Economics 330T (33654)
LAS 355 (40569)

Political Economy of Education

Tuesday & Thursday, 8-9:30am
UTC 3.132

Course Description

This course, being the outgrowth of demands by students for an opportunity to study, in a serious and continuous manner, their own work situation, is designed for just that purpose. This syllabus, and the readings that accompany it should be seen as works-in-progress that will evolve as a result of both my own work and that of the students in the course.

The title of the course - "The Political Economy of Education" - is intentionally broad as the literature and issues covered range across various spectrums: temporal, organizational, philosophical, economic and political. The term "political economy" is used here in its 19th Century sense, namely of designating, in a general way, all of those phenomena that are interrelated in the organization of capitalist society and deemed relevant for the understanding of its functioning. The issues covered are thus broader than - but would include - those that might be expected in a course entitled "The Economics of Education". The spirit of the course, therefore, is closer to that of Adam Smith's treatment of capitalism in his Wealth of Nations than that in a contemporary microeconomic textbook.

The issue of "education" has probably been around as long as older humans have been involved in helping younger ones learn the skills and gain the understanding necessary to participate fully in society. In Western thought it has been an explicit issue of philosophers from at least the time of Socrates and has been intimately connected not simply to such mundane issues as learning practical skills but to more profound ones such as achieving a good life - both as an individual as as a member of society.

For most of history, however, such concerns have been been focused on the practical and spiritual achievements of elites. In the West, from the time of Socrates through that of St. Augustine right up through the 17th and 18th Centuries, reflections on, and the organization of, education has concerned that of whatever class of persons played the central role in ruling society. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the education of citizens, not slaves. In feudal society considerations on education concerned that of the clergy and the nobility who jointly ruled. In the East, although teachers such as Confucius might accept students from any part of society, those who could afford the time to study were primarily those from the upper classes and they were likely to find posts in government. In early capitalist society the preoccupation with education concerned the rearing of "gentlemen" to take their place as leaders of the newly emerging society, whether as leaders of trade and industry or of the state.

It was only with the rise of capitalist industry, especially manufacturing, and the creation of a new "working" class that reflection on education began to be extended to the population as a whole. That extension came in response not just to the need for more skilled and adaptable workers (institutions such as apprenticeships long filled this need) but to the antagonistic upsurge in demands for democracy that those workers put on ruling elites. Just as the education of the clergy had long been recognized as essential to their function in guiding/controlling the lower classes, so did more secular education come to be seen as essential for the guidence and control of the new working class.

Whereas the training of well-to-do elites could be left to the purchase of instruction from private tutors and private schools, the generalization of education to much poorer, waged labor required either a dramatic increase in wages so that workers could afford education in the manner, if not the content, of the upper classes, or the creation of systems of government organized schooling, from elementary grades to the university - whose costs could be passed along to the "public" via taxes. "Public" schooling was the general choice of policy makers - although private schooling persisted for those who could afford it.

The widespread creation of public schooling not only moved education into the public sphere in an entirely new way but gave rise to a plethora of schoolmasters whose "business" was education and the management of a rapidly growing "labor force" of teachers and students. As a result, reflection on educational issues that had hitherto been primarily the province of philosophers and a few professors became the preoccupation of professional eduators, social scientists such as economists and politicians.

The result of this development was the emergence of a new class of professional "educators" complete with specialized institutions for their training and certification (Colleges of Education), professional journals for the sharing of reflections on various aspects of this new industry and professional organizations to lobby for laws and state appropriations to finance the growth of that same industry. Not surprizingly, the development of this new industry was increasingly managed not by those those with philosophical preoccupations about achieving the good life, or civic minded concerns with the education of "citizens" but by administrators with the mind-sets and orientation of those in other industries.

The development of schooling in 19th and 20th Centuries, therefore, is a story that includes not only philosophical issues about training and learning (both their content and form) but very political issues about the relationship of education to the economy, to the state and to the social dynamics of capitalist society in general. What was true in the 20th Century, of course, is true in these years of the early 21st Century. The conflicts associated with education today are the same that have characterized its evolution for decades. Some of those conflicts have been around from the inception of widespread public schooling; some are legacies of the more recent crisis of education. That crisis dates from the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s in which students (and a few professors and activists outside of the educational system) challenged the industrial character of education and its subsevience to private capital and to the state, contested various practices of discrimination (racial, gender, ability, income) and fought for spaces both within and without schools for the development of alternative approaches to learning.

