Re: Nate's interesting question

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Thu Mar 17 2005 - 15:01:26 PST

As I am back now reading xmca, I wanted to thank people who responded
thoughtfully to the issues around compulsory education and young people's

I leave open here the historical question of why compulsory education was
instituted, no doubt this was an overdetermined development. There is
certainly room for interpretation, skepticism of overt justifications of
the time, and various economic and political analyses.

I meant as a provocation my claim that compulsory education is a form of
economic exploitation. I did not mean this so much in terms of hours lost
from paid labor, but rather as a strong indictment of the use-value for
students of what they are required to learn in schools. My claim is that
their time and efforts in schools redounds more to benefit of others than
to themselves. If there is little value to them in what they are forced to
learn (and I refer here mainly to the content of the secondary curriculum),
then most of the usual arguments for compulsory education crumble, and one
is forced to reframe the issue in terms of who profits and who is (not) paid.

For me the primary issue however is the rights and social standing of
youngest citizens. Setting the age of majority at 21 or even 18 seems to me
simply a power grab by older adults, and no more morally or intellectually
justifiable than the disempowerment of women, workers, serfs, non-Whites,
etc. -- all of which were "justified" in much the same terms as is done in
the case of young people. I am speaking here not of 4-year olds, but of
14-year olds, and perhaps down to an age somewhere in the neighborhood of

There has been an interesting historical reversal in the status of persons
aged 7-14 and 14-21 (the old rule-of-sevens for age-grading, in case you
wondered how "21" became a magic number). The 14-21 group has been
radically disenfranchised since the industrial revolution, and in fact
culturally infantilized, so that their behavior fits our expectations of it
(e.g. they are excluded from meaningful labor, participation in serious
activity with adults, productive activities valued by the community at
large, etc. -- no wonder they often show little sense of social
responsibility!). This process of post-industrial infantilization seems to
be continuing now to the 21-40 age group, who, so far as I can tell, are
increasingly identifying with elements of what was formerly considered
"adolescent" culture. "Adolescence" is yet another meaningless social
construction (rather like "race"), and the one that reified (and grounded
in biomedical discourses) the exclusion of 14-21s from adult status.

What do you think would happen if we passed a compulsory education statute
for 21-30s or 35-50s, demanding that they show competence in the current
secondary-school curriculum in order to retain their citizen franchise,
right to sue at law, right to sell their labor, right to control their own
property, etc.? Surely very few could pass the current high-stakes tests.
And none, I think, would accept the validity of the argument that what
counts today as education has any relevance to ordinary adult life, much
less to citizen rights.

I am not actually for the reform of schooling in economically overdeveloped
societies like my own. The entire paradigm is faulty at its core. Let's
imagine what education (not schooling, not curriculum) would be like if it
did not have as its captive audience the least powerful members of society.
What if the entire system HAD to be responsive to its clients? What if no
part of its function was custodial? What if no part of its function was to
propagate the ideologies of the last generation onto the next (except
insofar as that is unavoidable)? What if it was closely integrated into the
normal activities of adult society? What if it rejected age-differentiation
and age-segregation beyond age (14? 12? 10? 7?). At what age is what I know
(and know-how) and don't know/how more relevant to how I learn than my age
as such? (i.e. at what point do we ask the mainstream developmental
psychologists to butt out?)

Bruce asked:
BTW, if we're talking about 'unanalysed ideologies', I think this statement
also needs deconstructing: "Youngest citizens have a (natural but not yet
legal) right to profit by their labor, and thereby gain some of the social
status and capital needed to claim their legal rights (cf. women in the
last century)."

I'd be interested in a deconstruction ... it might be an ideology, but I
call it a value system. Even if I don't much like capitalism and its
equation of property with the standing to exercise human rights (i.e. you
don't have rights in practice unless you have the money to claim and
exercise them), given the political economy in which I live, I think many
14-21s would benefit more fundamentally from making money than from going
to school, especially if they could make a LOT of money. They certainly
don't benefit all that much from the schools to which many of them now have
to go.

That much seems to me pretty obvious. I will admit that my belief that no
reform of schools or curriculum will lead to fundamentally valuable
education so long as students have to learn what we want them to learn
rather than what they might find it more useful or interesting to learn, is
something of an ideological bias. It's a bias that says that social systems
tend over time to minimize the rate of cultural change, and that this is
unhealthy for all of us. I believe that is why schooling is compulsory and
the curriculum content is beyond conservative. I believe that each
generation (or two) has the right and responsibility to try to change the
culture as much as it possibly can (which will still not be very much). For
all that we pride ourselves on our rapidly changing modern or post-modern
society, I think we are ossifying. The more we socialize the young to our
cultural norms, the less hope there is that we will manage to either change
for the better, or indeed to adapt to the coming crises that will threaten
our civilization and our species. Our current mode of education is socially
suicidal, because it is inimical to inquiring young rebels.


