I’ve come to believe that there are ways we can make the social world less unjust. One of those ways is to change the systems of governance that set the pace and style of life as we produce our lives together. That is: economically. The system of governance that we have now, worldwide–but of which the US is a kind of center now, is capitalism.
Making the social world less unjust means changing that world, and changing that world means changing capitalism to something else. I don’t yet know what that something else is, but I’m convinced that we should study capitalism and study it with an eye towards unlearning it, or learning a new way of being with one another and producing our lives together. So, as students of education, I’ve decided to teach what we’re going to learn this semester. We’re going to get an idea of what capitalism is, how it works, and how we reproduce it, asking: Does school reproduce capitalism? That is, is schooling an institution that bolsters systems of governance, undoes them, or can it be an institution which brokers that change? Can school make the world less unjust?
A CHICKEN AND EGG PROBLEM
In particular I’m interested in a kind of chicken and egg problem. Does capitalism cause school to be a certain way, or is it school that causes society to be in a capitalist way? If we change school can we change society or must society change in order to change school?
That’s my interest and when I teach I make the class a kind of experiment, or attempt to know more about the question, be able to explore it more, have more to say about the ideas involved in the question, and come up with new questions.
READING ABSTRACT PHILOSOPHICAL TEXTS: CUTTING OUT THE MIDDLE PEOPLE
Before we go into the readings themselves I want to say something general about reading abstract, philosophical, and difficult texts. What we’re going to read will be difficult. You will probably have a hard time with it–you may not have read philosophy or canonical texts like these, and if you have you may not have enjoyed it. But. There is a but. While these texts are not pleasant, while they use terms in unfamiliar ways, there is a benefit to challenging yourself to interpret them, particularly as educators.
First, reading abstract texts, slogging through them, creates an intellectual fearlessness. If you make it through Capital and the Grundrisse and Althusser, you will gain a confidence to interpret any kind of dense text. You can make sense of all kinds of things because you’ve made your way through these.
2. Pushing back
Also, this fearlessness can help you push back when people try to tell you that something is too complicated, or beyond you. You can say to yourself to or even to them directly, “no, I’ve read Marx and he doesn’t say that” or “I’ve read some economic theory and I’m not sure I understand you…” As teachers and educators there will be politicians, consultants, and administrators who will depend on your believing them, not pushing back, not asking questions. They will bank on your mind not being strong and/or you feeling like it isn’t. Reading dense texts can help you feel like your mind is strong and will not be fooled into coercion or subordination.
3. Cutting out middlepeople
There’s a third reason to read abstract texts as educators. Typically in education you study theories. Theories are sets of statements that experts string together based on their experience and profound inquiry, whether it be quantitative or qualitative. They think deeply on a question and then you’re supposed to learn what they’ve learned as it applies to education. These theorists you learn in other classes are middlepeople: they’ve done deep inquiry and they’re telling you what happened. The purpose of this is to give you new possibilities for educating. These possibilities are prefab and based on someone else’s experience. In this class, we cut out the middle man. You’re going to do the deep inquiry and then come up with a theory based on your experience. You’re going to create those possibilities for yourself by reading the dense text. It’s not easy to create those theories. It’s not pleasant. You’re going to feel like you have no idea what’s going on. You might dislike me for asking you to do it. But all these things are good signs. Creating new dimensions of possibility for yourself as a student and educator is a difficult process. I’ll help of course, but you’re just as smart as I am. I may know more, but our intelligences are equal–you can make meaning for yourself in your life just as well as I can. And I promise to teach with that in mind.
WHY READ MARX ET AL?
So, we’re going to read Marx, Althusser, Bowles and Gintis, and this will be a lens through which we look at contemporary global educational issues and online learning for those in the online class. I’d like to go through each author and tell you why I’m deciding to read them with you. Why read Marx? If you want to think about capitalism with an eye towards changing it, or thinking through it, there’s still no better writer to read than Marx. The critiques of capitalism are still relevant today and have helped me understand what modern society is, and how it changes. I’m willing to change my mind about this by the way, if you can tell me a good reason to do so.
1. Lenses for social change: Why I’ve picked the economic
Admittedly, we’re going to think about society through an economic and financial lens. This is only one lens. Economics is not sufficient for thinking through society and how it changes. There’s race, gender, sexuality, language, nationality, territory, environment, religion, age, education, history, and ability. No one of these is sufficient, but they are all necessary for understanding social change. The lens you choose to examine and then justify social change will depend on your own proclivity, interest, and experience.
