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The Illusion of the Equality of Opportunity

Marxist sociologists Bowles and Gintis argue that capitalist societies are not meritocratic. Against Functionalists, they argue that it is not the amount of ability and effort an individual puts into their education that determines how well they do, but rather their class background.

The simple reality is that being born into a middle class family means that middle class children benefit from material and cultural capital which give them an advantage in both school, and in the job application process, which gives them an unfair advantage compared to working class children.

However, the education system disguises this fact by spreading the ‘myth of meritocracy‘ – the idea that it is solely the ability and effort of the individual which determines the qualifications and the job they get, rather than their class background, and thus individuals end up blaming themselves for their failures rather than inequality of opportunity in the education system.

Intelligence, Educational Attainment and Meritocracy

Bowles and Gintis base their argument on an analysis of the relationship between intelligence (measured by IQ), educational attainment and occupational reward. They argue that IQ accounts for only a small part of educational attainment.

Bowles Gintis Myth Meritocracy

They examined a sample of individuals with a wide range of IQs and within this sample, they found a wide variation of educational attainment within that sample and concluded that there was hardly any relationship between the two variables.

Bowles and Gintis found a direct relationship between class background and educational achievement – the higher and individual’s class background, the higher their level of educational achievement.

So how do we explain the fact that individuals with higher IQs tend to have higher qualifications? they explain this as a by-product of length of stay in education – the longer an individual stays in education, they more their IQ develops. However, it is still family background which mainly determines educational attainment.

Bowles and Gintis also apply a similar analysis to the relationship between occupational reward and IQ – again, in their sample of average IQ individuals, there was a wide variety of incomes, which suggested there was no significant relationship between IQ and income.

As with educational success, what explains high income is family background – the combination of an individual’s class, gender and ethnicity are much better predictors of someone’s income rather than their IQ – educational qualifications are of much more value to the white, middle class male, than to the black, working class female.

Bowles and Gintis conclude that ‘education reproduces inequality by justifying privilege and attributing poverty to personal failure’. The education system effectively disguises the fact that economic success runs in the family, and that privilege breeds privilege. Bowles and Gintis thus reject the functionalist view that education is a meritocracy.

Related Posts 

The other major contribution Bowles and Gintis made to the sociology of education was their work on the hidden curriculum and the correspondence principle.

This is a summary post of the Marxist perspective on education which includes a briefer version of what’s in this post, and the one in the link above.

Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ is often used to criticize the determinism found in Bowles and Gintis.

Sources used to write this post 

Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

 

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The Myth of the American Dream

Part of the traditional American Dream is that anyone, even children from low income families, can work their way through college, get a degree and be upwardly mobile.

However, some recent research suggests that this is no longer the case – a full 50% of American university students from disadvantaged backgrounds drop out of college, and the main reason is because financial constraints means they cannot afford to pay the bills.

Sara Goldrick-Rab conducted a longitudinal study of 3,000 disadvantaged young adults attending various universities in the state of Wisconsin, USA (commenced in 2008), and some of her main findings include:

  • 50% of students from low-income households drop out of college and thus end up with college degree.
  • The experience of university is, for many poor students, quite grim – 24% of students in her study had problems with basic food security, and 13% were homeless.
  • They controlled for the amount of effort students put into their studies – and found that students did not drop out because of lack of effort, but the main reason was literally not being able to pay the bills.
  • Less than 20% of the sample managed to complete a degree within five years.

Goldrick-Rab also argues that there are clear ‘structural’ reasons why poor students cannot afford college:

  • Financial assistance (in the form of the Pell grant) is available to those from households which earn less than $30K a year, but this only covers a third of the cost of college (it used to cover the full amount, but it no longer does)
  • Job opportunities are insufficient to make up the difference – there are too few jobs, employers offer too few hours (they limit hours to avoid having to pay certain in-work benefits) and wages are too low – thus half of all poor students simply can’t earn enough to pay the rent or for food.

Goldrick-Rab concludes that low-income American families are being sold a ‘myth’ – the ‘myth of the American Dream that it is possible to be upwardly mobile by working your way through college – for 50% of poor students attempting to do so will result in no degree and a lot of debt.  They thus have an expectation which is not going to be met.

