Assess the Contribution of Marxism to Our Understanding of the Role of Education

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Assess the Contribution of Marxism to Our Understanding of the Role of Education

Using material from Item A and elsewhere assess the contribution of Marxism to our understanding of the role of education. As mentioned in Item A, Marxists take a critical view of the role of education. They see society as based on class divisions and capitalist exploitations. The capitalist society is a two class system as mentioned in Item A and it consists of a ruling class, the bourgeoisie and the working class, the proletariat. The bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat according to Marxists and they believe that the education system only serves the needs and interests of the ruling class, as mentioned in Item A. Marxists also education as functioning to prevent revolution and maintain capitalism.

According to Louis Althusser, the state consists of two elements or apparatuses, both which work to keep the bourgeoisie in power. Firstly, the repressive state apparatuses (RSAs), which maintain the rules of the bourgeoisie by force or the threat of it. The RSAs include the police, courts and army. When necessary they use physical force to repress the working class. Secondly, the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs), as mentioned in Item A, maintains the rule of the bourgeoisie by controlling people’s ideas and beliefs.

The ISAs include religion, the mass media and the education system. In Althusser’s view, the education system is an important ISA and it performs two important functions. Firstly, it reproduces class inequality by transmitting it from generation to generation, by failing each successive generation of working class pupils in turn, as mentioned in Item A. secondly; it legitimates class inequality by producing ideologies that disguise its true cause. The function of ideology is to persuade workers to accept that inequality is inevitable and that they deserve their subordinate position in society.

If they accept these ideas, they are less likely to challenge or threaten capitalism, as mentioned in Item A. Other Marxists such as Bowles and Gintis develop these ideas further. They argue that capitalism requires a workforce with the kind of attitudes, behaviour and personality type suited to their role as alternated and exploited workers willing to accept hard work, low pay and orders from above. In this view, the role of the education system in capitalist society is to reproduce an obedient workforce that will accept inequality as inevitable.

From their own studies of 237 New York high school students and their findings of other studies, Bowles and Gintis concluded that schools reward precisely the kind of personality traits that make for a submissive, complaint worker. For instance, they found that students who showed independence and creativity tended to gain low grades, while those who showed characteristics linked to obedience and discipline such as punctuality, tended to gain high grades.

From this evidence they concluded that schooling helps to produce the obedient workers that capitalism needs. They do not believe that education fosters personal development. Rather, it stunts and distorts students’ developments. Bowles and Gintis argue that schooling takes place in ‘the long shadow of work’ i. e. work influences education, resulting in close parallels between schooling and work in capitalist society. Relationships and structures found in education mirror or correspond to those of work, hence known as the correspondence principle.

For example, in school in a capitalist society reflects work in a capitalist society by distinguishing between the authority and where people fit in the hierarchy; the hierarchy in the school is with the head teacher at the top and then teacher and students and similarly in a workplace there is the head of company followed by department managers and workers. The correspondence principle is seen to operate through the hidden curriculum, which refers to all the things that students learn at school without being formally taught those things.

For example, punctuality, conformity and obedience are taught through the hidden curriculum. This is different from the formal curriculum, which refers to the knowledge and skills pupils are taught explicitly in lessons such as math and science. The hidden curriculum therefore consists of ideas, beliefs, norms and values which are often taken for granted and transmitted as part of the normal routines and procedures of school life. Bowles and Gintis argue that it is through the hidden curriculum that the education system prepares us for our future as workers in capitalist society.

Bowles and Gintis also argue that in order to prevent rebellion from those disadvantaged by the inequalities of capitalism, it is necessary to produce ideologies that explain and justify inequality as fair, natural and inevitable. If people think inequality is justified then they are less likely to challenge the capitalist system. According to Bowles and Gintis, the education system plays a key role in producing such ideologies. They describe the education system as a giant ‘myth making machine’ and focus on how education promotes the ‘myth of meritocracy’.

Meritocracy refers to a system where everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve, where rewards are based on ability and effort. This means that those who gain the highest rewards and status deserve it because they are the most able and hardworking. Bowles and Gintis argue that meritocracy does not actually exist. Evidence showed that the main factor determining whether or not someone has a high income is their family and class background, not their ability or educational achievement.

