Chris Guiton presents a foundation essay for the education section, sketching out some of the links between education, culture and capitalism.
The purpose of this introductory article is to sketch out the background to some issues around links between education and the general ‘cultural struggle’ which Culture Matters is aiming to support and promote. Education is itself a cultural activity, and is also the main gateway for most people to engage with art and cultural activities, and so education and culture are inextricably linked in the struggle for a better world.
Most people recognise that education plays a crucial role in society, providing people with the skills they need to understand and navigate the world around them as they grow and develop, constructing knowledge in a social context. As John Dewey, the 19th century American progressive educationalist put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” But while education can be viewed as a force for positive social change, which encourages children to think critically and challenge authority, it can also be a mechanism for reinforcing the prevailing ideology and strengthening the capitalist status quo. And this is where things start to get interesting.
Mainstream pedagogues (educational theorists who look at the method and practice of teaching) have traditionally taken a ‘functionalist’ view of education, arguing that it performs a number of important functions: promoting social solidarity, encouraging cooperation and developing essential skills such as literacy and numeracy. Progressive and Marxist pedagogues, on the other hand, refute the functionalist view that industrial capitalist societies are meritocracies and that an individual’s position in society is based on talent and hard work. The central challenge articulated by progressive pedagogues for many years is how to make education relevant to everyone, not just a select minority and, how to give it a critical and emancipatory quality that contributes to overturning capitalism, ending exploitation and developing a fairer world.
Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and one of the leading ‘functionalists’, considered the major function of education as the transmission of society’s core norms and values, binding individual members of society together, creating social unity and using the hierarchies and rules that exist within schools (seen as society in miniature) to encourage conformity and train people to fulfil particular roles in the workplace. Developing this functionalist perspective, Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, believed that schools act as a bridge between the family and society, representing the main agency of socialisation, preparing children for the adult world and underpinning the division of labour. He argued that schools operate on meritocratic principles, based on equality of opportunity, and where people are rewarded by society for their hard work.
This belief fails to tackle the criticism that the values of an education system are those of the ruling elite, or that equality of opportunity is an illusion in an unequal society where wealth and privilege, and access to education, are more important than individual merit. Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
Ideas are presented as universal, politically neutral concepts when in fact they represent the interests of the ruling class. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”. Concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ are defined and deployed by politicians and the media as if they are uncontentious and common-sense expressions rather than ideological constructs which serve particular social interests and which are designed to support the current political order.
There was, of course, no universal state education when Marx was writing. To understand how education can be used for reactionary ends, it’s helpful to look at later Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci who coined the phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. He understood that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that this hegemony is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education, using them to ‘manufacture consent’ and confer legitimacy on the status quo. For Gramsci, education is not part of a conspiracy by the ruling class but one way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed.
Its power lies in its invisibility. The ideology of democracy and liberty, along with beliefs about individual freedom, the role of free markets and competition under capitalism are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas, concealing the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.
A very visible example of this is seen in Britain and other countries today, with the significant shift of political gravity to the right since the 1970s as neo-liberalism, with its evocation of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ and assault on the state, public services and collective provision, became the dominant ideology. As we know to our cost, even social democratic parties lost their raison d'être and subscribed to the new faith in the individual, markets and privatisation. As a result, we are now faced with the spectacle of working class voters not only deserting the Labour Party because it lost sight of working class interests, but failing to recognise the leftward shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. A poisonous combination of internal and external challenges are preventing the message getting across, including: a nakedly hostile media; damaging attacks by the Blairite undead; growing voter apathy; and the disjunction at an individual level between immediate, personal concerns and broader, public concerns which inhibits understanding of the fundamental source of their exploitation. If ever, we needed a Gramscian ‘war of position’ to develop a counter-hegemonic challenge to the neo-liberal status quo, it is now!
Adding his own perspective on how ideological control functions, Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, viewed state education as part of what he called the broader ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ designed to convey the ideology of the ruling class. In this instance, the aim was to socialise working class children into accepting their subordinate status in capitalist society and produce an efficient and obedient work force, submissive to authority.
In their study, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is equally applicable to the British context, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis built on Althusser’s ideas and argued that, “Work casts a long shadow over the education system; education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the factors of production.” They believed this happened through the operation of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools, which, by replicating the world of work, justifies and reinforces existing social inequalities. This takes place via a number of mechanisms, including:
- - Giving privileges to older students, encouraging respect for elders in later life.
- - Using school rules, prizes as well as punishments, to encourage conformity to the rules of society.
- - Emphasising the importance of regular attendance and punctuality, in preparation for the workplace.
- - Division in male and female education, for example via the subtle encouragement of different subject preferences, underpinning the sexual division of labour.
- - Requiring automatic respect for teachers, and forcing students to understand that they have limited autonomy, helping children learn respect for those in authority in the workplace.
- - Underlining the importance of completing schoolwork, whether or not it’s boring, preparing children for the essentially dull, repetitive tasks that characterise many jobs.
- - Encouraging competition between pupils, instilling acceptance of later competition for the best jobs
- - Using school uniforms and dress codes to teach the importance of looking smart in the workplace.
