Is Market-driven Education Reproducing Alienation? Re-reading Marx on Human Nature

Radhika Jagtap (jagtap.radhika7@gmail.com) teaches at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
28 February 2023

Various studies and scholastic arguments have now established the link between modern education and alienation. These studies range across disciplines like psychology, sociology, and political science as well as subjects that provide a critical analysis of the normative global shape shifting that affects local politics. More or less, in most of the contentions, one does observe a pertinent emphasis on the dominating force of the market. Market as a driving force in present-day education systems is also deciding their future. In the following article, an attempt has been made to conceptualise the complex picture of modern-day education, the global politics that decides if it is a right or a commodity and its relational dynamics with the individual in the society—all this through the perspective of “alienation.” This article tries to propose if education is reproducing detachment of the individual from their inherent consciousness by making their relationship with education as that of between an alienated labourer and their labour in a capitalist society.

Although Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels wrote very little on education, educational implications have been deconstructed by many. In spirit, Marxists believe that education can both reproduce and have the potential to undermine capitalist structures (Bowles and Ginits 1976). However, one significant aspect of Marx’s earliest articulations that critically informs us about the present state of education, globally as well as locally in countries like India—is his work on “human nature” and alienation of an individual. It becomes a rather interesting question whether education continues to be a fundamental facet of the human disposition and a human right in a post truth society, or has it become a commodity and a tradeable service. Have the mounting attempts of regulating various aspects of education through the market forces had any impacts on the individual? Has it in any way contributed to their alienation from work, nature and their society as a collective?

Gattungswesen?- Alienating Educational Framework

Gattungswesen- the German term for “species’ essence” comprises all of an individual’s innate potentials. It explains one of Marx’s four articulations about forms of alienation. Capitalism takes away ‘Gattungswesen’ or the essence of being human (Marx 1845). The individual’s labour is forced and coerced. The kind of work that the individual is made to do has no correlation with their interests or passion. The generated wealth by the worker is owned by the bourgeoisie and it is driven by profit maximization. This leads to the strengthening of classes in society which hinders the individual’s ability to determine their actions.

The concept informs the work relations in modern day society as well, where individual is at a threat of losing identity and subjective consciousness due to the daily course of alienating work. In his 1961 essay on the same subject, German sociologist and psychoanalyst, Eric Fromm notes that according Marx, “labour is the expression of human life and through labour individual’s relationship to nature is changed, hence through labour individual changes themselves” (Fromm, 1961: 13). Further, “it is not the consciousness of individuals that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Fromm, 1961: 13).

Thus, in the case of education and its connection with labour, the commodification of education replaces education from being a social value to being a private good which ultimately leaves an individual perceiving it through merely labour relations. What one retains through the process of education is not necessarily something that stays with the individual, but is separated from them and added to the capital. In the process, the individual is alienated from their Gattungswesen. Marx’s conception of alienation, as per commentators, translates as one “where the job does not serve the intrinsic need of the human being to promote the mutual survival and well-being of the species, in short, the job has no real purpose”. It is like navigating through the world passively. It is the perversion of labour into forced, alienated, meaningless labour, which causes the transformation of the individual into a “crippled monstrosity” (Fromm, 1961:33).

Education as a value or a fundamental component of human disposition has arguably been understood as a human right. But the manner in which the right is demonstrated to be realised could change the very fabric of this understanding. Quite a few studies have confirmed that private players in the form of educational institutions have furthered exploitation and increased the gap between marginalised sections of the society and its accessibility (Ravi 2015; Anand 2015).  

Resistance against the “Dying of the Light”

Anti-privatisation movements in education have, besides challenging the rapid commercialisation of education at various levels, also proposed a “rethinking of methodologies and teaching pedagogy” as forms of counter resistance. Post 2016, many public institutions in India observed agitations and continue to be in resistance to the drastic hikes in the otherwise subsidised fees, seat cuts and curtailment of student friendly policies. These movements have always tried to highlight the significance of education being a social right that must be ensured and guaranteed by government. Inclusivity as an outcome of education being free and a right instead of a buyable commodity has been a central argument of most of the campaigns. Sociologist Avijit Pathak writes that where there are fancy private universities and all sorts of institutes of technology and management; and where teachers are seen as mere ‘service providers’ and students as ‘consumers’, education becomes a mere utilitarian/instrumental transaction (Pathak 2019). In her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch explores the major issues of privatization, and creates a manifesto for the many anti-privatization activists and bloggers (Ravitch 2013). Private education, as per Ravitch, “undermines the sense of collective responsibility for collective needs. It hurts public education not only by attacking its effectiveness and legitimacy but by laying claim to its revenues. The money allocated to privately managed charters and vouchers represents a transfer of critical public resources to the private sector, causing the public schools to suffer budget cuts and loss of staffing and services as the private sector grows, without providing better education or better outcomes for the students who transfer to the private-sector schools” (Ravitch 2013).

