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Why education needs to be abolished

Filed under: Education — Social struggle @ 01:36

Beyond the limits of ‘free education’

The following text was written in the wake of the Dutch student movement 2014-2015 when the person behind social struggle still considered themselves an active part of and invested in the student struggle for free education, but unfortunately never had a chance to really publish it in that time. Yet it is still the opinion of the person behind social struggle that its contents is of value for current and future struggle of students.

Education as a means of discipline and production of a future workforce

In our imagination we tend to think that school is about teaching what we need to know. We expect top students and teachers dedicated to their pupils, learning history and social skills, the ins and outs of proper citizenship and the skills necessary to gain and perform a job after we graduate. Yet what we have is a school system that from start to finish is about categorization, disciplining and conditioning. From increasingly depersonalized elementary education where small children are increasingly quantified in their performance at “key subjects” like mathematics; to university and college education increasingly consisting more of paper cutter subjects with the aim of gaining credits and diploma’s.

In the debate on contemporary education, there seems to either be a contradiction between what we think schools ought to be, institutions of education and what schools are: institutions of social conditioning. But when are we going to ask why this is?

Much a reflection of society. The school system contains an internal struggle between the need for the system to discipline its subjects (the students) to the system of grading carrying out by the staff, versus the students who subjected to this motivation by fear often respond with the practice of work-avoidance. This is similar as on the work floor where the executive and other the bureaucratic staff discipline the workers to the system of capital and the workers who subject themselves ultimately out of fear for their financial security and in many forms can and will practice work avoidance. Whether it is limiting actual productive work time or not doing assignments, stealing from work or scamming tests, cutting corners on workload or copying assignments, calling in sick for work or school. The quintessentially similar mechanism is at play, there is no coincidence.

The school system is there to produce several strata of workers, each with their own specific role in the increasingly socialized system of production. The higher your education, the higher your level of disciplining and thus higher your position in the socioeconomic hierarchy of modern capitalism; and with it higher wages, better consumption option and better financial security, as you are better disciplined the level of physical and financial violence needed to control you is lower. Privileges are essentially a form of social control directed against those privileged. Whether a child or an adult, a student or a worker, we reside within the same paradigm: obedience is rewarded, disobedience is punished.

I think the main issue is what we have long ago culturally accepted this logic on the work floor; to the point we cannot imagine (even though we still engage in) human productive activity without this reward/punish logic, reflected in line of through like “communism can’t work because there is no incentive” or “people will stop working if we give welfare/universal base income, they have to be forced to work.” The fact that this isn’t even true is lost upon many. Yet more so this fact reflects the clear belief work is in an off itself unrewarding, even though science seems to indicate people performance and productivity is increased when a reward/punish intensive structure is removed and space is given for creative expression; provided the work itself is engaging and not monotonous and mechanical (like Fordist assembly line labour).

This logic seems to be culturally less accepted, we still believe at some level that learning itself is incentivizing and don’t argue students’ needs grades to be motivated, in fact we complain about unmotivated students and there is still a very clear division between those arguing to make education more engaging versus those arguing for sharpening the grades for job requirements and higher level education selection procedures. The latter reflecting the cultural support for the further incorporation of education within the structure of discipline and punishment. In a similar way as enclosures and primitive accumulation of the 18th and 19th century serving to limited access to living space and food as a mean of forcing the working class into the factors and work long hours in order to life, higher requirements in higher education forces students into higher performance (thus disciplining and obedience) in order to access higher levels of the social hierarchy, while also being more exclusionary, especially towards those with ‘learning’ disabilities. This improves the quality of the education just as much as starving and stressing workers improves working conditions. Which is to say: not at all, it can only increase the attrition rate and social stratification already inherent in the current education system.

Just now with education, before we fully internalized the logic of the wage system and capitalist production method. Many an intellectual and social reformer were lamenting the unrewarding and grudging conditions of the workers in the then new factories, subjected to the machine. Some people like Ludditesites went as far as to smash the machines that were both taking the joy and out of work and robbing people of their livelihoods outside of the factory. Now it seems that with some exception we generally have at least accepted our fate, others go further constructed moral frameworks like the work ethic to justify these conditions and the ideal of careerism and entrepreneurship to idealize them.

