Education for capitalist discipline: the newest twist

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The debate about education in this country is a curious affair. Nobody is arguing that children should be preparing for the end of the capitalist system, despite significant signs that such an end might be coming at some point. Moreover, nobody is arguing against the idea that we need to impose discipline upon students, especially lower-class students -- all sides have bought into the idea that students are to be externally disciplined in order to make them see the value of an education they presumably wouldn't choose for themselves. Sure, maybe a few dissidents here and there have chosen to enroll their children in private schools which extol the virtues of freedom. But, generally speaking, there is an anecdotal model of what counts as education, and public schools rigorously follow that model.

What passes for political debate about education in America is usually a referendum upon the most recent reform movement. With Bush it foregrounded testing, and with Obama it foregrounds charter schools, but the reform movements all have a broad number of major players and they're all concerned with one thing: how to impose more capitalist discipline upon schools which already offer what I've been calling schooling for capitalist discipline. Most recently they've become increasingly concerned with the possibility that some of their corporate beneficiaries might be able to grab some of that school money from the public trough, and keep it for themselves.

Now, below the fold I will give a more precise definition for capitalist discipline. For now, dear readers, you will have to be content with George Carlin's idea of capitalist discipline:

""You know what they want? Obedient workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it."

Moreover, as we proceed through the 21st century, school systems are becoming increasingly grim affairs, riddled with testing and sorting, and increasingly devoted to schooling for capitalist discipline. The point of public schooling was always that of keeping children warehoused so that they don't bother their working parents -- and sorting children into academic classes, so that their futures in the social class system could be facilitated. With the neoliberal economics of today, however, education becomes another subsystem to "game" for the sake of reinforcing the money-making imperatives of the capitalist system. I will show how the game works in greater detail below the fold, and reveal its most recent wrinkle, with reference to an important recent essay by Andrew Hartman. I will lay out all of this in greater detail below the fold.

A history of American public schooling as foregrounded against capitalist history can be read in David Nasaw's (1979) social history Schooled To Order. Nasaw shows how public schooling was instituted in the United States in the 19th century in order to provide social discipline to lower-class children by giving them disciplinary schooling together with young students of other social classes. Further expansions of the public school system, for Nasaw, were motivated largely by a felt need for an expanded managerial class to suit an expanded capitalist system. A major player in these expansions was the Progressive movement of the early 19th century, whose reform-minded activists promoted "industrial schooling" (p. 126) as appropriate to an industrializing America.

Nasaw's history of American schooling appears rather typical as foregrounded against a global history of schooling, provided in outline in Joel Spring's (2006) summary history Pedagogies of Globalization. Spring identifies two basic types of education: 1) traditional education, available largely in preindustrial societies, and motivated largely by religious and other indigenous cultural motives, and 2) "industrial-consumer" education, imposed usually by the state in the cause of "development" and characterized largely by grades, tests, credentials and other tools to assure the disciplined obedience of students while at the same time separating out said students into managerial, skilled, and unskilled working classes. The global history of schooling, in each nation state, is about the development of schooling of type 2) out of earlier schooling of type 1).

However, Spring recognizes a third, dissenting tradition operating largely alongside the tradition of "industrial-consumer" education, and that is the tradition of progressive education. Progressive education, for Spring, is education of the tradition of John Dewey and Paulo Freire. In Pedagogies of Globalization, Spring concentrates on the views of education held by revolutionaries: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Sandinistas. Some of these views are progressive, but (as Spring points out) views of education become less and less progressive among partisans of the "developing world" as these partisans become more and more obsessed by the necessity of "development." Thus progressive education is an important aspect of the intellectual history of education, and certainly counts as something we ought to support, but does not have a solid footing in any particular part of the globe. The important educational form identified by Joel Spring is what he calls "industrial-consumer" education, which I've been calling schooling for capitalist discipline.

The essence of "schooling for capitalist discipline," as I see it, is twofold:

  • Subordination to a hierarchy -- if the "industrial-consumer" school system is to produce workers who accept their places in the corporate hierarchy upon graduation, it has to create differential in status. This is typically done through requirements, grades, levels, and diplomas -- students are to understand that if they want to obtain the various markers of school success, they must subordinate themselves to the academic hierarchy and obey their teachers in whatever aspects of education are necessary to get good degrees. At the lower levels of "industrial-consumer" schooling, students are often enclosed in systems of "classroom management" in which their behaviors are micromanaged in about the same way in which Taylorism is employed to micromanage worker behaviors in factories.
  • Production for production's sake. As students of capitalism well know, production in the capitalist factory bears no relation to actual human needs, but is related to the for-profit business's grasping for market share in competition with other firms. If education for capitalist discipline is to produce workers who will produce without any thought for the meaning of their acts of production, students must be asked to produce artefacts of "achievement" without any relation to real-world utility, without questioning why they are doing what they are doing. Test scores work this way -- they are completely irrelevant to real achievement, yet they are the sole measure of "achievement" for public schools operating under the No Child Left Behind Act. They are markers to be produced for their own sake.

