Do the Failings of Education Systems in Developed Nations Mirror the Failings of Capitalism?

Education systems in developed nations– that is to say advanced institutionalized education structures  - all exist within a narrative of competitive, meritocratic and success driven ideologies. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see the parallel between education systems in developed countries and a free market economy. In a time when capitalism is more and more criticized for its systemic flaws we should examine our education systems and ask why they have continued to water the roots of our free market economy by producing alienated, dissociated workers. Alienation, individualism and the constant drive for financial accomplishment are all by-products of both developed nations’ education systems and capitalism. The failings of developed nations’ education systems mirror the failings of capitalism, which conditions students to a life of consumerism, exploitation and alienated labour. 

One of the problems with education systems in developed nations is that they are trying to meet the needs of the future with customs and practices of the past. As Sir Ken Robinson explains in a talk (1) about education paradigms: the difficulty is that the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured in a different age: “It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution.” This means that our education systems germ from the exact same seed as market capitalism itself. It follows then that inherent within our current education systems are the same faults that lie within capitalism.

Karl Marx talks about the essence and existence of human beings and claims that under capitalism these two crucial aspects of human nature come apart. We can’t be free unless we’re at one with our natural essence. The problem is that we are forced to be productive creatures by the way our society is organized. By doing so we are selling our freedom – leaving ourselves at the mercy of the ruling class. The aim of developed nations’ education systems is to fashion young people into a one-size-fits-all labour market mould. For this, we are asked to give up our youth to the systematic, institutionalized classrooms of school where all too often-domineering teachers represent the future “boss class”. This methodical custom that is now taken for granted mirrors (on a smaller scale) the ideological structure of capitalism. Students are pushed to “succeed”, to be competitive, to strive for academic success, which they are promised, will transform itself into financial success. Under this strenuous treatment the essence of students no longer corresponds to their existence. They have become conditioned to a life of alienated capitalist labour.

In the 21st Century more and more students feel alienated as a result of their education system. The promise that if you work hard - you can get a job - has been broken by years of financial instability. This meaninglessness of institutionalized schooling is further compounded by the fact that students are forced to marginalize what they find important in life in order to succeed in school. This is the same type of alienation that is found to be a result of capitalist labour. George Monbiot, (2) author and journalist, claims that our education system is too narrow - only rewarding a particular skillset but ignoring the great intelligence, the genius that many children have, but which is never discovered. Our system of education is modeled on the interests of capitalistic industrialism and in the image of it. We must go back to Rousseau’s philosophy (3) in order to revolutionize our education systems and avoid continuing to alienate the decision makers of tomorrow.

Rousseau tried to devise a system of education according to his idea of nature. His portrayal of the state of nature as desirable and not brutish formed a vital part of his philosophy. He asserted that the more innovative man becomes, the more desires and cravings he will have which in turn will cause anxiety and psychological troubles. This caused Rousseau to argue that a child’s education must involve their removal from the corruptive influences of modern society so that they can revert to their “state of nature” and become truly free. The failings of the institutionalized classrooms of developed nation’s education systems are to be blamed on the corruptive influence of modern free market capitalism. Just as Marx identifies that under capitalism our existence becomes separated from our essence, Rousseau argues that society has lost touch with humanity’s natural virtues as a result of private property and technical progress. Only by returning to our “state of nature” can we be free from the corruptive complexion of modern society. It is through Rousseau’s regressive, (now) anti-capitalist philosophy that we can seek to reform-developed nations’ education systems to become less focused on a narrow concept of success, enable them to lessen their failings and contribute to a less hostile attitude towards nature.

Governments’ reluctance to adequately address urgent environmental crises such as global warming coextends exactly with the same unwillingness to teach these problems in our education systems. A perfect example of this is the European Commission’s instruction to break up (or at least pacify) a small classroom of students asking for concrete political transparency in climate change politics. Bureaucracies with financial or unspoken political incentives will stop at nothing to impede educational progress, which encourages political change that goes against their economic impetus. Our education systems have their flaws herby branded into them by a piping hot bureaucratic capitalist iron.

In some cases the failings of developed nations’ education systems have been taken to a surprising extreme. This is the case for example in the United Kingdom where a small number of elite, fee-paying schools notably Eton and Harrow, have been deliberately designed to produce the future ruling class. Ordinary state funded schools, on the other hand were designed to produce the working class. One single school – Eton College has produced 19 British prime ministers (5). Similarly in France, a small number of elite universities, known as “grandes écoles” notably lécole nationale d’administration exercises a breathtaking hold on senior political and business positions in France where 7 of the last 12 prime ministers where “énarques” (6). The fact that these relatively small schools have produced such a high proportion of important political and business leaders in the UK and France reveals the lie in the capitalistic claim that our societies are based on meritocracy.

