Education: 4. Role and Function: 2. Marxism and Neo-Marxism


For traditional Marxism the main role and function of education is cultural reproduction – a concept based on a different interpretation of secondary socialisation to that favoured by their Functionalist (Structural) counterparts. Althusser (1971), for example, argues the reproduction of capitalism involves each new generation being taught the knowledge and skills required in the workplace, as well as children being orientated to “the values of capitalist reproduction”. These might involve ideas like emphasising individual effort and achievement, encouraging inter and intra-group competition (competition between groups – such as men and women – and within groups, such as age categories like young and old) and encouraging ideas about the private accumulation of wealth. In turn, ideas about co-operation, the socialisation of wealth and so forth are marginalised – or rarely, if ever, discussed – within the classroom.

For traditional Marxists, therefore, schools don’t just select, differentiate and allocate children in the interests of “society as a whole” on some form of meritocratic basis. Rather, their role is to ensure the children of powerful economic elites achieve the levels of education required to follow in their parents’ (exploitative) footsteps. The role of education for Althusser was to educate most people “just enough” to be useful employees and a small number “more than enough” to take up high-powered elite working roles.

The formal curriculum is an integral aspect of cultural reproduction because it affords opportunities to separate children of different classes into different employment streams at an early age. In this way cultural reproduction is disguised as a consequence of one of two things:

1. “Natural” differences in levels of ability and aptitude that translate into different economic and social classes – a feature of educational thinking in Britain in the 100 or so years between the first major (1872) Education Act and the introduction in the late 1960’s of Comprehensive (non-selective) education.

We can see this most clearly in England and Wales where an 11+ IQ test was widely used (and in some areas, still is) to effectively sort middle class children into higher status grammar schools with an academic programme leading into professional and higher managerial roles and working class children into secondary modern schools (that latterly evolved into “Community” schools in those areas that retain the 11+) with a vocational education leading into various forms of manual work.

2. The social and educational choices children (and their parents) make about where they want to end-up once their formal education is completed.

It may look like a
Comprehensive School to you…

For Althusser (1971) schools are an ideological state apparatus (ISA) that involve social learning: the idea teachers “transform pupil consciousness” by encouraging them to accept their likely future social positions and based on “the harsh realities of life” – that, for example, different children are born with different levels of natural ability (“you can only work with what you’re given”), or that because the workplace is unequal schools have to reproduce that inequality through things like testing and competitive exams. Rather than simply testing levels of individual expertise or competence – you either pass and are deemed competent or you fail and can try again later to achieve competency  – exams like GCSE and A-level pit individual pupils against one another in an attempt to measure not what they know or are competent at, but rather their rank order: the extent to which some pupils are individually better than others as measured by exam scores.

The fact competitive exams – where pupils compete against each other rather than an agreed level of competence – are ingrained in the education system, to the extent they are simply accepted as being somehow an integral and wholly-unremarkable feature of any system of education, has a couple of advantages for ruling elites:

1, They effectively eliminate working class children as competitors for higher level occupations because this, by and large, is the group systematically excluded from education at every level of testing – from Key Stage tests at 5 that initially identify “working class failings” in area like English and Maths, to GCSE.

2. They give the appearance of choice in the sense that working-class pupils appear to self-select themselves out of school at the earliest possible time, following the lead of “The Lads” established in Willis’ seminal (1977) study “Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs”

A further aspect of cultural reproduction in the formal curriculum is the idea of structured access to different types of knowledge. Academic (theoretical) knowledge, for example, is valued more-highly than practical (vocational) knowledge because the former is most useful for professional workers – those who control what is taught.

While cultural reproduction is a feature of the formal curriculum, reflecting and reproducing knowledge and skills that can be usefully exploited by a ruling elite, the informal (or hidden) curriculum is a further means through which ideas about the social world favourable to the interests and core values of a ruling class are transmitted. Schools, in this respect, don’t just teach formal subjects, they also teach “hidden” values such as competition, individual achievement, respect for legitimate authority and qualifications as both status symbols and what Bourdieu calls symbolic capital: pieces of paper that, in themselves, are worthless but which symbolise legally-recognised achievements that can be exchanged for socially-desirable outcomes, such as University entrance or access to some forms of occupation.

Bowles and Gintis (2002) take these ideas a step further – and edge us towards Neo-Marxist ideas about the role and function of schools – when they conceptualise education as a proving ground in which the organisation of the workplace is reflected in the organisation of schools. There is an enduring correspondence between the two institutions, whereby the structure of the former is mirrored by the latter: workplace inequalities are reflected and systematically reproduced through the education system in a range of ways:

1. The school disciplines students to the demands of work and the “crucial ingredient of job adequacy”. This involves things like regular attendance and the regulation of personal time and space – where pupils should be, when they should be there, the right of some people (teachers) to closely and precisely monitor and control the behaviour of others (pupils) and so forth.

