Capital Accumulation, Social Control, and the Enclosure of Learning and Labor

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

The Promise

Imagine a six-year old black or brown child suffering under the weight of social and economic inequity, food insecurity, family trauma. Consider the implicit promise society makes, that if only they go to school, work hard, and “behave” for twelve years, there will be possibilities — though no guarantees — for their circumstances to improve. After those twelve years, there will be a strong push for them to attend four more years of school for better odds still. 

Young people are taught that obedience to school rules is primary, and knowledge secondary, or unnecessary. Those who come hungry and cold are asked to sit quietly and learn, something, anything, but how to obtain their basic needs.[1]Newton, H. P. (1971, March 27). Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute. Black Panther, D, E. [PDF]

It’s a promise we take for granted when we look to education as a panacea, and an unreasonable expectation to put on anyone, let alone a child who needs immediate relief. Young people are skeptical of this promise, and many openly reject it, or internally — if not physically — withdraw from school after years of disillusionment. Especially when they see adults in their lives, who in spite of completing school, still struggle to keep food on the table or the electricity running.

Students and Alienated Learning

Alienation — what Marx calls Entfremdung — is itself a form of enclosure, “estranging” a person from their labor, the products of their labor, as well as their relation to other people — manifest as individualism — and the rest of the natural world.

Applying this concept of alienation to schooling, where these institutions attempt to deny, erase, overwrite identities, students are only themselves in their “animal functions”, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping. “What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal”.⁠a 

There are connections here to the logics of slavery, genocide, and the dehumanization of Black and Indigenous people. If all “human functions” — those beyond base needs — are subordinated to the demands of another, thereby alienating a person from those functions and competencies, then all that remains is the “animal”. But unlike animals, which can hunt, forage, or scavenge to gain immediate access to the “means of life”, the slave, the worker, the student, has to rely upon the “master”, the “owner”, the “employer”, or the “system”. 

In this case, people are denied subjectivity even as animals. Rather they are the byproduct of a process of capital accumulation, which must be “managed”, as “risk” or as “waste”. Within a schooling context, teachers and administrators are analogous — but not equivalent — to the “masters” and “owners”, and indeed terms like “classroom management” and “at-risk” students are intrinsic to the grammar of schooling.

If learning is students’ intellectual and emotional labor,[2]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48. then Marx’s insights prove applicable to the relationship between students’ subjectivity and their “production” — though it is up for debate what even is the product of this labor. At the very least we can say that it does not provide the student with the “means of life in the immediate sense”.[3]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books.

This is especially troublesome for students whose daily experience requires them to contend with various social and economic forces: food insecurity, violence in their communities, chronic illness or disability, and other commitments of time and energy toward family responsibilities, including taking on a paying job.

For some students, a premium is placed on graduation, which seems to function more as an unquestioned requirement of future employability than a meaningful achievement. Young people have learned that “school” consists merely of “work” — a series of obligatory tasks that once complete lead to a “passing grade” and ultimately, graduation. The actual content, the quality of the work, any personal investment in learning, or sense of the work as a form of self-expression or personal enrichment, seem to be of secondary, if any importance. If “the work” is the end in itself (e.g. filling in blank spaces on a worksheet), then learning is beside the point. 

Other students are forced to choose between “work” for which they are directly compensated and the “work” of school, the returns on which are distant, abstract, and never guaranteed. It should come as no surprise where students opt for that which provides more immediate material benefit. In the end, a student’s choice between this arbitrary “learning”, and tending to their personal commitments outside of school, is really no choice at all.

Invariably, these are the same students who get labeled “at-risk”. But what does this even mean? The implicit risk is to students themselves, for their lives or livelihoods, but given that the project of schools is not to provide for life, I would argue that the real “risk” is to capitalist production and hegemony, and to the school’s own ability to reinforce it. 

