The Next Development in Education

By James Boggs University of Adult Education, Detroit, Michigan, February 28, 1977 I want to thank you for inviting me here to speak to you, especially since I have not come to extol you for the sacrifices which you are making in the pursuit of knowledge. Actually, I believe that the way most of you are pursuing knowledge is incorrect because you are pursuing what I call "received" knowledge. That is, you are trying to absorb information, facts, theories, etc., which have already been discovered or created by others, in the belief that if you can just absorb enough of this knowledge, you will qualify as "educated". This means that you think of education as a "thing" which is stored up somewhere. All you have to do is open the Pandora's Box, get a good look at its contents - and presto, you are educated. Now I used to think that way myself - so don't feel so guilty or unfinished for thinking that way. When I was growing up, my mother kept urging me to get an education, just as so many mothers and fathers do today. In fact, in a book I wrote in 1963, called The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook, I described how my mother wanted me to go to school down South to get the ability to read and write, which was what at the time she considered an education. In order to inspire me to do so, she used to tell me time and again how, if only she had been able to read and write, she could have gotten a job cooking for some very rich white people, because rich white people at that time wanted a cook for whom they could leave a note saying what to prepare for dinner that night. Thus, for my mother, education was the ability to read and write. Not only people like my mother down in Alabama used to think that way. For many years in this country, reading and writing were viewed by most poor people and even some middle-class people as the essence of education. Even today, when many people say to their children, "You'd better get you an education," what they are thinking of, first of all, is being able to read and write enough to fill out an application form; and after that, enough skill to hold down a job. In other words, for most Americans, black or white, education is for the sake of getting a good job by which they mean one requiring the least amount of manual labor. If you drive around most cities, you see signs everywhere, "Go to school to get a job," or "Go to college to get a job." The main difference between yesterday and today is that to get a decent job today it is not enough to be able to read, write, multiply and divide. Now you need at least four years of college to get a job done by people in the 1930s who were 9th or 10th grade dropouts from high school, because prior to World War II - which brought on the boom in college education with the GI Bill of Rights - most teenagers dropped out of school to go to work. Only the children of the upper middle-class and rich people went on to college. So a college graduate was looked upon by most people in the community as something very special. Today almost everyone of college age who has the desire to go to college and the stamina to stay is in college. We have begun to tie our whole identity to the degrees we have acquired in college and to the status jobs which these degrees entitle us to. People say, "I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a teacher, or a scientist," meaning that they have the certificate or degree which entitles them to call themselves such. We have reduced our identities to the degrees which license us to work. In other words, if you are a ditch-digger, you are no more than a ditch-digger because you didn't go to school to become something else. On the other hand, I believe that a human being is much much more than what he or she does for a living, and that your job or profession (which is what people call a job with a title) says very little about the person behind the job or profession. When I worked at Chrysler - where I worked on the line for 28 years - I used to say that I was a factory worker, but I was also much more than just a factory worker because I was concerned about the society which I lived in and I was determined to play a part in shaping the minds of those people whom I related to, because I believe that the world we live in has been made by people and that it can be changed by those people who accept responsibility for advancing Humankind. So when we here today identify a person by what he or she does for a living, we are being narrow-minded because we are assuming that a person is limited by what he or she does for a living. It makes sense to have a limited view of an animal like a fox or a squirrel because animals live by instincts and shortly after birth are able to do all that they will ever be able to do as long as they live. Human beings, on the other hand, are born with fewer abilities than any other animal. But because they have a mind, they can think and develop their minds. They can reflect on the past and project ideas of what they think the future should be. They can change their minds. If they have been moving in an incorrect way, they can evaluate their mistakes and change course. In other words, what others in the past have decided and what we may have gone along with without questioning, does not have to continue. The world we live in is in a process of constant change. The material base is constantly shrinking in some ways and constantly expanding in others. People are constantly changing as they discover that ideas which once worked, now only cause deeper and deeper crises. You and I are constantly changing. Everyone of us is a different person from what we were last year at this time, and the world we live in today as we approach the 1980s, is very different from the world which we struggled to change in the 1960s. Change then is the order of society whether we like it or not. We