2. Social relationships within the school replicate the relationships found at work. There is, for example, a hierarchy of importance within the workplace and the school, with teachers exercising authority over pupils while they, in turn, are regulated by senior managers.

3. Just as workers are alienated from the product of their labour – the things they make are owned and controlled by someone else – so too are pupils alienated in the education system. They have no control over:

  • the educational process as a whole. They must simply do as they’re told.
  • the content of education; this is decided by others.
  • the teaching and learning process. Pupils are encouraged to compete against each other for grades and qualifications rather than see knowledge and understanding as worthwhile goals in their own right.
  • For Bowles and Gintis the correspondence principle is maintained at all levels of the education system, usually through systems of streaming, setting or banding with those destined for:

  • lower levels of work, “rule following” is emphasised; pupils are given little responsibility and made to do simple, repetitive, tasks.
  • middle levels of work, reliability and some ability to work independently is emphasised.
  • higher levels of work, the emphasis is on the ability to work independently and to take some level of control over their academic work.
  • The relationship between education and the economy, therefore, is based around cultural reproduction; the means through which higher social classes reproduce their economic domination from generation to generation.


    Criticism of Marxist approaches has focused around the nature of the correspondence between education and the wider economy. Young (1981), for example, has called this approach “left functionalism”; the idea education functions to “meet the needs of a ruling class”.

    Neo-Marxists such as Poulantzas (1978) additionally argue schools are relatively autonomous institutions in the sense they have a certain degree of freedom to interpret things like the formal curriculum, how schools and classrooms are specifically organised and so forth, in ways that make it difficult to see how a precise correspondence between education and work can develop.

    A different level of criticism, although related to ideas about the relative status of academic and vocational forms of education, focuses on the ability of individual actors within schools to make choices about their education. This involves the idea that the choices made by working and middle class pupils reflect their different interests and experiences. Schools, in this view, should be responsive to these choices by making different types of academic and vocational education available.

    Heath (1997) argues Marxist approaches tend to reject all forms of vocational education as simply reflecting class-based cultural reproduction. She notes that some forms have helped women in areas ofschooling and eventually work that weretraditionally male preserves by demanding and creatingequal gender opportunities.

    The suggested correspondence between education and work in contemporary societies has also been criticised for it methodological weakness, in that it relies on subjective judgements about relationships (such as children submitting to the authority of the teacher mirroring their submission to authority in the workplace) based on superficial similarities; almost anything that happens in the workplace, for example, can be made to correspond to schools.

    The role of education as an institution charged with creating well-socialised, docile, future workers is questioned by Willis’ (1977) study of working class “lads” that suggests some pupils are well-aware of the limitations of education and work; they “see through” the system, for example and consciously rebel against it. The main question here is the extent to which the experience of education socialises pupils into an acceptance of capitalist ideology.


    One of the defining features of Neo-Marxist approaches is the introduction of a cultural element into the structural significance of institutions, such as education or work, in contemporary capitalist societies.

    Antonio Gramsci
    (1891 – 1937)

    While they still see various forms of cultural reproduction as being integral to education systems, they’re much less likely to explain education as an instrument of class oppression. Rather, education systems are seen in hegemonic terms – a process, Gramsci (1934) argues, whereby people are encouraged to accept notions of legitimate leadership and social inequalities.  As Strinati (1995) puts it, hegemony involves a process whereby : “Dominant groups in society…maintain their dominance by securing the ‘spontaneous consent’ of subordinate groups”.

    If, for example, people can be made to believe education is meritocratic they will believe failure is their individual fault, not that of a system designed to ensure certain groups, such as the working class, fail.

    This cultural element to understanding schools is also significant in relation to understanding the roles played by individual actors within the system, such as teachers, parents and pupils. While traditional Marxism tends to see teachers, following Althusser, as “agents of ideological repression” – individuals who are an integral part of the cultural reproduction process – Neo-Marxists suggest that while teachers are clearly part of the overall process they may not be willing participants, nor do they necessarily interpret their role as anything other than trying to help economically disadvantaged pupils, for example, gain the most they possibly can out of a system that is heavily weighted, both economically and culturally, against them.

    While this is a small distinction it is, nevertheless a vital one because it gives expression to the hegemonic ideal, namely that people, however good their intentions, cannot escape the structural imperatives that force them to play particular roles within the system. They can, however, shape their role within that system to some extent because they have agency – the ability to think and act in ways that are contrary to the accepted norm, for example. While a teacher who refuses to test their pupils could simply be replaced by one who is more than willing to perform that role, it’s more than possible that individual teachers will seek to prepare all of their pupils in the best way possible to succeed in something like external exams. Having duly noted this idea, agency may, of course, be thwarted by the over-bearing weight of structural constraints on an individual’s behaviour – from pupils who see little point in learning what’s on offer to the grinding effects of poverty on pupils’ behaviour.