In talking about the worker, Marx writes that where the product of their labor is an “alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him, then his position towards it is such that someone else is master of this object, someone who is alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him”. The work itself becomes “an activity performed in the service, under the dominion, the coercion, and the yoke of another man.”[4]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books. This “other man”, of course, is the owner of the means of production, who should be the target of the worker’s hostility. But what the capitalists have been able to do successfully for generations is deflect the resentment of the worker (most prominently reflected in the ”white working class”) toward other workers (immigrants/other people of color), by elevating those “other people’s” cause rhetorically, even if seldom by way of policy. 

Students labeled “at-risk” are most often those who the school also deems “hostile”. This hostility, mind you, is likely an unarticulated resistance to dominion and coercion. But where the mechanisms of domination remain invisible to students, “the logic and consequences of the arrangements obscure”[5]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48., its representatives inaccessible or shielded by the repressive apparatus, student “hostility” — further stoked by a culture of competition — is inevitably misdirected toward their peers. 

This final aspect of alienation suggests how learners enter into their own alienation, coming to see others, what they know, what they might know, etc., as fearsome comparative dangers that make failure a possible, even necessary, consequence of struggles to acquire school learning[6]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48.

It has also become common practice for schools to issue their own currency, usually taking the form of proprietary “dollars” or “points” within some digital system. Students, in turn, may use this “money” to purchase physical goods (e.g. food or toys), or temporary special privileges. What this does, of course, is bolster the culture of competition between students, and much like ”real” money does for workers and their employers, mediates the relationship between students and teachers. Rather than doing the difficult work of building community and co-constructing a school-wide set of norms and values, this currency displaces any trust or faith that such efforts may have engendered.

Marx wrote that people place in money a “faith which they do not place in each other…because it is objectified exchange value, and exchange value is nothing more than a mutual relation between people’s productive activities.”[7]Borbone, G. (2013). Karl Marx and the concept of Entfremdung. Review of Contemporary Philosophy, (12), 102-112. Instilling “faith” in money is a substitute for the trust that we would ordinarily place in each other, where our labor, or the product thereof has value for other people, such that they would do for us in kind, or at least acknowledge that value. Instead, money acts as a stand-in for this value, and mediates exchanges between people, in the place of relationality, which helps to sustain alienation and individualism.

Teachers and Alienated Labor

How fare the teachers in all of this? Their “producing activity”, of course, is teaching in itself, and given the imposition of state standards, the teacher is alienated from their practice, and from their own passions, talents, and knowledge. This is especially true considering the credentialing process, which “constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind. Most teachers of arts and trades are less skillful, less inventive, and less communicative than the best craftsmen and tradesmen.”[8]Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars. 

There is a derogatory saying, paraphrased most commonly as “those who can’t do, teach”, to which there is a reflexive opposition, and rightfully so, given the bad faith in which it is usually intended. But it is mostly true, at least at in K-12 schooling, that teachers are not as skilled or knowledgeable within their disciplines⁠b as those who ply their abilities to a trade or research. The specialized, enclosed form of knowledge that teachers provide tends to be useful only within the context of schooling, bearing “no relation to any useful skill or job”.[9]Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars. This becomes more evident with the slapdash credentialism of alternative certification programs and standardized testing as a means of determining who is “highly qualified”.⁠c 

I say this not to diminish teachers as professionals, or as people, but to make the case that the real value of teachers isn’t teaching, as currently conceived, but their ability to form safe, reliable, and meaningful relationships with young people, to give them the space and cushioning within which to explore, critique, and construct knowledge. Teachers, like parents, food service employees, and health practitioners, should be understood as care workers, vital to society. Yet through the frames of settler logic, caregiving is often constructed as a subtractive experience, “self-less” work riddled with material and spiritual costs for the giver and receiver.[10]Grande, S. (2015). Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

For teachers, the product of their labor is invisible and inaccessible, because it is difficult to know one’s immediate impact on students, outside of test scores or demonstrations of understanding, and less so one’s impact on their material reality or life trajectory — the rightful concern of any devoted teacher. On the other hand, the activist teacher might see their work as neither the delivery of content, nor the material improvement of their lives, but rather the formation of students into a mode of resistance. 