However, many families and students feel that it is there fault if they fail to complete, and feel a sense of guilt and shame if they do so.

Goldrick-Rab hopes that her research will act as a wakeup call, alerting people to the statistical facts that you only have a 50-50 chance of getting a degree if you’re poor.

She rounds off by suggesting a policy solution – to make the first two years of college free. Interestingly (which dates the research!) she talks hopefully about Obama and Hilary Clinton putting such policies into practice, but given that we’ve ended up with a Trump administration, it’s unlikely that poor kids are going to get access to fairer opportunities any time soon.

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Evaluating the Marxist Perspective on Education

Marxists argue that the education system performs the following functions…

  1. It is the ideological state apparatus
  2. It creates a passive and subservient workforce
  3. It reproduces class inequality
  4. It legitimates (justifies) class inequality

You might like to review the Marxist Perspective on Education before reading this post. Once you’ve fully understood the key ideas of Marxism on education, you should be able to use the items below to evaluate each of the above claims…

Item A: Statistics on Educational Achievement by Social Class Background

The latest research study which suggests children from a lower social class background are disadvantated in education compared to their wealthy peers

Bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds are falling behind after their GCSEs and are almost half as likely to achieve three A-levels as their better-off peers, according to research published on Tuesday.

Poorer youngsters’ life chances are further compromised as they are considerably less likely to study the sort of A-levels that will help them get into leading universities.

The report by Oxford University’s department of education found that just 35% of disadvantaged students (distinguished by their being on free school meals) who were identified as highly able at the age of 11 went on to get three A-levels compared with 60% of their wealthier counterparts.

Only 33% of the disadvantaged group took one or more A-levels in the so-called “facilitating subjects” favoured by universities, such as maths, English, the sciences, humanities and modern languages, compared with 58% of their better-advantaged peers.

Item B: A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….

‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.

‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.

But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.

‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’

Item C: The recent BBC documentary ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs’ uses interviews with graduates, employees and experts  and explores the reasons why wealthy and connected graduates get the best jobs and why poorer graduates lose out, suggesting our system is not meritocratic.

Item D: The growth of the creative industries in the UK

New figures published in 2015 reveal that the UK’s Creative Industries, which includes the film, television and music industries, are now worth £76.9 billion per year to the UK economy.

Key Statistics on the Creative Industries

 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-88-million-an-hour-to-uk-economy

  • Growth of almost ten per cent in 2013, three times that of wider UK economy
  • Accounted for 1.7 million jobs in 2013, 5.6 per cent of UK jobs
  • 2015 set to be another bumper year for UK creative outputSajid Javid, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said:The UK’s Creative Industries are recognised as world leaders around the globe and today’s figures show that they continue to grow from strength to strength. They are one of our most powerful tools in driving growth, outperforming all other sectors of industry and their contribution to the UK economy is evident to all. 

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Online Revision – this Thursday June 1st 

I’m running a live, online video-revision session covering exam strategies for the Education with Theory and Methods Sociology exam paper (7192/1) – The class is scheduled for this coming Thursday 1st June 2017.

You’ll need to register with WizIQ, which is free (so that I have some kind of idea whose attending), but this a quick process, and all you need is an email to register.

Online Revision Sociology EducationThis will be a 45 Minute session covering the following:

  • A brief overview of the structure of the Education and Theory and Methods 7192 exam
  • Mark-maximising strategies for each of the six questions
  • Six exemplar exam question and answers, talked through and explained.
  • An opportunity to ask questions throughout.

The class is scheduled for 16.00, Sunday 28th May, and will be recorded so you can access it afterwards.

You also get…

  • One 30 slide power point covering the 6 types of exam questions in the A level sociology 7192 (1) paper: the same Power Point will form the basis of the live session, along with some interactive marking activities, and a QA session at the end.
  • Additional Support Materials – An eight page document which includes a full mark response to one 10 mark question and two examples of full mark responses to possible 30 mark essays.

Class is limited to 25 people.. The first 5 get it for £4.99 – after that I may put the price up!

Assess the Marxist Perspective on the Role of Education in Society – An essay which should easily get you full marks if this question comes up in the A level Sociology exam (assuming you refer to the relevant item!)