We might argue that education for capitalist discipline, painful as it might have been, was appropriate for school systems in an expanding capitalist system. After all, in an expanding capitalist system, a robust economy depends upon the schools churning out a steady supply of managers and skilled workers. But what we experience today as capitalism can only be called capitalism in its last stage. In capitalism in its last stage, we can see the inappropriateness of education for capitalist discipline in its full glory because the system devours everything in its path, leaving the whole of society and nature significantly worse off.

In capitalism in its last stage, all of the not-for-profit systems responsible for general economic maintenance are "gamed" (or merely privatized) for profits by corporations (with the help of politicians). The school systems are one group of these systems, and No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are two examples of this "gaming."

Now, there are a number of books dealing with No Child Left Behind -- from my "capitalist discipline" perspective, an interesting example is Kaia Tollefson's Volatile Knowing. Here I would like to deal briefly with Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine's Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, which offers an admirable overview of the "charter schools" movement as it seeks to project more capitalist discipline upon the schools. The authors of this book, which admirably does a "follow the money" analysis to discover who profits from charter schools, do not have any absolute principle by which they might argue that "charter schools are bad." Rather, they suspect charter schools because, when we look at charter schools in sum, they haven't improved the aggregate performance of the public schools. "A number of studies have indicated that the academic outcomes of charter schools are at best no different than traditional public schools," the authors claim. This finding gives the authors room to suspect the economic motives behind charter schooling -- decreasing the power and authority of unions, making the schools into vehicles for corporate profit, and so on.

But I suppose the absolutely newest "gaming" of the public schools has got to be Teach for America. Now, Teach for America doesn't itself necessarily impose any new discipline upon the students -- the students, after all, are already "gamed" insofar as they are being prepped for disciplined life under capitalism through testing and sorting. Teach for America games the school system by subordinating teachers to a new pre-managerial class, the TfA recruits, which exists largely to disempower regular teachers while a whole new level of capitalist discipline is imposed upon students in other ways.

The expose of this has been written up by Andrew Hartman in an online magazine called "Jacobin," in an article titled "Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders." For Hartman, the point of TfA is to use "beginning teaching" as a stepping-stone for professionals in the upper echelons of the education business (or in other businesses!) :

Whereas TFA corps members leverage the elite TFA brand to launch careers in law or finance—or, if they remain in education, to bypass the typical career path on their way to principalships and other positions of leadership—most regular teachers must plod along, negotiating their way through traditional career ladders.

Rather than actually doing something serious about educational inequality by ameliorating economic inequality, the new crop of public school "reformers" plan to use TfA, charter schools, and testing discipline to create new elites, both in terms of students and teachers, under the guise of "meritocracy." Here it is important to recognize that capitalist discipline was, and is, never really about meritocracy -- capitalist discipline is about molding some people into workers and other people into managers while a third, much smaller, class of people is ideologically manipulated into being owners. Hartman describes how the imposition of this new elite is accomplished with the teachers:

Reformers believe that if teachers are subjected to “market forces,” such as merit pay and job insecurity, they will work harder to improve the education they provide for their students. The need to incentivize the teaching profession is the most popular argument against teacher’s unions, since unions supposedly protect bad teachers. But, in a predictable paradox, by attaching their incentives agenda to standardized testing, the reform movement has induced cheating on a never-before-seen scale...

So the idea is to create a hierarchy of cheaters, a group at the top who succeed by bending the rules.

Neoliberal public school reform is at best a series of pet projects, because the point of neoliberalism is to create elites and make them so thoroughly superior to the rest of the rabble that the rabble will (in theory) humbly submit to second-class status. The reformers and their projects all have a standard plan. They create "perfect" schools full of "perfect" teachers, modeled on the heroes of movies such as "Stand and Deliver" or "Waiting for Superman." These schools and teachers must produce managerial-quality students out of working-class children if they are to advertise the supposedly exceptional merit of the reformers. The transformation of working-class children is, of course, a daunting task, as the whole system (from private and public schools to the colleges and universities) acts daily to preserve and extend privileges that have already been established in the economic realm. So how can they work miracles with working-class children? One way is of course by cheating on the exams. Another way is by rigorous surveillance (i.e. more capitalist discipline). Hartman draws a linkage between Teach for America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a "nationwide network of charter schools." Here's how he sees it working:

Many KIPP teachers began their careers in education as TFA corps members, and an even higher percentage of KIPP administrators are TFA alums.