Harney and Moten discuss how the role of the “subversive intellectual” — analogous to the activist teacher — is to “steal what one can”, “to abuse its hospitality”, “to spite its mission”.[11]Moten, F., & Harney, S. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions. But what can such a figure do in a K-12 school? Is there anything to steal? Is there any hospitality to abuse? Is there any way to be “in but not of” the school? This would seem to be the modus operandi of the activist teacher, but theirs is a project of self-delusion. 

The “resistance” of the activist teacher is seldom directed toward the school itself, because to do so would raise an authentic challenge to their very livelihoods. This challenge is two-fold: 1) to engage students in any sort of resistance against the school would necessarily incur the wrath of administrators and put the teacher’s job in jeopardy, and 2) the logical end to any project of resistance against the school is its dismantling, which would, again, leave the teacher unemployed, and potentially unemployable, unless they seek out an entirely new vocation.

This means that even the labor of the activist teacher is alienated from their livelihood, pitting their own well-being, in the short-term, against their own activism, and conceivably against the ultimate well-being of their students. Something has to give, and invariably the activist teacher stops just short of the professional suicide required to realize the ends of resistance. Instead, the resistance that activist teachers attempt to inculcuate in their students is against some unjust condition of the greater society, which they conceive as being literally and figuratively “outside” the school. This is the essence of their self-delusion, because schools can only and have only ever reproduced broader social conditions. One cannot resist forms of domination within the greater society without simultaneously implicating the school.

If what happens in the school is at best unrelated to, or at worst in direct opposition to the very means of survival for both students and teachers, the implication is that life itself is something that happens outside of the school, that “learning” is something that happens in spite of life. 

That food is served in schools has less to do with recognition of this enclosure than the irrefutable fact that labor requires energy. If it seems hyperbolic to say that schools function as enclosures upon living, then consider the deadly conditions in far too many institutions, such as the asbestos, mold, vermin, lead, and poor ventilation widespread in public schools.[12]Laker, B., Ruderman, W., Purcell, D. (May 3, 2018). Toxic City: Sick Schools, Part I: Hidden Peril. Philadelphia Inquirer.[13]Rubinkam, M. School officials charged with hiding lead, asbestos problems. (September 30, 2020). AP News.

The shift from antiquity to “modernized poverty” is characterized by the erection of additional and ever-increasing barriers — walls of enclosure — between people and their needs, “combin[ing] the lack of power over circumstances with a loss of personal potency”.[14]Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars.   

The rural subsistence farmer who lives and works off the land in collaboration with family and community has direct and immediate access to their physical, psychological, spiritual, and cognitive needs. The barriers here are the “landlord and the merchant”, but once that that same farmer moves into the city — due no doubt to political and environmental pressures exerted by the state — institutions emerge as gatekeepers, mediating people’s access to their needs,  and making them “increasingly incapable of organizing their own lives around their own experiences and resources within their own communities”.[15]Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars. This dynamic became salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, as food-insecure students who normally relied upon schools for some of their meals were left in the lurch waiting for municipalities to create contingencies for building closures.

Disciplines, Standards, and the Enclosure of Context

Schools enclose learning into discrete “subjects”, and enclose students and subjects into age-based modules, which ignores the continuum of knowledge acquisition and construction. Even the delineation of “school age” from everyone else, suggests that learning — at least the “official” kind — should stop at a certain age. 

The incursion of neoliberalism into schooling has resulted in the proliferation of countless tracking and measuring technologies, both for surveillance purposes, and for profit — in the process “fracturing collective senses of the self and the social into sad fragments of competitive individualism”.[16]Slater, G. B. (2014). Constituting common subjects: Toward an education against enclosure. Educational Studies, 50(6), 537-553. The neoliberal datafication of learning, its reduction to universal standards, and further subdivision into “objectives” and “tasks” to be discretely evaluated, “reifies it into numbers that align children within hierarchies that replicate injustices in the distribution of access and rewards”.[17]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48.

