Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Teachin' For Old Massa

Frank Girard, Grand Rapids, Michigan

One hundred fifty or two hundred years ago, slaves who survived the trip from Africa were often landed in Cuba where they went to boarding school to qualify them for jobs on US plantations. They fetched a higher price in the labor market than the raw material just landed off the ships because southern slave masters preferred a trained and docile work force.

Things haven't changed that much over the past two centuries. Of course education isn't taking place in Cuban slave pens, and the teacher (usually) doesn't carry a whip and speak a strange language, nor does the curriculum consist of learning the use of the iron hoe as a part of a labor gang. But the purpose remains the same: the production of docile, semi-skilled slaves for the capitalist plantation. The fact is that education in any society exists to prepare a new generation to take its place in the socio-economic system. In a society in which 95 percent of the population consists of wage slaves, the state's educational system will be designed to condition the children to take their places as workers in the factories, offices, and other facets of the economic system.

Above all, the role of the teachers remains the same. They must serve the master's interests. These may not be as explicitly stated or as obviously designed as they were 15 years ago, but teachers who don't realize that the people who sit on boards of education represent the business interests of the community are headed for trouble. If they are to continue as teachers, they must follow the curriculum and use the materials specified by the board.

Of course this sort of regulation doesn't apply universally. All of us know of schools where teachers have the broadest latitude in their classes. They can raise questions about the ethics of capitalism, the effects on its victims - especially those in El Salvador or South Africa - and sometimes even tweak the noses of community leaders.

In my own experience, though, these schools exist largely to educate the upper crust. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I taught in a middle income, nearly all-white suburban school, my membership in the Socialist Labor Party and candidacy for public office was tolerated because: 1) I taught a relatively non-controversial subject, English composition, and 2) was wise enough not to evangelize during class time, and 3) had tenure. From time to time economics and government teachers would have me in as a guest speaker, but they knew a one-time exposure to a critique of capitalism was unlikely to undo the years of multimedia brain washing.

I was also invited sometimes to the really upper class high schools in Cascade Township and East Grand Rapids but never to inner city and working class schools. At the college level, I spoke at private colleges and once in the late sixties at the state college here, but never at the low-tuition, working class Grand Rapids Junior College.

Except for a few, schools for children of the ruling class and their beneficiaries, then, the educational system is not likely to encourage dissent among the workers they hire to condition the new generation of slaves. Radicals who enter the education industry with the idea of subverting it from within have about the same chance of success as pacifists who might attempt to subvert the military by enlisting in the army.

The idea that teachers can buck the system successfully stems largely from a short period in the late sixties and early seventies when a very few liberal/radical secondary teachers and rather more such college teachers were able to do so under the pressures on the system engendered by youth during the Vietnam War. It was during the same period that my own minor successes took place. Today, however, the faculty radicals, unless they have tenure, keep a rather low profile, except at radical scholars' conferences.

But let's consider the situation for teachers under the best of circumstances. When we rent ourselves out to a board of education - and finding a job in education is far from easy these days, as the ruling class, aware that they have more trained wage slaves than they are likely to need, cut back on education budgets - the contracts we sign specify that we will carry out the orders of our superiors. While most schools give the teacher some leeway in presenting material, the curriculum sets the bounds. Some of us may be able to create our own outside reading list in an English or history class, for example, but the actual textbooks have been selected by the board or their representatives. And we must prepare our students to pass the tests based on the standard curriculum.

But far more serious a block to our wishes and desires as teachers is the fact that we must teach within an education structure, the school - that is simply at odds with any hope we may have of influencing our students to question the authority of our masters.

The very way we must present ourselves in the classroom as authorities on the subject being taught, even those in which absolute truth is most elusive like literature or economics or government, helps to create the conditioning - in this case the respect for one's superiors - that the system needs from its future slaves.

For that matter, "classroom management" in its entirety militates against our most cherished beliefs. Anyone who has ever been locked up in a room with thirty or forty adolescents for fifty minutes and told to teach them history or English must manipulate students and exercise all the most authoritarian methods of workplace management in order to produce the sort of classroom decorum one's masters expect.

The operative word in the classroom is "discipline." And the theory behind the methods used doesn't differ substantially from those used in the breaking of young horses or the "education" of newly arrived African slaves. We must penalize our students for tardiness and absences and keep books on these "offenses." We must curb the rebelliousness and search for an individual identity that comes naturally at that age and prove to them that dissent is not in their long-term interests.

Our own survival is at stake here. If we can't maintain order, we can expect to lose our jobs, and so, even the most humane and decent among us has about as much chance of subverting the system and using it for good as Mother Teresa in the Kent County Michigan Department of Social Services.

Just consider what is at stake for us teachers individually. Each of us has a job - and here in Michigan it is well paid by most standards - that includes a warm place to work and no heavy lifting. In the 1990s such jobs are hard to find. Our future and the future of our families depends on our obeying our masters. The clearest image we project to our students is our obedience to our masters, the administrators and the ruling class coalitions that govern every public school system.

Can radical teachers do anything for their students? Yes, but it isn't anything earth shattering and each of us must feel our way. Here are some possibilities: 1) First and foremost, we can make it as clear as we dare that we dissent from the accepted truth about society and the prevailing mythologies. 2) We can treat our students as justly and as humanely as the system will allow. 3) We can try to help them learn things that will be useful, not only to their capitalist masters but to themselves as well. In other words, we can get our certificates in music, art, woodshop, and home economics, but not in history, economics or political science where we will be frustrated at every turn.

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