At 06:46 AM 3/11/2005, you wrote:
>Jay wrote:
><<Been a little too busy to participate on this, and about to be so again
>for a few more days ...>>
>Me too. Just a few quick points.
><<...As I recall, in the history of the overdeveloped nations, we
>instituted compulsory education to prevent child labor from undermining
>wages and increasing adult unemployment to the point where there weren't
>enough people to buy the goods that mass production makes. I really don't
>think that the major historical impetus (at the level of the objective
>material conditions, if you like) was being nice to children or investing
>in the future of the community.>>
>No, but I don't think the motivation was to prevent child labour either.
>In the UK - and I suspect elsewhere - one explicit motivation was to
>integrate the newly enfranchised working class into 'respectable society'.
>There are arguments along the lines of 'If the propertyless are to be our
>masters, they should at least be educated.' Plus the chronological
>coincidence of an artisan franchise (1867) and compulsory education
>(1871). Still child labour continued from age 12...
><<I certainly do believe that exploitation of child labor is always a
>threat, and compulsory schooling is a proven inhibitor or diminisher.
>But the situation really does seem different today in different parts of
>the world, as already noted for Chile, some parts of Africa, etc. In the
>US and most of the overdeveloped world, which I was talking from and about
>(in reference initially to those neo-design schools, not built in or for
>3rd or 4th world students), compulsory education may have outlived its
>usefulness. Briefly: Youngest citizens have a (natural but not yet legal)
>right to profit by their labor, and thereby gain some of the social status
>and capital needed to claim their legal rights (cf. women in the last
>century). As there is no evidence that schooling (at least beyond primary
>education) benefits them more than it benefits the rest of us, if we want
>to force them to learn what we want them to learn, in the way we want them
>to learn, and clearly against their wills, we ought at least to pay them.
>The present schooling system IS slave labor: we reap the benefit, they do
>the work, and they don't get paid.>>
>I am involved in No Sweat in the UK - an anti-sweatshop movement that
>tries to build links with trade unions and other social movements in 3rd
>world countries. We have recently debated whether we should simply call
>for a ban on child labour or for improved conditions in work and alongside
>work (compulsory education alongside work with the loss of wages funded by
>employers, which would deal with Jay's point aabout payment). One concern
>was that a ban would simply drive many families' wage earners out of the
>labour market with no replacement. Plus the development of children's
>movements in some countries (Brazil, India) which make their own demands
>and, for some people, a feeling that work should necessarily be a
>component of all education (Marx's 'polytechnic education'). Personally, I
>feel that while the question of age is crucial, we should support a legal
>framework that restricts labour and gives the right to an education.
><<What the hell does it mean that students "have a right to a [compulsory]
>education"?? Should I ask George Orwell? If this isn't a contradiction
>hiding an unanalyzed ideology, I'd be really surprised.>>
>What I think it means is that children have a right to develop and learn
>outside the compulsion of the labour market - or the even more direct
>compulsion of slavery. Arguing against compulsory education means throwing
>the vast majority of children to the wolves, plus probably privatising the
>whole system. By all means, let's fight for a different type of education
>but compulsion is necessary, I think.
>BTW, if we're talking about 'unanalysed ideologies', I think this
>statement also needs deconstructing: "Youngest citizens have a (natural
>but not yet legal) right to profit by their labor, and thereby gain some
>of the social status and capital needed to claim their legal rights (cf.
>women in the last century)."
>Bruce Robinson
>Historical narrative: accumulation of wealth requires bookkeeping ...
>limited diffusion literacy for scribes... larger-scale society with
>central accumulation of wealth... need for more scribes ... first scribe
>schools ...first classroom group education .... long pause ...
>improvements in technologies of control based on religion ... need for
>more priests and monks ... clerical schooling enlarges distribution of
>literacy and few other basics ... noblility sends surplus sons to keep up
>with priestly literacy/numeracy technologies ... not quite so long pause
>... merchant class emerges, needs still wider distribution of
>literacy/numeracy technologies, tries clerical schools, creates guild
>schools .... pause ... mass production technologies (woolen mills, not
>automobiles), industrial labor exploitation, need for more and cheaper
>labor, child labor ... [parallel track: agricultural slave labor, serf
>labor, child slave labor --
>converges with industrial child slave labor in mixed system] ... pause ...
>sales of goods limits profits more than labor costs do ... need for
>wage-based consumer economy [Marx passes baton to Baudrillard for late
>capitalism] ... introduction of compulsory schooling to sop up surplus
>child labor driving down adult consumer wages [resisted by agricultural
>sector which needs the labor, solved by agri-business and technology