The continuum of knowledge and experience, divided up into school subjects, is further subdivided into so-called standards, in an attempt to quantify things such as literacy or comprehension, which can then be individually measured through summative and formative assessments, such as standardized tests.

What follows the digitized measurement of “learning outcomes” is the decontextualization of knowledge from the whole of a student’s experience. Even within units of study, the reduction of a “standard” into objectives and tasks, evaluated separately as a “check for understanding”, not only divorces knowledge from its broader context, but breaks it apart internally, so there is a lack of continuity even within a particular competency. Where a student completes “tasks” or “masters objectives”, there are often gaps between them, not indicating mastery, but rather their ability to comply or to regurgitate information. 

More importantly, the “stuff” of school-based learning — the content, the skills, the knowledge — “does not satisfy a need: it is coerced, forced, and a means to satisfy needs external to it”[18]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48., those being the needs of capital. What students “learn” in school seldom translates to their lived realities or material concerns. Lave & McDermott go on to say that categories of learning:

are treated institutionally as objects – a stockpile of objects, really: attention, memory, problem solving, higher order skills, and so on – and not as activities well-tuned to the relations among people and their world.[19]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48.

According to Marx, “the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker”.[20]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books. This presumes, as is true for schools, that the labor is toward some object that does not in itself provide for the individual or the community, is a product for another’s capital accumulation, rather than one’s own cultivation of aesthetic or practical value. 

This all raises the question of who schooling is actually “for”, if not for the young people who are alienated from each other, and whose labor remains alienated from their means of life.

Who Benefits?

In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, education advocates hoped for a sea change with respect to the previous decade of the “neoliberal restructuring of public education”.[21]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61.  Unfortunately, this restructuring was accelerated through Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) stimulus program, which offered financial incentive for certain actions taken by schools, such as the improvement of “teacher quality”, adherence to state and national standards, and more data collection. The stated goal was to “turn around” so-called failing schools, but the underlying motive was to “align schools and classrooms with corporate manpower needs”.[22]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61.  This no doubt had to do with the fact that RTTT was a joint project of the administration and the Gates Foundation — one of many would-be saviors of public education — and became clearer with the disproportionate focus on STEM programs.

The Common Core, developed with funding by the Gates Foundation, aligns curriculum, assessments and text books with work force and college requirements, particularly in STEM fields.[23]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61.  The initiatives of the Obama administration used both the carrot and the stick. While grants awaited schools who met the new expectations — not necessarily congruent with real educational gains for students — the new Department of Education guidelines led to retribution for others. Many schools were closed, and teachers were terminated, while others were converted into charters or taken over by the state. As always seems to be the case, the weight of these neoliberal reforms fell disproportionately on schools in Black and Brown communities. 

Obama’s policies have provided support for closing hundreds of public schools in African American and Latino urban neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of unionized teachers, and expansion of charter schools and other privatized education services. I have direct experience with the impact of these reforms, having been a mentor at Germantown High School (GHS), one of 23 schools closed in Philadelphia in 2013. GHS, like so many schools that serve a majority student of color population, struggled with a lack of resources, rigid accountability measures, and a punitive school climate, which only resulted in greater resistance and stricter discipline in an endless cycle. This is to say nothing of the external circumstances which dominated student lives and invariably spilled over into the school environment: poverty, hunger, and hyper-localized violence, further exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008.  

Lipman goes on to talk about how “charter schools [were] the principle mechanism to open up public education to the market”.[24]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61.  But these kinds of reforms were hardly new in 2009. Five years earlier, New Orleans — or rather, Baton Rouge — gave us a preview of what kinds of “shock doctrine” reforms Obama would implement, using the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to ram through a pro-corporate right-wing agenda, virtually eliminating all standard public schools and replacing them with charters. 

[M]illions of public dollars went to outside consultants, many of whom were powerful real estate developers. And of course thousands of teachers were also fired, paving the way for the conversion of dozens of public schools into charter schools, just as Friedman had called for.[25]Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Henry Holt and Company.