Still unresolved, the evolution of that crisis has been shaped by the multiple responses to these conflicts crafted by business, public policy makers and various non-governmental organizations in the 1980s and 1990s. Partly those responses have involved changes, and proposals for further changes, in the amounts and direction of the financing of educational institutions; partly they have involved processes of restructuring, and proposals for futher restructurings, of those institutions.

Among such responses within the United States have been 1) reductions in the public financing of education and an increased emphasis on private funding, 2) an associated push for the privatization of education - either an expansion of private schools or homeschooling, 3) efforts to shift public funds for education to the private sector via vouchers and the funding of religious schools, 4) increased connections between the curriculum of schools and needs of private business, 5) attacks on anti-discrimination programs of affirmative action, 6) efforts to eliminate the curriculum changes won by students in the 1960s and 1970s such as programs of Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Women's Studies as well as particular courses that explicitly challenge existing institutions and mainstream thought, 7) efforts to reintroduce religious practices into public schools, 8) the creation of charter schools, 9) increased pressure on students to complete their schooling more quickly (speed-up), 10) efforts to expand the length of the school year (stretch-out), 11) a reduction of federal funds to individuals and their shift from grants to loans, 12) the creation of "free-market" courses and course materials for elementary and secondary schools, 13) the funding of "free-market" economists at the university level, 14) a shift in university resources from liberal arts to business and professional schools, 15) reduced funding for area studies at the university level and efforts to re-subordinate them to the needs of multinational corporate capital and the government, 16) attacks on bilingual education and attempts to impose English as an "official" language, 17) elimination of jobs and reductions of wages that reduce the possibilities of students from affected families of going to college or university, 18) attacks on the provision of information about abortion, or abortions themselves, that would make more women into mothers and restrict their possibilities for study and careers, 19) opposition to the introduction of multicultural or culturally diverse course materials at the expense of the Western "canon" (the "culture war"), 22) public attacks on professors opposed to government foreign policies, 23) renewing and expanding use of university scientists and laboratories to support military research for the federal government, and 24) counterintelligence operations against dissenters, foreign students and immigrants under the Patriot Act and the rubric of counter-terrorism and Homeland Security. Beyond the United States we see: 25) World Bank and International Monetary Fund led attacks on the educational systems of many Third World countries, 26) a pro-business colonization of ex-Soviet bloc school systems, 27) the promulgation of English as the world's imperial language, 28) efforts to thwart local control of education by indigenous peoples, 29) national government efforts similar to those in the United States to raise the expense and reduce the number of students in higher education, 30) the indirect imposition (via "foreign aid" programs) and the direct imposition (via conquest, e.g, Iraq) of the same kinds of schools and educational structures being pushed in the United States.

Obviously, all these areas of conflict and hotly debated and contested issues cannot be dealt with in any great depth in a single course. Therefore, the particular issues that will be taken on - beyond those topics basic to all discussion of education - will be chosen largely according to the concerns and preoccupations of the students in the course. The natural inter-relatedness of the various issues will inevitably involve some overlap and the study of one issue may lead to that of another so some collective flexibility is required in the choice of topics and discussion.

Course Organization and Requirements

To preserve the initiative that gave birth to this course, it has been organized in the past as a seminar rather than as a lecture course. In other words, in the place of the usual professor-lectures/students-listen, active/passive structure, students have read common material and actively engaged that material through both individual reflection and collective discussion.

As long as the course enrollment was low - about 20 students - this was feasible. This year the situation is more problematic with an enrollment of almost 40. Therefore, we will proceed as follows: Tuesday I will lecture (with the encouragement of questions and some discussion by students) and Thursday the class will break up into discussion groups to confront the material in the absence of the professor. Remember, as explained above, this course originated in the desire of some students to study this material on their own. They only came to me because they wanted credit and my input into possible study materials.