By distinguishing this fact, the myth of meritocracy serves to justify the privileges of the higher classes, making it seem that they gained them through open and fair competition at school. This helps persuade the working class to accept inequality as legitimate, and makes it less likely that they will seek to overthrow capitalism. The education system also justifies poverty, through what Bowles and Gintis describe as the ‘poor-and-dumb’ theory of failure. It does so by blaming poverty on the individual rather than blaming capitalism.

It therefore plays an important part in reconciling workers to their exploited position, making them less likely to rebel against the system. All Marxists agree that capitalism cannot function without a workforce that is willing to accept exploitation. Likewise, all Marxists see education as reproducing and legitimating class inequality. That is, it ensures that working class pupils are slotted into and learn to accept jobs that are poorly paid and alienating.

However, whereas Bowles and Gintis see education as a fairly straightforward process of indoctrination into the myth of meritocracy, Paul Willis’ study shows that working class pupils can resist such attempts to indoctrinate them. As a Marxist, Willis is interested in the way schooling serves capitalism. However, he combines this with an interactionist approach that focuses on the meanings pupils give to their situation and how these enable them to resist indoctrination. Through his study, Willis found that the lads (12 working class boys), form a distinct counter-culture opposed to the school.

They are scornful of the conformist boys who they call the ear’oles. The lads find school boring and meaningless and they flout its rules and values, for example by smoking and drinking, disrupting classes and playing truant. These acts are a way of resisting school. They reject a ‘con’ the school’s meritocratic ideology that working class pupils can achieve middle class jobs through hard work. Willis notes the similarity between this anti school counter-culture and the shop floor culture of male manual workers. Both cultures see manual work as superior and intellectual ork as inferior and effeminate and this explains why they see themselves as superior both to girls and effeminate ear’oles to aspire to non manual jobs. Their resistance explains why they end up in these very jobs themselves- inferior in terms of pay and conditions- that capitalism needs someone to perform. For example, having been accustomed to boredom and to finding ways of amusing themselves in school, they don’t expect satisfaction from work and are good at finding diversions to cope with the tedium of unskilled labour. Marxist approaches are useful in exposing the myth of meritocracy.

They show the role that education plays as an ideological state apparatus, serving the interests of capitalism by reproducing and legitimating class inequality. However, postmodernists criticise Bowles and Gintis’ correspondence principle on the grounds that today’s post-Fordist economy requires schools to produce a very different kind of labour force from the one described by Marxists. Postmodernists argue that education now reproduces diversity, not inequality. Marxists disagree with one another as to how reproduction and legitimation take place. Bowles and Gintis take a deterministic view.

That is, they assume that pupils have no free will and passively accept indoctrination. This approach fails to explain why pupils ever reject the school’s values. By contrast, Willis rejects the view that school simply ‘brainwashes’ pupils into passively accepting their fate. By combining Marxists and interactionist approaches he shows how pupils may resist the school and yet how this still leads them into working class jobs. However, critics argue that Willis’ account of the lads romanticizes them, portraying them as working class heroes despite their anti social behaviour and sexist attitudes.

His small scale study of only 12 boys in one school is also unlikely to be representative of other pupils’ experience and it would e risky to generalize his findings. Critical modernists such as Raymond Morrow and Carlos Torres criticise Marxists for taking a class first approach that sees class as the key inequality and ignores other all other kinds. Instead, like postmodernists, Morrow and Torres argue that society is now more diverse. They see non-class inequalities, such as ethnicity, gender and sexuality, as equally important.

They argue that sociologists must explain how education reproduces and legitimates all forms of inequality, not just class, and how the different forms of inequality are inter-related. Feminists make a similar point. For example, as Madeleine Macdonald argues, Bowles and Gintis ignore the fact that schools reproduce not only capitalism, but patriarchy too as females are largely absent from Willis’ study. However, Willis’ work has stimulated a great deal of research into how education reproduces and legitimates other inequalities.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 18 October 2016

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