Budget & Finance Opinion

Interview with David Bollier: Viewing Education as a Commons

By Anthony Cody — March 09, 2013 11 min read
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Two weeks ago I posted an entry that pointed to the “investment” wealthy reformers were making in the Los Angeles school board race, and suggested this was evidence that there was, indeed, a “billionaire boys club” funding the advance of market-driven education reform. One commenter took me to task, asserting that education MUST be viewed as a market, and that any other framework is useless. I offered the concept of the commons as an alternative, and went hunting for someone who could explain this idea more clearly, especially in relationship to education. I found David Bollier, who had delivered this talk describing the commons last year. I asked Dr. Bollier to share some thoughts with us about education and the commons.

Question 1. Can you explain what is meant by “the commons”?

Economists and politicians have long assumed that there are really only two sectors for governing things and “adding value” -- the state and the market. Markets are seen as the vehicle for economic progress while the state deals with governance and everything else. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is another sector - the commons - that is at least as important to our lives and well being. The commons consists of those many resources that we share - the atmosphere, water, public spaces, the Internet, scientific knowledge, cultural works, and much more - as well as the social systems and rule-sets that we use to manage them in fair, sustainable ways. It bears emphasizing that the commons is not just the resource itself, but the resource plus the community and its self-organized rule-sets, norms and enforcement of rules. In a broader sense, education and child-rearing are types of commons -- but I’ll get to that a minute.

For decades, the prevailing economic wisdom was that a commons inevitably results in the over-exploitation of the resource - a “tragedy of the commons,” as popularized by biologist Garrett Hardin in a famous 1968 essay. The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom debunked this idea over the course of decades. She documented how self-organized commons can be effective and durable in managing farmland, fisheries, forests, irrigation water and other resources. It has since become clear that the commons is also behind the success of open source software, Wikipedia, academic research, blood banks and community gardens.

This just scratches the surface of the topic because over the past decade an international movement of commoners involved in diverse realms -- farming, fisheries, forests, water, urban spaces, software, digital culture, community life, and other areas -- has taken root and started to expand. Much of this activism is about defending resources that are being appropriated and commodified. Much of it is dedicated to building new models of self-provisioning that are fair, inclusive, participatory and sustainable. In other words, the commons is emerging as a new worldview, social ethic and political tradition that actually has a long history, and is now being rediscovered.

Question 2. How have the commons been eroded or lost in the past?

One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is that countless commons are now being converted into tradeable market commodities - a process that is often called “market enclosure.” Enclosures enshrine price as the ultimate measure of value, trumping more qualitative, intangible values that may be ecological, social or long-term.

For example, global investors are now seizing millions of hectares of farmland, pastures and waterways in Africa, Asia and Latin America with the help of complicit governments. By the logic of the market, this is enormous progress because it puts “wastelands” to productive use in the market and boosts Gross Domestic Product. But for the commoners involved, the market takeover of common lands is a simple act of dispossession. It also has devastating consequences for the natural environment.

The logic of enclosure takes place in many different realms. It occurs, for example, when biotech companies patent the human genome (20% of it is now privately owned) and seeds that traditional peoples have shared for centuries. Enclosures occur when Hollywood and publishers use copyright law to prevent the sharing of works that is essential to creativity and culture; and when corporations, with the active collusion of government, are given free use of the public’s broadcast airwaves, taxpayer-funded scientific and pharmaceutical research, public lands and countless other resources that belong to us all.

The language of the commons is valuable because it gives us a way to recognize the proper limits of markets - and to recognize the highly generative powers of commons and commoners. The commons is no “tragedy"; it is, rather, a different way of managing resources and creating value. It’s time that we recognized these unheralded systems for stewarding our shared resources and nurturing our social commitments to each other. The commons is not just a “nice thing” or a synonym for the “common good.” It is a hardy system of self-governance that can manage resources in ways that are effective, participatory and fair -- and thus experienced as socially and politically legitimate.

It’s relevant to bring up the commons because there are some nasty enclosures currently going on education. These enclosures of public schools are generally described as “privatization,” but I think that term is too anemic for describing what’s going on. There is of course a private power grab and a conversion of our shared wealth to serve market purposes. But it is equally a dispossession. We “commoners” are forced to relinquish certain social roles and identities. Instead of being active stewards of our public schools -- something that we must actively be involved with and support -- enclosures force us to become “consumers” of what “the market” offers us, or to do without.

Enclosures in higher education consist of corporate research “partnerships” with universities, in which the corporations essentially commandeer the research agenda, dictate many terms of the research and how it may be used, and leverage publicly funded resources for private, corporate purposes. It may also consist of treating student bodies as captive cohorts to be advertised to or given educational loans at exploitative interest rates. At the K-12 levels, enclosure may consist of the imposition of corporate-promoted educational curricula; marketing to students via sports, textbooks and student events; and educational priorities that suit the market-oriented interests of corporate leaders, such as school vouchers and “competition” as a way to improve school performance.

