The cooperative principle in education reform

Joe Waters
Feb 8 · 3 min read

Recently our colleagues at KnowledgeWorks published Forecast 5.0: Navigating the Future of Learning. This body of work contains a series of provocations about the future of learning that have led me to reflect on the application of the cooperative principle to education reform, beginning in the earliest years of life and continuing through post-secondary education.

According to the International Cooperative Alliance, cooperatives are “people-centered enterprises owned, controlled and run by and for their members to realize their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspiration.”

If we wish to make schools, early learning centers, colleges, and universities more responsive to the needs of students, faculty, and communities, shouldn’t we include learners, community stakeholders, industry, labor, administrative staff, faculty, and others in the running of our institutions of learning?

There is already an example of this. The Mondragon University in Spain is a non-profit cooperative university that is part of a group of cooperative enterprises which form the Mondragon Corporation. Operating within the framework of common cooperative principles of “the priority of the work and cooperation, democracy and solidarity,” the university is governed by “owners of the cooperative with capital asset,” businesses and enterprises, and the students.

And, cooperative education is by no means foreign to America. In fact, as Michael McHugh has recently shown, the New School was founded on cooperative principles whose founders sought to ensure that the community of scholars controlled “all institutional policy, including finance, curriculum, and faculty appointments.”

Perhaps we might imagine universities in which the representatives of students, faculty, staff, industry, labor, alumni, and the broader community operate with the authority that University trustees currently possess. Crucially, they would hire and fire presidents, control endowment investment and spending decisions, and adopt strategic plans. In doing so, they would wrest control from mega-donors and align strategic goals with those who are vested in the success of an institution but who may not possess the financial resources to influence decision making through their donations. One could easily imagine public school systems managed similarly and, of course, many early learning centers already operate on cooperative principles.

If we wish to renew our culture of democracy, solidarity, and citizenship while divesting plutocrats of decision-making authority in the most sensitive areas of our common life — education included — then we would do well to consider the applicability of cooperative principles to our education systems. To reimagine education for the future, let’s start by reimagining the governance of education and return the educative power to the people education is meant to serve — learners, faculty, and their communities.


Update, 2.12.19: Since publishing this last week, I have been reminded that Black Mountain College began as an experiment, at least in part, in cooperative governance. The College had no trustees and was owned and governed exclusively by the students and faculty. BMC was founded in the Blue Ridge mountains outside of Asheville in 1933 and closed in 1957. The curriculum was heavily focused on the arts and it attracted a stellar faculty that included at one time or another John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, and Annie and Josef Albers who joined the faculty after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus.

Despite its failure to remain a viable institution of higher learning, Black Mountain College remains an inspiring example of experimental education and cooperative governance. Read more about Black Mountain College in this recent article at The Oxford American.


Capita Ideas

Capita is an independent, nonprofit startup ideas lab working at the intersections of research, public policy, social innovation, design, and the arts to ensure that all children and their families flourish.

Joe Waters

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Joe is the Co-Founder + CEO of Capita, an ideas lab working to ensure that all young children and their families flourish, and a Senior Advisor at Openfields.

Capita Ideas

Capita is an independent, nonprofit startup ideas lab working at the intersections of research, public policy, social innovation, design, and the arts to ensure that all children and their families flourish.