KIPP, however, isn't just a laboratory for cheating, or at least it isn't such a thing according to Hartman. KIPP allows the TfA teachers to succeed by imposing an added layer of discipline upon the students:

Slots in KIPP schools are in short supply because, unlike most charter schools, they have a track record of actually improving student performance and of helping poor children gain acceptance into college. Their methodology consists of nothing novel: teachers and students work very hard. But more than that, KIPP students and their families must sign contracts committing to a rigorous program of surveillance...

Such a "solution" will no doubt prove too costly when it comes time to reproduce the results found in KIPP schools elsewhere. But that, of course, is beside the point. Teach for America and charter schools aren't intended to improve the system as a whole.

In conclusion, Hartman has done the world a great service in uncovering the newest twist in schooling for capitalist discipline -- Teach for America, and the charter schools that it is hoped will spread its promise of educational privilege throughout America. The fact that it "isn't going to work" is beside the point -- it serves as a focal point for corporate penetration, the creation of elites, and the imposition of capitalist discipline. And that's what matters to the business interests that promote this agenda.

If we are really to oppose school reform, and the schooling for capitalist discipline upon which it builds, we will have to oppose the agenda which insists that what America needs is more exemplars of excellence, whether this be through Teach for America, charter schools, or schools which have earned extra brownie points for making "Adequate Yearly Progress" under No Child Left Behind for so many years in a row. Nice stories about how our outstanding achievers are great people will not improve the world. We need an education that will allow the people as a whole to attempt to improve collective living conditions. Let me suggest, here, that the mechanism which will set this agenda into motion will be the environmental crisis, which will demand everyone's attention as no crisis before it has done.



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Looks like John Taylor Gatto may be relevant.

geomoo's picture

I'm not sure if it's possible to have a clear grasp of the education game without reading John Taylor Gatto. You know how you see things and know something, then someone shows you what's really there, and it's ten times worse than you figured.

I was going to post a flavor of his critique of education, specifically how its conscious purpose at its founding was to create workers, not thinkers. This is literally true and explicitly stated, but you have to read Gatto. Instead, I found two positive statements which must be what he's writing these days. These are both wonderful. If you know him, the context of these descriptions of learning and education is that he has delivered an informed, devastating critique of what he calls public "schooling" which, among many faults, teaches students not to become responsible, independent thinking citizens. So after tearing down what is done, he paints a picture of how education should look. Without yet reading this essay, I assume these values are precisely what is needed if we are to face the coming challenges.


Nobody gives you an education. If you want one, you have to take it.

Only you can educate you—and you can’t do it by memorizing. You have to find out who you are by experience and by risk-­taking, then pursue your own nature intensely. School routines are set up to discourage you from self-discovery. People who know who they are make trouble for schools.

To know yourself, you have to keep track of your random choices, figure out your patterns, and use this knowledge to dominate your own mind. It’s the only way that free will can grow. If you avoid this, other minds will manipulate and control you lifelong.

I'm posting the following just because it's so great.


12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in a Classroom

Really educated people ...

Establish an individual set of values but recognize those of the surrounding community and of the various cultures of the world.

Explore their own ancestry, culture, and place.

Are comfortable being alone, yet understand dynamics between people and form healthy relationships.

Accept mortality, knowing that every choice affects the generations to come.

Create new things and find new experiences.

Think for themselves; observe, analyze, and discover truth without relying on the opinions of others.

Favor love, curiosity, reverence, and empathy rather than material wealth.

Choose a vocation that contributes to the common good.

Enjoy a variety of new places and experiences but identify and cherish a place to call home.

Express their own voice with confidence.

Add value to every encounter and every group of which they are a part.

Always ask: “Who am I? Where are my limits? What are my possibilities?”

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He is in the tradition, yes

geomoo's picture

But his critique of public schooling springs from 30 years as an award winning teacher, during which time he won multiple teacher of the year awards. I think his turning to free schooling is more based on how impossibly flawed is the public system.

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chipmo's picture

Also Alfie Kohn is worth mentioning in this regard.

