Marxism: Views on the role of Education


Marxism: Views on the role of education

  • Education is seen as an important part of the superstructure of society (along with other institutions such as the mass media, family, religion and the legal system)
  • It serves the needs of the economic base which contains everything to do with the production of society.

For Marx, education performs two main functions in capitalist society

  • It reproduces the inequalities and social relations of production of capitalist society
  • It serves to legitimate these inequalities through the myth of meritocracy
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Bowles and Gintis

  • Would challenge the functionalist view that there is a value consensus around achievement and equality of opportunity. They would argue that these are the values of the ruling class and workers are socialised into them in order to promote the myth of meritocracy
  • Criticised the ideas that education is about transmitting skills, they argue that its role is the transmission of attitudes that prepare workers for the alienation they are likely to experience at work. Its goal is to ensure that workers are ready to accept low paid, low skill and low satisfaction jobs without complaint.

Correspondence theory - the hidden curriculum and organisation of schools corresponds with what goes on in factories

  • This ensures that education meets the needs of the economy and produces passive willing workers
  • The alienation of school is replaced by the alienation of the workplace.
  • Success is not entirely related to ability, those who fit in and conform rise above those who express attitudes or display behaviour which challenge the system.
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Evaluation of Bowles and Gintis

  • Bowles and Gintis over-exaggerate the correspondence between education and work

David Reynolds:

  • They ignore the role of the formal education in British schools. The survival in schools of a high status, liberal, humanities based curriculum suggests a lack of correspondence.
  • Despite the existence of a national curriculum, a whole range of subjects like sociology are open to students. The aim of these subjects are to create learners who think critically about the world.
  • Bowles and Gintis have been criticised for failing to explain adequately how the economy shapes education, Reynolds suggests that it is simply not possible for the 'capitalist class' to exercise detailed control over British schools and particularly what goes on in classrooms. Teachers are at liberty to challenge capitalist class ideas at the needs of the economy
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Althusser + Evaluation

  • Education is an ideological state apparatus whose main task is to maintain, legitimate and reproduce ruling class ideology.
  • The hidden curriculum was there to promote ruling-class values as common values and to justify inequality as normal or even natural by encouraging those who under-achieved to believe that the inequality they suffered was due to their own shortcomings.
  • This leads to the working class passively accepting its subordinate social and economic position because it has been socialised by the education system into believing that its educational failure is deserved.

Henry Giroux: Schools have a degree of independence from the ideological state apparatus. They can act as 'sites' of ideological struggle where pupils respond to the hidden curriculum and professionals often promote alternative views of the education system that challenges both the hidden and formal curriculum

Paul Willis: The Marxist view is over-deterministic because it sees pupils as passive products of the education system. It fails to consider the power of pupils to resist these processes. The 'lads' took little notice of the hidden curriculum were not the passively accepting workers envisaged by Althusser.

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Bourdieu + Evaluation

  • Schools are ideological agencies working on behalf of the ruling class.
  • Schools allow the capitalist class to determine what is defined as knowledge and culture.
  • As a result, the children of the dominant class come to school with cultural capital and their culture is legitimated by an education system that rewards them with success.
  • Working class children find that their cultural experiences and behaviours are not valued by the school. Therefore they may find themselves as either negatively labelled or rejecting school because they cannot identify with the content of schooling.
  • The working class are therefore more likely to under-achieve. They are eliminated from the system either through failure or self-elimination.
  • The major role of education is cultural reproduction as this leads to the social reproduction of existing class inequalities.


  • Critics of cultural capital argue that Bourdieu ignores those working class students who do achieve in education and manage to negotiate their way through the education system and be successful without possessing the initial cultural capital advantages of their middle class fellow students.
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  • There has been a business takeover of schools.
  • Education is used as an institute of social reproduction.
  • Education becomes a product to be bought and sold in the market.
  • Today's globalisation is essentially 'capitalist globalisation'
  • The beginning of the 'business takeover' of schools are established and work by the state raising finance of schools, then more of the school's functions are sub-controlled to private industry, then profit is made by running these functions for less than the contract price.
  • As a result, educational activities are steadily being transformed into commodities.
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Key Words

  • Myth of Meritocracy - the idea that everybody has an equal chance and starts with the same place is a lie.
  • Alienation - the process whereby the worker is made to feel foreign in the products of their own labour.
  • Hidden curriculum - values/norms taught in the class
  • Correspondence theory - various aspects of economic production have similar features in the education system
  • Ideological state Apparatus - the task to reproduce ruling class ideas through media, education and religion
  • Relative autonomy - freedom with restraints (such as OFSTED and the National Curriculum)
  • Cultural Capital - cultural skills passed on by middle-class parents to their children to give them educational advantages (such as knowing how to behave, speak and learn)
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