>replacing labor-intensive family farming] ... too many kids filling a
>schooling system that was never designed to accommodate or benefit them.
>Present Time: 2005
>Future narrative [option 1]: New literacy technologies (computers,
>networks) shift value of labor from experience and strength to speed and
>plasticity ... young outcompete adults for jobs ... child labor laws
>amended ... compulsory schooling amended ... dichotomy between learning
>and labor blurred ... youngest citizens 12 - 21 gain full legal and civil
>rights ... education takes place in flexible mixed model combining online
>and face-to-face communities, individual study, internships ... no
>universal curriculum, common elements determined by widest usefulness of
>knowledges ... no general credentials, selection decisions made based on
>individual portfolios of achievements ... aptitude measures and
>psychometric testing outlawed ... most secondary schools converted to
>community centers .... long pause ... last classroom preserved in the
>Virtual Museum of American History.
>Year: 2160 [or slightly later depending on the number of morons elected to
>high office in the US; developments proceed more rapidly in the EU and Asia]
>At 03:40 AM 3/7/2005, you wrote:
>...just to follow-up on Jay's and Nate's provocative statements, and the
>conversations, the question, it seems to me, can be more concerned with our
>own experience,
>that if we were to deconstruct education based on our own experiences, which
>is the
>basis of most postmodern deconstruction, and we were to find it wanting...
>what then?
>If not state-sanctioned curriculum/schooling... then what?
>(the impulsive reaction, no doubt, is that "it was good enough for me, so
>why not
>for young folk following in.. my...footsteps?" The road to ruin... and so
>on. ... )
>There is, indeed, a need for the basics of reading/writing (and here I'll
>impose a wee idiosyncrasy, that
>writing ought to be both typing and script, hand-writing, legibility with
>pen/cil and so on) - and
>arithmetic... and then what? If we truly critique what is worth knowing,
>what is worth teaching?
>It seems to me this is the heart of the question... not just what are
>schools for, but
>what is really worth knowing? A critical education is not an impossible
>curriculum, and given the
>ambiguity of popular culture, a critical experience with "knowledge" would
>be valuable, ... and yet,
>if not in "schools" then where? How?
>For example, a history of one's nation-state is critical because we live
>within distinct
>nation-states, and yet, each nation has an anxious history of violence and
>persecution that is
>always disguised in realms of, what do we do? Really. How do
>we teach a history
>that is honest, when documented history is contradictory to state-sanctioned
>history? And
>is critical history possible when a nation-state is paying for an
>Content questions are useful, as they can lead to context. And while it is
>useful to understand
>how people/children learn, it is also useful to consider how what people
>learn is framed by forces
>much larger than the 'how'...
>I reviewed a Canadian book years ago that proposed a radical approach to
>education, one that
>involved apprenticing to kinds of professions and not just book-learning...
>the idea was kind of cool,
>really, that rather than classrooms one organized kinds of work-study
>programs. Not just learning a
>trade, but learning how one works in the world, how one's craft makes sense
>in the world and the community,
>and so on... stuff like that is possibly global, not just Western.
>I don't know. Really, though, these are excellent questions.
>Me thoughts.
>Diane Hodges
>La Maison Bramble House
>19 Valois Bay Avenue
>Pointe Claire, QC H9R 4B4
>Tel: (514) 630-6363
>Fax: (514) 344-2994
>----- Original Message ----- From: <willthereallsvpleasespeakup who-is-at>
>To: "Xmca" <>
>Sent: Sunday, March 06, 2005 10:03 PM
>Subject: Re: Nate's interesting question
>>Mike Cole wrote:
>> >So I take it that what you are arguing is that one of the positive
>> >benefits of compulsory
>> >education is that it reduces child labor, increases social capital,
>> >and provides future workers with skills that will be important for
>> >labor in the years to come? This will be somehow real labor, not
>> >slavery.
>> >
>> >
>>In my most optimistic moments I would say schooling is a developmentally
>>leading activity. That optimism leaves soon after early childhood.
>>I am not sure I would say education increases social capital and at best
>>it only narrows the playing field. I am also not saying anything about
>>worker skills. I am not even sure what these skills would be. My
>>concerns lie mostly in the ethical position of certain predetermined
>>ends if schooling is "deconstructed". If we have any grasp of history
>>and / or current affairs we have to acknowledge certain undesireable
>>activities coming to front.
>>So Mike, if we get rid of schooling in middle and late childhood, what
>>should they do in their spare time. Sadly, the unsuprvised hours of
>>3-5:00 give me little to be optimistic about. Maybe Wal-Mart offers a
>>solution since they are already violating child labor laws left and right.
>>If not schooling - then what?
>Jay Lemke
>University of Michigan
>School of Education
>610 East University
>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>Tel. 734-763-9276
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Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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