Victory to the teachers?

Teachers in Victoria are struggling to defend their pay and conditions. EBA negotiations have come around, and the Victorian Liberal government have offered state school teachers a technical pay cut. The Baillieu government’s proposed “pay rise” of 2.5% falls below the rate of inflation.

The Australian Education Union is highlighting a 2010 election promise by the Baillieu government to make Victorian teachers the best paid in the country.

Western Australia teachers at the top of the scale are already paid 10% more than Victorian teachers, with further pay rises of 8.25% over two years to come.

The Baillieu government has also announced that it’s 2.5% pay ‘increase’ would have to be offset by ‘efficiency gains’, their policy is in effect a pay cut, increased work load for teachers, and decreased standards in public schools.

The left must support teachers and their unions against this attack on public education by the state government. But amongst anarchists there is sometimes a sense of equivocation.

When on the 7th of this month, over ten thousand Victorian teachers participated in their biggest ever stop work meeting, Melbourne anarchist Andy Flemming posted “Good luck to the teachers…” along with this youtube video:

Anarchists wholeheartedly critique the current system of education. Our education system is a system of indoctrination. compulsory education is a contradiction in terms. The school does reproduce the social relations of capitalism, teaching students their place in relation to the figure of authority. Schooling teaches us to:

confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. [The student’s] imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Compulsory schooling creates prisons for young minds. Anarchists can and must advance a critique of education under capitalism. But we should not let this task distract us in our support for all workers in their struggle against the boss.

There is no contradiction between advancing a solid critique of the system of education, and offering our unequivocal support for education workers in their industrial struggles.

1. Teachers are workers.

Teachers sell their labour power, are paid a wage, and largely do not control what they do during their working day. The teacher’s working day is controlled a school administration, a curriculum, and an ever increasing raft of policies handed down by the Department of Education.

The labour of teachers, even in the public education system, is exploited. Teachers are not paid the full value their labour produces. Public education is not a business, but there is still a surplus. The returns on public education are reaped by capitalism in the form of more useful and pliant workers. The wages of teachers are minuscule in comparison to the added value to capitalism of each years formal education of a young worker.

2. Teachers are not the gaolers.

School is a prison, and prisons have their gaolers. Does this mean we should not support the industrial action of teachers? I would never argue, for example, that we should support the industrial action of the Police.

Teachers appear to have the role of gaoler as a result of the compulsory nature of education. The school exerts control over students, and control is a primary function of the schooling system. However teachers are, first and foremost, employed to teach. It is the entire education system, backed by the legal framework of the state and the armed force of the Police, that interact to make school a place of detention for students.

Teachers produce value in the form of the service they perform, however imperfectly the system of education allows them to do so. To the extent that teachers appear to be gaolers, the role is foist upon them, just as the role of security guard is foist upon workers in retail tasked with checking the bags of customers for theft.

By way of comparison, societies’ actual gaolers do not produce value, their whole function is the maintenance of social control. The Police are not part of the working class, but part of the apparatus of repression utilized by the sate. Were we discussing vidmate industrial action by Police, I would not argue for solidarity with their wage claims. The only solidarity anarchists should have with Police is support for individuals who wish to cease being Police.

First and foremost, teachers are workers. A critique of the controlling aspects of the schooling system should never involve rejecting solidarity with teachers, just as a critique of McDonalds would never lead anarchists to question solidarity with the industrial action of McDonalds workers.

3. Teachers will benefit from the liberation of education.

The school obstructs education. Unequal power relationships, compulsory attendance, and a curriculum handed down from on high all act to disrupt a healthy and productive learning relationship between teachers and students.

Teachers bemoan the fact that students are disengaged. The compulsory classroom and student disempowerment manufacture uninterested and disengaged students.

Young children before they begin their schooling are eager learners, constantly questioning and exploring the world around them. Within a few short years compulsory schooling beats curiosity out of students, and generates contempt for school and teachers among many (especially working class) students. The overwhelming majority of students dream of nothing but escape from captivity, looking forward only to the end of the school day, the start of the weekend, the holidays, and the end of their formal education.

When you contemplate the creativity of and the enthusiasm for learning among young children, it seems astounding that any institution could be so powerful as to utterly crush this spirit and transform the young child of yesterday into the burger flipper of tomorrow. Yet this is what the school achieves.

When students are liberated from these structures, teachers will be free to engage with students as equals, and facilitate learning and creativity without constraint.

4. The working class loses in the states attacks on public education

School acts as a powerful system of social control, yet public education also contributes to a marginally better position for the working class within capitalism.

The state and capitalism obviously want the benefits of a more educated and compliant work force, but not for a dollar more than is absolutely necessary. The public education system presently costs more than these ends require.

The ideology of universal compulsory education is one of social mobility, if all students have access to education, class barriers will evaporate, and students can advance on merit! In practice, there is a limited scope for a small degree of social mobility. Public education still effectively sorts students by class, as the hidden curriculum of school privileges society’s dominant ideas.

But funding public education for any amount of social mobility is a cost in excess of what capitalism requires from education. An education system far more beneficial to capitalists would operate on several tiers, with the children of the ruling class able to buy their way into superbly funded private education, a segment of the working class able to access a second tier of private education or ‘select’ public education with pathways into university, and the rest of the working class consigned to an underfunded public education system with pathways to the TAFE system or entirely unskilled employment.

Incidentally, over the last twenty years government in Australia has actively moved away from universal public education, to just such a multi-tiered system.

And so…

In general, it is important that anarchists advance a thorough going critique of the education system under capitalism.

In the present, we should oppose developments that will further inequality and attack the position of the working class. As such, we should defend the institution of public education, without surrendering a critique of the nature of the schools within it.

We should argue that teachers will benefit from education liberated from the present system of schooling, and we should defend and support teachers as workers struggling under capitalism.

We should argue for student support for teachers’ industrial action and student support for public education, whilst advancing a critique of the semi-imprisonment of students in the present education system.

To confuse teachers with the oppressive aspects of the schooling system would only serve to divide one group of workers from the rest of the struggle against capitalism. The role of anarchists should be to do the opposite, to build bridges between the every day struggles of workers, and a critique of capitalism.

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