Of course, many children learn to push back and challenge the norms that schools seek to impose on them by failing to take an interest in lessons, ‘messing about’ while at school or going truant. Ironically, this prepares them for low paid, unskilled jobs in later life as this rejection of the prevailing learning culture becomes a way of coping with the tedium of the workplace. Unfortunately, this implicit rejection of the ideology of individualism and meritocracy does not usually translate into a genuine understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation or encourage political engagement.
But all is not lost. As Bowles and Gintis understood, the educational system reflects the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. To accumulate profits and develop the means of production, capitalists have recognised that the workforce needs to be trained to cope with the ever-changing demands of technology and capitalist production. This requires people who can think for themselves. But there’s an inherent conflict between so-called ‘democracy’ in the political realm and the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the workplace. If people have the opportunity to think critically, it is not difficult for them to recognise that the illusion of equality and democratic participation via the electoral system is in stark contrast to the lack of democratic control that ordinary people exert over the economy, ie. what is produced and how it is distributed.
By grouping future workers together, the education system provides the potential for people to use the educational tools they are supplied with against the system itself. Teaching literacy opens the door to books that challenge the status quo. And you cannot encourage creative thinking and understanding of sophisticated intellectual concepts without encouraging people to question the prevailing ideology. This contradiction between what schools promise and what they really deliver, between ideology and the way society actually works, has the potential to radicalise people and spur them into action.
This is the significance of Paulo Freire’s theory of education that goes beyond traditional Marxist thinking and links radical critical theory and the imperatives of progressive struggle, linked to an understanding of the dynamics of domination and oppression and the constraints as well as the possibilities that generates.
Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and critic of conventional teaching methods. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he characterised these as the ‘banking method’ which he saw mirroring and re-enforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or the rather the government!) determines what is taught and how is it is taught. Students are empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all, they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action (ie. praxis). Freire recognised that students may come to reject the education fed them and achieve praxis anyway, but what he describes as the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim: to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.
But if state education puts obstacles in the way of the development of critical thinking - driven as it is by the demands of capitalist ‘rationality’, marketisation and endless testing - then we need to rediscover a radical pedagogy that embraces, as Freire puts it, “Liberation [as] a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” The critical pedagogy proposed by Freire and others in this field such as Henry Giroux offers a route for young people to develop a social awareness of cultural and political alternatives, enabling them to connect their experiences with classroom learning and understand that with knowledge comes power.
This is why reactionary politicians of all major parties have sought to marginalise such teaching methods as a deeply harmful distraction belonging to “trendy, 1960s progressive educationalists” and of no relevance in a modern education system. Three examples of how this threat has been addressed by governments in recent years bring this into sharp relief and underline the nature of the struggle in today’s education system: the prescriptive method of teaching young children to read using phonics, reducing the narrative content in reading and undermining the development of ‘reading for pleasure’; the attempts to shift teacher training away from universities and teacher training colleges and into schools where, it is hoped, such contaminating ideas as those of Freire won’t be picked up; and the increasingly narrow specification of the curriculum that the Government is forcing through, marginalising the arts and humanities.
But, as Gramsci recognised, no culture is completely hegemonic. Even the most sophisticated political systems will face pockets of ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures: perspectives on society that challenge the dominant ideology, and which have revolutionary potential if they can be identified and supported. These might be located in the traditional beliefs held by older people, the shop-floor culture of industrial workers, youth sub-cultures or other groups in society.
In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams defined culture “as a whole way of life”, thereby dissolving the boundary between everyday culture and ‘high culture’. A fully developed cultural education implies opening up our society by means of art and culture. The dialectic between education and culture at a general level - the beliefs, norms and values that condition society - as radical education becomes a mechanism for resistance to and change of a dominant culture in all its manifestations, also applies directly to the more specific area of the arts and humanities. Cultural education in this sense is an indispensable part of the broader education system, and is not a luxury that can be added when other educational goals have been delivered.
Learning is a creative process, and what we learn depends on how we learn. It is well understood that studying the arts opens up spheres of experience and development in people that go beyond the immediate subject studied, developing levels of cognition and emotion that feed into people’s ability to understand the world around them and cope with everyday life and social situations.
The education system plays a decisive role in awakening and encouraging creative potential in people. It has the capacity to develop empathic as well as political engagement. The arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. In addition to giving us aesthetic pleasure, they provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues.
By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art also teaches us about life. While reading a poem, listening to music or looking at a painting we are encouraged to look outside ourselves, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.
Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, emotional growth and development of cognitive skills, encouraging a commitment to the common good.
Clearly, schools aren’t the only site of struggle. Seeking to change schools without seeking to change wider society is a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. But education as one of the forces for radical change, which goes beyond schools, colleges and universities into a lifelong commitment which reflects the dialectic between an individual and the society around them, and which is delivered via trade unions, local authorities, Further Education colleges, the Workers’ Education Association and other institutions, is clearly a prize worth fighting for.
We hope this article stimulates further contributions on the subject of education and culture.
Chris Guiton is a project manager, writer and Co-managing editor of Culture Matters.