Just as with work, learning methods that engage students and aren’t based upon rewards and punish mechanisms greatly improve student motivation and the quality of learning. But doing so means arranging the process in a way that is not structured around preparing for tests, thus education would revolve around actually learning and not socially conditioning obedience categorizing students, resulting in education it lose its disciplining and stratifying functions.

To draw a simple conclusion from these observations. It seems quite clear that libertarian forms of education, as with libertarian forms of labour, are potentially fun, actually inclusive and more engaging than authoritarian forms. But they are simply not beneficial towards maintaining and reproducing social hierarchies. Our current form of education is simply organized by and operate to benefit institutions of power.

The refusal of education

We should apply the practice of the refusal of work to our education system. Ideally we should ignore allotted study time frames, we should refuse to fill out forms, we should ignore deadlines. It is not the teachers who institute these structures but the managers who did. Why let ourselves be lashed on by the bureaucrats? Why work ourselves into a burnout, do all-nighters to finish papers and reports when we should not have to? Why study fast if you could actually take the time needed to learn? These are questions we should be asked ourselves and to others.

Just work avoidance forms the basis of the refusal of work, an avoidance of education should inform our rejection of education. We already practice avoidance of education in a way, but while that reflects in some way a genuine desire for spending our time differently, at the end of the day we are still stuck with what is expected of us.

People, and by that I mean both students and people outside of that category, can whine on about in Dutch is called the “zesjescultuur”, which translates to sixes culture. Six referring to any grade between 5.5  and 6 which are the lowest grades you can get and still pass. What that misses is that this shouldn’t be surprising. These mentalities are ultimately both encouraged and necessary outcomes of the practice of work avoidance in education. Why put effort into something if the point isn’t to learn but to pass a certain grade, why waste that much time on passing a grade when we can spend time on things we actually enjoy doing.

Of course there are exceptions to this and we can general these into three situations: (1) You’re very good at studying in the context of education as it is organized now and don’t need that much time. (2) You are in some form or manner pressured into getting higher grades. Or (3), you actually enjoy whatever it is what you are doing and this is reflected back into the results.

In the first case, there isn’t much to say and probably going to go high up into the social strata. In the second case, you should critically examine this and ask yourself if it benefits you and if it is healthy; which by no means a joke. Burnouts and other health problems, including mental health issues, are more common than you might think on universities and by extension work in general. In the third case, we should look into what it is we are enjoying, which is probably not making tests,  and imagine if perhaps the lack of that or other ways hindering this enjoyment to the fullest extent.

We cannot however merely refuse to participate in the education system without consequences, nor is shutting ourselves out necessarily going to result in anything meaningful besides becoming part of the dropout culture that is as much a part of this system are careerist culture is. It carries with it significant risks which we cannot ignore. Financial risks involved studying longer (more debt), the risks of not getting grades and receiving the appropriate credit resulting in being kicked out of a course. Other risks like familial relationships and expectations they, or the students themselves might have. Many might not be willing to take such a big risk to their futures, just as strikers in the past didn’t want to risk losing their jobs and putting their families at risk, before labour laws and the welfare state reduced these risks (with a price attached in the form of in the form state regulation of unions and outlawing the more effective methods).

But imagine the potential that the refusal to work contains once we organize it from individual rebellions to social insurrections within the university. Grades don’t exist for us, nor do the assignments like essays and theses. These things exist for the sake of producing employable workers and knowledge. The damage that this system will sustain if all of that stops. Like the strikes during the industrialization and the heydays of the old labor movement, mass disruption of production is one of the most powerful weapons that can be directed against this system. Individual actions of refusal might have a significant impact upon those carrying it out, and within the bounds of where they feel safe, they might even stand to gain a lot from it. Mostly time, which can be spent on autonomous activity.

To move from individual to group action requires more effective erosion of the disciplining mechanisms that makes us keep reproducing these structures. Individual avoidance and refusal can be used to free time to be put in organizing for this erosion. Just look at the role of student loans, tuition fees and forms of financial sanctions against students for various forms of disobedience. See the financial pressures imposed upon the faculties, see the costs and accessibility of housing (especially for students), the money we spend on food and drinks on or near campus. The workload and income disparity for teachers, see the deadlines, our dependence. Look and see the direct disciplinary power to control both student and teachers’ allocation of work. Students banned from campus, teachers put on inactive. These are the chains that bind us to obedience. This is control exercised both through direct application of institutional power and the ability to project fear with them. At the heart of domination lies the control over access to necessities and the ability to use force in the workplace. It is this institution we must attack to free ourselves if we seek to refuse obedience, to refuse to be educated we must attack these mechanisms by which this system controls us. Once we can refuse education, we can abolish it.