Having established that the greater part of the failings of developed nations’ education systems mirror the failings of capitalism we must acknowledge the counter argument. These failures are in themselves just by-products of the achievements of developed education systems which feed the successes of capitalism. If we take this viewpoint we might in a utilitarian sense argue that the achievements of capitalism outweigh its deficiencies, which therefore renders it morally just. It is for example, within a capitalist framework that we have revolutionized medical and scientific development. This John Rawls would argue, is only beneficial if the social and economic circumstance of a government allow the poorest individuals of a community to profit most from the achievements of capitalism. All differences should always be to the advantage of the poorest so that inequality works in favour of them. For example, as a result of heavy taxation of the rich, the poorest children of a community will be given the chance to have as good an education as the richest children of the same community. Nevertheless Rawl’s theory only works within the context of a capitalist structure and doesn’t address alienation or exploitation. Since the failings of capitalism parallel the failings of developed nations’ education systems Marx would implore us to recognize capitalism as the problem, which will in turn give rise to revolution. Unlike Rawls, we must step outside our capitalist superstructure. In order to change our non-material conditions, we must first change our material conditions. In order to address our education systems’ deficiencies we must overthrow capitalism. Individuals would at last have overcome their alienation and have room to develop freely to the full extent of their abilities.

According to Marx and Engels, one of the most important reasons why a revolution would be inevitable is that in a capitalist society, the labour force is alienated. An explanation as to why such a revolution has yet to have successfully taken place could lie within the alienation produced by schools. Students learn to be alienated and grow up having to accept this as a norm. Their reluctance to revolt is hereby branded into their education. If we are to accept this as being a genuine explanation for the reluctance to overthrow capitalism then we must recognize that from a capitalist perspective this is not a failing of our education systems but a cynical success. Because of the population’s unwitting indoctrination of capitalist ideology, production grows, profit grows and capital circulates – the core mantra of capitalism is achieved.

With the ever-growing threat of climate change, resource depletion, gross wealth inequality and financial instability, the integral flaws of our globalized free market economy are more obvious now than ever before. The growing notion of alienation, lack of meaning and frustration that is found in young adults and teenagers in developed countries are the result of an outdated education system based on a primitive form of capitalism which disassociates students from their true state of nature. This sense of nihilistic disillusionment is further compounded by vicious austerity measures, economic uncertainty and the ensuing promise of an ageing population to take care of. In short, our education systems are designed to propagate our current economic system by acting as a sort of medical drip keeping capitalism alive on its deathbed. This is the paradox of capitalism today - although it can be seen as being on its deathbed – it is more efficient than ever before. Slavoj Zizek points out this paradox in a talk (4) with the Guardian:  “The more it (capitalism) is rotten… the better it functions.”

The failings of developed nations’ education systems mirror the failings of capitalism because these two different systems both function within the framework of what Marx called “the superstructure”. This superstructure includes moral, religious and political ideas but largely incorporates what Marx and Engels identified as “capitalist ideology”. They believed that societies generally accepted ideology is always that of those who constitute the ruling class. That is to say the ideology that serves the interests of the ruling class. Preserving the elitist, competitive, individualistic, capitalist characteristics of developed nations’ education systems is, of course, in the interest of the ruling class as it will perpetuate their domination by keeping the current system alive. In the words of Karl Marx we must “let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution”. We must change the base in order to change the superstructure. Only once this has happened can we put in place a Rousseauian style of education – students and adults would no longer be alienated, exploited and divided into specialized labour groups. The end to alienation would mean that at last man’s essence would be at one with his existence. He will have overcome the limiting norms of modern society to return to a more primitive state of nature in which our education systems would not parallel the flaws of capitalism. Instead our reformed education systems would focus on nature, wholeness and egalitarianism.

(1)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

(2) http://www.monbiot.com/2013/10/07/rewild-the-child/

(3) http://infed.org/mobi/jean-jacques-rousseau-on-nature-wholeness-and-education/

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvjGOncSyHM

(5) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/etons-old-boy-network-518455.html

(6) http://www.economist.com/node/21549976

Article by Seb K.

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