Sunday 7 June 2009

Education, Capitalism, Reproduction of Social Class and Student Protests

On June 6 a conference was held in Warsaw entitled "the Bologna Process: Adjusting Education to the Needs to Capital". The conference was quite a rare event in a country where, as participants in the conference noted, widespread commercialization of higher education went on without the social reaction which accompanied such changes in so many countries in Europe and around the world.

There were several reasons for including the theme of the Bologna Process in the title. The first is because many mass student protests around Europe crystalized around this theme since the commericalization of higher education, along with many other reforms being criticized by students, has gone hand in hand with the Bologna Process. The Process is also an integral part of the Lisbon Strategy. With both the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy, the propagandists of the EU and local neoliberal politicians have been conducting an information campaign which presents both these strategies in an overtly positive light, focusing on only certain aspects of these strategies and presenting them with a slant meant to positively incline people towards them and to discourage people from looking deeper into what else these strategies actually entail. The world of the Lisbon Strategy is thus a world where "career breaks" are presented as wonderful opportunities to rest from a job and do something more exciting and rewarding instead of as structural employment. "Flexibilty" and "mobility" are presented as desirable attributes for the modern, well-adapted worker and student in an attempt to obfuscate the real nature of precarity. Thus the desire to more deeply examine what the ideology behind the Bologna Process really entails and to open up a space for critical discussion.

As it turned out, for those who made presentations or lead discussions at the event, all activists from the radical anarchist or radical libertarian communist movement or the libertarian left, points of opposition actually go much deeper than just the Bologna protest.

The first presentation, made by members of ZSP (Union of Syndicalists), analyzed the Bologna Process in a deeper context. Although the Declaration which lays at the foundation of the process does not implicitly include points such as the privatization of educational institutions, the larger ideological realm of the Process assumes wide-scale commericalization and every local implementation of the Process introduces more and more reform motivated by the logic of capitalism and the adjustment of education to the needs of capital and class society. Various points of the process and its implementation were analyzed, in particular the ideas of education management and "effectiveness" as determined by the needs of business, not by the needs of people in general. The needs of business and creating the labour market it most desires have come to replace the idea of the overall good of society; when speaking of society's needs, the ideologues of the system always mean the former.

Next there were presentations by two groups which have been active in universities, protesting, informing, inspiring student activists as well as activism on a broader scale: "Reclaim your Education" from Wroclaw* and OkUPE from Gdansk.

(* This group pointed out that they originally did not give a name to their group, but since they called their website "Reclaim your Education", everybody started callling them that.)

The Reclaim your Education group got together a few months ago and was clearly inspired by mass student protests in Europe. (Many of these protests and statements made by radical students were published on the anarchist portal CIA and were followed with great interest.) They noticed how there was a good level of class consciousness among radical students and in many cases good cooperation between labour and students. Something like this is totally lacking in Poland and the people from Reclaim your Education was eager to put this topic out for discussion and awareness raising in Wroclaw. They found that, besides a few radical students and educational workers, some other activists were eager to join forces, including people from the magazine "Recykling Idei", ZSP and squatters. Even somebody from the local labour party was supportive. The activists held a number of discussions and lectures in Wroclaw and also put up a few information tents, at the university and in the main square of the city. There they were able to talk with people and found a lot of public sympathy. For those more interested, you could get an old copy of "Recyling Idei" devoted to the question of education.

One activist of Reclaim your Education also described how you can introduce topics like paid education and the class divisions that it enhances or new ones it creates as a launching point for more discussion on class and capitalism in general. Participants in the conference also discussed the lack of awareness and passivity amongst students and how to approach people and encourage a radical departure for the dominant ideology.

The presentation by the group OKUPE was also very interesting. OKUPE is an acronym which means "Open Committee to Free Educational Space". This group has been very active on a number of issues related to democratizing and liberating the university and has done also a lot of happenings on topics specific to the Unversity of Gdansk. For example, when the university built a fence around it, the group did some protests, happenings and discussions on the idea of public space, noting, for example, that local residents who had previously used the campus space now were treated as intruders. (Especially since the campus installed security cameras everywhere.) OKUPE thus has been reacting to real situations and events on the campus and putting them into a larger social context. They have also been building up contacts, exchanging experience and coordinating with other radical activists around the world.

Next was a presentation by ZSP and the informal anti-Bologna group in Warsaw about how the Bologna Process is being implemented in different countries and how students are protesting, what challenges they face, what methods these use to organize and what effects they could get. Of particular interest were the radical student postulates and the plenum used in many places. People were also glad to hear about student protests organized just a day or two earlier by anarchists and libertarian comrades from Ukraine.

Finally was the radical philosophical part and discussion, kicked off by a talk made by our comrade from ZSP Szczecin provocatively entitled "Education - Opium of the Intellectuals". Then things started getting a little more radical and some rough arguments with the more leftist audience occurred.

Some of the points brought out were still comfortable for the audience, as they included analysis of the class reproductiion from a safe intellectual position, this safe position being always descriptive rather than prescriptive, and which included references to theorists respected in the intellectual world of the left (ie Bourdieu or Bauman). Of course more radical ideas then were unleashed, questioning instutionalized education in and of itself. In terms of theory, there were quite a few references to people such as Illich or Ferrer and Kropotkin and there was quite hard criticism of the division of labour and the idea that intellectual pursuits, citizenship, leisure and work are separate functions of life, permanently divided in functions and allocated to individuals who, as work, perform one function separately from others. The culture of meritocracy and efficiency was criticized as most often working against the interests of equality and the development of a larger portion of society to more well-rounded individuals, more able to engage in various aspects of social life, to explore and develop their human potential and to live in more harmonious relations with the people around them.

Beside this, there was also some critical reflection on the demands of some student protestors which were categorized as being essentially social democratic in nature. There was some discussion on how to go beyond such social democractic demands. People pointed out that too often some intellectuals approach the issue of the commercialization of education from the point of view that what was before was OK, that the values of the traditional university were a paragon of virtue in comparison to the values of commercialized education with must conform to market demand. The anarchists pointed out that the traditional university was full of hierarchy, class reproduction, bourgeois assumptions, the creation of elites and was not the utopia for intellectuals which some nostalgic intellectuals have painted it to be. It is not for us to try to conserve the value of the existing university, because the institution itself has little value to us.

Besides students and doctoral students, there were high-school students and a couple of professors/teachers at the conference, plus one presenter from ZSP who is none of the above (but just personally decided the system was crap and dropped out years ago and became a critic of institutionalized education).

The participants in the conference thought there were lots of interesting presentations and discussions and there are discussions about repeating the conference in at least the different hometowns of the participants in the fall. Everybody is hoping that such events will raise awareness and start discussions and that maybe the seeds for a future radical student movement will be laid. Some years ago in Poland something like this sprang up amongst high-school students, but it died down and when they went to do university, most of them completely stopped any student activity. Many students feel they exist in a vacuum and some who would otherwise be interested are probably discouraged by the general apathy they see around them. The participants in the conference are hoping to break this apathy.

It was pointed out that June 19 is the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Bologna Declartion and that students in Germany will be protesting and striking that week so it would be a good time to hit the streets and campuses in Poland with another information event.

More information about the initiatives involved in the conference can be found on the following web pages (in Polish):
http://zspwawa/ (English)

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