The abolition of education

Just as the abolition of work doesn’t mean the end of productive activity, but with the replacement of employment, or wage labor with play and autonomous activity; that is the engaging in a creative and free activity for the sake of enjoying the activity. The abolition of education would not mean the end of any studying or learning process, but the replacement of current education system by one of free & autonomous learning; the engagement in both learning old and producing new knowledge for the sake of the activity itself, rather than grades and diplomas.

To abolish education is in effect striking a major blow to the system of domination and production. One might even ask whether it is achievable without a complete overthrow of the capitalist state. The answer to that is simply that it doesn’t matter if or if it isn’t possible without, the point is to change society by restructuring our relations and associations in our own interests, not in accordance with what the status quo establishment wants of thinks is realistic, a term itself that only exists to limit our possibilities. Yes we can abolish education now, it won’t be easy, it won’t be a smooth alteration, but it is possible. In fact, it already is our program. Free and emancipatory education itself already contains the radical break with the subordination of the learning process to the institutional power of capitalist domination of society. Education can’t be free, that is simply contradictory, to make education free is to destroy the very thing education is meant to do, it will create an enclosed autonomous space in contradiction to the rest of society which exists under the domination of capital. In this contradictory position, it will either be reintegrated into the production and reproduction of capitalist social relations, or it will threaten power to the point where capitalist domination can only be reasserted via direct application of violence. Both outcomes are to our potential benefit provided we maintain that the struggle is taken beyond and continues in spite of meeting transitory demands.

Free education is and should mean the literal destruction of the university as it exists today, a breakdown of both the material and immaterial walls of the university. Hence free education should be the abolition of education.  Only then can the creation and spread knowledge be universally accessible and only then can its commodification be stopped. “We are not asking for a free university. We are asking for a free society. Because a free university in a capitalist society is like a lecture hall in a prison.” This is more than just good sounding text for on a banner, it exemplifies exactly the issue of free education as anything other than its abolition.

This is not to say that creating free education within a capitalist society it itself bad, only when we see it as the end goal, where free education only serves a limited reformist program which can concern itself only with equal access to different levels of exploitation. A lecture hall in a prison is, after all, a good place to organize and start a prison uprising. A free education can serve as a bulwark from which the principles of self-management, free association and right to access according to once own desires can spread. The greatest threat to the cultural hegemony of liberal capitalist ideology is after all the threat of a good example that disproves the cynicism of ‘there is no alternative.’ And besides that, capitalism as a system itself relies too much on other forms of power and oppression that create privileged positions; like middle-class professionals and being members of the dominant national culture as a source of subjectivities that aren’t explicit in finding its interests in anti-capitalist politics.

To liberate education from education thus means liberating the process of learning from the process of education. Accessibility to a diverse range of knowledge means we open up the potential for a radical re-examination of the dominant relations that isn’t limited by academic enclosure, as well as reintroducing critical thinking in a system that currently demands the opposite (in spite of claims to the contrary). The removal of all the financial and social disciplining also entails creating a tear at the barriers that currently chain students. No financial risks we will be less driven towards putting job security over radical politics and lifestyles, ending careerist culture means we can have time for both learning and organizing, instead of putting all our time and energy in studying in a singular field aimed at entering a particular job sector in the future. Both mean we no longer will be shoehorned through courses in order to receive diplomas for future jobs. Free education has, in short, the potential to open up the structural barriers that stand in our way of redefining our everyday life will be.

Free or liberated education isn’t something that should end at 4 or 5 years with a bachelor and maybe a master, it should be continuous. Rather than it’s connection to society being mediated through the alienation of government bureaucracy (manifested through the board of supervisors and ministry of education) it will be part of and fully integrated as an everyday aspect of everyone in society. Everybody should be able at any point to be part of and organize learning groups, just as everybody should be able to access old knowledge and produce new knowledge regardless of its content and subject. From that point, the process of decolonization, democratization, and decentralization can truly be spread to other sectors of capitalism, to every social space within society. Then we can truly start talking about a revolution, one that transcends every material and immaterial border and from there we can start breaking down all social stratification in class, gender and race through the alterations in our social relations and the appropriation of all social wealth.


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