"Class" and Social Purpose


by The Editorial Board - 1936

IN THE sphere of educational theory and social thought in general the notions that the fundamental division in society is economic, that the prime mover behind institutional and cultural change is the conflict between economic classes, and that class struggle is a promising vehicle for bringing about a new and desirable scheme of life, are ever increasing in challenge. Sincere and intelligent educators may reject all these notions but they cannot be said to be very sensitive to the currents of contemporary thought unless they have carefully examined this powerful theory of social dynamics.

IN THE sphere of educational theory and social thought in general the notions that the fundamental division in society is economic, that the prime mover behind institutional and cultural change is the conflict between economic classes, and that class struggle is a promising vehicle for bringing about a new and desirable scheme of life, are ever increasing in challenge. Sincere and intelligent educators may reject all these notions but they cannot be said to be very sensitive to the currents of contemporary thought unless they have carefully examined this powerful theory of social dynamics.


To us the class approach to society appeals as the most promising to an understanding of the processes of history and the complexities, conflicts, difficulties, and problems of life today. It appeals to us, also, as an extremely useful point of departure for a method of bringing about those changes which are necessary for an equitable distribution of the goods of life.


Much of the criticism levelled against the class orientation to society and the view that the essential classes in American society are "owners" of the means of production and "workers," derives from the notion that "objective" facts alone determine the existence or non-existence of particular classes. Such a notion is a misconception. It should not be forgotten that "classes" are a product of classification and that the act of classification is a phase of the human process of adjustment to an environment. Class concepts are the result of an attempt to understand and change the world by people who have points of view and purposes. The classes a person will discover in his universe of experience, the particular category in which he will place an event or an object will depend on his point of view. A man committing suicide by jumping out of a window is a falling object to the physicist, a tragedy to the humanitarian, and a case of maladjustment to the psychologist. The category in which objects and events are placed also depends on human purpose. A rusty knife is a knife or just junk, depending upon whether a person wants to use it, or throw it away.


The employment of class concepts in dealing theoretically and practically with problems of social life cannot be dispensed with. The question is: what kinds of class concepts are most valid as far as the facts of society are concerned; what kinds of class concepts are most effective in changing society in the direction we want it changed? All classifications do violence to the complexities and richness of life and ignore overlapping and duplication. But systems of classification vary with respect to the degree in which they help us to understand and change things about us. It is perfectly true that many workers, by virtue of owning stocks and bonds in industrial enterprises, are owners of the means of production, that the millions of small business-men and farmers are neither owners nor workers, or both. At the same time, the distinction between owners of the means of production and workers is perfectly valid. The fact is inescapable that the masses of the people owe their lowly station in life, the uncertainties by which they are beset, and the meagreness of their share of the possible goods of life, to the fact that they are workers; while a small minority derives its power, its stability, and its huge portion of the national wealth primarily from ownership. The division of human beings into workers and owners agrees sufficiently with the structural facts of society to be valid. Moreover, it seems to us that the economic relations born of this dualism between owners and workers explain other dynamic facts in society—relations between sexes, relations between races, relations between adherents of different creeds, the patterns of art and literature, legal systems, political organizations and institutions, and the entire pattern of society—far better than any other observable relation in society explains the economic and other aspects of civilization. To us the processes of continuity and change in human history are conceivable in terms of the changing relations between economic classes and these changing relations are best understandable as the outcomes of class struggles.


Quite as important as the insight which the concepts "worker" and "owner" give into the processes of society, past and present, is the consideration that these concepts best fit in with the kinds of changes we want to bring about in social life. If we wanted a society dominated by either men or women, by Negroes or Nordics, by Jews, Catholics, Protestants, or atheists, we would approach society with a sex, race, or religious orientation. But we want a society dominated by and managed in the interest of those who create national and cultural wealth. We want a society in which goods will be produced for use, and not for the profit of owners of means of production. We want a society in which the wealth-creating resources and instruments will be owned collectively, controlled democratically, and managed efficiently. We want a society in which the fruits of economic effort will be distributed in such a way as to liberate the masses of the people for creative and appreciative experiences in the realms of culture. In the process of creating such a society the needed classification—and we have indicated that classification of one kind or another is necessary for social engineering—is the classification of "worker" and "owner."


Of course there is the alternative of orienting ourselves to the multitude of groups that constitute our complex society—to try to move all these in the direction of the desired goal; but a little reflection will result in the conclusion that the type of society we have in mind will move groups to an extent directly proportionate to the degree that their constituency is a workers' constituency. The National Association

Manufacturers can't be moved. The American Legion may be moved if the proper appeal is made. Our problem is to find an appeal that cuts across the maze of interests of the various groups that can be red. That appeal is the workers versus owners appeal.


What of the middle class? Where one will place the die class will depend on the purposes he has in d. If one wishes to make the world safe for the fit-counting houses, he will place the middle class among the owners. If one wishes, however, to make world safe for work and the workers, he will place middle class among the workers and educate them the understanding that they are workers. Such cement would be justified by the facts of the situation. The income of most of the members of the middle-class is in reality derived from work and not n profits resulting from mere ownership. The mid-classes would have nothing to lose and everything to gain if the principle that need and social usefulness are the basis for reward were established.


We are told that common mentality and consciousness of belonging are important criteria of class; that America is free from class psychology; that social mobility and the frontier have given most Americans the feeling that theirs is a classless society. All this is true—but not the whole truth. No matter what workers, teachers, farmers, technicians, small merchants think, the conditions of their s and the interest they have in improving their s set them off as a class. Moreover, at least one is in America is conscious of itself as a class. Note American Liberty League, and the National Association of Manufacturers, which bend every effort secure the freedom of ownership from all social control and responsibility. The truth of the matter is that America now consists of one self-conscious class one class that is not yet self-conscious. In view of absence of a class mentality among the workers, it would be reasonable to assume that it is the problem of education to induce such a mentality, rather than to take an existing mentality and base a course of action upon it. In the interests of a genuinely class-society the crucial class distinctions which now exist ought to be emphasized.







Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 2 Number 5, 1936, p. 134-135
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13248, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 11:17:38 AM

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