School and the Self

Across the United States, most people have shared understandings of the purpose of education (to prepare tomorrow’s leaders today) and a shared language in which they discuss the purpose. Thus, the education system forms a system of meaning across America. The divide, however, lies in the means to the end: public schools are notorious for teaching to an end-of-year test to artificially inflate passing numbers, and public schools in especially competitive areas have caught flack for failing to regulate the cutthroat environments that are fostered– in parts of Silicon Valley, tomorrow’s leaders’ high school years are defined by toil, as the mentality dominates that the only acceptable place to be further educated is an institution that accepts less than 20% of its applicants. However, some laboratory schools are pushing a new way of educating that meets the same goals without the associated stress: one that puts the burden of self-education squarely on the shoulders of its young students and then teaches them how to manage the burden, often with similar results and a happier environment.

We explore the relation of the self to the system of meaning of education, separated into two factions by the schism of methodology.

“Man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being…it is only because he is a species being that he is a Conscious Being i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity”  (Tucker, 76)

For Marx, the relationship between “conscious” life-activity and man realizing his species being leads to the conclusion that a man that has realized his species being engages in free activity as his life activity. “Free” activity implies that man is not obligated to follow any path other than the one he has chosen for himself. This is backed up by the fact that the life-activity is the “object of his will and of his consciousness,” telling us that man must consciously choose– rather than have forced on him– his life activity. Marx explores labor as a life-activity, but labor is not the only life-activity that is possible in the world: before joining the workforce, students are in school for upwards of eight hours a day. Thus, a reasonable argument can be made that for students, studying and advancing their intelligence is their life-activity.

In the following article, the performance of studying as a free, conscious life-activity is shown occurring in a laboratory school.

Sal Khan, founder of the online educational website Khan Academy, has recently opened an experimental private school in Mountain View, California. Khan Lab School’s platform includes having no grade-levels, letter grades, or homework. Students are given the opportunity to explore their interests without the worry of their education being restricted to one form of instruction. They are given the opportunity to personalize their education by setting goals for themselves, which allows them to achieve in the fields they are interested in. Time allotted for direct instruction is reduced in favor of project-based learning activities and individual goal achievement.

Khan Lab School students are not obligated to follow the “traditional” educational path—continuous direct instruction, lack of individualism, and the constant pressure to excel because of homework and grades. Students are allowed range to fully realize their species being and pursue their education as a “free” activity. They do not have to worry about the pressure of failing or not meeting generalized expectations that are forced upon them. Students have the ability to consciously choose what shape their education will take.

Families attending a meeting at Khan Lab school

“The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling” (Weber 40).

“Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will (Weber 104).”

For Weber, the lack of finding salvation in life except for in activity that God approves is a crucial factor in the Protestant ethic. “Leisure and enjoyment” do not qualify as life-activity and do not contribute to man’s efforts to find salvation in life. Leisure and enjoyment are subsequently looked on as acts of idleness and are not selected for in communities that follow the Protestant ethic. Weber states that “only activity serves to increase the glory of God,” which makes the commitment of one to their life-activity the salvation in their life. In the selection of life-activity as a primary obligation in life, the execution of obligated life-activity is a constant process, and the time that is spent on leisure and enjoyment are continually reduced.

Leisure and enjoyment are foreign concepts in Silicon Valley, where public schools treat studying as an obligation, reflecting an expression of Weber’s ideals.

In Silicon Valley, children are forced into an ethic that similarly emphasizes the fulfillment of their life-activity. One result of the “pressure cooker” environment is think-pieces with quotes like the following: “I think we have to look at the attitude of all the adults in this community,” one person wrote. “It is we who are to blame putting the pressure on the kids to succeed … No amount of school counseling will change the parents’ attitudes.”

Words of encouragement are written outside of a Palo Alto high school after another suicide

As demonstrated by the quote, the life-activity that is chosen for the students is not the pursuit of intelligence, but the pursuit of success; in Silicon Valley, success is most tangibly displayed by college acceptance letters. According to Mikki McMillion, the teacher mentioned in the article about the Khan Lab Schools and a former public school teacher, some parents do not give approval of anything but excelling in school and in extracurricular activities that go towards the improvement of their competitive status as an applicant from their respective schools. With a loss of leisure and enjoyment comes a lack of idleness, which is unheard of in this system as the students are constantly working. Their only perceived salvation– success in the form of admission into a “top” school–is through these competitive activities. The Protestant ethic lives on in the education system, leading to the increasing unhappiness of students, and as shown in the article, the unfortunate instances of teenagers taking their own lives due to the overwhelming burden of stress.


9 thoughts on “School and the Self

  1. I think the issue with schools like the Khan Lab School is that, while they certainly have addressed the problem they perceive – that of the current educational system being too regimented or too restricting – they have not changed the macrocosm of capitalist structures that these children are being raised in. Yes, they are being allowed to develop themselves in a way that may seem more in line with our species-being character, but upon graduation they will still have to attempt to create the means of their own subsistence within a capitalist society. Maybe it’s good that they aren’t getting capitalists values of product-oriented efficiency, but their future employers will most likely demand that of them. Capitalist production and consumption must be addressed.