Enclosures bring with them a pathology that most markets entail, however. Their success often stems from “externalizing” as many costs as they can onto the community, students or future generations, so that the business enterprise can become more “efficient” and “productive.” This is how markets routinely function -- by generating externalities. It is why industry does not take adequate account of the long-term health of nature.

Enclosures of public schools are doing the same thing. They exclude those students who are more difficult or costly to teach -- the low achievers, those with learning disabilities, and those who may not fit in. They regard students (or their parents) as “consumers,” not as co-producers and collaborators in the educational process. Learning that cannot be measured in clear metrics (and therefore which cannot be a basis for market competition) are regard as secondary or inconsequential. The shared commitments of a community to each other, or the need for inclusiveness and social equity, are not seen as important because, as in any market, we are all “individuals.” These are just a few reasons why the market paradigm is inappropriate as a regime for understanding the challenges of education and managing public schools.

It’s important to note that the privateers are not operating in a vacuum. They are making headway because the schools themselves have become bureaucratized and are not necessarily responsive to people. They are seen as offering a “consumer service,” and for many frustrated parents, that is more attractive than trying to reform city school systems that are often remote, bureaucratic and politically captured. Enclosures can succeed only because there is often little genuine “commoning” going on in school governance. Commoning consists of the social practices by which commoners set their own rules and take responsibility for governance and results. In the void of citizen engagement and responsibility, it is easier for officialdom and big money to consolidate their power and enclose the commons of public education for their own (corporate-minded) purposes.

Dissatisfied with government? Citizenship is ineffective? Then the answer -- say privateers -- is to become a smart consumer and privatize the schools! The only apparent choices are “the system” or “the market.” I think something is conspicuously missing from this conversation: becoming a commoner is more likely to solve the problem than anything offered up by either the market or government. I think we need to imagine and develop better forms of commoning for the real-life governance of public schools.

I am not a battle-scarred veteran of the education wars, nor am I an expert in education policy. But I know enough about politics, institutions and the commons to realize that the charter school movement is an understandable and even partially wholesome response to unresponsive, centralized (bad) management of public schools. Parents want to become more actively involved in shaping and improving their kids’ educations, and charter schools are giving them a real opportunity. While there are certain parties that have ideological motives for promoting charter schools, I consider the movement more of a reaction to massive bureaucratic systems that are not responsive to people’s local needs and personal participation. For many parents, a privatized opt-out (charter schools) promises better (individual) results than a system dominated by “experts,” bureaucrats and ideologues warring with each other.

It’s no wonder that privateers have been able to entice so many parents to take the leap with charter schools. Large, centralized and hidebound school systems are seemingly incapable of empowering neighborhood schools or structurally reforming themselves. Billionaires seeking greater “free market” competition in public education are skillfully exploiting the sense of frustration and disempowerment. “Choice” is the magic codeword for them to make a buck by revamping education from the top down, undemocratically, and according to their corporate sensibilities. This constitutes a pernicious enclosure of a vital public resource.

Question 3. How might those who wish to defend or expand the common aspects of public education approach gain strength in the face of efforts to privatize our schools?

It seems to me that large city school systems need to find better ways to empower local schools and parents to set their own rules and leverage their own energies. That’s a core principle of the commons.

I should add that traditional “liberal” defenders of public schools have to bear some blame for this state of affairs. They have not really proposed structural alternatives to the current system that would empower “commmoners” to have a more serious, genuine role in shaping education. Learning (as opposed to education) is intrinsically participatory, and as such, learning requires the authority and resources to do things on one’s own, without strict and rigid prescriptions designed to serve someone else’s agenda. The rise of DIY (do it yourself) learning websites such as OpenCourseWare, Kahn Academy, Connexions, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are pointing the way to more flexible, student-centered modes of learning that are utterly foreign to “industrial era” schools. They must learn to adapt to these new realities. Just as the food and energy activists are building a re-localization movement, unleashing the kinds of local participation and control that solve problems and revive democratic engagement, so education should find new ways to foster a “mass localism,” as described in a recent blog post by Anthony Cody. Cody has noted, as well, the work of Texas educator Julian Vasquez Heilig and others in offering a new governance framework for the public schools called “Community Based Accountability.”

I am not expert enough to wade into the details, but such efforts seem to get to the root of the commons and commoning. The system itself must cultivate an ethic of participation, inclusiveness, transparency, appropriate scale, and rights balanced with responsibilities. It would be refreshing if more educational reform could apply the lessons of successful commons to public education, and get beyond the stalemate of “market” vs. “state.” The title of a new anthology of essays that I co-edited puts it best: “The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State.” There is no chapter on education, yet, but it is a topic that is certainly ripe for commoning.

What do you think? Is it useful to view education as part of “the commons”? Does this framework help us push back against those attempting to privatize our schools?

David Bollier is an independent scholar, author and activist who has been developing the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture for the past 15 years. He co-founded the Commons Strategies Group, blogs at www.Bollier.org and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.