The Friedman mentioned above is of course Milton Friedman, one of the principal architects of neoliberal reform in the U.S. and globally — a hostile backlash strong welfare state promoted by the Keynesian economic model. Obama, at least publicly, styled himself as a Keynesian Democrat, only to reveal his neoliberal orientation through the corporate bailout of 2009 and destructive education reforms. If the connection isn’t obvious between the restructuring in New Orleans in 2004, and what the Administration started in 2009, one needs only listen to the words of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In a January 2010 interview, he said, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’”  Where Katrina was the “shock” that clear-cut the education system for a new corporate infrastructure, the financial collapse of 2008 laid the groundwork for the same neoliberal restructuring under Obama. As Lipman points out:

Cities across the U.S. are slashing school budgets, laying off teachers, and closing schools to plug budget deficits—even as they continue with taxation policies that protect corporate profits[26]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61. 

In Philadelphia, this looked like the closing of many schools, and an explosion of new charter and “alternative” schools managed by “non-profit” management organizations. The gross inequities between schools, which break neatly along lines of race and class due to the property-tax funding schema, were only exacerbated as resource-poor institutions scrambled to compete in the “Race to the Top”. This arrangement has been particularly iniquitous due to the “10-year” tax abatement started in the 1990s, offering financial incentives to real estate developers, in the form of tax breaks, revenue which in turn was taken away from public schools.

When one considers the historical wealth gap between white families and families of color (primarily a function of disparities in home ownership), how the 2008 financial crisis deepened that divide, how new development often displaces low-income families of color, while at the same time leeching revenue from local schools, it becomes clear how in a “race to the top”, certain people are saddled with enormous weight before the contest begins. 

Philadelphia School Reform and the Dance Around the Neoliberal Median

Education in Philadelphia, from 2001 through 2018 — a period in which the neoliberal agenda only became more entrenched — was overseen by the School Reform Commission (SRC), a state-appointed body which enacted the worst of these “reforms”, similar to cities like Detroit and Chicago, where the public school populations are majority students of color. 

Appointed school boards, composed of corporate CEOs, bankers, and real estate magnates (Chicago) or state appointed officials (Detroit) decide on the fates of thousands of black and Latino school children.[27]Lipman, P. Urban Education Policy under Obama. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37, 1, 57-61. 

When the SRC voted to “disband itself”, after years of pressure from community education advocates, like the Our City Our Schools coalition (OCOS), it was replaced by a mayor-appointed school board, a crew of well-heeled players from the public and private sectors, including 2 of the 3 members from the newly dissolved SRC. The school board president, Joyce Wilkerson, was also the president of the SRC, which raised questions of how much really changed. Interestingly, the push by OCOS for a democratically elected school board has been rejected by the governing caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. 

The reasoning, supposedly, is that democratic elections would open control of the school board to corporate influence. This sort of clever maneuvering, ostensibly in opposition to neoliberal reform, comes at the behest of long-time president Jerry Jordan, who came into office right around the start of Obama’s first term, after serving in a variety of other roles in the PFT since the 1980s. Under Jordan’s leadership, the union has taken little to no action to counteract the reforms, and in fact resisted calls for the same from the Working Educators caucus. 

There seems to be a general agreement between city mayors, district superintendents, and teacher union presidents, on at least a range of acceptable policies. Careful and always secret negotiations between the three maintain a sort of neoliberal median, where the worst abuses seen in places like New Orleans are staved off — and this is considered a victory — while the demands of the community are ignored. That is, until the danger to students becomes impossible to ignore, as when it was revealed that many Philly schools are physically toxic, filled with lead, asbestos, and other harmful agents.[28]Laker, B., Ruderman, W., Purcell, D. (May 3, 2018). Toxic City: Sick Schools, Part I: Hidden Peril. Philadelphia Inquirer. That schools not only alienate students’ labor, but also regard their physical bodies as essentially the ”excess” of production, speaks volumes as to who truly benefits from the institution of schooling. That these toxic conditions are disproportionately present in schools with majority student of color populations, indicates who has “intrinsic value”, and who is expendable. 