As in the past, students will be expected to do, and to discuss, the assigned readings. You will be encouraged, but not required, to do further research on various topics that interest you and to make the results of your research available to others in the course; there will be Blackboard forums to facilitate this.

In some previous years students have been were required to keep a journal of notes and thoughts on their reading, their research and their reflections on the material, issues and discussions.

For three years (2006, 2007, 2008) the course was recast as a "writing component" course so in the place of journals, various writing assignments were required.

This year, the course will NOT be a writing component course. However......

Largely because of the thought I have been putting into this course, and into pedagogical issues more generally, I have become more and more convinced that studying course material without appropriating it in some way is a royal waste of time. Therefore in ALL of my courses, including this one, I am now asking that you seriously think about what you can appropriate, i.e., integrate into your life trajectory, either as part of your intellectual development or in terms of your decisions about how you behave in the world. Concretely, what I want you to do is to write two essays, one at the beginning of the course and one at the end.

In the first essay, I want you to think about the path that led you to this course and how - after studying the course list of topics and readings - you think you might make use of it. The purpose of writing this essay is to help get you into a mind-set in which you confront the various readings, ideas and discussion consciously thinking about how they relate to your evolving intelletual trajectory and what you are doing with your life. This first essay will NOT be graded but you will receive feed-back in the form of comments and questions about what you have written.

In the second, final, essay, I want you to explain what you have appropriated and how. Obviously, in a short essay you will not be able to discuss everything covered in the course but only those aspects that you have found to be most useful to appropriate. NB: the essay is NOT about what you have learned but about your appropriation of what you think you have truly understood. This second essay WILL be graded and will constitute a substantial part of your grade (see below), so you would do well to take both essays seriously.

From past experience I have discovered that many students, never having done anything like this before, find this assignment rewarding but quite difficult. To clarify what I am asking for, I have written an essay on "Learning, Understanding and Appropriating" - that includes some examples of famous intellectuals reflecting on these issues, and some of my reflections on some moments in my own life.


This year, with almost 40 students enrolled, I have decided to grade your participation in this course (an obnoxious, counter-productive, process imposed by current university rules) in three ways: 1) grade your final essay, 2) give and grade two tests over the material we cover and discuss in class, and 3) grade you for attendence and participation. Let me explain a bit more.

Throughout my thirty-odd years of teaching in universities where a great many students wind up in courses that don't interest them (usually because the course is required or they need the credit in a required field) it has been my belief that whether students attend class, or whether they study at all, is entirely up to them. As a result, I have: 1) never required attendence and 2) taught for the handful who have indeed been interested. As I have shifted away from lectures and toward more student discussion, however, I have discovered that with no graded obligation to take part, many students simply shift their time and energy into courses where they DO have graded obligations to attend or to perform. As a result, those students who are more involved in this course find themselves deprived of others with whom they can interact. Therefore, I have abandoned my past habits and a record will be kept of your attendence (in both lectures and discussion) and participation and that record will affect your grade.

To encourage active participation in Thursday small group discussion you will be required to prepare notes on the week's readings and lectures that include 1) reflection on the content with respect to your own possible appropriation of it and 2) questions or interventions for the discussions on Thursday. These you will bring to class on Thursday and hand in that same day to the T.A. Past experience shows that this manner of proceeding will help you keep up with the course materials, provide a measure of participation and keep you thinking about actually appropriating some of the ideas you are studying - the subject of your second essay. The TA will grade these notes on their degree of seriousness, and return them to you the following week.

Therefore, your final grade will consist of the average of four intermediary grades: 1) on a mid-term exam, 2) on a second exam at the end of the course (not a final), 3) on essay #2 turned in a week before the end of classes, and 4) on your attendence and participation. Given the emphasis on participation and self-reflective learning, your attendance and participation will count for one third of your final grade, the two test grades for one third and your final essay for one third.

Course Materials

Most of the readings for the course are, or will be, available on-line.

You would also do well either to subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education - now possible on a fairly cheap monthly basis at their website or to access it regularly through the University's on-line databases. I'm not sure what the lag is between the appearance of the Chronicle and its availablity in the databases. A subscription gives you immediate access to their online edition and to their archives that will provide you with one useful source for your research in this course.