide a more rational and flexible system of apprenticeship will be fiercely resisted by the ruling bureaucracies. That is why a new system will not be adopted until it becomes the goal not simply of student movements but of the working classes as well. The object of educational reform has to be seen not merely as a way of freeing youth from compulsory mis-education (in Paul Goodman’s phrase) but as humanizing apprenticeship—a necessary step in the self-emancipation of the working class and particularly of its intellectual and technical strata. Educational reform, in other words, has to be seen as a class question.

Not that young people themselves constitute a social class, as some of the spokesmen of the student movement have claimed. To call them a class obscures what is precisely one of the most interesting conclusions to emerge from an analysis of youth, women, blacks, and other groups that exist for the most part outside the system of industrial production and therefore outside the class structure to which that system gives rise. The questions now being raised by these groups are not class questions in any strict sense—and this is the heart of the matter—they are class questions in the broad sense that they cannot be resolved except by changing the class structure of American society—that is, by putting an end to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The problems of youth cannot be dealt with except by restructuring an educational system geared to the needs of the bourgeoisie, the reform of which the bourgeoisie will resist with all its force. Educational reform cannot be regarded, therefore, as a matter of peculiar concern to students. The entire working class and large sections of the middle class have a stake in changing the system, and it will not be changed except through their joint efforts.

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