This is at odds with the rhetoric of neoliberal education reformers, in particular their eagerness to increase the numbers of Black and Brown children entering so-called “STEM” fields. There is much ado about coding, due to the fact that mainstream discourse is driven largely by tech industry figures such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg out of naked self-interest cloaked in the mantle of philanthropy. An outsized focus on “workforce development” precludes the more immediate material needs of young people for the long-term prospects of career pathways.

Furthermore, when we consider the sweeping yet granular collection of Big Data, individualized people are further atomized into discrete characteristics and actions which can be analyzed, operationalized, and monetized in a variety of ways, dissolving their very existence into capital and algorithmic variables within a system of control. Hidden behind walls of proprietary technology, Big Data collection and processing connects disparate data points along a continuum favorable to the bottom lines of corporations and social engineering agendas. These continua are separate from the identities and lived realities of the actual people and communities from which the data are extracted.

Mutual Alienation

Students suffer alienation because schools enclose communities and internally divide students from one another through individualism and competition. Teachers, meanwhile, become invisible, less identifiable as people, so much as agents of the institution. This is analogous to how white people are positioned as agents of white supremacy, which dissolves them into the cultureless void of whiteness. Where white people teach Black and Brown children, there is a compounding effect: white teachers becoming indistinguishable elements of both white supremacy and schooling, which are mutually reinforcing institutions. 

I can imagine teachers experiencing a knee-jerk opposition to this conception of schooling, a reflective process in which they scramble in search of evidence to the contrary, so as not to feel complicit in the life-negation of their students. Because certainly there are moments of joy within schools, too, moments that validate and affirm life? Yes, but these moments take place in spite of the institution, representing instances of resistance, by students, teachers, staff, and even some administrators. 

It may seem that I am casting schools in an unfair light. I would argue that I am articulating their true depredations and depravities, which the majority of us understand and acknowledge at least subconsciously, and attempt to remediate through endless calls for “reform”. But if any of it is true, why do we as a society even allow our children — the most precious among us, so we say — to even be placed in such institutions? An explanation lies in a troubling of this “precious children” narrative. 

While there is little doubt that individual parents and families care deeply for their own children, as do many teachers care for their students, the broader discourse around the value of children, especially considered with respect to schooling, has more to do with their potential. By this I do not mean the lofty ideals of their future selves, but rather the potential return on investment — their potential as a “resource” to “grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system.[29]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press. By sheer virtue of their youth and impressionability, children represent optimal sites for the reproduction and longevity of capitalist production.

Do I think that any teacher has this as a conscious motive? No, though many no doubt willfully uphold capitalist logics, while many more do not think to question it, and others still stay mum, held hostage by job insecurity and petty administrators. It is a shrewd calculus in which the School forces teachers to choose between what is best in the long term for their students — content that they at least are not causing any obvious harm — and what is best in the short term for themselves. 

As for parents and families, because “life” is something that happens outside the school enclosure, their preoccupation with it as a matter of subsistence, and their own interpellation as subjects subordinated to capital, what happens inside the school is obscured by barriers of time, space, and power. 

a In this part of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx also refers to “procreating” as an animal function, which while it is not something that usually happens at school, certainly the impulses are there — especially in middle and high school — diverting a lion’s share of energy and enthusiasm.

b It should be noted that these disciplines as they are constructed within schools bear as little relation to their technical counterparts as teachers do to the professionals in those fields. Which is to say, for example, that science teachers seldom “do science” so much as they teach the concepts or history of “Science“.

c I write this as someone who started teaching under an alternative certification. That I scored in the 90th percentile or higher on three different certification exams was in no way indicative of my ability to be an actual scientist, a writer of great literature or scholarship, or fluent in Spanish. Nor did these exams or the certifications indicate anything about my ability to connect with students. This latter skill can only be developed on the ground, though it requires a foundational belief in the humanity and possibility of young people.

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