In Mmegi (weekly newspaper in Gaborone, Botswana)


Education: With or Without Production?


Robert de Beaugrande


Anthropology records how nearly all societies in their early stages first developed education with production, preparing young people for the labour of future life. Yet in most in ‘modern’ societies, the predominant system is education without production, manifestly unrelated to real-life labour. How could this transformation happen?

The ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, provided the ancestral model —  the ‘academy’ (Plato’s ‘sheltered grove’) for the children of prominent or aspiring citizens. These children had no intention of entering productive labour, which they disdained as the work fit for a slave; and their ‘education’ was intended to help set them above it and to certify their superiority over the labour force.

These intentions might explain the long survival of the Greek and Roman model of ‘education without production’, teaching socially remote subjects like Latin and geometry right up into our own times. The same social classes who vowed to be set above productive labour were determined to set a low value on productive labour as a justification for paying minimum wages. They naturally supported a mode of education which implicitly devalues productive labour by ignoring it, and explicitly exhorts the learners to be diligent in their Latin, geometry, and similarly unproductive subject-matters in order to attain a ‘good career’ — a livelihood largely free of labour.

The industrial revolution ‘modernised’ productive labour and drew into it a much larger portion of the population, yet, ironically enough, the labour itself was actually devalued even further. The individual labourer, being easily and cheaply replaceable, was entirely at the mercy of the employer. Working conditions were prison-like, rough, and dangerous. And the work itself was disdained as fit for slaves, this time being machines that didn’t even demand food or sleep, much less wages.

Eventually, children destined for lives of labour were conscripted into ‘public education’. But, again ironically, this too was largely ‘without production’, devoted to basic literacy, arithmetic, and the Gospels with their other-worldly message of a blissful, labour-free afterlife reserved in Heaven for the obedient and the hard-working.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution was also creating new sectors of work where production was relatively free of actual labour: engineers, architects, managers, overseers, book-keepers, traders, bankers, stock-brokers, speculators, lawyers. The rising pay and prestige of these jobs devalued real labour once again by demonstrating how people became wealthy while avoiding it.

As the society grew more complex and technological, the jobs demanded a ‘higher education’, which has been duly provided by the founding of ‘technical colleges’ and ‘polytechnics’. All the same, ‘high technology’ devalues labour in its own way by holding out the promise of a future world where production will be ultimately freed from human labour. Moreover, as if in anticipation, it relentlessly cuts back on the number of jobs for humans needed to operate the steadily ‘smarter’ machines.

The rise in ‘high technology’ has prompted a gradual swing toward education with production, but in a limited and half-hearted way. Our vaunted commitment to ‘progress’ and ‘science’ since the Second World War barely affected the methods in primary and secondary education. The content has become more technical but no closer to actual production. Learners have had to increase their theoretical knowledge rather than their practical work.

The ‘tertiary education’ in the universities of our own day is a complicated mixture of at least three approaches. Some areas, such as the faculties of ‘Humanities’, are still firmly in the ‘academic’ tradition of ‘education’ setting you above productive labour. If your degree does earn you a job, then mostly as a junior teacher in primary or secondary schools — in education without production. Others, such as faculties of ‘Business’ or ‘Administration’, train you for jobs like ‘accountant’ or ‘financial advisor’ which participate in production but without manual labour. Still others, such as the ‘Sciences’, train you for jobs in ‘theory’ and ‘research’, often inside the university system, which are related to production or to labour only in indirect ways. Despite their differences, all three approaches keep you away from basic practical labour.

You might think that ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ education, by remaining ‘academic’ and without production, are strategically designed to prepare for ‘tertiary’ education of the same kind. But instead, these three levels of education have been in many ways sealed off from each other, and have been taught by staff with significantly different kinds of training. Moreover, public education was first designed to be the end of the line. Primary schooling would be all the children could expect; school leavers would go directly into the labour force. Having been made compulsory by law, early public schooling was not compelled to work out an innovative design more suitable for its new clientele in providing hands-on experience with practical labour. Later, the same end-of-the line outlook was designed into public secondary school; leavers would go looking for jobs.

When ‘higher education’ went public, the design of education at the lower levels changed surprisingly little. Their main goal has not been a specific and focussed preparation for university study so much as a general and unfocussed selection of those who get admitted to university at all. Your chances depend above all upon your skills in ‘mathematical and verbal reasoning’, which play a huge role in school performance but a small one in productive labour. The reliance upon those skills as yardsticks became unmistakable when they were adopted as the main categories of ‘standardised achievement tests’, including ‘college entrance examinations’.

During colonialism, this version of ‘education’ was duly exported from Europe around the world. Each society came under the control of a non-producing social class whose aspirations featured a ‘good education’, meaning a ‘European’ one that will keep you out of  manual labour. The impact was most dramatic in colonised regions where productive labour had traditionally provided the bulk of subsistence and survival. Now, a system of education was established which propagated an insidious disrespect for labour, again to help justify paying minimum wages. As this disrespect was gradually adopted by the labourers themselves, they abandoned skilled production, such as small farming, carpentry, masonry, ironwork, pottery, and weaving. They migrated planlessly to urban centres where they hoped to imitate the labour-free life-styles of the ‘educated’. Instead, they just traded rural poverty for urban poverty.

