Against Schooling – Towards an Education That Matters

Reviewed by Peter

Stanley Aronowitz, Against Schooling – Towards an Education That Matters (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

The American system of public education was once envied worldwide. While there were a number of critical factors which led to the ascendancy of the US in the twentieth century, it was often argued that America’s early commitment to a relatively egalitarian system of public education was crucial to its leadership position.

Stanley Aronowitz’s critique of the US education system demonstrates that on all levels, from elementary school through college, it is deeply flawed and is contributing to the larger crisis of American society. Aronowitz argues with great enthusiasm that many of the same influences which degraded elementary and high school education in the US have now seriously impacted higher education. To his credit, he connects the crisis in American education to the larger social, political, and economic forces which have shaken the foundations of US capitalism. The educational system plays an increasingly crucial role in capitalism by keeping students off the job market, sorting them out by various criteria, transmitting the dominant ideology of the free marketplace of ideas and the myth of the meritocracy, and providing a path to better jobs. In short, it contributes vitally to social control by sustaining the idea that by working hard and following the rules, one can still attain the American dream.

In reality, as the author repeatedly demonstrates, the US education system in the last twenty-five years has fallen victim to a corporate takeover that has undermined its capacities to teach students on any level to be informed and critical thinkers, committed to democratic values and concerned about the larger community. Instead, testing and teaching to the test has replaced critical thinking, and schools have become training facilities organized in ways which increasingly reflect corporate priorities. As Aronowitz puts it, “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” (19).

Aronowitz extends his indictment to higher education. He argues that the gulf between schooling and education has so widened that state schools have largely become credential mills. The classification of universities and colleges as research I or research II institutions, elite teaching institutions, or something else has further exacerbated this problem. As outlined by Clark Kerr, University of California chancellor in the 1960s, research institutions create knowledge while elite teaching institutions transmit knowledge. In the present era, colleges and universities that do not fit into these categories become holding tanks that provide students with credentials and teach them to adjust to the existing social arrangements.

Gone are the days when writers such as Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and Thorstein Veblen argued that education could be a force for cultural renewal. Instead, according to Aronowitz and others, the educational system has increasingly been mobilized for instrumental ends related to strengthening the reign of capital, and more particularly the needs of specific capitalist enterprises. This general debasement of the education system on all levels has proceeded since the 1980s and, while sometimes resisted by students, parents, teachers and community members, has taken on the appearance of inevitability. The reduction of the education system to training facilities linked to business interests is seen to be a realistic adaptation to an era when public funding for schools is on the decline and corporations have willingly stepped in to fund programs in high schools and colleges.

As a testament to the growing corporate hegemony in education, critics of the increasing corporate influence in schools have been marginalized as unrealistic, utopian, and excessively political. For the author, this turn of events is linked to the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism, which frames issues in terms of competitiveness and suggests that there is really only one way to think about the issues confronting education. Applied to higher education, this line of thinking is linked a number of different trends, including the preeminent focus on research to the exclusion of everything else. Non-research departments are transformed into service units, with English departments being turned into “composition mills.” In addition, the humanities and the social sciences are being consolidated. Following this logic, why do you even need departments of anthropology, history or sociology if these disciplines don’t directly create value through their research? The implication of this trend is that individual academic departments must bend to the priorities of capital and create something of value or they will be downsized or possibly eliminated.

From a broader institutional perspective, according to Aronowitz, this also means that the reign of tenure and the freedom to do unpopular and unprofitable inquiry is subject to challenge and that faculty governance has been replaced by the centralization of administration and planning. As Aronowitz puts it, “the corporatization of the academy requires the formation of a cadre whose loyalty is no longer to its erstwhile colleagues whose main duties are teaching, research, and writing but to the new institutional mission of making the university relevant to the dominant forces within the political economy” (92).

In order to account for the increasing corporatization of the school system, the author cites such theorists as Pierre Bourdieu, who in a number of works argues that schools reproduce class relations, as well as Louis Althusser, who maintains that schools are the main “ideological state apparatuses.” For Aronowitz, however, what is at stake is not just how the education system functions under capitalism; it is the attack on higher education as a public good:

Yet if higher education is to become a public good in the double meaning of the term – as a decommodified resource for the people and an ethically legitimate institution that does not submit to the business imperative – then beyond access we would have to promote a national debate about what is to be taught and what is to be learned if citizenship and critical thought are to remain, even at the level of intention, the heart of higher learning. (76)

While the author does an excellent job of framing the debate on education and asking the right questions, his solutions to the crisis are sketchy and merely suggestive. In the final section, “Toward Educational Renewal,” he focuses on the contributions of Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire and, to a lesser extent, Franz Fanon. The selection of these writers as key figures in constructing a counter-hegemony makes perfect sense, but how their work contributes to an alternative view linking theory and praxis needs further explication. The book would have benefited from consideration of contemporary theorists such as Myles Horton, Ira Shor, and Henry Giroux.

In sum, Aronowitz offers a precise and passionate critique of the American educational system, but is less successful in drawing out its full implications. To his credit, he has given us much to think about and, unlike many other critics, has not severed analysis of the educational system from the contradictions of capitalism.

Peter Seybold Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis