Manifesto for an Education Beyond the Power Grid

It’s no secret that it’s the apparatuses of education that best determine social and economic privilege. Education is therefore not only a set of keys to the many doors of society but also a medium through which privilege travels and is passed on through generations. Class privilege, as well as ethnic and racial difference, plays a central role here. The educational debt burden is skyrocketing and distorts the playing field further. Symptomatically enough, in the U.S. the talk du jour is about downward mobility from the middle class.

Unfortunately, U.S. education no longer serves as a machine to bring social and economic equality, as was the case until the 1970s; it now accelerates and cements class differences. Online education definitely holds great potential for very good, widely accessible, valuable education—though the reality on the ground is that it also risks easy perversion: consumers may be lured to purchase expensive education packages that turn out to be meaningless. The real gains in digital education, again, will most likely profit those who already harvest the best society has to offer and enhance elite education’s function as a class-divider.

My point can be put briefly: I am appalled to see education increasingly turn into a business, conceived of as an investment and its results treated as cultural capital to be monetized. I am also annoyed to see art education recycled as ultimate chic, a powerful accessory instrumentalized for all possible aims except the creation of art as a critical model of aesthetic and performing practice counter to those society has already validated, put in place, marketed, and co-opted.

Celebrity culture and marketing/branding strategies are penetrating the most fundamental tool for a democratic society that should be open to everybody: education. Ironically, the most expensive and exclusive (early) childhood schools in New York City are those that borrow the names of Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, both of whom believed in alternative models of education and living. Montessori even started her schools with abandoned, poor children picked up from the streets in Rome, which revolutionized education and redefined the link between poverty and social mobility.

It is horrifying to see the same debilitating, anti-democratic, myopic, and power-driven dynamics that characterize the upper crust of the commercial art world in play more and more in parts of the education field. All this constitutes a power grid that ostensibly approaches each operational field differently but is always characterized by tight, exclusive networks of hegemonic relationships, good access to information, and funding and admission rituals that are partially frank and open and partially opaque and hidden in the ether.

To counter all this, I advocate for free and efficient education: public, autonomous, need-oriented teachings that treat things, people, animals, and nature with respect and allow each and everything its own timing and rhythms. Any curriculum should be oriented toward democratic, liberal, inclusive, and collaborative ideas that address the real needs of individual students and of a balanced, fair, and just society as a whole. Education should be critical and adhere to the politics and utopias of Enlightenment culture. Multiple choice testing, permanent numeric evaluations, and cutthroat selectivity should not dominate schooling. On every level, education should foster understanding of the intrinsic logic of things, thinking, and knowledge in its social context.

It is essential that proper education develop models, strategies, and even its own apparatuses that oppose and redefine our corporate, neo-liberal, debilitating power grids basically made up of big money, (celebrity) spectacle, and (pure) force extending into all spheres of life. Education, as well as any other form of cultural work—including art-making—should open up possibilities for everybody to develop their own criteria of success and create their own flexible, multi-dimensional, alternative grids as frameworks of viable and sustainable references in which to operate and communicate.

Prestige of an institution or a teacher should be solely based on their teaching and the ability of students to continue their own paths and fend off false promises and dependencies. We need to first teach children to say NO to nearly everything that comes with a bar code and hasn’t been around for at least 200 years as a rule of thumb. Then we should start examining education as though we just landed from an alien planet that operates differently. We definitely need to say NO to the regime of high cost education with branding, elite culture, and narrow admission policies. A NO also to corporate consumer identity and subject formations that just condition us for lifelong consumer addiction and product arrogance. Yes to active, app-free involvements in social agencies on platforms that really improve our standards of living in qualitative terms.

We are destroying democracy and our middle class societies when education is only accessible to rich and privileged people. The fight for education is a political and an ideological one, fought also in material terms through economic erosion and unsustainable debt politics accompanied by a few lucky ones, as if drawn semi-randomly from a lottery basket. Doesn’t that remind us of the art world? But education has to stay democratic in order to enhance and guarantee democracy and the legacy of Enlightenment. Both democracy and the demands of all Enlightenment thinkers need to be redefined and defended constantly.  

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Rainer Ganahl

RAINER GANAHL is a New York-based artist. For more information see www.ganahl.info.