Education: Classless Education in Class Society?

Education: Classless Education in Class Society?

Michael Walzer has written a suggestive essay on American education [DISSENT, Spring and Summer 1959]. Yet, with all the thoughtfulness and knowledge he displays, I do not think that he has posed the key problems of American education.

Walzer commits the very error with which he reproaches the environmentalists: he formulates certain humanist (or socialist) standards of cultural value and demands that the schools live up to them, notwithstanding an industrialized and commercialized environment inimical to those standards, and the absence even of any social movement which could “validate” them. He expects the schools to resist the pressures of society, to set themselves against society if necessary, and adopt Marx’s idea of an education befitting human beings. He demands a classless education in a class society.

The school “should” indeed be a humanizing, not a socializing agent. But Walzer himself demonstrates that in a class society it is inevitably the latter. One can expose the American school’s empty equalitarianism and hypocritical pretensions to democratic education as Walzer does, and does well. But one cannot expect it, as a social institution, not to somehow reflect the structure and interests of the society of which it is part.

What I believe the American school should be attacked for is that it seeks to adapt the child to society instead of preparing him to make his own way in it. It is precisely this conservative role which the school is not fulfilling. But, unfortunately, this whole question of the school’s not measuring up to the tasks which it can be legitimately required to perform is treated cavalierly by Walzer. For example: He would not have “children” 14 and 15 years old “waste” time on vocational training. He would have them devote themselves to the study of history, literature and science. But he himself indicates how little meaning such knowledge has for their daily lives and their future prospects. When the underprivileged are taught the same body of knowledge as the privileged, he says, there will be “conflict between school and home, and resistance, discouragement, even delinquency on the part of the child.” Not to mention what would happen to the already discouraging state of the school retention rate. But onward—”.. . struggle and discouragement are the immediate price we pay in order to confront class society with equality and cultural value.”

No, the confrontation of class society with equality and cultural value cannot and should not take place in the school. The question of education as Walzer, in effect, sees it is a political, not an “educational” question, which can be resolved only in the arena of politics. The school certainly is not such an arena.

But, for lack of a better one, Walzer would have it so, and in consequence gets tangled up in his own logic. Says he: &...