Perspectives on Education: Marxist perspectives, the Hidden Curriculum

The Marxist perspective is critical of the educational system, arguing that it is unfair, and serves to coerce people into accepting their “roles” in an unequal society.

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Althusser is representative of the Marxist interpretation of the educational system, arguing that “Teachers are in effect agents of capitalism who through their classroom work reproduce the exploitative relations of capitalism. They produce pupil ‘types’ who will accordingly receive more or less education and enter the labour force at different points.” The curriculum comprises the range of subjects taught at schools. When one thinks of a curriculum one initially thinks in terms of the specific skills, concepts and facts taught in each separate subject. However, on further reflection, these skills, concepts and facts may not be so relevant to everyday living. For example, how often does one use algebra in everyday problem solving? Marxists tend to regard the manifest curriculum as a “smoke screen” behind which the real agenda, or hidden curriculum, is operative. The aim of the hidden curriculum is to socialise young people into accepting the role assigned to them by the capitalist class. The hidden curriculum teaches submission, deference and respect for the established organisation of work.

The majority of teachers unconsciously deliver the hidden curriculum. However, Marxists sometimes acknowledge that there are some “hero teachers” who heroically battle against the “evil” of the exploitative capitalist relations. Sharp and Green’s study of classroom interaction (1975) supports Althusser’s Marxist view by maintaining that within the classroom a principle of hierarchisation is taught, which socialises pupils into accepting the principle of stratification. Pupils are taught this because they are classified into three types (1) ideal pupils who are easily controlled and self-motivated;(2) normal pupils, and (3) problem children.

Bowles & Gintis’s work, Schooling in Capitalist America is another statement of the Althausser/Sharp/Green thesis that schooling prepares pupils for their roles as workers under capitalism through the correspondence in structure, processes and social relations between the school and the workplace. They call Marxism in this context reproduction theory. Bowles & Gintis argue that different social groups are taught at school different values that will fit their roles in capitalist society:

  1. Pupils destined to be workers are taught to follow rules;
  2. Pupils destined for middle management are taught to be dependable;
  3. Pupils destined for senior management are socialised to accept inwardly the norms of business.

Each “social” experience is associated with a different duration of education – internalisation of the norms of capitalism requires more time. The destiny of an individual is in fact determined by social background – for example, working class pupils leave school sooner, hence do not attain to the highest level. There are some similarities and differences between Althuasser and Bowles & Gintis. They are all Marxists. But, whilst Bowles & Gintis propound an alienation theory arguing that the experience of schooling is fundamentally coercive and unsatisfying. Althausser, however, acknowledges that the content of the manifest curriculum can be satisfying. Paul Willis’s work Learning to Labour (1977) is a study of twelve recalcitrant working-class pupils, or “lads”, at a Midlands comprehensive. The “lads” are characterised by being:

  1. Anti-school;
  2. Seeing mental labour as pointless and unmanly;
  3. Having a “powerful working-class culture”;
  4. Celebrating their masculinity in terms of money, violence, sexism and racism.

These features stem from their alienation. He notes that, ironically, by their resistance to school they effectively condemn themselves to working-class futures. J. Anyon and M. Apple’s Ideology and the Curriculum analyses American textbooks and argues that these present accounts of history and social structure which reflect the interests of politically and economically dominant groups. Bourdieu argues that the educational system serves to eliminate the working class from competition for higher levels of education.