Today, we are finally coming to discover the exorbitant social costs of long-term ‘education without production’, even in prosperous countries like Botswana. The market for jobs and careers has been ‘globalised’, and that means just what it says: everybody is in ‘competition’ everywhere and immediately. The ‘global economy’ is sinking to an all-time low in the world-wide devaluation of labour. In the ‘free market’, the ‘multi-national corporation’ is ‘free’ to offer the labourers exactly two choices: low wages or no wages. That is the extent of their ‘freedom’.

What has hardly been officially recognised so far is that globalising the job market to force down wages also globalises the ensuing social problems, such as poverty and violent crime. No matter where you live, your ability to be ‘competitive’ is measured by your ability to accept working conditions like those found in the poorest countries.  In addition, you can be affected when the governments of those same countries violate human rights. When a ruthless dictator in some country abolishes the minimum wage, outlaws the trade unions, and devalues the currency, his actions put pressure on workers living in ‘democratic’ countries to lower their own demands lest whole industries get moved to this attractive new homeland and leave behind another surge of unemployment.

This simple mechanism means the globalisation of poverty for a substantial portion of the population in every country, as we now see even in the UK and the US. Any nation that staunchly resists by raising the minimum wage, strengthening the trade unions, and protecting the currency, risks being expelled from the ‘world economy’ and punished by a massive ‘flight of capital’ and ‘industry’ to more ‘competitive’ nations. So most governments are currently dithering and waffling to salvage as much as of the social fabric as they can without antagonising multi-national corporations and foreign investors. South Africa is the key country to watch; the outcome there will probably decide the fate of this whole region.

Globalisation is also heading for production without education. Labourers struggling to subsist on ‘competitive’ rock-bottom wages cannot afford even small school-fees for their children. In many countries, the children have already been drafted into the ‘labour force’ anyway at wages far lower even than their parents get — if they still have parents.

At the same time, public funding for education and other social services is quickly evaporating, forcing schools to turn away applicants, lay off teachers, or just close down. Multi-national corporations registered in ‘offshore’ places like the Cayman Islands do not contribute to the local tax base; on the contrary, they plunder it by demanding ‘incentives’ for every ‘investment’. And for the simple kind of productive labour they use, education is hardly needed in any case.

The effects are most painful for the lowest wage-earners, but are coming to affect the middle ones too. Global ‘rationalisation’ is rapidly drying up away the pool of relatively labour-free jobs you used to earn just by getting a ‘higher education’. Jobs in the public sector disappear along with the tax base. Jobs in the private sector shrink through ‘increasing productivity’. A smaller staff gets compelled by ‘multi-skilling’ to do the same amount of work. Or, the company undergoes a ‘merger’ or a ‘take-over’ and ‘re-negotiates’ its contracts at lower terms. Or, the company ‘closes down’ entirely, laying off everybody, and then ‘resumes business’ with a cheaper workforce. Or, it replaces long-term, full-time workers on contracts with short-term, part-time workers on no contracts. Or again, it farms out the tasks of middle-level managers, advisors, and consultants to free-lance hackers, also anywhere in the world, who have modems and internet workstations, and who know how to delegate steadily more of the work to ‘smarter’ computers.

Suddenly, education without production is becoming unaffordable in several senses. ‘Globalisation’ means that a society cannot ‘afford’ to invest properly in public education if it wants to ‘compete’ with societies that are operating production without education. But the society will also find that it can no longer ‘afford’ an educational system that remains largely isolated from production. Now that a diploma no longer means a job, students are growing openly frustrated and alienated by the peculiar routines of schooling. Their anxiety and anger find expression in the confrontation, violence, and vandalism erupting in many schools and campuses.

So we seem to have no humane and rational course but to restore education with production. Doing so would not mean merely making over the schools into training stations for the type of jobs that are open this year but may not be a few years hence now. It would mean cultivating the learners’ creativity and self-reliance so that they can adapt along with the skittish job-market. It would education with productivity, giving hands-on experience with multiple modes and means production in order to promote adaptability within production.

The central goal of this production would be to make the community not globally competitive, which involves importing poverty, but locally self-sufficient, which Samir Amin has called Delinking in a recent book title. Young people need to be educated for careers in skilled labour that receives the solid respect and the solid wages and it deserves and not the wages dictated by the insatiable profiteers in ‘multi-national corporations’. The labour should be turned inward toward the community: rebuilding homes, regenerating fields and forests, conserving soil and water, and raising the quality of life that we now see spiralling downward. If we are so keen to ‘compete’, then let us compete with our own past and present selves in ‘producing’ our own future. That we can all achieve better lives, instead of a few people achieving better lives by forcing worse lives upon many people.

This then is why I am happy for the opportunity to support the Foundation for Education with Production as it initiates a new centre here in Gaborone. Precisely because that concept has been so rare in modern schooling, we urgently need a full-fledged working model of a community-centred educational approach in the tradition of the Botswana Brigades and Thuto le Tiro. We must give education with production a fair test to be measured alongside education without production. We can’t ‘afford’ not to.


Photo caption: Robert de Beaugrande, shown here in the Kalahaii Game Reserve with the Land-Rover he has donated to the Foundation for Education with Production, was Professor of English at the University of Botswana from August 1997 to August 1999. He has published some 200 books and papers dealing mainly with language, society, democracy, and education.