If you haven't seen Metanoia's Human Resources yet, now is the time. That goes for you as well, Cass. It's free online.

The most unfortunate thing is that the concept of home-schooling has been so associated with fundamental evangelicalism that the left perspective on homeschooling and the truly leftist opposition to the public school AGENDA as opposed to the principle of freely available education for all has been neutralized by the system.

I have friends who read and study the work of Gatto who are called racist for denouncing the current state of the public school system, even by those who have stepped out of the two party paradigm toward the Green party.

Capitalism destroys everything it touches.

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Schooling and capitalist history

Cassiodorus's picture

From my essay:

We might argue that education for capitalist discipline, painful as it might have been, was appropriate for school systems in an expanding capitalist system. After all, in an expanding capitalist system, a robust economy depends upon the schools churning out a steady supply of managers and skilled workers.

It was the period of expanding capitalism, after all, that made social democracy popular. When people are thoroughly enculturated in (expanding) capitalism, they adopt the hope that capitalism can be humanized through an adequate welfare state. Education for capitalist discipline can be regarded as appropriate to social democracy, if it is humanized somewhat. So, for instance, you have the various forms of humanized public school education that used to be offered and which attained a degree of popularity in the 1970s. What comes to mind is Theodore Sizer's "Coalition of Essential Schools."

It is only when capitalism enters its terminal stage (i.e. now) that the need for a post-capitalist education becomes urgent.

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Thanks for this excellent summary

geomoo's picture

If I understand KIPP correctly, one of its many flaws is that it makes an already top-heavy system even worse. A couple of decades ago now, a study in New York found that only 25 cents of every dollar spent on public schooling goes into classroom instruction. Most of the money spent goes to administrators, textbook publishers, and the other typical array of interests lined up at the public trough, motivated by profit rather than what is best for children and for society. I expect the numbers have only gotten worse since. It's the same as in so many fields, everyone wants profit, no one wants to get into the nitty gritty of daily teaching. In keeping with over-working labor, which we see everywhere, in the midst of all the discussion of reform and improving schooling, class sizes have steadily grown. Teachers receive no more respect than airline pilots or auto workers.

Public education, imo, has had a liberal bent because of liberal teachers and despite curriculum restraints. I feel this is one of the unstated problems that all the authoritarian changes to education are meant to "fix". I'm not sure what "progressive" meant to John Dewey. Here is a quote from Gatto's. The Shocking Origins of Public Education. Much like giving up on the two-party system once one's eyes are opened, once one sees the rot at the core of the education system, virtually all discussion of reform and improvement seems hopeless, at least to me.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the power to determine what education meant was vested in the managers of the new forced school institution. It was exactly as if in winter an Eskimo gave over meat to a polar bear for safekeeping. "Here you big bear, watch this seal meat until I get back". In the first decades of the new school century the group of famous academics symbolically led by Edward Thorndike (he is the Thorndike of the Thorndike/Barnard dictionary), and John Dewey of Columbia's Teacher's College and their industrialist allies, decided to bend government schooling to business and the political state just exactly as it been bent in Prussia. A higher mission would exist too. Schools would serve as "instruments of managed evolution, establishing conditions for selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands" (now I quoted that from a published essay by Edward Thorndike at Columbia Teacher's college in 1911). Standardized testing would separate those fit to breed and those fit to work and those unfit. Back before WW1, educational psychology, which was the creation of Edward Thorndike, had established that certain kinds of mental training in history, in philosophy, in rhetoric, for instance, made students resistant to manipulation because it developed independent intellect, it reduced their plasticity. That knowledge coupled with the new German directive to serve corporation and government, provided a sufficient motive to dumb instruction down.

Between 1906 and 1920, a handful of world famous industrialists and financiers, together with their private foundations, hand picked University administrators and house politicians, and spent more attention and more money toward forced schooling than the national government did. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller alone spent more money than the government did between 1900 and 1920. In this fashion, the system of modern schooling was constructed outside the public eye and outside the public's representatives. Now I want you to listen to a direct quote, I have not altered a word of this, it's certainly traceable through your local librarians. From the very first report issued by John D. Rockefeller's General Education Board -- this is their first mission statement: "In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into men of learning or philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters, great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, (he's really covering the whole gamut of employment isn't he?) statesmen, politicians, creatures of whom we have ample supply (whoever the pronoun we is meant to stand for there). The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in an perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way".

I'm sorry to have wandered a bit from this focused essay. I just can't let discussion of education go by without referring to that stunning, explicit quote concerning the goal of forced schooling.

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