can sit back and just let it happen to us - or we can decide that we are going to determine what changes are made. The concept of education has gone through many changes in the last few thousand years, as human beings moved from one stage of development to another. When the Greeks used the word "education" 2500 years ago, they thought of education as the development of young boys to become philosophers who could then govern over those whose entire lives were spent in making a living, in other words, what we would today call "the masses". Because it took so much time and human energy in those days to provide for the material necessities of the society, people thought that only a relatively few could rule. Therefore the elite concentrated on imparting wisdom to those few so that they could rule wisely. The same concept of education prevailed among the Romans who thought of education as leadership. In fact, the Latin word "to lead" is at the root of our word "education". Much the same practice of educating a few people to govern prevailed in China where the system of examination in the classics was used to select out those individuals who would become members of the bureaucracy or what they called mandarins. In Europe during the feudal period, rule depended more on the military or warlike skills which enabled one feudal lord to protect his domain from another. So the offspring of kings and queens, lords and barons, only received a smattering of what we would today call culture - while their main training was in skills like swordsmanship and riding horses. No one even thought of education for the common people. They were only "masses", that is to say, serfs who had not yet arrived at the plateau of believing that they had the ability to determine their own destiny - or as a sense of peoplehood. In the 16th Century a change takes place in the concept of education with the Reformation, which launched the idea that ordinary people had the right to interpret the Bible for themselves and should not be dependent on priests and bishops. The people who launched this idea and made it a reality were people who could read and write. So reading and writing became terribly important to people because if you couldn't read the Bible, you couldn't govern yourselves in the congregations which were the main social life in the communities, and you had no voice in the Church which had enormous power. However, the greatest leap in the concept of education comes with the American Revolution which proclaimed to the world the idea of self-government or citizenship for ordinary people. Education was for the purpose of self-government. In other words, if people were to participate in the ideological and practical struggles which led to the American Revolution, they had to be able to read and write the pamphlets and broadsides which flooded the colonies. If the Committees of Correspondence were to become a serious factor in the struggle to unify the colonists around common goals, people had to be able to write and read the letters which were dispatched from one colony to the other as fast as horses could take the carriages and their riders. Thus, we can see that for over 2000 years the concept of education has been tied to the purpose of governing. Not until the late 19th Century in the United States, with the speed-up of the industrial revolution, side- by-side with the tremendous surge in immigration into this country of people from all over the world - does the concept of education become tied to strictly economic goals. For the first time education is conceived as teaching the illiterate masses and their sons and daughters to read and write so they could work in factories. And for the first time we begin to create a huge caste of teachers whose own livelihood comes from teaching these illiterate masses to read and write so that they can get and hold a job. For the purposes of rapid industrialization and the Americanization of immigrants, teachers had to be turned out like sausages, so there was a rapid expansion of teacher colleges of what were then called "normal schools'. At first these teachers were mostly the sons and daughters of the lower-middle classes, skilled workers, farmers, shopkeepers, usually of Northern European or Jewish descent. Not until the Great Depression does emphasis begin to be placed upon keeping millions of Italian, Slavic, and Afro-American children of the working class in school because industry no longer needed their labor in the factory. In 1900 only 6 percent of high school age young people graduated from high school. Now the majority are expected to stay in high school until graduation and considered failures if they don't. To keep these children from the working classes - who were not considered material for higher education - in school, a major part of the curriculum is devoted to sports. And young people of Slavic, Italian, and Afro- American descent begin to see the prospects for a good livelihood for themselves in becoming teachers. During the 1930s people still believed that a high school education was enough to get you a decent job. However, with the end of World War II and the introduction into the factories of the technology which had been developed during the war, industry was automated to the point that there were relatively few jobs for the millions of children from the lower classes, black and white. Therefore a host of junior colleges and community colleges were built all over the country. Now high school young people were persuaded that a high school diploma was not enough to get a decent job. You needed a college education. To get the job of a salesman or a mechanic or even a ditch-digger and hundreds of other jobs which had formerly been done by people who could barely read and write, you needed a certificate saying that you had completed a course in that field. Therefore, we have created today the second-largest