Global Forces and Fate of Education

The argument regarding the diminishing of education as a right and the anxiety towards its obvious commercialisation do not exist in a vacuum or without a propelling top-down effects of the global market operations. The General Agreement on Trade in Services or GATS governs the trade relations among members in tradeable services. The 2016 Nairobi ministerial conference of the WTO was significant as it rekindled the discussions on “education services” as listed under the GATS and prospective commitments by member countries. India if it ever scheduled commitment to the same, would have a legal and binding obligation to provide unrestricted market access to private as well as foreign entities in terms of trading in educational services. Considering that India’s education sector is classified into five subsectors: primary education, secondary education, higher education, adult education (technical and/or professional or vocational education), and ‘other education’, the sector could be altered in its entirety. While India has still not officially scheduled its commitment, there is a clear apprehension in the governmental approach towards education as a tradeable service. The New Education Policy adopted in 2020 provides for foreign universities to be given special dispensation regarding regulatory, governance and content norms on par with other autonomous education institutions in India. It may or may not be a coincidence but post 2016, the resistance to the privatisation of education from various student movements, especially from public university campuses have met with immense pro establishment criticism. This was followed by fee hikes in various government funded universities and a subtle discursive battle of delegitimising student unionism and their political capacities.

A Challenge to Critical Thinking

Higher education and university level disciplines today are segregated in extremely specialised, streamlined courses that have specific professional course outcomes and targets. Students are made to groom themselves in a homogenised idea of what their future in their industry must look like. To execute such grooming there are precise and detailed requirements that they must undergo, amass various certificates and achieve a certain target at the end of the day. The academic and critical thinking suffers and is unfortunately limited to the formal systems of examinations and scoring. For instance, the degree courses in law have become quite reorganised. The law schools in their curriculums have been focussing on intense disciplinarian and industry professional attitudes for the grooming of lawyers. That being said, national or private, law schools are desperately striving to lead their markets, bag maximum funds and enrolment numbers and ultimately to stay relevant. There is an unnerving proliferation in courses, diploma programmes, etc. to appeal to the consumer characteristics of the industry.

Advanced research and studies are becoming endeavours initiated out of criteria fulfilments and less from place of passion and inquisitiveness. In a recent perspective shared by N. Manoharan, publishing of ideas and research have been mostly out of the motivations for performance appraisals in academia or boosting the API scores alone. These scores are important but the pressures surrounding its quest can be excruciating. 

Alienating Educational Framework and Mental Health

The results of a study published in the Cambridge Journal of Education recently state that private education has connections to poorer mental health. It found that those who went to a private school in England were no happier with their lives in their early 20s than their state educated peers (ANI 2022). In words of Pathak, private institutions have a lost sense of communion and dialogue. And this sort of education can by no means be emancipatory; it is inherently non-democratic, conservative and status quoist (Pathak 2019). There is arguably lesser regard for students’ and employees’ mental health and wellbeing in private spaces. Amidst dominant conformist culture and target-oriented environment in the name of knowledge production, individual tends to find themselves disconnected to the passion for and the very idea of education and in words of Marx, “does not fulfil themself in their work but denies themself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely their mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels themself at home only during their leisure time, whereas at work they feel homeless (Marx 1844: 98).

Conclusion

At the outset, private actors in the education sector promised cutting edge quality and variety of options that could fill the gaps in what was offered by funded public institutions. But in extreme neo liberal phase and through post truth times, these same actors contributed majorly in reproducing inequality and unaffordability. Because the commercialising process is separating “thinking” from the individual and turning it into a labour that needs to be delivered, individual is detached from “wondering”, “pondering” and perhaps, “conceptualising” for the purpose of social creation, but is now bound to comply with the mechanical requirements of the sector.  To read the existential impacts of market driven education framework on the individual and society through the lens of Marx’s conception is quite an obvious thing to do but under its sub-arguments, there aren’t many literature sources that point out at variables like mental health, critical thinking, homogenising of cultures or resistance movements. One way to challenge the alienation caused by commercialising forces could be through documenting and discussing about it. The above contentions were only small steps in that direction. 

Radhika Jagtap (jagtap.radhika7@gmail.com) teaches at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
28 February 2023