Against Schooling: For an Education that Matters

July 17, 2008

Stanley Aronowitz is one of the US's foremost sociologists. For more than 30 years his work has comprehended the centrality of education for the American Dream of democracy and meritocracy "almost always in the context of considering the system from the vantage point of working-class students".

This seamless collection of papers is arranged biographically from his own schooling in the Bronx, when he "was too bored to stay in any class I was not teaching" but where he shared the rich tradition of working-class and immigrant autodidacts who were "unschooled but highly educated". He progressed to union organising - a job that required no degrees but was itself a form of education, he noted - before returning part time to New York's New School "taught by the likes of Jurgen Habermas". When he "ran out of Germans" he left, "faced with the prospect of studying with American sociologists schooled in the postwar shadow of Parsons and Merton" to acquire a PhD and a professorship elsewhere.

Simultaneously, Aronowitz involved himself in educational experiments in free schools and universities, finding acceptance in the counterculture despite being by then over 30 (and therefore not to be trusted). He maintained also his links with the labour movement and the left, "once the best sources of critical thought", whose decline is the context of his own teaching career in what one of his books called The Last Good Job in America.

This trajectory is placed historically, when "so-called social mobility was a product of the specific conditions of economic development at a particular time". But, Aronowitz says, "what we have learned from the long struggle for school reform is that, like the New Deal's welfare state, nothing is forever. Neither in the United States nor almost anywhere else can we count on 'progress' to secure popular gains that benefit working-class people".

Now that the pursuit of higher education qualifications has become "the new mantra for public schooling", Aronowitz observes, it is a case of "Go to college or die!" He argues that "the rationale for the need for credentials is the technological imperative, the material basis of which is deindustrialization", so that "mass higher education is to a great extent a holding pen and an aging vat, masking unemployment.

"It's simply a matter of control. Institutions want you to demonstrate your subordination by taking more and more courses," he believes, mourning the fact that "in the system of mass education, schools are no longer constituted to transmit the Enlightenment intellectual traditions or the fundamental prerequisites of participatory citizenship, even for a substantial minority". In such a system, schooling is merely a source of training, its teachers reduced to technicians.

In this situation, the debate over access may stop short of considering the real issues. According to Aronowitz, "the idea that class deficits can be overcome by equalizing access to educational opportunities without questioning what those opportunities have to do with genuine education" has simply forgotten to ask the question: "Access to what?"

To achieve the changes necessary to transform schools from credential mills where the curriculum is dominated by standardised tests into a site of genuine education, Aronowitz declares, we need "a conversation concerning the nature and scope of education and the limits of schooling as an educational site"; "a new regimen of teacher education founded on the idea that the educator must be well educated" and "a movement of parents, students, teachers and the labor movement armed with a political program". It is not a question of abandoning schools, then, but rendering them benign by removing them as much as possible from what he calls "the tightening grip of the corporate warfare state".

"The challenge is to become agents of a new educational imagination," he believes. Whether this is any longer possible within a commodified popular culture and in incorporated schools, colleges and universities raises the question of a "new approach that would focus on neighbourhood-based organisations ... combining worker education and social action".

John Dewey's "education for democracy" has been a point of reference throughout but here, Aronowitz goes beyond Dewey's pragmatic localism "to the central question: to achieve scientific understanding in ever-widening groups of the population" and "make possible the progress of the mass and not only small intellectual groups". In conclusion, he returns to Antonio Gramsci for the political construction of such a "national popular collective" and to Paolo Freire for the method to achieve it.

Aronowitz believes that "Freire's pedagogy is grounded in a fully developed philosophical anthropology, that is a theory of human nature, one might say a secular liberation theology ... a tacit critique of post-structuralism's displacement of questions concerning class, gender and race to 'subject-positions' determined by discursive formations". Although Freire is "obliged to work within his own historicity", acknowledges Aronowitz, his "remains the only emancipatory vision of a democratic, libertarian future we have".

Against Schooling: For an Education that Matters

By Stanley Aronowitz
Paradigm
208pp
£55.00 and £13.99
ISBN 9781594515026 and 5033
Published 20 June 2008

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