The role of education in a post-pandemic world

Efrem Craig reflects on the effects that the pandemic has had on teaching, whilst making the case for a socialist education system

With children set to return to classrooms next week, schools have a renewed opportunity to combat the devastation of the pandemic in capitalist society. In the past year and a half, the working class has been given ample opportunity to see the government for what it is: a disorganised and regressive defender of the ruling class and capitalist exploitation. However, amidst the barrage of disasters and U-turns, groups and individuals have developed strong means of support for each other, and promoted significant ideological shifts in favour of workers. Amongst these are teachers and educators. The concept of educators’ roles in communities and society as a whole has changed dramatically and, I would argue, shows signs of early development towards a communist theory of education. It is therefore worth considering: how has the social role of educators and schools changed during the pandemic; and what can we learn from the pandemic to maintain and develop communist principles of education?

Communists recognise that formal education settings are by no means classless zones. Historically, schools have served a key role in serving capitalist economy and reproducing class ideology. This has led some more anarchist-minded thinkers to propose we ought to do away with the whole thing and ‘deschool’ society [1]. Yet, rather than merely rejecting the system, communists aim to “rescue education from the influence of the ruling class” [2], since it is through organised education that a socialist society can be built. Whilst it will vary contextually, we could generalise three essential features of a communist education: (1) a broad and critical understanding of the world; (2) a conception of students as subjects in the learning process, not as blank slates to be filled by rote; (3) an integral part of the development of society as a whole.

Educators generally agree on the first two points as common sense: education is no good when reduced to the recall of arbitrary subject knowledge. The third point is one of greater contention. Although the majority of people recognise that education is fundamental, the context of capitalist society places great emphasis on neoliberal concepts such as social mobility, the success of hardworking individuals rising to the top. In such a context, education is not seen as integral to society as a whole, but integral to the reproduction of individual workers in the great labour marketplace. In his famous 1920 speech to the Russian Young Communist League [3], Lenin identified the integration of education into society as a whole as a crucial task for the education of communist youth: “we would not believe in teaching, training, and education if they were confined only to the school and were divorced from the storm of life”. In other words, education must direct learners towards social, rather than solely individual development. Returning to Marx’s phrase, the organisation of (communist) education must “rescue education” from those politicians who are so “divorced from the storm of life”. Indeed, during the pandemic, schools and unions have made significant progress in rescuing education from the grips of the ruling class, by linking education to the lives of working people more than any other time in recent memory. This has not just been achieved through ideological displays of faux-fellowship – think Thursday night clapping – but through concrete, practical activity.

One way this has occurred is through union organisation. The largest education union, the NEU, gained more than 50,000 members since the pandemic began [4], a testament to their vital work in exposing the failures of the government. It is thanks to this work that the Department for Education has recently committed to installing CO2monitors in primary schools across the country, to ensure there is sufficient airflow in classrooms [5]. This is undoubtedly another success for the NEU, as schools can better identify possible risks for the spread of coronavirus. However, CO2 monitors are not a substitute for adequate ventilation. By analogy, imagine being granted the means to detect hungry children, without having the resources to feed them… as in the free school meals debacle. This has exposed the government’s total disconnect from the state of education, as well as their inability to provide sufficient public provision. In all instances, the Department for Education has shown the country that its priorities do not lie in the working class in education [6]. Evidently, fifteen months has not been enough for the government to organise adequate provision for children in schools, despite its half-hearted tolerance for some reform. This highlights the inadequacy of mere reform in society, as well as challenging the notion that a withdrawn, disinterested state is more liberating than one that prioritises public services.

Thus, alongside increased union activity, the pandemic necessitated a surge of mutual aid groups to fill gaps in government provision, such as care and support groups, food and resources distribution, and so on. Analysing these groups, Marjorie Mayo has pointed to a number of positives with this type of organising [7]. Firstly, groups and individuals organise in mutually beneficial ways rather than relying on notions of charity. Secondly, provision is on the basis of need without value judgement or testing. Thirdly, provision often complements and cooperates with public services without acting as a substitute. Lastly, group activity offers scope for progressive alliances and politicisation of volunteers. 

Whilst mutual aid is not perfect – at best a short-term remedy to shambolic government provision – there are elements that may develop the revolutionary role of education. As we enter what will likely be another disruptive academic year, schools will need to embed and develop alliances with public services to support students and their families. For example, the significant effect of the pandemic on children’s mental health [8] is an obvious area for schools to develop in cooperation with the broader school community. Crucially, a principle of ‘mutual aid’ in schools recognises that, in order to offer support to struggling families, those families must be involved in its organisation. This is particularly clear in the case of mental health – children (like all people) carry their problems with them between social spheres. It is therefore a problem to be tackled by schools and communities mutually. Otherwise, such support falls back on the idea of schools as substituting for other underfunded public services.

A ‘system’ of mutual aid is no mark of a well-functioning society, but rather highlights a society insufficiently prepared or organised to handle an international crisis. Yet it is clear, now more than ever, that in developing the characteristics of mutual aid support throughout the pandemic, education has become entangled in “the storm of life” far more than the people in power – this has not gone unnoticed by families who rely on schools. Surely then, this is no time for educators to limit their revolutionary practice. Teachers must be involved in the struggle for living conditions beyond the classroom, in cooperation with the communities they serve, until they are inseparably linked with the broader revolutionary struggle. We know that reformist campaigns only go so far; likewise, schools have insufficient resources to pacify crises beyond the school gates. Therefore, without a renewed understanding of communists’ role in education and society, each crisis from now on is doomed to produce yet another ‘lost generation’.

Now is no time to be content with small victories. This means that we will not stop at monitors: we demand the air too! We do not just struggle for children to be well fed at school: we demand they are well fed at home! The sphere of education now has a renewed opportunity to lead by example – to play an integral part in the revolutionary organisation of society as a whole!

Efrem Craig, is a member of the YCL’s London branch

References:

[1] Illich, Deschooling Society

[2] Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

[3] Lenin, The Tasks of the Youth Leagues

[4] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/50000-rise-in-neu-teachers-union_uk_5f496bf4c5b64f17e13d9401

[5] https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/co2-monitors 

[6] See also: https://challenge-magazine.org/2020/10/07/wrong-priorities-in-education/ 

[7] Mayo, ‘Covid-19 and mutual aid: Prefigurative approaches to caring?’ [in Theory & Struggle, 2021]

[8] https://www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/risks-and-protective-factors/lifestyle-factors/coronavirus-supporting-children-and-young-peoples-mental-health/ 

See also: https://challenge-magazine.org/2020/04/05/24-education/

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s