industry in the nation, a network of institutions called schools and colleges, in which hundreds of thousands of teachers and administrators have a vested interest. These schools and colleges are for the purpose of sorting out the winners from the losers, just as football and basketball tryouts at the beginning of the school year sort out the winners from the losers. Now we all realize that if you have thousands of thousands of high school students who are local stars on the high school teams, only a few will make it to the "pros" because there is just so much room at the top. But few people stop to think about what happens to the hundreds of thousands of losers who don't make it. Having spent most of their young lives preparing to become "pros" to the point that they can't even read the name of the street they live on, they suddenly found themselves rejected. Then we wonder why they turn to any form of "making it" that they can find, including pimping off the young girls who flocked around them as high school stars or just vandalizing the communities in which they still live. Meanwhile, with millions coming out of college every year, we find that it isn't just those who put all their eggs into the basket of sports who are rejects. Thousands of those who were sifted out as winners and went on to get degree after degree from college find themselves out of jobs as the military-industrial complex changes defense contracts. Today even teachers find themselves looking for work, any kind of work. Yet few people are ready to recognize that the contradiction of unemployment in the United States is not due to the lack of schooling among the unemployed but is rooted in a capitalist system which pursues rapid economic development and expanding profits at the expense of human development. As long as this society is based upon giving priority to economic development and higher profits over human development, we will continue to install automation to replace human beings anywhere and any time and call it progress, even though it makes losers out of at least 25 percent of young people, black and white. Meanwhile, just as for years the white ruling class in this country justified the racial and economic exploitation of black people by insisting that we were inferior, the ruling class and the educational establishment, which now includes administrators and teachers of all ethnic groups, will continue to tell young people that they are out of work because they do not have enough schooling. We must be clear that the power structure has not brought on this situation all by itself. Most Americans accepted the idea that blacks were inferior, just as today most Americans accept the idea that education is for the purpose of getting a job and that if you don't have a job, it is because you haven't gotten yourself an education. The fundamental assumption in most people's minds is that if you get enough knowledge and skill to perform a paying job, you can earn enough money to solve all other problems. So the goal of education is reduced to money, and money becomes the key to solving all other social and political problems. Now I should not have to remind you that this is not true because most of you can remember a time when you didn't have as much money or as good a job as you have now, and yet there was not the same deterioration in all social and political relations as we have today. Most Americans are better off financially than we were forty years ago; yet all around us we are experiencing a total crisis in our families, our communities and of our local, state and federal institutions, as each American goes his or her individual way, trying to get enough dollars to purchase happiness. Every day it is becoming more painful for us to cope with the deterioration of our society because we continue to believe in concepts that were created by people at another state of history for completely different purposes - for example, in this case the concept of education to get a job which was begun in the late 19th Century as the Industrial Revolution was speeding up. Now we have come full-circle on the concept of education. Not only do we believe that education is something like money in the bank that you go to school and get, but we have lost touch with our own reality because we believe that what was true at one time in history remains true for all time -- instead of recognizing that truth like everything else is relative and that what was true at one stage in history is not necessarily true at another stage. In fact, there are very very few absolute truths, and no static ones. Because most of us believe that concepts created in the past are forever valid and that all we have to do is keep acting in accordance with those concepts even if they don't work, we don't even try to exercise our own capacities for creating new truths, new ideas and new concepts. So we don't use our minds creatively and after a while, we find that they don't even work to absorb "received" knowledge because they have wasted away from lack of use in the creative and reflective arena which is what keeps our minds healthy and alive. Today all we hear from both parents and administrators and teachers is that we need to extend the right to education to more people and that in order to pursue this goal we need more money. In other words, we need more of the same even if it is not working. We don't stop to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is correct or incorrect, whether it meets the needs of our time or doesn't meet the needs of our time. Thus we never face the reality that there is contradiction in all things, or that there is a bad side even to good things, and therefore that if you continue to pursue any one thing single-mindedly, you are bound to end up in crisis. Today we have to ask ourselves some very different questions if we are to create new answers which can be the basis for solving our crisis. The questions we ask are going to be very difficult for us to ask because for so long have we gone on believing that education is the road to economic success that we have not even begun to evaluate what happens to a people who treasure economic benefits and economic development more than they treasure human relations and human benefits. Today I would like to suggest to you that we need to change our concept of education from the concept of education for earning to the concept of education for the purpose of governing. I hope that when you hear this, you don't jump to the conclusion that I am proposing that we need education for the purpose of becoming or electing mayors or state senators. Because as we should be able to see today, we have all kinds of mayors and state senators who are not prepared for governing , and we have all kinds of electors whose only concept of governing is the mechanical one of going to the polls every few years to elect somebody else to look out for their interests. By governing, I mean the activity of governing, that is the continuing exercise of our distinctively human capacity to make meaningful choices: between policies that will benefit our communities and our posterity, and those that serve only our immediate self-interest. In other words, I am taking about preparing ourselves to use that all-around capacity that only human beings have: to think about the society we live in, determine what will advance our society: and then join with others to make the politically-conscious and socially responsible decisions that will help mold and shape our society in the direction that we believe it should go. Before we can entertain the idea of a new philosophy of education, we have to be very clear that American education for nearly 100 years has been based upon the philosophy of individualism. According to this philosophy the ambitious individual of average or above average ability from the lower and middle classes is encouraged to climb up the social ladder out of his or her class and community, leaving behind them those who are less ambitious or less unscrupulous or less able. If in this process they conduct themselves in a way that meets the social standards and value-free philosophy of those in power (who are always observing them and grading their behavior) they will be rewarded by promotion into higher echelons of the system. Thus, in the final analysis, the American system of education, like all systems of education, has served to perpetuate the present system by constantly absorbing new individuals into it. If we recognize that this is what American education has been, then we won't just blame the system. Instead we will be wondering how we can change it, since we see that it no longer works, and how can we create another system, another reality, which will be a better way to advance humankind. That is the starting point of all philosophy. In order to develop the concept of education to govern, we have to begin with the recognition that the foundation of good government is the moral development of young people. This moral development must begin in the home or family where the child learns in practice and in face-to-face relations certain values and principles, such as the importance of telling the truth and of doing one's share of work around the house - because truth-telling and doing one's share are the basis of trust and cooperation, without which no family and no community can long survive. The school must uphold these values and not see itself as a value-free institution. But the instilling of these values must begin in the family. Next comes the development in the child of the skills which are necessary for people to make a productive contribution to the whole society. Particularly in a highly technical society such as we live in today, it is necessary that young people, female and male, be trained in technical skills. But training in technical skills should not take place as it does today, chiefly through books and in the schools. Instead young people, from an early age, should have the opportunity to do some kind of productive work that will contribute to the overall society both because this Is the est way to learn and because it is impossible to keep young people as parasites in school for 5-20 years and then expect them to be responsible citizens. After we have understood clearly the need for these two essentials, i.e., the need for moral development of young people and the need to train them in technical skills through the process of actual work, we can then begin asking ourselves some more concrete questions as to how to reorganize our schools. Questions These are just some of the questions that we must now begin to ask ourselves. We have never asked them before, not because our minds were not capable of answering them, but because we didn't realize that our minds were for the purpose of asking and creating the answers to questions like these. Instead we thought that our minds were like cameras, only reflecting theories, facts, information that had already been created by others. Now we must recognize that knowledge is not something static. It is something that human beings like ourselves create through our reflections and practice. Of course, I can't begin to raise all the questions that we have to ask ourselves as we approach the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st. What I would suggest to you is that after the discussion, you look at some of the materials that my comrades and I have brought with us. We are both members of Advocators who in the last few years have been asking ourselves some of these fundamental questions because we recognized that after a society has begun to rebel against old values on the scale of the rebellions of the 1960s, it is useless to try to build a new society unless you are ready to think seriously about the next development of Humankind.