Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Marx (1818-1883) – education for all but the educated became the enemy

Although Karl Marx wrote little on educational theory, his influence on learning theory and practice has been profound. It was Marxism that underpinned the entire communist world’s view of learning in the 20th century, especially through Marxist theorists such as Gramsci and Althusser. In Soviet Russia and its satellite states education was remoulded around political aims and when the Cultural Revolution in China between 1949 and 1966 was unleashed, it had devastating consequences. To this day Marxism, to a degree, persists in educational and learning theory, most notably in the social constructivism of Vygotsky, Luria and Leontyev.
Education the result of economic structures
As Marx believed that our very consciousness, as well as our theorising and institutions, were the result of basic economic structures, education is seen as the result of existing class structures. In practice, this means that the ruling class controls and determines educational theory, policy and institutional development. In The Communist manifesto (jointly authored with Engels)
For Marx, education has a ‘social’ context, which is both direct and indirect, ‘And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention direct or indirect, of society’. The solution to the dominance of the ruling class was, first to abolish of child labour, then introduce free, state-funded education. The ‘combination of education and industrial production’ is also promoted, what we’d call vocational training. Unfortunately, ‘dialectical materialism’ was the manifestation of struggles between these groups within society and led to the identification of educated people and groups as enemies of the state.
Gramsci and Althusser
It was left to later Marxists to expand Marx’s social theory of education into working models that relate to knowledge, intellectual development and education. Antonio Gramsci developed these ideas further through ideas such as "ideological hegemony". The ruling class determines what passes as knowledge or truth. Louis Althusser developed this further exploring the way in which education, state, church, media and other institutions become the ideological state apparatus. Class structures determine knowledge and the means by which knowledge is transmitted, distributed and taught. These ideas were to literally shape education for a large part of the twentieth century across entire continents and in some outliers, notably North Korea and Cuba, the idea persists.
Social constructivism
Marx is still having a profound influence on educational theory today through social constructivist theory. The resurrection of Vygotsky has led to strong beliefs and practices around the role of the teachers and collaborative learning and the belief that social context lies at the heart of educational problems. Here, it is clear that Marxist ‘class consciousness’ is replaced by ‘social consciousness’. We no longer have Marxist ideology shaping education, but we do have the ideas dressed up in sociology and social psychology.
Technology and education
With remarkable foresight Marx also predicted the massive impact technology would have on the division of labour. His vision of a classless society would lead to such divisions disappear, with education as the driver. The breakdown of traditional academic and vocational should break down, ‘free them from the one-sided character which the present-day division of labour impresses upon every individual’. Individuals will have several careers and through ‘education… pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations’. This proved hard, if not impossible to implement, even in hard-lined Communist countries.
Disastrous legacy
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’ said Marx. And change it they did, mostly for the worse. The 20th century saw the dogmatism of Lysenko in Soviet Russia, political indoctrination in schools and dialectical materialism interpreted by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, into an intellectual pogrom. The results in Cambodia, speak for themselves, with the virtual elimination of education and the educated. With that and the collapse of the Soviet Union came the end of the utopian dream.
We are still living with a hangover of Marxist theory in education, especially through social constructivist theories. Marxism is far from dead and the Marxist idea that everything becomes commoditised, including knowledge and education, is useful in combating the excesses of education and training aimed merely at increasing productivity. On the positive side, the Victorian democratisation of education, that arose from the industrial revolution, was transformed by Marxist and socialist ideas into a movement that pushed for free, state-funded education as a right for every citizen. This struggle is still raging as attempts are made to widen access to education and higher education across all socio-economic groups. In addition, the relationship between the state and education remains problematic is worth examination, and Marxist theorists have much to say that is useful in relation to the idea that education reflects and props up class differences, by filtering people, not on ability, but social background. Inequalities still exist and political interference through ideological, rather than evidence-based policies, are still the norm. Few, for example, would see even current education systems as truly meritocratic.
Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1983) The Portable Karl Marx, ed. by Eugene Kamenka, Viking
Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1992) Early Writings, tr. by Rodney Livingstone, Penguin
Karl Marx, (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, tr. by Ben Fowkes Penguin.
Terry Eagleton, (1999) Marx Routledge
Francis Wheen, (1999) Karl Marx Fourth Estate

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