Post 2: Education and the New Economy

Thursday, August, 23, 12 § 2 Comments

Recently I’ve begun thinking less about education and more about economics. For one, the Western economic model seems to be failing, which, as I stand over my daughter’s crib at night, is a bit terrifying. Second, I just reread Schooling in Capitalist America, and was struck by economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’ compelling case that true school reform cannot happen without economic reform.

Though first published in the 1970’s Bowles and Gintis’ clear-sighted statistical analysis is still relevant today in that it demonstrates how national “school reform” movements have always been dictated not by educators, like John Dewey, but by political and economic leaders. From Dale Carnegie to Bill Gates, the most powerful men in America have always focused their seemingly selfless philanthropy on creating schools that perpetuate the economic structures they own. They’d be stupid not to.

Ideas like learning, self-actualization and joy can happen, but only after students are indoctrinated into understanding “how society works.” And “how society works,” according to Bowles and Gintis, is that a large mass of docile unskilled workers surrender their natural initiative and creativity in exchange for creature comforts doled out through paychecks or government assistance, while only a wealthy elite enjoy autonomy and creativity in their work lives.

The idea that everyone can succeed in school and join the elite is illogical. But the idea that anyone can is the foundation of our schools. Presumably, those with the highest grades, best natural smarts, and hardest work ethic rise to the top and enter the elite.

This is not true. Statistically speaking, a child’s socio-economic status, not his academic performance or IQ quotient, is much more important in determining how far he or she will go in school and in society. Over the past fifty years, the number of people with high school degrees has doubled. Income distribution has stayed the same, or grown more unequal. Now and then a poor person might break out of the statistics and achieve real power, but despite everything we believe to be true about our nation and the power of education, the vast majority of Americans live more or less how their parents did.

What does this mean for someone, like me, who has staked his career on the hope that public education can alleviate society’s ills? Am I doing little more than easing young people into predetermined roles? Do I find satisfaction in the isolated success story?

My work with the Academy for the Love of Learning recently lead me to BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. It’s a fascinating group, supporting networks of local, sustainable economies around the country. I spoke with Executive Director Michelle Long, who was largely responsible for sparking and sustaining a massive local movement in Bellingham, WA, and was impressed by her vision of economies in which people are not employees and consumers, but active, creative contributors to localized, ecologically-minded businesses.

I find more promise in this movement than in Bowles and Gintis’ suggestion, which is that we move towards democratic socialism. For one, the local movement plays in much more  readily to American ideology about independence, community and Main Street. Secondly, building local economies does not have to start in Washington, where the power of large corporations has proven insurmountable. Creating a local economy can happen from the ground up.

And teachers and students could play a significant role – and genuinely reform their schools in the process.

The idea of getting kids out into the “real world” to learn from businesses and artists is in vogue, evidenced by a growth of mentorship programs, and innovative models like The Big Picture Organization, the Blue Ox School for Traditional Arts, and the High School for Recording Arts. Stepping beyond the old vocational education model (think shop class), these models build learning relationships between young people and real businesses outside of school. The kids are exposed to new skills, including how to talk to adults and interact in a professional culture, and the businesses have the satisfaction of knowing they are helping educate the next generation. The students still work on academic skills back in the classroom, ideally with more interest, as they know see how geometry can help them at their architecture internship, chemistry at the restaurant, history at the law office.

The next step for this model, which has resulted in high school graduation rates of over 90% at the Big Picture schools, would be to begin consciously partnering not with any willing business, but specifically with businesses that are active members of local economy networks. At school, students and teachers would explore economics on a theoretical level, and then in the community would help the businesses design, create and market goods or services that take into account the triple bottom line: turning a profit, providing dignified and creative labor for locals, and making responsible use of natural resources.

I can imagine two students at a small carpentry shop, designing and producing a folding chair made from local lumber. A team of students becoming genuine employer-owners of a cooperative coffee shop, exploring fair trade and how to market local products. Students working for a green builder, helping design energy efficient ways to heat.

I sounded this idea off on Michelle Long from BALLE. She thought it was great, but told me she had never really thought much about how schools could play a role in the building of local economies, just as I’d never thought much about the economy.

Time to start thinking outside our fields. Training children to succeed within current economic structures is not only a waste of time, if Bowles and Gintis are right, but it’s also the wrong thing to do. Teachers and students need to bust out of the classroom; share their energy, curiosity and imagination with forward-thinking small business owners; and focus their curriculum on how they can help build the sustainable, just economy we need.

 Seth Biderman | August  23, 2012

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§ 2 Responses to Post 2: Education and the New Economy

  • Ellen Biderman says:

    I think its true schools were started to support the economy. But we still have to be realistic about the need for an educated work force. Change happens together and slowly.

  • Amit and Jayashree says:

    Written with great clarity – in fact everything on this blog is. That education is an integral part of the economic system and alternative thinking on education has to stem from alternative economic models is a thought very close to our hearts. ( The Ministry of Education was renamed the Ministry of Human Resources long ago )
    We too are living with the dilemma of trying out alternative education in the current neo liberal economy !
    Best to all of us.

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