Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Twelve: The Mondragon Educational System

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:

The authors of the following article [Christopher Meek and Warner Woodworth], “Technical Training and Enterprise: Mondragon’s Educational System and its Implications for other Cooperatives,” outlines the importance of the educational system for the success of the Mondragon cooperative system in the Basque region of Northern Spain.

There are two key components to the Mondragon educational system: the Escuela Politecnica Profesional (EPP) and Alecoop (a student-owned manufacturing firm). The EPP has provided the basis for the development of highly advanced engineering skills, and Alecoop has provided the basis for students applying emerging engineering  and managerial skills to real-life problems in the context of running a company that aids them to finance their own education.

The ideal of an egalitarian social and economic system has not led to a sacrifice of concerns for efficiency. Both are possible.

The roots of the Mondragon cooperative system lie in the extreme class division characteristic of the town, with a wealthy minority and a poor majority. Despite the level of poverty, the production of quality steel characterized the town. So too did a common language (the Basque language of Euskera) and social solidarity.

Don José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, priest and founder of the Mondragon cooperatives, arrived in Mondragon in 1941, when the fascist dictator Franco was in power. Some considered Arizmendiarreta to be a communist.

Arizmendiarrieta was asked by the Union Cerrajera to teach religion at the only school available for working-class youth, the Escuela de Aprendices. However, Arizmendiarrieta soon realized the inadequacy of the school. On the one hand, access was limited to the sons of the employees of the capitalist firm (excluding about 85 percent of eligible youth) and, on the other and, on the other, no son from the working class ever attended university. Arizmendiarrieta attempted to persuade the Union Cerrajera to open up the school to more youth, but the capitalist firm refused.

Arizmendiarrieta then initiated the establishment of an alternative school, with a proposal to tie the establishment of such a school to the buidling of a soccer field—tying the school to community interest.

Arizmendiarrieta initiated a technical school rather than a traditional liberal arts school because he considered the impoverished parents and students would do better to learn practical skills that would aid them to overcome their poverty. He also considered manual labour could be a dignified practice in the context of a cooperative organization. Technical skills, the dignity of the practical arts and principles of democratic social cooperation (economic democracy) formed key elements of the Mondragon cooperative system; social justice was linked to all three elements.

Emphasis on technical skills involved investment in machinery rather than limiting production to labour-intensive processes typical of many workers’ cooperatives. To incorporate technical skills into the production process, education that respected the importance of the practical arts and theoretical considerations linked to those practical arts became necessary.

The Spanish technical system of education is organized into three levels: 1. “Oficialia,” leading to an equivalent of middle-years education; 2. “Maestria,” which consists of traditional academic courses with, however, the capacity to engage in skilled technical work linked to electricity, electronics and mechanics; 3. “Perritos Industriales,” the equivalent of a bachelors degree in engineering and mechanics. EPP expanded as the number of students increased. In 1953, the Escuela Politecnica Popular (EPP) was established.

By 1947, 11 of the original students started the advanced stage of technical education. Dissatified with the way Union Cerrajera contradicted the principles that they had learned, in 1956, Ulgo, a cooperative manufacturing company, was established by five of the 11 original graduates of “Perritos Industriales.” They obtained funding from the community through word-of-mouth. Several other manufacturing cooperatives were initiated and so was a consumer cooperative.

In 1959, the Caja Laboral Popular, the “Working Peoples’ Bank,” was founded, aiding workers to establish other cooperatives. By 1987, it had aided in funding almost 200 cooperative organizations throughout the Basque region of Norther Spain.

The EPP was reorganized as a student cooperative that functioned for the industrial cooperatives. The General Assembly of the EPP is composed of three sets of stakeholders: 1. Students and parents; 2. the teachers; and 3. the cooperative and capitalist firms that subsidize the EPP budget. Due to expansion, more modern facilities were built in 1966, with workshops and laboratories.

The teachers at EPP are responsible for the creation of their own curriculum and write their own textbooks. Graduates of the EPP are highly skilled and in high demand. In the 1978/1979 school year, it had over a thousand students enrolled in the three levels of technical education.

The other piece of Mondragon education is Alecoop. About half of those attending EPP apply their learning to an actual manufacturing environment owned by students—Alecoop. It permits a closer alignment of theory and practice (and practice and theory)—and enables students to fund at least partially their own education. It was established in 1966. Alecoop struggled to continue to exist as it faced many problems. By about 1987 it had 601 students and 33 teachers.

As the authors conclude, education has been a key element in the success and expansion of the Mondragon cooperative system. Such an education is integrated in numerous ways: technical, academic, financial and managerial education are closely linked to the principles of economic democracy and the dignity of workers. Unlike many other cooperative movements, managers in the Mondragon cooperatives share the same vision with the other workers and teachers—rather than imposing their own vision on the workers and teachers. The unity of an educational strategy, linked to technical education and financial education on the one hand, and a cooperative economic principle on the other enabled the Mondragon cooperative system not only to survive but to thrive.

Rather than relying on experts, a cooperative system would be more effective if it relied on an internal analysis of local needs and values and then develop an educational plan. Experts, government agencies and so forth could then be consulted on ways in which the educational plan could be realized. A cooperative monitoring system would ensure that objectives are being met (or modified as required, depending on unforseen circumstances), costs are controlled and the cooperatived system expanded.

Democratic control of the economy (social justice) and the respect for persons can be combined with technical and financial education and efficiency—in a cooperatively organized economic system.


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