As a white, straight, American, English-speaking, able-bodied, Jewish 30 year old cis-man with a PhD in philosophy of education from New England and New York, the social lens I’ve gravitated towards is the economic. Why? First, I don’t have to deal with oppression from the other categories. I’m about as privileged as you can get in our world: no sexism, racism, chauvinism, ableism, xenophobia, or degradation touches me. Maybe I can get a little oppression for my religion, which has a history of oppression, but enjoys thorough equality and respect in the US now. I’m starting to get some pressure for the fact that I have so much privilege, which is interesting. But in general the only oppression I’ve faced I have had to deal with is a kind of financial oppression.
Without baring all of my soul, what troubled me about the social world was the extent to which my parents were devoted to work and money. It pervaded my life: everything I was supposed to do was linked to work, making enough money, providing, etc. It made me angry–a meaningful, healthy, joyful life was supposed to take a backseat because of finances. Had to get good grades, get a degree, and get a job. This pressure was so strong I think capitalism and money had perverse effects on my family life and upbringing, and possibly those of my parents. It prevents flourishing. I also like systems and numbers, I studied philosophy of mathematics in university. So here I am studying political economy.
2. Other economic theorists
Now, even if you want to study political economy there are other theorists which you can read to think about society. Certainly you can read other theorists on society: Smith, Mill, Weber, Durkheim, Tarde. Why choose Marx and Althusser? The first two (Smith and Mill) are theorists of the status quo: you can think about capitalism but not think through it. They’re not interested in changing capitalism, only to the extent of making it stronger. I haven’t read much Weber, but I’ve read accounts that show him to be a bit ambivalent about capitalism, or his way of thinking lends itself to many positions–pro and con–and his idea of class, in particular, is not revolutionary. Tarde is interesting to me because of his emphasis on the material and concrete: he thinks society is always an infinite number of he’s and she’s making up the society: that society is not something over and above us, larger than us, but rather something we make in our little interactions every day. This appeals to me, but I’m not sure Tarde is anti-capitalist like Marx, whose materialism is equivalent. Marx is both anti-capitalist and rejects the idea that society is an abstract entity which influences us like a god or spirit or invisible hand.
You might object and say that the people who have read Marx on social change have had their day, and they messed up big time: Stalin, Mao, and Castro; gulags, executions, disappearances; unstable economies, war, destitution. Historical examples of communism are not bright shining examples of society. First, I wouldn’t be too sure of the ideological motivations behind these readings: history is written by power and capitalism is currently in power. It’s not in capitalists’ interests to write favorable histories of opposing systems. Second, capitalism is guilty of as many atrocities and sufferings as other systems, though they may look different. Third, Marx’s writing on capitalism is not the same as historical examples of communism. Specifically, his thinking about capitalism–Capital and Grundrisse–are inquiries, not polemics. There’s a way of reading Marx to hear him not as an authoritative, systematic, communist, but rather as someone thinking through capitalism and society in general in order to enable us to change it (Hollingshead 2013). Of all the theorists I’ve mentioned Marx thinks of society as historical and material, contingent on human and nonhuman events and decisions, not naturally or essentially one way or another, and he looks for ways to change it so preventable suffering does not occur at large scales. He was also a pretty good guy.
Which brings us to Althusser. Louis Althusser understands this voice of Marx deeply and interprets Marx in just that way, philosophically. There are a number of objections to reading Althusser which don’t concern us now, but I have to face from colleagues. Chief among them are his style and past. He’s difficult to read, which leads some to think of him as not reading Marx the way I’ve said he does. But I think they’re mistaking the form of his arguments for the content, and I’m not sure they have read him. He talks about getting out of “the shade of Hegel,” rejecting an ontology of society that takes society to be a simple, single essence over and above it’s residents, and about how the real object of knowledge is a system of actual variations rather than ideas abstracted away from those variations. I can talk more about this later. In any case, again, reading abstract texts is important as educators and Althusser is worth the read. He’s also done some unsettling things, to say the least: like renounce his own work and possibly killed his wife. This is very hard for me to square, but I think a person’s writing might be a different thing than an action they commit later in life. Despite these things, his writing is extremely compelling and I agree with the way he reads Marx. So I read him.
So there’s our theoretical lens, which is the most difficult part of the course. Bowles and Gintis wrote a landmark study of how capitalism and schooling in America relate, so we’re going to read that and then apply what we’ve learned to contemporary issues. In the online class, we will focus on the social production of online learning, whereas in the face-to-face class we will focus on globalization and neoliberalism.