Education, the Fifth Cooperative Principle
I think often about how co-ops do social change. Cooperatives operating in isolation, or not linked to a bigger system, are in my mind left to the wolves of corporatist economics. The way coops link is not only by their own actions, but also empowering the staff and members through persistent education, the fifth cooperative principle. But what exactly is the intended function of cooperative education? The International Cooperative Alliance states:
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information
Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
But cooperative education focuses almost entirely on value-added aspects or best practices for internal governance. I see a lot of amazing education performed by cooperatives. Food coops are reengaging people with traditional/folk/organic agricultural practices and food prep. Electric coops are pushing their members to save money through conservation. And credit unions are by far the leaders in teaching financial literacy (y’think big finance wants individuals to know how to pay down their debts as quickly as possible?).
Where is the social transformation component?
The intended purpose of the cooperative model is to create a viable challenge to the dominant neo-feudal, corporatist system (some call it capitalism) through an intentionally designed, market-based choice.
Where does our co-op educational system root itself? Why do we educate our members and our host communities about cooperatives? Is it just to promote our coops, have better jobs, and provide cheaper goods and services? Shouldn’t we aim to demonstrate that the real power of the cooperative model is in its capacity to transform society, and give the least amongst us a real chance, a real choice to control their own lives?
Next: The Critical Consciousness of Cooperators