Education: Guaranteeing Access Isn’t Enough

In a recent email, a professor of sociology expressed some skepticism about what she regarded as over-enthusiastic treatment of the possibilities for new education models in a stateless society. Among other things, she questioned the apparent claim that new media, online courses and free lectures would “save the education system” or provide access to education.

My response to these points is that 1) we should first address the prior question of the nature of the system we’re guaranteeing access to, and 2) the current education system needs to be destroyed, not saved.

The critic seems to be treating the need for “education” as relatively static, and asking only how the models for delivering it would be different in a stateless society. The real question is, whose needs are being served right now? One thing is for sure — it’s definitely not the students’. The customers, or clients, of today’s educational system are corporate employers. Students are simply the raw material. The specifications for what “needs” to be taught today, and the whole institutional system for delivering it, were set by a century-old interlocking constellation of institutions centered on large mass-production industry.

Discussions of “guaranteeing access” to education, healthcare, jobs and so forth on the mainstream Left seem to follow a common pattern. First, the good in question is a necessary input into the existing corporate system. Second, consumption of the good by ordinary people is transformed into one of Ivan Illich’s “radical monopolies,” participation in which becomes becomes a fundamental requirement for survival. And third, it’s institutionalized under the control of a professionalized administrative caste which maintains a monopoly on providing the good.

The mainstream Left tends to focus almost entirely on how access to that given model can be “guaranteed,” with little or no discussion of changing the internal culture of the institutional system that delivers it, or changing the extent to which it is a radical monopoly that people are required to participate in to have comfortable subsistence.

It reminds me of what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have said about the social democratic agenda which, far from taking advantage of the liberatory potential of new technology to abolish work or enable a Kropotkinian vision of self-managed cooperative shops in agro-industrial villages, aims “to reintegrate the working class within capital.” “It would mean, on the one hand, re-creating the mechanisms by which capital can engage, manage, and organize productive forces and, on the other, resurrecting the welfare structures and social mechanisms necessary for capital to guarantee the social reproduction of the working class.”

Our anarchistic vision involves not simply abolishing the educational system as we know it, but also abolishing all the institutional customers for that system’s product. One thing I constantly emphasize is that, in an economy of self-managed cooperative production, self-employment, and direct production for use in the informal/household sector, the kind of education being demanded for employment wouldn’t be driven mainly by the needs of corporate Human Resources departments. They’d be set by the actual recipients of education, which in turn would be set on an ad hoc basis by individual workers negotiating as equals with small, self-organized production groups.

In the same email, the correspondent raises the question of what administrative and other overhead costs have to do with “abolishing the state and thus public education, and outsourcing it to new media.”

The answer is that the rise of higher education as a high-overhead, capital-intensive institution directly mirrors the rise of mass-production industry on the same model. And in both cases, high overhead was an entry barrier that empowered giant, hierarchical institutions that used human beings as raw material (human resources). Eliminating the overhead also eliminates the entry barriers to people directly self-organizing the same functions outside the control of the large institutions.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory