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  • Published in Book Reviews

Against Capitalist Education is a striking call for education to be freed of the straightjacket of the capitalist market, finds Phil Armstrong

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Nadim Bakhov, Against Capitalist Education: What is Education For? (Zero Books 2015), 118pp.

Against Capitalist Education provides a powerful critique of the current education system and the way it has been captured and absorbed into the capitalism system. It is written in an unusual and very engaging way; in the form of a dialogue between two passionate and angry educators, George and John, who teach at a university. The style is highly engaging and the narrative unfolds as their conversation develops and progresses in front of an audience of students in a series of acts and scenes characteristic of a play. The questions asked by the characters mirror those likely to be asked by the reader which both aids her ability to absorb the information in the text and enhances enjoyment of the book.

The author looks to Plato’s Republic as a key point of reference both in terms of content and style. Perhaps we might ascribe the status of the first great work of Western philosophy to The Republic and, interestingly, like, Against Capitalist Education, it was very much a product of its time. In the face of significant challenges both consider how to proceed. In the case of the latter, the capitalist takeover of education poses questions of deep significance and answers need to be sought.

Both of the main players in Against Capitalist Education express deep concern about the current state of higher education and worry about the future. Their conversation sees the development of ideas about an alternative type of education, free of the dominance of capitalism. This new way of educating is set in a fictional university, Westhampton, and the dialogue between the two characters is used to show the logical steps involved in imagining the key elements of its organisation and purpose and how it might avoid the many pitfalls it might face, operating in a capitalist environment.

George and John bemoan the way that capitalism has corrupted the nature of education, stifling pluralism, creativity and imagination and drawing inapplicable lines of demarcation between disciplines. They express deep anger and frustration about the way that capitalism treats people as factors of production and how corporations dictate the nature of education. This flawed education, in turn, becomes the means of producing a malleable workforce, ‘correctly’ skilled and socialised and ripe for exploitation. Industry decides what it needs and education’s role is simply to provide what is required.

Their discussion gathers pace and energy through the scenes. They both pose questions and suggest answers about how an imagined Westhampton University education might work in practice. They stress the importance of inner questions, such as can Westhampton restore students’ humanity and can it enable them to be creative thinkers within the systems society has created? The dialogue produces possible ways that a Westhampton education might link such enquiries to the outward questions which deal with the nature of social, political and economic organisation. The characters are sure the answer does not lie in an ‘obsession with a skills-based education - core skills, key skills or functional skills rubbish’ (p.30). This rather terse phrase certainly struck a chord with me and, indeed, made smile broadly as I read, agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

Instead they stress the importance of inspiration and the need for education to fire up students’ sense of wonder. Without this, the true potential of a university cannot be fulfilled. Imaginative thinking, transcending traditional subject boundaries, is vital if Westhampton is to achieve its core purpose which is ‘not to sustain current human systems on politics, economics and society, but to invent new ones, concrete ones. Ones that have justice at their heart, not money, or power or ego’ (p.31).

The view that education is merely the stepping stone to a job within the capitalist order is rejected; this results in corporate capture and education’s ultimate downgrading to a means of socialising the young into the capitalist system. The book replaces this message with an advocacy of genuine and inspiring teaching and learning experiences, created in an environment which views education as valuable for its own sake. It connects to the arts in many forms, in particular, philosophy, music, film and literature. The value of the imagination is lauded and the need for it to be nurtured is stressed.

The book’s message rejects economic fundamentalism and the commodification of education. Education is emphatically not a commodity, something to be packaged for sale to a rational, utility maximising consumer to enhance her future earning potential; instead it something infinitely more valuable, a life-enriching process of intrinsic importance.

Against Capitalist Education is a highly thought provoking work. It may well encourage the reader to find a copy of (or revisit) Plato’s Republic or Spinoza’s Ethics (that was the case for me). This book encourages the reader to really think about the state of education and what should and could be done about it. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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