The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Education Part Three: Education, for Liberation or Domination?

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students. I hope to continue it for a while, and, of course, any critical dialogue upon what is presented is more than welcome. I will try to space these out weekly.

Read Past Contributions:
Part One: Banking or Problem Posting Education?
Part Two: Selective Omission and What We Learn from Malcolm X's Schooling Experience


This article explores the nexus of the educational framework developed by Horace Mann, an early nineteenth century American educational reformer and theorist. Borrowing from previous thoughts and methods of educational development, Mann reviewed various methods and merged them into a functional model based largely upon the authoritarian Prussian school system. One shall find that Mann’s educational approach was mostly an attempt to homogenize the ever-changing immigrant workforce and “provide [employers] with workers who were not only more productive but also docile, easily managed, and unlikely to resort to strikes or violence” (Tozer, 76). At a time when industrialization and urbanization were quickly impinging upon the exclusive agrarian society envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, it became essential that the ruling elites (composed of giant industrial owners, large-scale corporate executives, etc.) found a method in which to sterilize the working class and secure their position of power. Thus, Mann’s education process, a manifestation of elite desire to maintain power with striking similarities to the nationalistic, trade-specific, dehumanizing educational process in Prussia, is largely a pedagogy of oppression; the educational institutions which Mann argues for serve to reproduce the existing social structure and the dominant ideology.

One of the most striking examples is Mann’s attempt to apologize for the enormous wealth gap in society. His aims are rather explicit when he explains that education should “disarm the poor of their hostilities towards the rich” (Tozer, 77). This blatant example, despite some intertwining populist rhetoric, betrays his class loyalty. This is only reinforced when he explains, “The main idea set forth in the creeds of some political reformers, or revolutionizers, is, that some people are poor because others are rich” (Tozer, 77). By implying that a dialectical understanding of wealth is an inappropriate analysis, and that his conception of education alone will lift the poor out of the depths of poverty, Mann’s educational reforms can be viewed as little else than a attempt to skillfully manipulate the public to garner support for an educational process which fostered class oppression. In fact, a letter from a Lowell manufacturer, who had employed and exploited hundreds of workers, explicated upon this postulation:
“I have uniformly found the better educated as a class possessing a higher and better state of morals, more orderly and respectful in their deportment, and more ready to comply with the wholesome and necessary regulations…and in times of agitation…I have always looked to the most intelligent, best educated…for support” (Tozer, 76).
Thus, one sees that the primary goal of the educational process for school reformers such as Mann was to create a working class who provided little or no resistance to the oppressive conditions in which they labored. This played to the ears of the newly emerging ruling elite of industrializing America. No critique was permitted of an economic system where workers’ labor was exploited for as much surplus value as possible, starvation wages were predominant, child labor was common, and workplace rights were absent. Likewise, the idea that democracy should extend to the workplace was a dangerous idea to the elites in the early 19th century, much as it is today. Education, in Mann’s conception, serves to stifle democracy and its spread beyond the very limited political sphere.

The idea that society should reinforce the power structure and reproduce itself continues today. Modern school systems serve the interests of the dominant class. As Jean Anyon found upon studying various schools according to income, “students in different social-class backgrounds are rewarded for classroom behaviors that correspond to…different occupation-strata—the working classes for docility and obedience, the managerial classes for initiative and personal assertiveness” (Anyon, 1). It appears that Mann’s ideas are largely dominant in today’s educational atmosphere. Indeed, Anyon further explicates upon this point when she explains that working class schools use “mechanical, rote work that [is] given little explanation or connection to larger contexts” (Anyon, 4) and “Work is often evaluated not according to whether it is right or wrong but according to whether the children followed the right steps” (Anyon, 3). These examples highlight the fact that the majority of working class students are taught to become obedient workers who unquestioningly accept society and the current class structures which exist. In contrasts, elite schools train children to replace the ruling elite in society, so that the cycle continues, capitalism maintains itself, and the undemocratic workplace remains a permanent institution.

Undoubtedly, this model of education should be challenged by anyone concerned with truly democratizing society and the process of fully humanizing each individual. Indeed, even contemporary writers challenged Mann’s educational ideal. Orestes Brownson, whose own educational idea based upon democratic localism, flawed itself, was correct in pointing out the insidious nature of Mann’s proposals; his critique explained that the educational apparatus Mann envisioned was no more than “a branch of the general police” whose goal was to “[make] the rich secure in their possessions” (Tozer, 79). Unfortunately, history has shown that Brownson’s warnings were not considered seriously enough.

Today, educators are barraged with a wide gamut of bureaucratic measures intended to stifle critical thought and democratic practice. In fact, teachers themselves are supposed to be the “docile, easily managed” workers who are “disarmed…of their hostilities towards the rich” (Tozer, 76-77). Teachers unions, historically a vehicle for struggle against unfair working conditions and a lack of resources, have been largely stripped of their influence and are now run by a ruling group of conservative labor bureaucrats. Democracy and autonomy have been replaced with undemocratic centralization of power and unquestioning obedience. For educators, becoming promoters of educational liberation is vital; until teachers engage in the struggle to break free from the chains that bind them, however, this goal cannot be realized. Educators must look to the example of the 15,000 teachers who recently marched against budget cuts, class size increases, pay cuts and layoffs in LA. One could also look to the Puerto Rican teachers who cut ties with the bureaucratic SEIU and democratically organized their own teachers union to fight for better wages and schools. In order to promote the liberation of all people, educators must fight to liberate themselves; this means challenging Horace Mann’s conception of education and fighting for genuine democracy both inside and outside of the workplace.

Works Cited

Anyon, J. (1980) Social Class and the Hidden Cirriculum. Journal of Education, 162(1), Fall.

Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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