Schooling in Crisis

This is an essay by Tshiamo Malatji (@tshiatji) on how capitalist principles in school systems make them vulnerable to risks. You can download this essay in mobile-friendly format here: (It is a small file – 58kbs.)

Schools and universities do share valuable information and knowledge that people otherwise would not have. But the purpose of these institutions is to prepare people for various labour markets and signal value to those labour markets. This makes them vulnerable to shocks like disease outbreaks. 


1) Division of Knowledge.

As Adam Smith points out, if you divide tasks among factory workers such that each worker only focuses on one task, productivity increases. So schools are made more productive by dividing knowledge by level and grade. What you learn in one grade is different then the next and they build on each other.

But there’s a massive risk. Let’s say one day in an automated t-shirt factory, the machines that stitch all the parts together stop working. You cannot produce any T-shirts at all. The remaining machines only make the sleeves and the chest but they do not stitch them together. They were not even built to do that. So you’ll just have a whole lot of T-shirt parts but no full T-shirts. The broken machines must be fixed first before any T-shirts can be made.

If each machine made its own T-shirt then even when some machines broke down, the other machines would continue making full T-shirts. 

When labour is divided, it is more vulnerable to shock. This makes sense. What you gain in productivity, you lose in risk. The capitalists said the second part more quietly then the first. 

(As a note, capitalism generally achieves productivity through risk. That’s a big issue.) 

So back to school systems. One cannot go to the next grade until they have completed the one before it. The knowledge in the next grade builds upon the previous one. It is divided and it falls apart if we pass people automatically. People will not cope in the higher grades — unless we change the curriculum (more on this in a bit.) But if we keep the curriculum the same, then people will struggle. 

2) Immediacy of Progression (in other words, speed).

Again, to make factories more efficient, one can reduce the delay between machines to as little as possible. When one machine finishes, it moves on to the next immediately. There is no long delay between them. This will mean we make more T-shirts quicker. 

The risk here is when one machine breaks unexpectedly, the entire process must stop. Otherwise, the machine before it will keep trying to send it parts. If there was a delay, there might have been enough time to fix the broken machine before others send it parts. So the entire process would not have to stop. A delay makes sure if anything goes wrong, the process can still continue. 

With schools, people move to the next grade immediately (after only a short summer break). This means the entire school system must stop if the final year of students cannot graduate. Otherwise, the younger grades will send learners without delay and they will meet the older learners who have not graduated. 

3) Standard information.

A factory will make a very specific kind of good, like T-shirts. It won’t make anything else. This is the same with schools. There is a very limited type of information that is shared in schools through textbooks. This is the curriculum.

If one factory stops working, you cannot make the same T-shirts at another factory. The other factory was not made to make T-shirts and so it cannot make them. This is the same with schools. People cannot simply learn the same information from other books. They can definitely learn information, but not the information that the school wants them to learn. They must use the textbooks for this. These books require trained people to teach them because they are difficult to understand without help.

So when schools are forced to close down, people can’t learn anymore. All the other places they could learn don’t have the same curriculum so it won’t be helpful for the education system. Other books will have information. But the education system will not care. It only tests people on what it wants to test them on. 

This is so that people can be useful for the labour market. A person who knows a lot of information, but nothing on what the labour market wants them to know is not useful for the labour market. It requires a very specific set of information. 

So schools and universities create qualifications and degrees which show the labour market that a person has achieved that very specific information. No matter how much information a person has, the labour market only trusts the qualification. There is no other way for the labour market to know what information a person has. 

So when schools can no longer function, there is nothing telling the labour market what information people have. So it has no idea who to value and who not to value. 

4) Competition.

A factory does not only want to make T-shirts. It also wants to make better T-shirts than other factories. Schools and universities also compete to be better than the other.

So if a factory comes up with a better way to make a T-shirt, they do not share this information with the public. It’s not because they don’t want the public to know. They just don’t want their competitors to know. If the public knows, then their competitors know. So they keep the information to themselves.

Schools also do this. They keep information to themselves. If there is a really good teacher, they make sure that teacher only teaches at their school. If they figure out a good teaching method, they keep it within their school so that other schools don’t use these methods.

The problem here is by shutting out their competitors, they also shut out the public. So when schools are forced to close, the public does not know how to do what the schools have been doing — and how to do it as well as the schools. 

The public can try but they just won’t be as effective. We must wait for schools to reopen because only they are good at what they do. Competition means the public is unable to do what companies can do — only because that information is secret. 

It is a big risk because if something happens at the factory, no one can make T-shirts anymore. If schools close down, no one can learn.

But why is it this way?

Capitalism and the labour market are the problem. If schools did not have to cater to these two systems, they would be more free and open. A learner would not be forced to learn a very standard curriculum. So we would not have to rely on textbooks and the people who are good at teaching them. Knowledge would be freely shared to all and not limited to grade. People would learn at the pace they want to learn at. There would be no pressure to move on to the next level of knowledge immediately. 

Most importantly, information on how best to teach would be shared with the public. We can all become teachers. We can all help each other learn. In a society like this, we all become learners too because we are learning from each other. 

If there is a virus or disease that forces schools to close down, it is no problem. We would just continue when they reopen because there is no rush. Delays are allowed. We could even continue learning outside of school because more people in the public know how to teach. We probably would not even need schools in the first place because regular society will be about learning — and learning whatever information we choose. 

The reason we can’t do any of this is because people are little more than labourers in the world. We do not live for critical thinking and knowledge. We live to work for others. We, people, are actually the factory. We make the T-shirts — and that’s all the labour market expects from us. 

In this world, there is always a big risk that everything will fall apart at the smallest push — and it has. A contagious virus has made it impossible for schools to teach and learn.

We must ask ourselves now if we want to continue living in a world like this. What happens when the next virus emerges? What happens when we start to feel the effects of climate change? Capitalism has been pretending there are no risks. It has just continued to increase productivity. In fact, it is increasing risks.

The very reason why the coronavirus is such a big problem is because countries have not invested into pandemic response. Our health systems are weak. Our poor are vulnerable. Our developments in technology make it easier, in fact, for viruses to spread. 

Capitalism has done everything to make a virus as dangerous as possible. In fact, if capitalism had its way, medicine would never be free. It does not care about human life — only labour. If a virus kills many, it would just encourage the labourers to reproduce. It does not care about anything other than increasing productivity.  

Walter Benjamin famously expressed capitalism as religion. To this, Slavoj Žižek adds, “A real capitalist is one who is ready to stake his life, to risk everything just so that production grows, profit grows, [and] capital circulates. His personal or her happiness is totally subordinated to this.” This was said in a video for Big Think, titled “Don’t Act. Just Think.” 

I understand we cannot change the school system as long as capitalism and the labour market remains the same. More than this, changing an economic system will also lead to changes in its education system. So the wider structural changes come from creating an alternative economic system. This is where our efforts should be, as Žižek also points out in the video. 

In the meanwhile, we can still share information widely and freely. We can write open and easy-to-understand textbooks. We can share essays, like this one, and encourage more critical thinking in our societies. I work with a local division of South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to give public speaking and critical thinking skills to learners in under resourced schools. We are also involved in a public reading project which shares shorter African literature, such as short stories and essays to learners. We encourage the creation of reading and expression clubs at schools where people can access a wider diversity of texts, both critical and artistic. 

Through this we hope the next generation of youth will fight more eagerly to improve the world and the very systems we use to educate our young and each other. 

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