Some thoughts on Chomsky on Education

Some thoughts on Chomsky on Education

Some scattered thoughts on this recent video of Noam Chomsky talking about the different interpretations of 'education'. This largely got me thinking about some of the functions of the schools I've worked in, and the effects on students

Chomsky displays his Enlightenment sympathies in his conception of education and his criticism of currently-existing educational systems:

"There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?”

The 'vocational training' aspect is something about education that irks me daily. I teach both 'vocational' and 'academic' science courses. Despite the fact that we're technically a 'comprehensive' school (not that it ever meant much) the middle managers, under pressure from the head, 'direct' kids into either of those categories. If kids aren't 'progressing' fast enough, based on questionable testing, they're coerced away form the academic courses onto the vocational.

The vocational subjects now, for example BTECs, equip kids with generic, transferable, menial skills that will make them perfect workplace fodder. On a course like this, in science say, you would be asked to design a powerpoint on the Periodic Table, but not ever have to learn anything about the Periodic Table. Or perhaps you would make a poster about Radiation, but not have to ever know anything about it. Across subjects, these activities get done, a box gets ticked, and an easy qualification is obtained, which massages a school's leage table position,

There was a time when vocational subjects would have been more practically based, hands-on things like woodwork, metalwork etc. That's less the case these days, because it's not what the labour market requires, with manufacturing largely gone in the UK. What few jobs do exist for school leavers, will often be service/hospitality or menial admin - hence we now have BTECs in 'Travel & Tourism' or 'Hospitality & Catering'.

Conversations with pupils on these courses reveal an interalised label of themselves as second-class within the school:

"Why couldn't we do the proper GCSE?"

"No colleges take BTECs. I want to do nursing but they want GCSEs"

"I hate this course, we just print stuff off laptops"

And this is across subjects. And across schools; my previous schools students echoed such sentiments, and friends that work as teachers or teaching-assistants in schools in other parts of the country have come across the same feelings from pupils.

Now, the academic, more test-based subjects aren't necessarily much better - as Chomsky points out, they may have some uses, but:

'a person can do magnificently on every test, and understand very little... you can study very hard for a test, and forget it all a few weeks later'

So while the 11+ exam* is long gone in most areas of the UK, we simply have selection within schools, rather than between schools. Rather than 'less academic' pupils going to 'secondary moderns' and 'smart kids' going to grammar school, we simply seperate them within the school, from day one.

And you can sure as hell bet there's a class component, as well as the ethnic and racial baggage that can come with that. In a mixed school in London where I used to teach, the 'top' sets, the kids who would do GCSEs were predominantly white middle class, with a few asian kids and the odd black kid - but certainly, for that borough, a disporoprtionate amount of white pupils in top set. The 'bottom' set was, no joke, entirely turkish, afro-carribean, with the odd eastern european... and almost entirely boys. They will all go on to do the 'vocational' courses and will be unlikely to do anything but the compulsory GCSEs.

So with all the bullshit about progress and getting the best for kids and that Blairite carry-over from the cringeworthy 'EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION', all I can think is 'SAME SHIT DIFFERENT DAY' as we divide kids nowadays as much as we ever had, to meet the whims of bosses and politicians, and whatever they see fit for the next generation.

I can just about imagine that enlightenment idea of education that Chomsky alludes to; that of learners guiding themselves, studying things that excite them and discovering things as opposed to being told what to think (and schools actually attempt to co-opt progressive ideas, but more from an individualised atomstic perspective) but I've yet to actually see it, because it's simply not what capitalist schooling is for.

* for non-UK readers this is a form of academic selection at the end of primary school - you pass, you go to 'grammar' school for five years; you fail, you go to a 'comprehensive', or back in the day, a 'secondary modern'.

