For Teachers

The Meaning of Work – Aronowitz on Schooling in a Time of Crisis

On Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend a seminar (in NUIM) by Stanley Aronowitz – he is Professor of Sociology at City University in New York and has written extensively on many topics to do with knowledge, education and economy.

His ideas are radical and challenging and yet timely.

He presented his analysis of this “first truly global crisis” based on his experience (in the US steel industry) and many years as an author and teacher. Aronowitz posed critical questions that challenged our conception of labour in developed economies. He pointed to the structural changes in industry evident since the seventies when high numbers of workers were employed in big industries such as steel production. Faced with the challenge of a militant, frequently striking (US!) workforce and a troublesome trade union movement, the response by industry was to reduce labour through mechanisation and to move labour by a process of outsourcing and financialisation (build now pay later).

Aronowitz sees our current predicament as the inevitable outcome of US economic policy and the globalisation of the industrial model for developed economies. His outlook is gloomy – there will always be a struggle – they will always want more (government and employers).

Don’t worry – so the current rhetoric would have us believe – in Ireland we live in a Knowledge Economy. Our economic future is pinned to a belief that knowledge is a sure thing and our most recent strategy for growth is called Building Ireland’s Smart Economy.

We’ve never really had a large industrial base, little reliance on steel or automobile manufacturing. Our ‘new’ economy is built on software, internationally traded services and high-tech-brought-in manufacturing like HP and Intel.

Well I am worried!

Not just by Aronowitz’ analysis but also by our collective acceptance of an illusion – the unsubstantiated but soothing notion that all we need to do is to be smarter than the Chinese and we will build our future by design; design of goods and services to be manufactured elsewhere in places like Mumbai and Beijing. What arrogant rubbish!

At best, we may experience a temporary opportunity for wealth generation by positioning our competences higher up the manufacturing chain. However, this fragile position of advantage will quickly be undermined as the fluidity of global manufacturing economics inevitably takes effect.

If there is real competition for smartness, I for one, would not like to take on the wisdom of the East or the passion and commitment to education in places like the Philippines and Jordan. I have visited both of these countries and as a result, I will always challenge that, equally unquestioned, myth proposing that education in Ireland is especially valued and our recent, short-lived, economic boom was a consequence of our highly educated workforce.

What then is the alternative? Aronowitz hints at new possibilities – shorter working days, time to participate in democratic structures, a renewal of learning. These are just ideas – developed outside the current orthodoxy – nothing clear-cut or strategic. That’s probably his point – the current system is not working we need alternatives and in seeking these alternatives we will need to extend our thinking. I agree but it’s hardly grounds for hope.

Aronowitz titled his talk Schooling in a Time of Economic Crisis and we had to wait until near the end before he addressed the issue of schooling. Schooling is not education. His use of the term schooling extends through kindergarten to further and higher education. Aronowitz regards schooling as an instrument of the state – a means of extension of the dominant ideology in our case capitalism.

What is the function of schooling? One might say – to prepare people for work. This is the great myth. The notion of middle-class investment – schooling now for quality employment in the future; all the more sensible when we consider ourselves as living in a Knowledge Economy.

Who should control schooling? Obviously, one might think, as we are concerned with our economic well being, we should look to employers, economists and policy makers for guidance on what skills we will need for the future. This is the real danger and it will lead possibly to future despair – not success.

Education is about learning for life, not necessarily paid employment. Yes we should be concerned with learning for the future but the question is – how best can we prepare for the future? John Dewey, a great American philosopher and educator suggested that in order to prepare people for the future we should teach them how to experience the present to its fullest extent. I take this to mean that we should be critical (questioning) of the world and that we challenge all our assumptions especially our interpretations of what we need to learn and how best to secure our future prosperity.

I suggest that we should direct our scrutiny at the current discourse on knowledge and economy and we open our minds, in the present, to ideas such as tabled by Stanley Aronowitz.

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