this text is unedited and might contain misspellings and other mistakes - since I am not a native writer
the short version as published by BROOKLYN RAIL, FEB. 2013
FIRST AND LONGER VERSION FIRST WRITTEN AND UNEDITED _
It’s no secret that social and economic privileges are best determined and passed on by the apparatuses that educate and train young people for their roles in life. Education is therefore not only a set of keys to the many doors of society but also a medium that allow privileges to travel and be passed on through generations. Class mobility has become in spite of the “American dream” rather a reality in Europe where education is still mostly centralized by governments than in the United States where large parts of relevant educational programs are privatized, market oriented and controlled through a system of tuitions and selections. Class privileges as well as ethnic and racial difference play here a central role. The educational debt burden is skyrocketing and distort the playing field further. Symptomatically enough, in the USA the talk du jour is about downward mobility from the Middle class.
Today, the reproduction of class advantages and disadvantages through education and cultural capital is even larger than ever before due to the shift from an industrial to today’s post-industrial and information driven society. Unfortunately, US education serves not anymore as a machine to bring social and economic equality as it was the case until the 1970s but accelerates and cements class differences. Since the times of Karl Marx - he could name class hierarchies along a relatively undifferentiated state of production - society and its technologies, modes of production and distribution of goods and services have changed dramatically and myriads of factors have to be taken into account. Not even partial ownership of companies through stocks can define our status anymore. Any badly paid employee or unemployed person might own stocks directly or indirectly. Today, hierarchical class stratifications reflect infinite fragmentations, inter-societal layers and even contradicting affiliations and group identifications. Our complex, media driven situation explains why so many people can vote against their own financial and social interests supported by concerted misinformation campaigns arguing for (mostly discriminating) culture or value positions. Badly educated populations are easier manipulated by electoral and commercial drives, hence fall even more prone to support legislation that does away with good mass educational and democratic demands.
Even if we don’t subscribe to any economic determinism anymore, a person’s educational, cultural and behavioral versatility is more and more defined by access and proximity or distance to elite educational and cultural institutions. No market individualism or consumer habit can ignore those facts even if we all now dress the same thanks to H&M and the like, an elaborate credit card industry and other mechanisms offering us really affordable middle class looks thanks to outsourced labor (including child and slave labor). When it comes to prêt-à-porter education and cultural trickery a vast industry is already marketing it for the go. Online education definitely constitutes a big potential for very good, widely accessible, valuable education though the reality on the ground risks to be easily perverted, i.e. to lure consumers to purchase expensive education packages that turn out meaningless. The real gains in digital education will most likely again profit those who already harvest the best a society has to offer and enhance elite education as class-divider.
My point can be put briefly: I am appalled to see education increasingly becoming a business, seen and addressed as investment and its results treated as cultural capital to be monetized. I am also annoyed to see art education being recycled as ultimate chic, as powerful accessory and instrumentalized for all possible aims except to create art as critical counter models of aesthetic and performing practices to those society has already validated, put in place, marketed and co-opted. I get suspicious when a handful of art colleges is invited to play a role in celebrity culture trending, where the spectacular winners take all as a rule.
Here in New York City, the educational rat race starts already in pre-Kindergarden with high tuitions rates (2400 $ /month / child) and very selective admission arrangements, a condition that doesn’t go away and stays beyond schooling in form of big debt accumulation. Hence, in the USA and in large parts of Asia, status and power are communicated and defined by educational access with fundamentally unfair, jammed, and biased entry points. Not what is studied is the question asked but where you studied. Celebrity culture – the crystallization of our industrious society of spectacle -- , marketing and branding strategies are penetrating the most fundamental tool for a democratic society that should be open to everybody: education. Even in regard to education we observe more and more a return to a spectacular fabulous court system that already rules the art world with kings and king makers, courtiers and mandarins that all uphold the rule of proximity to the power grid. The power grid of the art world equals a glamorous hierarchical order as a collective superego formation that resembles the magic powers encountered in childhood fairytales I read to my kids in which local kings, princes and princesses may walk or fly without clothes or wings. Admission on the pre-K level can of course not be regulated through achievement, personal merits and competence but through highly selective entry processes controlled by money, connections, twisted randomness and the fine noses of the admission stuff that finds itself year after year with a growing number of 500 and more dollar paying parent-applicants. Prominently displayed links to donations for the schools on their websites can lend you in the inbox of the admission officers. They are supposedly not influencing the application process.
The next step up to public schooling is already a new ball game if one lives outside a so-called good – i. e. high cost living - school district. In our case, Spanish Harlem, there are two excellent public schools but they have only 13 spots for next year available and 250 applicants trying to make the cut. Thus, - and this repeats itself everywhere – these schools hold lotteries and pick from a narrowed down population a limited number of people to justify openness to these few, well funded and very well maintained, good performing schools. The rest of the kids and parents are left with under-funded, overcrowded institutions where police officers are assigned to deal with behavioral problems starting at early age. This lottery economics can serve only very few people in a not-so arbitrary way if you are living outside an expensive high scoring school district. I find this tombola selectivity symptomatic for structural de-funding and dismantling of a once very well performing public school system pretending to give everybody a fair chance. But it can also illustrate our neo-liberal gaming culture in general leading some stratospherically high up by artistic, roulette style banking for which the safety net is held up down at the left behind bottom by the general public for mega-banks too big to fail. Ironically enough, the most expensive and exclusive (early) childhood schools in New York City are those that borrow the name of Rudolf Steiner and Montessori who believed in alternative models of education and living. Maria Montessori even started her schools with abandoned, poor children picked up from the streets in Rome revolutionizing education and redefining the link to poverty.
