The Left is fond of extolling the virtues of a free public education system, particularly the delusion that it increases social mobility and promotes liberty. Aside from the fact that few people move up in social class, regardless of their success in school, the system is not truly free. It is a taxpayer subsidy to business that ensures there are sufficiently educated workers to do the jobs employers want done and to consume the products and services they are selling.
In “Science and Education in Capitalism,” Ruthless Criticism points out that education serves as a sorting mechanism for capital, funneling future workers into the hierarchy of jobs. School does not simply deliver knowledge, training and skills to students, but does so per unit time. During exams, students demonstrate how many questions they can correctly answer within a given amount of time. Consequently, it is not their knowledge we are assessing, but their efficiency compared with their peers, exactly what employers are looking for.
Grades do not tell us how much a student knows or how well they can solve problems. They simply tell us how a student has performed in relationship to his or her peers and give an indication of how that student will be sorted in the future. The better the grades, the more advanced classes that student can take, the better college he or she can attend, the more impressive his or her resume, and the better the chances of a higher paying job.
Most jobs do not require brilliant workers. Thus, the state does not need to invest much into public education—just enough to ensure there are sufficient workers with the minimum skills necessary for the job (a few highly trained people to be managers, supervisors and bosses, and lots of average people with minimal training to do the rest of the work). Of course there is also a need for scientists, but from the perspective of the employing class this is solely to create new and better products that can be sold and patented, innovations that give them an edge over competitors. Scientists working to improve public health, in contrast, are a burden as they contribute to regulation and legislation that impairs profit-making.
The rationality of keeping education costs low has been amply demonstrated over the last four years, as states have slashed education budgets without harming the profitability of business. In fact, corporate America has made record profits in that same time period despite the divestment from public education, while a surplus of highly trained workers and scientists remain jobless or accept low paying jobs that have nothing to do with their training.
The needs of capital also determine what content is taught. An understanding of American history sufficient to celebrate the 4th of July with pride serves the interests of capital by ensuring there will be a supply of cannon fodder for its wars, whereas knowledge of Haymarket, Homestead, the IWW and Ludlow might lead one to rebel against capital. Hence, the former takes up a great deal of the history curriculum, while the latter, if it is taught at all, takes up no more than a few lines in the text book.
School also prepares students for the world of work by simulating (and legitimizing) the competition that occurs in the real world, only in school the competition is for grades rather than money. However, the competition in school is no more “fair” than that of the world of employment. One’s relationship to the labor market not only determines his wealth and social status, it also determines his children’s status in school. Affluence is a great predictor of graduation rates, test scores and overall school success.
The public education system of the 20th century—the remnants of which limp along today—is inefficient in its service to capital. Since knowledge for knowledge’s sake does not increase profits, universities can do away with many of the luxuries that have allowed professors to do basic research in the past. Increasing the competition for grants (while increasing corporate sponsorship of research) increases the likelihood that research will have a potential for profitability. Distance learning, blended learning and outsourcing of teaching at the K-12 and college levels allows schools to teach the basic skills students need to compete in the job market at a much lower cost (and greater profit to the businesses that supplies these services). Doing away with tenure and seniority increases administrators’ control over staffing decisions and reduces payroll expenses by making it easier to lay off higher paid veterans. Internships and service learning may provide youth with marketable job skills, but they also provide employers with cheap or free labor that is easier to exploit than older workers.