    While more-traditional Marxists like Bowles and Gintis (1976 and 2002) see cultural reproduction being achieved through the education system because of the close correspondence between workplace inequality and educational inequality, whereby school processes reflect workplace processes and education is a test of control and conformity – those who conform are allowed to progress through its various levels while those who do not are systematically excluded, Neo-Marxists see things a little differently, particularly writers such as Bourdieu (1986). He sees the role of education as one of reproducing the power and domination of powerful social classes through a combination of habitus and cultural capital.

    Habitus is similar to the idea of a habitat – the environment in which a group lives and, to varying extents, is able to flourish – and for Bourdieu schools are the “natural habitat” of the middle and upper classes. Schools, in other words, are comfortable environments for these classes insofar as they generally reflect their interests, values and beliefs.

    For children from other social classes, however, school may be like being “a fish out of water”: their interests, values and beliefs are likely to be quite different to those of the school because they hold different forms and levels of what Bourdieu calls cultural capital: the material and symbolic aspects of people’s lives that take two main forms:

    1.Embodied: this form involves the cultural capital individuals acquire simply though living, such as their family socialisation and experiences and the like, and is embedded in and embodied by the individual. It is, in other words, something we carry with us throughout our lives.

    2. Institutionalised forms involve things like educational achievements and qualifications. These are symbolic types of cultural capital whose value, to both individuals and institutions, is that they are validated through some form of institutional measurement and certification.

    Although cultural capital is normally considered in terms of social assets and the advantages these confer on certain individuals – a degree certificate, for example, confers certain advantages when it comes to applying for particular types of work – a lack of a particular type or level of cultural capital may also disadvantage those without it.

    This, for Neo-Marxists, is particularly significant in relation to education because, in capitalist societies, particular types of cultural capital – from how the social world should be seen, through ideas about intelligence and how it is distributed in a population, to the educational advantages that can be purchased to enhance an individual’s prospects, from private tutors to private education – are embedded in and embodied by schools as institutions.

    In this respect, middle class children are immediately advantaged as they enter the education system because their cultural background, in terms of its beliefs, assumptions, interest, norms and values, is similar to that of the school. Figuratively, middle class pupils and middle class teachers “speak a similar language”; one that, more-importantly perhaps, pupils do not have to understand in order to start learning.

    Working class children, on the other hand, are immediately disadvantaged. Before they can start “formal learning”, for example, they are faced with the problems presented by the informal assumptions about the role and purpose of schools – how, for example, they are expected to both learn and, more-importantly, validly demonstrate such learning – embedded in the institution itself. Beron and Farkas (2001), for example, found that middle class teachers and working class pupils, both white and black, literally “spoke a different language”; linguistic differences, in other words, disadvantaged working class and black children because they didn’t “speak the middle class language” of schools and teachers.

    While the impact of cultural capital, just like its economic counterpart, can be many and varied it clearly suggests education systems in (unequal) capitalist societies cannot be meritocratic – not the least because differences in cultural capital influence the relative starting-points of pupils in the process and this gives middle and upper class children a hidden and almost inevitably decisive advantage.

    The concept of meritocracy, for Neo-Marxists like Bourdieu (1986), is a legitimating myth bound-up in the concept of hegemonic control. While education systems have the outward appearance of fairness, equality and merit – the vast majority of children in Britain, for example, attend what appear to be non-selective Comprehensive schools – in reality they are the opposite. The system, in other word, is rigged in favour of a ruling elite in various ways: some involve the ability to pay for exclusive forms of education, through private schooling and tutoring, while others relate to educational practices such as streaming, setting and banding where children of different “abilities” are taught separately.


    While Neo-Marxist ideas about the role and function of education systems in advanced capitalist societies such as Britain and America retain the sense of structural social and economic inequalities that shape the nature of schools and schooling – the basic role of schools, for example, is ultimately still seen as one of reproducing economic inequalities – they add an interesting cultural dimension to our understanding of the precise role played by schools.

    In this respect we get a much greater, less-dogmatic, sense from such perspectives of the precise role of schools as agencies of cultural reproduction. This occurs through their examination of not just internal school processes – schools as, for example, disciplinary regimes that use a variety of measures, from setting to examinations, that orientate pupils toward their future adult roles – but most-importantly the specific relationship between social structures like the family and education.

    While not neglecting the continuing importance of economic capital as a factor in things like educational progress and achievement, Neo-Marxists have introduced significant and informative concepts – from hegemony to social and cultural capital – that contribute to our understanding of “education”, both as an institution in its own right and as an integral part of capitalist social systems.

    The central importance of a concept such as hegemonic control has also led to a crucial break with their more-traditional counterparts in the sense that teachers are not simply seen as “agents of ideological transmission and control” directly responsible for shaping the perceptions of pupils into an acceptance of social and economic inequality.

    For Neo-Marxists there is a sense that the role of teachers in the education system may, at times, be much more-ambivalent. Like Willis’s lads, for example, many teachers are perfectly capable of “seeing through” the problems created by economic inequality but they, nevertheless, struggle to mitigate its effects as best they can within the confines of an education system that affords them very little real influence or power.

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