The appearance of two articles on education in a single issue of New Left Review (192) is indicative of the mood and spirit triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Apparently, the time has come to take education more seriously and to give up the assumption that planning for change in education (part of the superstructure) has little value before change has taken place in the economic base of society. Paul Auerbach’s article, ‘On Socialist Optimism’, is highly welcome in this context, but the mistaken premisses underlying it need to be challenged.

Auerbach says that ‘the elite school is an appropriate model if we wish to make educated guesses about the resource commitments that [such] a transformation would involve.’ The transformation he has in mind presents possibilities like expansion of the school plant (so that children of the poor can benefit beyond the 9 to 3 regime), a higher teacher–pupil ratio, and a higher professional quality of teachers. Auerbach’s main diagnosis of the problem of presentday mass education is that it is poorly funded. He feels that meagre finances force the educational system to adopt authoritarian methods of pedagogy. Attempts made to introduce liberal approaches typically end up benefiting children from better-off homes, mainly because the success of such approaches depends on the availability of copious learning material. Auerbach concludes that ‘without a dramatic change in the resource endowments of schools, these less structured approaches can be (and perhaps have been) a disaster for the great mass of children.’ His solution is ‘a massive infusion of resources into schooling’ which would permit children from deprived backgrounds to benefit from flexible, experimental methods of teaching. Also, an increase in funds would permit higher pay scales for teachers, which would allow greater rigour in the selection of teachers from among candidates with higher professional quality and selfesteem. In Auerbach’s scheme of things, the final improvement that a dramatic enhancement of funds would make possible would be in the teacher–pupil ratio. He recommends 1:3, with 1:6 as the ‘absolute maximum’.

While several features of this scenario can be appreciated and approved, we must place these features in the context of the ultimate goal that Auerbach sets for education. The purpose of a radical programme of education, according to him, is ‘that every child in the society (this must ultimately be expressed in world-wide terms) is to have full and equal opportunity for individual self-realization.’ What precisely is meant by ‘individual self-realization’ is not quite clear. A kind of explanation of this term emerges from Auerbach’s approving portrayal of the mental make-up of the rich. He finds an element of truth in ‘an old canard [which] maintains that if the rich were stripped of their wealth, they would regain it in a generation’. He goes on to say that the greatest wealth the rich pass on to their children consists of skills, education and self-confidence. Perhaps we can assume that possession of this ‘wealth’ is symptomatic of ‘self-realization’.

We need to notice the liberal underpinnings of Auerbach’s idea of self-realization as a goal of education. A key concept embedded here is that there is such a thing as a fully constituted self that exists from childhood onwards and that is not dependent on a social or cultural context.footnote1 Only such a concept of the self can permit us to view pedagogical inputs like low teacher–pupil ratios and computer software as facilitators in self-realization. That the self is a dynamic construct shaped by the structure of relationships featured in the child’s milieu is clearly an opposite view. This alternative concept imparts to the self a ubiquitous character and characterizes its development as an incremental process of involvement with the environment. In Auerbach’s concept there is little room for the environment except in the limited sense of the school’s material and pedagogical ethos. These are undoubtedly important details for educators, but the quality of computer software cannot override the influence of the relations of production characterizing the child’s wider social environment. It is these basic elements of the child’s own world that the school must intellectually grapple with if it wishes to participate in the shaping of the child’s self.

Auerbach’s idea of the self as a free-floating entity, apparently constituted by purely psychological elements like intellectual potential and tendencies, and so forth, is in line with his perception of an element of truth in the popular belief that the offspring of the rich, if suddenly stripped of their parents’ wealth, would regain it fast on the strength of their skills, education and self-confidence. One notices that Auerbach does not mention the advantage that children of the wealthy will enjoy, during their struggle for recovery of their lost wealth, from the contacts and linkages their parents and forefathers had built and strengthened. It is not just the symbolic capital which we know helps children of the rich, but also the structure of relationships in which they find themselves. The test proposed in the canard assumes that while individual wealthy parents will lose their wealth, the world will be permitted to remain the place it was when they had amassed that wealth.

Most problematic of all in Auerbach’s scheme of socialist reconstruction of education is his acceptance of elite schools as a model. It is astonishing that he does not see elite schools as being among the important tools of capitalism’s economic and social structure. Apparently, it is one thing to acknowledge the unjust and oppressive social character of the capitalist economic system, and quite another to view education as part of that system, with the more ‘successful’ examples (for example, elite schools) occupying crucial, deeper-set positions in it. Surely, elite schools make as major a contribution as advertising does towards promoting the values and the ethos that symbolize and uphold the capitalist socioeconomic structure. Perhaps the most important value they promote is competitiveness, so essential for the consumption-centred lifestyle that capitalist economics demands. They mystify learning and inquiry by alienating school knowledge from the social milieu, or by restricting school learning to the unproblematic ‘givens’. They can serve as a model for mass education only in an argument confined to the value of education as a means of social mobility. One hopes that socialist plans for educational reform will now go beyond the aim of promoting social mobility within a fixed social structure.

It is enchantment with elite schools that leads Auerbach to suggest 1:3 as the ideal teacher–pupil ratio for future schools for the masses, with the maximum acceptable as 1:6. I wish to argue that such ratios will be counterproductive if the goal of reform is to increase children’s autonomy and self-confidence. Such low ratios can only ensure that children will have no opportunity to be intellectually ‘away’ from the teacher even if good training induces the teacher physically to withdraw at times. The only logic of such absurdly low ratios can be the idea that if smaller classes generally mean more individual attention, then the smallest possible number ought to enable us to reach the ideals of education. Perhaps we can learn from physical phenomena in this matter.footnote2 Beyond a point, increases in the quantity of a positive input begin to give negative results. For example, when a vibrator resonates, the amplitude of its vibration reaches the maximum value within a small range of the frequency that is very close to the vibrator’s own natural frequency. In other words, as the forced frequency increases, the amplitude increases, peaks, and then starts to decrease even as the forced frequency continues to increase. Similarly, the productivity of the teaching–learning activity is not a linear function of the teacher–pupil ratio. Smaller classes are indeed a great help to the teacher, but beyond a point smallness of class size may become counterproductive (except in the context of remedial education). The experience of teachers in many parts of the world suggests that an intellectually rich class which uses peer interaction as a resource is likely to consist of twenty to thirty pupils, depending on the children’s age group and the subject matter.