  2. It’s fascinating to see that Protestant values are so deeply ingrained in the structure of education in our society. For me, the high suicide rates due to the pressures of the education system raises the question of what Weber would truly value in modern education. While it is true that these students are constantly, actively serving their calling, if the pressures of serving that calling are too high and results in a student committing suicide then they discontinue serving their calling altogether. Would it be better, in the eyes of Weber, to serve an academic calling while having time to leisure because the students would be able to serve the calling indefinitely?


  3. I found this blog post really interesting, especially since I went to a high school without grades (although we did have homework and required classes). For the most part, within school, I was able to select my own life-activity – choose what subjects I wanted to focus on and how much time I wanted to spend doing so. I agree with the authors of this piece that studying is the life-activity of students. However, the authors argue that studying as opposed to laboring is the life activity of students. I would argue that studying is a form of labor. I also agree with Vanessa’s comment – despite the fact that my school granted me a lot of freedom in determining my own life-activity, I was still subject to the restrictions of the capitalist society in which I live. Schools like the Khan Lab School allow students to be masters of their own life-activity for a time. But eventually, the students will feel the forces of capitalist society gain increasing influence over them – particularly when they begin applying to colleges.


  4. I definitely agree that school work and academic pursuits are forms of life activity, in much the same way a job is. Both are ultimately necessary in order to earn a person’s subsistence, and both forms of work shape the people who perform it. I think you can also find Marx’s phenomenon of alienation in most schools. The only difference is, instead of producing surplus capital, students are producing surplus “success”, or “intelligence.” These things are more difficult to measure than capital, which is measured in currency, but historically have been quantified with letter grades, percentage scores, percentile scores, and various academic awards and prizes. Students produce high schools and awards for their own sake, the way workers produce capital for its own sake, and soon the subject matter becomes irrelevant. However, I don’t know that this is necessarily all bad. What students learn in school is how to figure out the relatively arbitrary rules and systems around them, and then use them to their advantage. Essentially, students get very very good at multiple choice tests, and writing essays that their teachers will like. And because each classroom they’re in is different and each teacher has a different way of working, they learn how to figure out and work a system. These skills are vital to living happily and successfully in a society. I think you use similar skills when you walk into an unfamiliar social environment, and certainly when you enter the workforce. While the school system definitely needs to be restructured, we should make sure students are still able to assess and succeed in demanding, sometimes arbitrarily structured environments.


  5. This was very interesting, and it made me think about how hard it truly is to try to escape capitalism. Even with places like the Khan Lab School that is trying to destructure the school system and “allow children the freedom to explore their interests”, it still functions as a part of capitalism. The children who come out of these schools are supposedly more marketable to employers and colleges because they are able to “think differently” and “creatively”, and they have some sort of “uniqueness” against other children from regular schools. They will supposedly be better workers because they have found the work they enjoy and are willing to be more productive in doing because it is “their calling”, as Weber would say.


  6. This post raises an interesting question about the divide between the world that children experience through school and the world that parents know children will have to face after school. Despite the attempts that schools like the Khan Lab School might make to look at education differently or de-emphasize the ends-based motives of regular education, the main goal of the institution remains, as this article highlights, helping students place into colleges, which then lead to a job and beyond. Even though the students may be focused on pure academic pursuits at a place like the Khan Lab School, they still ultimately are forced to accept the fact that the world exists outside of their school in a manner that does not align with the ideals that the school environment allows them to pursue. At that point I think it’s worth asking whether there should be a push within the school systems to try to amend the system on the school level at all or just focus on providing students with the best possible preparation for life ahead, even though it may not live up to the academic or educational ideals that some educators like Sal Khan might wish to provide for their students.


  7. This is a really cool way of connecting what Marx and Weber talk about in the context of work to a new context, that of education. It’s interesting the way that the loss of “conscious life activity” can be split into two different pieces. There is the labor side, but this is not necessarily what loses the conscious life activity because some human beings find what they love in labor. I like the idea that what causes loss of conscious life activity is the compulsion. However, I’m not sure this characterization of the Khan Academy school is entirely correct, because calling it a re-instatement of conscious life activity is going extremely far in just what the school does. Marx describes this phenomenon as a person doing what they love all the time, and experiencing their full humanity this way. Just studying what you want to study is not the same – in fact, it could be said that this is a similar abstraction of labor. Students are still in school all day, and when they are at home they are thinking about school. To Marx, this is as key in abstraction of labor as the compulsory aspect is. Along with this, the school itself is still mandatory. So while each class may be thought of as labor that a student can choose not to do, in reality the entire school is still compulsory labor


  8. The comparison to Weber’s concept of leisure and enjoyment is really cool because it brings out what one might consider the “religion” of many of these wealthy, bay area families. In this case, that religion could be seen as getting their kids into college. And while even as I write this that seems far fetched, one conversation with a parent could easily convince someone that college acceptance is religion out there. In this way, the Khan School really goes against the religious ethic of the time. This brings into our ideas a sort of counter-movement that Weber doesn’t really address, because he’s setting up the ethic to begin with. Weber is describing the protestants and capitalism. But this academy does not fit in with the ethic, so can it survive? If capitalism thrived because of religious ethic, then Khan theoretically runs opposite to the ethic of its time. While in this comparison the Khan school is not sustainable, I think you may want to look at it in terms of calling as well. If this school is allowing students to pursue their calling, this should run smoothly and even be the future of capitalist society.


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