The Marxist Perspective on Education

According to Traditional Marxists, school teaches children to passively obey authority and it reproduces and legitimates class inequality.

Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. According to the Marxist perspective on education, the system performs three functions for these elites:

  • It reproduces class inequality.
  • It legitimates class inequality.
  • It works in the interests of capitalist employers

 

Marxist theory of education - mind map

The main source for the ideas below is Bowles and Ginits (1976): Schooling in Capitalist America. These are the two main sociologists associated with Traditional Marxist perspective on education.

1. The reproduction of class inequality

This means that class inequalities are carried from one generation to the next.

Middle class parents use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced

2. The Legitimation of class inequality

Marxists argue that in reality money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realize this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.

This has the effect of controlling the working classes – if children grow up believing they have had a fair chance then they are less likely to rebel and try to change society as part of a Marxist revolutionary movement.

If you’d like to find out more about the above two concepts please see this post on ‘the illusion of educational equality‘ in which I go into more depth about educational realities and myths, as theorized by Bowles and Gintis.

3. Teaching the skills future capitalist employers need

Bowles and Gintis suggested that there was a correspondence between values learnt at school and the way in which the workplace operates. The values, they suggested, are taught through the ‘Hidden Curriculum’. The Hidden Curriculum consists of those things that pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum subjects taught at the school. So pupils learn those values that are necessary for them to tow the line in menial manual jobs, as outlined below

SCHOOL VALUES  Corresponds to  EXPLOITATIVE LOGIC OF THE WORKPLACE

  • Passive subservience  (of pupils to teachers)   corresponds to Passive subservience of workers to managers
  • Acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers)  corresponds to Authority of managers
  • Motivation by external rewards (grades not learning)  corresponds to being Motivated by wages not the joy of the job

For a more in depth account of Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle, please see this post.

Evaluations of the Traditional Marxist Perspective on Education

Positive

  • There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that schools do reproduce class inequality because the middle classes do much better in education because the working classes are more likely to suffer from material and cultural deprivation. Meanwhile, the middle classes have more material capital, more cultural capital (Reay) and because the 1988 Education Act benefited them (Ball Bowe and Gewirtz),
  • The existence of private schools is strong supporting evidence for Marxism – the wealthiest 7% of families are able to buy their children a better education which in turn gives them a better chance of getting into the top universities.
  • There is strong evidence for the reproduction of class inequality if we look at elite jobs, such as Medicine, the law and journalism. A Disproportionately high number of people in these professions were privately educated.

Negative

  • Henry Giroux, says the theory is too deterministic. He argues that working class pupils are not entirely molded by the capitalist system, and do not accept everything that they are taught – Paul Willis’ study of the ‘Lads’ also suggests this.
  • There is less evidence that pupils think school is fair – Paul Willis’ Lads new the system was biased towards the middle classes for example, and many young people in deprived areas are very aware that they are getting a poor quality of education compared to those in private schools.
  • Education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated for example.
  • The correspondence principle may not be as applicable in today’s complex labour market where employers increasingly require workers to be able to think rather than to just be passive robots.

Neo- Marxism: Paul Willis: – Learning to Labour (1977)

Willis’ research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work.

Willis argues pupils rebelling are evidence that not all pupils are brainwashed into being passive, subordinate people as a result of the hidden curriculum.

Willis therefore criticizes Traditional Marxism.   He says that pupils are not directly injected with the values and norms that benefit the ruling class, some actively reject these. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system.

BUT, Willis still believes that this counter-school culture still produces workers who are easily exploited by their future employers:

The Counter School Culture

Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. This value system was characterised as follows:

1. The lads felt superior to the teachers and other pupils
2. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’
3. The objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible, the reward for this was status within the group
4. The time they were at school was spent trying to win control over their time and make it their own.

Attitudes to future work

  • They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work.
  • The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.
  • Their counter school culture was also strongly sexist.

Evaluations of Willis

  • Very small sample of only working class white boys
  • Overly sympathetic with the boys – going native?

For a more in depth summary of Paul Willis, please see this post which focuses more on the research methods.

Essay Plans/ Revision Resources

Education Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

Other Related Posts on the Marxist Perspective on Education

Other related posts on other aspects of Marxism and related perspectives on Education

Sources

  • Bowles and Gintis (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America
  • Paul Willis (1977) Learning to Labour

4 thoughts on “The Marxist Perspective on Education”

  1. Nicely explained:
    “Reproduces class inequality.
    Legitimates class inequality.
    It works in the interests of capitalist employers”

    Looking more from you.

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