The Costs of Education

The Occupy Movement has influenced the mainstream media to discuss neoliberalism in terms of its production of greater economic inequality. However, for most people this discussion continues to be framed inside the question of raising taxes on the 1%. Rather than merely raising our voices in advocacy of a slap on the wrist, we can also push the discussion further and escape mere economism by registering the costs of inequality that are beyond cost.

Environmentalist and anti-war groups have been doing this for decades. For example, we know that the true cost of a gallon of gas isn’t the number on the pump, that climate change and imperialism pose existential threats that outweigh even U. S. military spending.

Below are two excerpts that discuss various challenges facing students and educators, challenges which also face the Occupy Movement in various ways, and compel us to register the unmeasurable costs of daily life today. The first, from an essay by Harry Cleaver, describes how grading transforms the education system into a manufacturer of workers for the 1%. The cost of tougher grading, he writes, is no less than our freedom and our humanity. On the other hand, “The easier the grading, the more time and energy are liberated for each student (or for groups of students collectively) to think independently, to read on their own, to explore aspects of life they may have just discovered, or to delve into whatever issues their intellectual and sensual curiosities may have raised for them.”

Like Cleaver, the second excerpt, from R. D. Laing, also argues that we should kick the 1% out of the classroom as part of a larger project of creating freedom.

Since 9/11, reactionaries have mobilized masses by redefining “freedom.” The arguments below are just two ways we can take it back, restore its original meaning, and build the movement.

from Harry Cleaver–Worried About Grade Inflation? Abolish Grades! (1975)

[Students] must fight against the conservative backlash to preserve what freedom they have. If they can get organized they should take the offensive and fight for greater freedom, in part through the abolition of grades.

Abolishing grades would not only liberate more time and energy for student self-activity, it would throw the burden and cost of evaluating a persons’ willingness and ability to do a waged job back where it belongs, on the would-be employer. Grades and degrees are the historical result of shifting such costs from business to the taxpayer and future employee. Why not force business to pay for what it wants! As some small liberal arts colleges (e.g., Evergreen State College) have demonstrated, the abolition of grades does not result in less learning, but more learning as students are motivated to pursue their own paths to understanding. Imagine how much fun it would be to extend those experiences to a larger institution like Stanford. Unfortunately, it should also be clear that success at any one institution will be limited by the broader context. Even places like Evergreen include evaluations in their transcripts for the benefit of employers. Battles can be won on individual campuses, but the war can only be won at the level of society as a whole.

from R. D. Laing–The Politics of Experience (1967)

(blockquotes reserved for Laing’s quotations from Henry)

The family is, in the first place, the usual instrument for what is called socialization, that is, getting each new recruit to the human race to behave and experience in substantially the same way as those who have already got here. We are all fallen Sons of Prophecy, who have learned to die in the Spirit and be reborn in the flesh.

This is also known as selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage.

Here are some examples from Jules Henry, an American professor of anthropology and sociology, in his study of the American school system:

The observer is just entering her fifth-grade classroom for the observation period. The teacher says, “Which one of you nice, polite boys would like to take (the observer’s) coat and hang it up?” From the waving hands, it would seem that all would like to claim the honor. The teacher chooses one child, who takes the observer’s coat…

The teacher conducted the arithmetic lessons mostly by asking, “Who would like to tell the answer to the next problem?” This question was followed by the usual large and agitated forest of hands, with apparently much competition to answer.

What strikes us here are the precision with which the teacher was able to mobilize the potentialities of the boys for the proper social behavior, and the speed with which they responded. The large number of waving hands proves that most of the boys have already become absurd; but they have no choice. Suppose they sat there frozen?

A skilled teacher sets up many situations in such a way that a negative attitude can be construed only as treason. The function of questions like, “Which one of you nice, polite boys would like to take (the observer’s) coat and hang it up?” is to blind the children into absurdity–to compel them to acknowledge that it is better to exist absurd than not to exist at all. The reader will have observed that the question is not put, “Who has the answer to the next problem,” but “Who would like to tell it?” What at one time in our culture was phrased as a challenge in skill in arithmetic becomes an invitation to group participation. The essential is that nothing is but what it is made to be by the alchemy of the system.

In a society where competition for the basic cultural goods is a pivot of action, people cannot be taught to love one another. It thus becomes necessary for the school to teach children how to hate, and without appearing to do so, for our culture cannot tolerate the idea that babes should hate each other. How does the school accomplish this ambiguity?

Here is another example given by Henry:

Boris had trouble reducing 12/16 to the lowest terms, and could only get as far as 6/8. The teacher asked him quietly if that was as far as he could reduce it. She suggested he “think.” Much heaving up and down and waving of hands by the other children, all frantic to correct him. Boris pretty unhappy, probably mentally paralyzed. The teacher quiet, patient, ignores the others and concentrates with look and voice on Boris. After a minute or two she turns to the class and says, “Well, who can tell Boris what the number is?” A forest of hands appears, and the teacher calls Peggy. Peggy says that four may be divided into the numerator and the denominator.

Henry comments:

Boris’s failure made it possible for Peggy to succeed; his misery is the occasion for her rejoicing. This is a standard condition of the contemporary American elementary school. To a Zuni, Hopi or Dakota Indian, Peggy’s performance would seem cruel beyond belief, for competition, the wringing of success from somebody’s failure, is a form of torture foreign to those noncompetitive cultures.

Looked at from Boris’s point of view, the nightmare at the blackboard was, perhaps, a lesson in controlling himself so that he would not fly shrieking from the room under enormous public pressure. Such experiences force every man reared in our culture, over and over again, night in, night out, even at the pinnacle of success, to dream not of success, but of failure. In school the external nightmare is internalized for life. Boris was not learning arithmetic only; he was learning the essential nightmare also. To be successful in our culture one must learn to dream of failure.

It is Henry’s contention that in practice education has never been an instrument to free the mind and the spirit of man, but to bind them. We think we want creative children, but what do we want them to create?

If all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two-party system, monogamy, the laws of incest, and so on…

…there would be such creativity that society would not know where to turn.

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. Love is the path through permissiveness to discipline; and through discipline, only too often, to betrayal of self.

What school must do is to induce children to want to think the way school wants them to think. “What we see,” in the American kindergarten and early schooling process, says Henry, “is the pathetic surrender of babies.” You will, later or sooner, in the school or in the home. (Laing 1967)


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