Towards a communist conception of education
As we pointed out in a previous article, education’s importance to the bourgeoisie is due to reasons of a very different nature from those that make it crucial to the workers. While the bourgeoisie has always considered education as a way of nation-building, and therefore a tool for framing it, the working class has always considered education indispensable for its own emancipation, and part of its immediate and universal needs.
Their and our need for school, 14/10/2020
A Pedagogy of Alienation
During the progressive phase of capitalism, church-controlled schools could only appear to the bourgeoisie as a pillar of the old society. They were criticized for promoting an education based exclusively on memorization, riddled with religious stories and superstitions. But the bourgeoisie’s alternative program, under the slogan of bringing science to school was not just limited to content. The goal was to overcome the inefficient traditional school in order to think of the teaching process as a workshop in which organizational technical improvements would allow a leap similar to the one that manufacturing was beginning to experience. The aim was to discover the science of teaching in order to be able to have an educational process engineering and to turn the school into a social machine.
Rousseau started the bourgeois pedagogical discourse which sought to become a new science. There is no doubt about his starting point, then revolutionary: the child must learn that true freedom consists in not being tied to the earth. That is to say, he must be free to sell his work and therefore appreciate manual labor, the occupation closest to nature. The aim is to free the child from the clutches of the anti-natural indoctrination of the old feudal world and to reunite him with nature, i.e. to make the child independently learn the supposed naturality of the new world of capital. The child must learn that he is an individual. Subordinate the social to the individual.
On this basis Rousseau inaugurates the themes and slogans of discipline that will remain in force in one way or another until today: nature must be the child’s teacher, one must learn through practical experience and direct observation… The configuration in the child of an empiricist criterion on what is true and what is not is the basis for reproducing in it the rather special relationship of the bourgeoisie with Nature.
But of course… the self-evident truths of the bourgeoisie are only evident in a certain context which by definition children lack. Precisely, the aim of the training is to make evident to the pupil what is not at all obvious on its own.
Around this contradiction – unavoidable for the foundations of bourgeois ideology – will turn around the discussions of pedagogues from Pestalozzi to Piaget, Montessori, Summerhill… and up to today. In an attempt to overcome it, not only Pedagogy will be developed, but also Child Psychology and a whole series of branches and specialized knowledge… that in the end lead to the same place: the more or less explicit idea that maturation and learning converge towards a commercial life, which in the case of workers is nothing else than the reduction of their life time into a commodity.
The workers’ movement soon began to understand the multiple traps that lay beneath universal public education. As we saw, Marx stands against the very idea of handing over the education of working class children to the state. In the following decades, many initiatives are launched in the very organizational fabric of the class. And with them the need to respond to basic questions about the meaning and purpose of education. An understanding then began to emerge that education had to be thought of and oriented in relation to both the class struggle and the future society. That is to say, in the perspective of the new relations that will appear within a non-class-divided society and with the relations of that society as a whole with Nature through work freed from the constraints and miseries that capitalism imposes on it. In other words, they began to understand that their educational efforts should be approached from the standpoint of communist morality. But the truth is that neither could they advance beyond where the class movement itself had gone. The leap in knowledge could only take place in the brief period in which the soviets held power in Russia.
Pedagogical theories during the Russian Revolution
The true outpouring of knowledge about human behavior and child development that occurred during the years of the World Revolution is often forgotten. As in all times and places, knowledge does not appear magically or through the providential assistance of a few people. It responds to social conditions and the needs of a social subject who, in addition, must have the means and the capacity not only to develop it, but to use it according to those needs. It is this set of social relations -which always implies a correlation of forces between classes- a set producing those extraordinary figures which later on ideology will present as being the driving forces of History.
The taking of power by the Soviets gave rise to a whole world of new needs in all fields. A new understanding of the diet was needed because for the first time it was a goal of society to feed all its members; a new understanding of symbols and icons was needed because for the first time universal messages were being launched… and, of course, a new understanding of childhood and of the meaning and forms of learning was needed because education for exploitation was no longer being provided. Suddenly,defectology, understanding learning difficulties in general and within them that of children with disabilities became a conscious social objective expressing a universal need.
This is the framework in which Vigotski’s research appears. Approaching it is fascinating today. Among other things because it is a non-linear, non-mechanical conception of science, but a dialectical one. It does not want to give an answer to a single aspect in order to be able to solve a symptom or a phenomenon. It wants to generate a knowledge capable of transforming a reality that is always known to be, to a greater or lesser extent, social. For this reason, the scientists who worked for the soviets at the time needed to overcome the mechanical conception characteristic of the bourgeoisie and which still limits current science.
To Vigotski, research on children’s learning problems, teaching the deaf, primary education and teaching techniques… are the same thing, part of the same set that requires a systemic knowledge of cognitive processes and of the social formation of an individual personality. The work is immense: it deals with the role and meaning of language, its relationship with thought, children’s imagination, the emotions, artistic expression… These works return to the same topics again and again from various angles after having studied adjacent issues. They need to understand the whole in order to understand the parts and they know it. Neurology, medicine, evolution of the species and semiotics are integrated to understand the psychological development of the child and his or her needs. They begin to develop a truly scientific knowledge.
The comparison with all the science which followed, and which methodologically was a step backwards -because society went backwards with the world counterrevolution and the war-, is tremendous: when the American ethologists and psychologists of the sixties experimented with sign language with chimpanzees (the Washoe project, the Nim Chimpsky case, etc. ), their conclusions, limited by the empirical nature of their methodology, will arrive at isolated causalities, which are empty and poor; in the best of cases, derivative and limited of the conclusions Vigotski had already reached… and with almost no possibility of application to social needs.
