Last Updated on November 18, 2022 by Karl Thompson
According to Marxists, modern societies are capitalist, and are structured along class-lines, and such societies are divided into two major classes – The Bourgeois elite who own and control the means of production who exploit the Proletariat by extracting surplus value from them.
Traditional Marxists understand the role of education in this context – education is controlled by the elite class (The Bourgeoisie) and schools forms a central part of the superstructure through which they maintain ideological control of the proletariat.
Education has four main roles in society according to Marxists:
- acting as the state apparatus
- producing an obedient workforce
- the reproduction of class inequality
- the legitimation of class inequality.
Louis Althusser argued that state education formed part of the ‘ideological state apparatus‘: the government and teachers control the masses by injecting millions of children with a set of ideas which keep people unaware of their exploitation and make them easy to control.
According to Althusser, education operates as an ideological state apparatus in two ways; Firstly, it transmits a general ideology which states that capitalism is just and reasonable – the natural and fairest way of organising society, and portraying alternative systems as unnatural and irrational Secondly, schools encourage pupils to passively accept their future roles, as outlined in the next point…
The second function schools perform for Capitalism is that they produce a compliant and obedient workforce…
In ‘Schooling in Capitalist America’ (1976) Bowles and Gintis suggest that there is 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’, which 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.
For example passive subservience of pupils to teachers corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers; acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers) corresponds to the authority of managers; and finally there is ‘motivation by external rewards: students are motivated by grades not learning which corresponds to being motivated by wages, not the joy of the job.
Marxists also argue that schools reproduce class inequality. In school, the middle classes 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
Fourthly, schools legitimate class inequality. Marxists argue that in reality class background and 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.
Finally, Paul Willi’s classic study Learning to Labour (1977) criticises aspects of Traditional Marxist theory.
Willis’ visited one school and observed 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school and attitudes to future work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ and that the objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible.
Willis argued that 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. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system, so they are clearly not under ideological control.
However, the fact that the lads saw manual work as ‘proper work’ and placed no value of academic work, they all ended up failing their exams, and as a result had no choice but to go into low-paid manual work, and the end result of their active rebellion against the school was still the reproduction of class inequality. Thus this aspect of Marxism is supported by Willis’ work.
Evaluating the Marxist Perspective on Education
Traditional Marxist views of education are extremely dated, even the the new ‘Neo-Marxist’ theory of Willis is 40 years old, but how relevant are they today?
To criticise the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, 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. Also, education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated, so clearly they do not control the whole of the education system.
However, the recent academisation programme, which involves part-privatisation of state schools suggests support for the idea that Businesses control some aspects of education.
It is also quite easy to criticise the idea of the correspondence principle – Schools clearly do not inject a sense of passive obedience into today’s students – many jobs do not require a passive and obedient workforce, but require an active and creative workforce.
However, if you look at the world’s largest education system, China, this could be seen as supporting evidence for the idea of the correspondence principle at work – many of those children will go into manufacturing, as China is the world’s main manufacturing country in the era of globalisation.
The Marxist Theory of the reproduction of class inequality and its legitimation through the myth of meritocracy does actually seem to be true today. There is a persistent correlation between social class background and educational achievement – with the middle classes able to take advantage of their material and cultural capital to give their children a head start and then better grades and jobs. It is also the case that children are not taught about this unfairness in schools, although a small handful do learn about it in Sociology classes.
In conclusion, while Marxist theory might be dated, all of the four major ideas still seem to have some relevance, especially their ideas about the reproduction and legitimation of class inequality, so I would say Marxism is one of the more accurate perspectives which helps us understand the role of the education system today, both nationally and globally.
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