Posted By

Apr 27 2012 22:12


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Apr 28 2012 10:55

Capitalist schooling has failed children in its main aim and the only course left to critics is to pile on teachers and comprehensive schooling itself. Critics will complain about school standards but then go on to complain about increased applications for university. So they make policies that persuade working class and lower middle class kids that Uni is not for them (tuition fees and so on). But capitalism itself cannot provide even the menial work that is supposed to nullify the minds of young adults for a lifetime. Unemployment figures rise. Critics then go full circle and blame schooling again.

Apr 28 2012 13:43

Good blog as usual smile Check your inbox btw

Apr 28 2012 19:09

'Comprehensive' schooling, though ok in theory, is selection by postcode rather than exam, though, even without the ability streaming and categorisation that usually follows. Universities are not what they used to be either - it's not just fees that are a deterrent, but the production line target culture too. Polytecnics - where you could get a proper but more practical rather than just academic degree - were pretty good. Their conversion to universities for fake status was a heck of a blow for technical education.

Apr 28 2012 19:57
Ernestine wrote:
'Comprehensive' schooling, though ok in theory, is selection by postcode rather than exam, though, even without the ability streaming and categorisation that usually follows.

Agreed, which is why the liberal notion that we can teach-learn our way out of inequality is blatant nonsense within capitalism. The purpose of pointing out the effects of streaming etc above are merely to expose some of the more overt ideological functions of contemporary schooling, there was no suggestion, in this post, or in anything I've written that merely doing away with these would solve much in and of themselves. It's more than their presence is part of a distilled capitalist model of education.

Apr 28 2012 21:54

Good blog mate. Teaching a BTEC type language qualification was the most mind numbing shite I have ever had to teach. Kids knew it wasnt worth shit as well, like you said.

Social Manageme...
Oct 6 2012 14:50

California used to have a Master Plan for education that, while reproducing the hierarchies of capitalist management, offered some useful and (to today's hope-impoverished education movement) inspiring tactics within the statist assumptions of USA governance. The handful of research-intensive University of California campuses would take the most well-graded students in every field at all levels, the cheaper California State University sites would offer postsecondary degrees at all levels in all fields for most or all interested Californians who weren't going to UC, and the Community Colleges would offer two-year degrees, technical certifications and transfer programs allowing students from under-served communities to make up the gap and matriculate to a UC or CSU school.

The system is pretty well broken now, with UC and CSU schools decades deep into illegal tuition policies, and raising them every year or two; recently, UC activists have defeated an 80% fee rise, only to turn around and find themselves defending against a 25% hike that seemed more reasonable by comparison but would put almost the final nail in the Master Plan's coffin. CCs are starting to become prohibitively expensive for most, and secondary schools serving ethnic minority communities offer little recourse to social mobility: most Californians of African-American descent attend schools which fail to offer the courses necessary to even apply to a UC. Lucrative corporate contracts and shady real estate deals rule the day, while the UCs leverage student docility to obtain a AAA rating for buying construction bonds, which of course are needed to crush cooperative student businesses by building private restaurants and concert venues, while reconstructing campus paths to flow more often toward the private businesses. Teachers are casualized while the universities squander public money on private technology, like flat-screen TVs replacing route maps at the bus stops. Decisions are made by, literally, Regents who are appointed by the governor and are made up 100% of the major donors to Jerry Brown and past governors (including Jerry Brown).

Where do we go from here? Free University offers an engaging model, but real estate costs are prohibitive and the prospect of squatting the Community Colleges (which often collect anti-intellectual right-wing reactionaries from the countryside for their student bodies) seems unlikely. They could perhaps be imposed by a Green Party or Peace & Freedom Party government of California but it's hard to see a path from here to there without a political revolution in the USA generally. Democrats are broadly unwilling to defend education except in the form of regressive tax and a few legitimately concerned Assemblymen like Leland Yee. The student struggle is advanced in the sociology departments at Berkeley and Santa Cruz but the student union is weak and does not suffer from an excess of democracy. Students/voters by and large continue to take whatever the Man gives them, while teachers' unions beg and plead for action. What to do?