It is impossible to summarize in a sensible way everything that the Soviet teams achieved during the years of the Revolution in a single article. We highly recommend going directly to their books. But we can highlight some fundamental starting points for children’s education which break all the foundations of the pedagogy that had been developed so far…. and the one which continues today.
Vigotski and his colleagues note the materialistic idea that our species transforms Nature through work, and in doing so, it transforms itself as well. Through the nascent research on animal ethology they conclude that the creation and use of meaningful symbols is a specifically human skill arising from the ability to subordinate activity to the conscious will. Language is a tool, an essential piece in understanding what human work really is beyond its capitalist form. A tool through which we socialize, transform and are transformed in a social context.
Because the use of these symbols is inseparable from social logic… a social logic that is also not the same as that of other social animals, but corresponds to the human species in particular. This logic of the species does not only apply to humans when they interact with other humans. The human internalizes it and acts upon it even when alone. We carry the social totality within us at all times. Therefore, the human’s understanding of the environment is inseparable from his command and use of language, whether verbal, plastic or in any other form. Through the evolution of language in each of us, the development of the human mind is inseparably linked to the needs and dynamics of the society in which we live. The social whole configures each of us from the first moments of life.
First pedagogical conclusion: the empirical conception of child development, the idea that the domain of speech and language is only a way to communicate what is already understood beforehand, is wrong.
We are at the antipodes of the conception of Nature as something alien to human society. The Rousseau’s dichotomy – still deeply rooted today – between corrupting society opposed to a pure nature holding the truth is shattered. The development of the child, like that of adults, is not individual. It cannot be reduced to an accumulation of sensations and experiences processed by a neutral automaton. As it develops, it undergoes not only experiences, but qualitative transformations in its understanding that depend on the particular human intervention and capabilities. There is no matrix of linear relationships telling us whether a child will develop as B if we expose it to stimulus A. They are complex relationships which interact with each other far beyond a mere conditioning. The educational process is not about incentives or putting the child on a schedule. The children’s understanding should not be measured in terms of what they managed to learn from what we wanted to teach, that is, the pre-formatted problems they can already solve independently. We must focus on what the child is capable of achieving with help, i.e., that which he is in the process of mastering and which will allow him to assert himself in that set. What determines the child’s present state of development is not what the past, what he or she has already mastered, but his or her relationship to the future, to what he or she can achieve.
Learning is not a sphere separated from life, in the same way that social knowledge is not independent of the history of the species… nor of the future that it is capable of facing in each moment.
At the gates of a human pedagogy
What the workers were considering and trying to do at that time was to overcome not only a specific class society, but all class societies. To move from society to a human community. And that future, which was posed as an immediate possibility, was already expanding knowledge in its present. Learning was no longer seen as something separate, autonomous, from the needs of the community, but as the center of human work as it was going to be.
The end of the separation between manual and intellectual work, between countryside and city, between sexes… The power of the soviets and the immense development of the class-consciousness that it presupposed made it possible to begin to think about a truly human education. It was thought how to articulate a generalized and vast formation that would enable children to work in any objective without the need of much additional formation. A formation in which learning became conscious, an objective in itself that gave them the capacity to live a multidimensional existence.
And let us not deceive ourselves, no one was proposing a blank slat of pedagogical knowledge. To overcome is not to destroy in order to start from zero as in idealistic conceptions. The knowledge of the past, even of the contemporary theorists who have not left the conceptual boundaries of the system more than punctually and harmlessly, is also part of that cultural and material heritage, of that transforming capacity that the proletariat inherits and of which it needs in order to completely overcome the present regime of things. That is why they value the works of Leo Tolstoy and John Dewey. Tolstoy’s writings on his experience educating peasant children, for example, reveal how children learn by solving a task together. John Dewey’s schools and his perspective on the role that work should play in education is based on the idea that children should acquire knowledge and skills that would enable them to be multidimensional beings. Children would become useful members of the community. Helping others would be an essential part of learning and there would be no concept of cheating because there would be no testing, no competition. Human beings would no longer be alienated from themselves, others, or nature.
Despite the miserable conditions imposed by the civil war it was not a mere hope, a future-carrot painted at the end of the penury. It was a future operating in the present and imposing itself on its limitations. When the Bolsheviks promoted polytechnic education, they did not have in mind a purely technical education that would train children in specialized trades. In a world society that was on the threshold of socialism, the children of the Russian bastion needed to learn to consciously direct production. That’s why the new minima didn’t think of them as tools to be optimized for the process. On the contrary, it was a matter of training them to make production a social tool that could be directed towards satisfying universal human needs. The aims of the polytechnics established, in Krupskaya’s words, that at the end of their schooling children should be fully and accurately acquainted with all the conditions of production, its technique at its contemporary level, and have some scientific instruction.
Needless to say, one of the first things the stalinist counterrevolution did to establish state capitalism was to return to traditional education, its values and its symbols. The training prepared people again as tools; the economy, that is, the accumulation of a capital more or less state-controlled, once again subjugated human needs and the class that represented them, the conscious proletariat. The classrooms became again factories of fellow national citizens and the idea of a multidimensional life was again hidden among the sinister mists of an educational regime that prepared the workers to accept exploitation instead of overcoming it.