Radical education theory 101

Marx and Education

IN MARX and Education, Jean Anyon uses the trajectory of her own scholarship as a road map for exploring the contributions of Marxist thinkers to education policy and research. As Anyon points out, the problems facing educators today are numerous:

Education budgets across the country are relatively far less than they were in recent years, despite the federal stimulus moneys that became available in 2009. In such difficult times, curriculum in many urban schools shrinks to the bare bones of test prep worksheets, as art, music, and sports become distant memories. Services in poor neighborhoods and districts are cut, and low-income students and their families suffer…. In these times of high joblessness, long-term unemployment, and increasing poverty, it is not difficult to see how Marx may be relevant.

Indeed it is not only the budget cuts to education and public services that make Marx’s ideas pertinent for educators, but also the ever-increasing expenditures on capital—computers and other gadgetry—the deskilling of the teaching profession, and the drive to break teachers’ and other public sector unions.

According to Anyon, the introduction of Marxist ideas into the field of education began after—and took inspiration from—the social struggles of the 1960s and early 70s. In 1976, radical economists Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis published Schooling in Capitalist America, one of the first Marxist texts to receive wide attention in education circles. Schooling in Capitalist America challenged the dominant notion that education is the ticket out of poverty. In contrast, Bowles and Gintis argued that schooling reinforces class divisions. As Anyon summarizes,

The authors argued that the experiences of students, and the skills they develop in school in different social contexts (e.g. working-class or wealthy communities), exhibited striking correspondences to the experiences and skills that would characterize their likely occupational positions later…. Because of this correspondence, education did not seem to be the “social leveler” Americans had long been taught. Rather, schools tended to reproduce unequal labor positions that the economic system had created.

At the same time, Bowles and Gintis realized the potential of schools and colleges as places where a highly egalitarian and political consciousness can be developed and fostered. Using the Marxist dialectic, they pointed to the central contradiction in the education system: “while the system of schooling certainly functions primarily to legitimate and reproduce inequality, it sometimes produces critics, rebels, and radicals.”

Inspired by Schooling in Capitalist America, Anyon aimed her early research at gathering empirical data to back up Bowles and Gintis’ claims. Her first seminal study investigated fifth grade classrooms in five different elementary schools in New Jersey—two working-class schools, a middle-class school, an affluent professional school and an executive elite school. Supporting Bowles and Gintis, Anyon found that the “hidden curriculum” used in each school—the way in which subjects were taught—corresponded to the income bracket that school served. [For a review of Schooling in Capitalist America, see ISR 78.]

The other two works published in the 1970s and 80s that Anyon notes as crucial Marxian texts on education are Michael Apple’s Ideology and Curriculum and Henry Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education. As Anyon explains, Apple’s work revealed that

not only does the experience of schooling have reproductive qualities [reproducing social structure into the next generation], but so does the content of learning—the formal curriculum itself…. Language patterns, ways of knowing, and specific bodies of knowledge of dominant groups are what the U.S. educational system validates as legitimate and therefore correct…. Thus in school, the knowledge and ways of seeing the world of dominant white (male) elites in U.S. society are validated by being included in the school curriculum, and students study the lives of presidents and generals, but not of working class, blacks, or women.

Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education argues that the ways in which working-class students resist schooling often stem from the dominant schooling culture as described by Apple and Anyon. What working-class student wants to learn about a bunch of dead rich white guys? Who wants to simply be taught to follow rules and mechanically answer questions that seem to have no relevance? Giroux contends that any analysis of student resistance should take these questions into account and not simply dismiss confrontations as anti-authoritarian behavior. Seen in this light, student defiance can challenge the dominant culture reproduced in schooling.

In taking us from the early pioneers of Marxist thought in education to the present day, Anyon mostly draws on her own work. She ties the recent assault on public education to the rise of the neoliberal consensus. In particular, Anyon points to the publication of the government sponsored report, Nation at Risk, as a turning point. Published during the Reagan administration shortly after a severe recession, Nation at Risk blamed the trouble that U.S. corporations were having competing on the international market on the poor quality of public schools. But as Anyon argues, “blaming the schools for economic decline is like assuming that, for example, the decline of Detroit’s car economy was caused by the poor educational achievement of Detroit students.”

For Anyon, the deterioration of public schools during this period cannot be explained without understanding the political economy of cities. Urban policies such as racial redlining, tax codes that favored corporate investment outside the city, property tax laws that penalized city schools with fewer property owners to tax, all contributed to the disinvestment and increased segregation of public schools. Anyon extends this critique to flagship education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. She maintains, “both regimes have counted on education to solve the problems of unemployment and increases in poverty…. Race to the Top, and its antecedent No Child Left Behind, are policy substitutes for economic reform.”

Anyon points to a range of progressive economic policies as the way to fight poverty: minimum wage legislation, a progressive tax code, anti-poverty and jobs programs, affordable housing and public transportation and more union-friendly labor laws. Yet Anyon argues that in order to win these reforms we should draw on Marx’s vision of political struggle. She draws on the social movements of the past in order to provide a vision for how education reform is won:

The radical tumult of the early 20th century Progressive Era opened public schools to the community in many cities, and increased educational opportunities for working-class immigrant families in the form of kindergarten, vacation [summer] schools, night school, social settlement programs and libraries. As a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Head Start, a radical innovation by activists in Jackson Mississippi, moved to center stage in federal education policy; and segregation of blacks in public schools became illegal…. In the 1970s and 80s, the women’s, disabilities, and bilingual education movements also had significant impacts on schooling—opening up opportunities previously denied great numbers of students.

Her final chapter suggests ways to extend Marxist theory and practice for contemporary problems. In particular, she asserts that David Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession, where public resources are converted into private profit-making enterprises, can help us understand the increasing drive to privatize public schools. Anyon also claims that an analysis of the increased financialization of the economy should help inform any examination of schooling today. As she writes, “School districts, as well, have been caught up in the financial turmoil, and have been dispossessed of money they invested with wealthy hedge funds and banks…. [T]owns and cities have lost almost 30 billion dollars in the last two years, as they have attempted to extract themselves from complicated financial arrangements.”

While these efforts to extend Marxist theory for contemporary issues should be welcomed, throughout the book Anyon also mischaracterizes Marxism and uncritically gives too much ground to Marxism’s critics. She names a number of education scholars who use Critical Race Theory or feminism in their critiques and base their analyses of oppression on race or gender rather than class.

We should certainly acknowledge that important contributions to our understanding of education often come from scholars who are not solely inspired by Marxism, but in Marx and Education there is no discussion about how these theories stack up to the Marxist view of oppression and more importantly, which theories might be more helpful for those fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. This leaves the reader with the false impression that Marx and Marxists, more generally, have had little to say about racial or gender oppression.

Anyon also argues that

Marxist theory is based on industrial capitalism as it existed in the late 19th century…[and consequently]…in addition to organizing at the “point of production”…we need to organize society-wide. The struggle is no longer only of low-income, minority and white working-class families against the capitalist class. Working for progressive change now involves all of us.

This analysis seems to stem from a misinterpretation of Marx’s theory of the working class, which she characterizes as “the industrial proletariat.” But Anyon goes even further conceding, “’Revolution’ itself appears an old fashion concept.” These formulations seem particularly misguided at a time when revolutions are spreading through the Middle East and North Africa with the working class playing a crucial role.

Despite these weaknesses, Marx and Education is a crucial text for those looking to explore how Marxist theory can be and has been applied to education. In little more than one hundred pages, Anyon provides a crucial starting point for Marxists looking to explore education theory and makes a strong case for the relevance of Marxist theory in the struggles to defend and improve public education.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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