I am amazed to see how the focus for a good free public school system becomes more and more abandoned and replaced by a stressful, expensive race to fewer and fewer but more and more prominent and prestigious schools that have the reputation of pipelines for Ivey league colleges and on to top paying jobs. It is horrifying to see the same debilitating, anti-democratic, myopic, and power driven dynamics characterizing the upper crust of the commercial art world becoming more and more a model for parts of the education field. This basic educational inequality risks ruining the United States as a place for best opportunities. It is counter-productive since it narrows and ignores our human resources. Educational market driven models start to also take a foothold in many parts of Europe – private schools, “elite universities,” - and are partially already replicated in Asia and other parts of the world. Thus we see a well capitalized global corporate education industry emerging trying to transform the multiple worlds of learning into prosperous businesses. But what do they really teach us? Highly selective admission policies for excellence programs, wealth and privilege creation, lucrative alumni politics and VIP channeling of students into prosperous positions. All this constitutes a power grid that looks and acts for each operational field differently but is always characterized by tight exclusive networks of hegemonic relationships, good access to information and funding and admission rituals that are partially frank and open and partially opaque and hidden in the Ether. Ether was the stratum of the upper skies where gods and goddesses ruled and defined life and light removed from sight.
To counter all this, I advocate for free and efficient education, public, autonomous, need oriented teachings that treat things, people, animals and nature with respect and allow each and everything its own timing and rhythms. Any curriculum should be oriented along democratic, liberal, open minded, inclusive and collaborating ideas addressing real needs of students and of a balanced, fair and just society as a whole. Education should be critical and adhere to the politics and utopias of Enlightenment culture. Multiple choice testing, permanent numeric evaluations and ongoing selections should not dominate schooling. On every level education should foster the understanding of the intrinsic logics of things, thinking and knowledge in its social context. Education should stand for critical thinking and resistance to commercially propagated and market driven corporate identities and success stories that drive our lives nuts. The reality principle resulting from good education should not replicate the unsustainable status quo of our corporate consumer culture but create space for self-assertion, alternative and ludic subjectivities open to responsible and fair political, social and economic participation. The question of what should constitute a power grid has to be always renegotiated by students, hence anti-hegemonic orientation should focus young people to their proper needs as long as they are sustainable and furthering a sense of non-confrontational community allowing space for alterity. It is essential that proper education is developing models, strategies and even machines that are opposing and redefining our corporate, neo-liberal, debilitating power grids basically made up of big money, (celebrity) spectacle and (pure) force extending into all spheres of life. Education as well as any other form of cultural work – including art making - should open up possibilities for everybody to develop their own criteria of success and create their own flexible, multi-dimensional, alternative grids as frame works of viable and sustainable references to operate and communicate with.
It depresses me to see privileged people run through the most exclusive educational institutions, ending up as professors in the very best universities, celebrating blue chip artists who didn’t really contribute much to the given epochal discourse except capital accumulation and increased globalized market volume through the help of mutated, constantly trading mega power grids in which they all want to be a decisive player. The price for breeding in the power grid is to identify with it and to narcissistically refer and reaffirm it. I call education successful when people are able to define their own demands and ways and ad differences and resistances to our pre-imagined, pre-drawn, pre-cooked regime of the status quo. I even advocate moderate failure in a dosage that doesn’t crush us completely. What is often perceived as failure by the standards of a currently dominating power grid protects us partially from active complicity and forces us to rethink and reposition ourselves in regard to this neo-liberal consumerist superego monstrosity. Thus, alternative subjectivities and sensitive political consciousness could not only establish a different order of things but also fight the flight of educational capital to the top 1 % and keep the hope and struggle for good, tuition free and meaningful critical education alive.
Prestige of an institution or a teacher should be solely based on their teaching and the ability of students to continue their own paths fending off false promises and dependencies. Counter-models for social, psychological, linguistic and technological interactions as well as our relationships to our bodies, our food, nature and the environment in general and our work and position in the world need to be taught and experienced in a way that do not sell us out to the highest bidder or the cheapest offer. We need to first teach to say NO to nearly everything that comes with a bar code and hasn’t been around for at least 100 years as a thumb measure. Then we should start looking at it like if we just landed from an alien, differently working planet. We need to definitely say NO to the regime of high cost education with branding, elite culture and narrow admission policies. A NO also to corporate consumer identity and subject formations that just condition us for livelong consumer addiction and product arrogance. Yes to active apps-free involvements in social agencies on platforms that really improve our standards of living in qualitative terms. Today’s run to college and good schools needs to be met with sufficient public money to guarantee broad based excellence on every level for everybody.
Education has to become again the economic arbiter and equalizer of our society and do so democratically albeit of class, race, gender and ethnicity. Education cannot be further instrumentalized for increasing social, racial and economical injustice but stay the course of Enlightenment principles. Good public education that practices critical thinking has to be a basic right for all and should not be an investment opportunity for markets with too few people to fully profit from it. Hence, I see in the currently ongoing world wide trend to modularization of education into a bachelor and master format the danger of rendering education into a global product for marketing and trading, as well as for mergers and acquisitions with dire consequences for handling our histories and negotiating our differences. We are destroying democracy and our middle class societies if education is de facto only accessible to rich and privileged people. The fight for education is a political and an ideological one, fought also in material terms through economic erosion and unsustainable student debt politics accompanied by a few lucky once, as if drawn semi-randomly from a lottery basket. Doesn’t that all remind us of the art world ? But education has to stay democratic in order to enhance and guarantee democracy and the legacy of Enlightenment, of Aufklärung, Les Lumières and of la Ilustración. Both, democracy and the demands of all Enlightenment thinkers need to be redefined and defended constantly.