Thursday, April 14, 2011

Socialism Island

I've been thinking a lot about why education has come under such heavy fire lately, and this week, while teaching elemental socialism and capitalism to my sophomores, it finally clicked. I know this isn't a new thought, but it just suddenly made sense to me.

Pure capitalism advocates a system where each individual person is responsible for himself, and the harder you work the more rewards you gain. In a pure capitalist system, there are clear winners and clear losers, and there are endless opportunities to make money as  long as you create a product that people desire.

Social service providers - like teachers, police, firemen, foster care workers, etc - form the core of a socialist island in the middle of a capitalist sea. We don't really produce a product (especially one that people desire), and we provide services that people would rather not have.

While I can't speak for all the people in this group, I can speak from my own experience as a teacher. Teachers believe that all kids can learn. We treat kids with equality, but individualism ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" you might say...). We believe that the impact of the community is more important (or at the very least EQUALLY important) than the impact of the individual teacher. We believe that all people should be given access to quality education, and that the people who are best able to deliver that quality education are trained professional educators. We don't create a product that has any intrinsic value to others, but instead benefits society as a whole.

These overtly socialist beliefs present a challenge to the capitalist system we are a part of. Hence, the capitalist system doesn't know how to deal with them. A system that values winning doesn't know how to deal with a system that values equality. So winners and losers must be determined using some kind of measurement (hello standardized tests) and some kind of product must be created that others will want to buy (hello graduation rates and charter schools).

Now as my kids pointed out, under a truly socialist system, education would disappear. After all, the purpose of a modern education is to get a good job and make money (capitalism). In fact, our educational system was originally designed to support capitalism. In the beginning (mid to late 1800s), education and society was all about capitalism. Students were not treated equally (no such thing as special ed, and very low-functioning students were sent to asylums), and no secret was made of the fact that the purpose of education was to get a better job and make more money.

As the Cold War began to dissipate in the 1970s and the hippie generation of the 1960s grew up, education became increasingly socialist, while our society became increasingly capitalist. In the last 40 years, we have seen a dramatic shift in educational policy to emphasize equity and access in public education, while at the same time we have shifted as a society to pay ever greater homage to the wealthy and most elite among us. Students today are raised in an educational system that places a high value on equity, but they live in a society that places a high value on winning.

I don't really know if there is an solution to this dilemna, other than to say that I firmly believe that Newton's Third Law of Motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) applies to history as well as physics. I have to believe the pendulum will swing back and we will become less of something.

Until then, I guess I'll just do my best as an inhabitant under siege on Socialism Island.


The Reflective Educator said...

I tend to think teachers produce a product that has enormous value to individuals and to the group. Wealthy people pay enormous sums of money for an excellent education.

Christy said...

true, but the value isn't tangible, as most things in our society are. It is therefore hard to measure. And again, are they paying for the education, or the name of the school they attend, which would be a tangible item? The analogy isn't 100%, of course, but I still thought there were definite parallels.