The Pioneers of Marxist Thought in Education: A Review of Marx and Education by Jean Anyon, Part One

Marx and EducationWhat do Marxists have to say about education? Most education theorists and scholars would have you believe that Marxism has little to contribute to the discipline. Even amongst leftists, Marxists are often derided as being economic determinists and reducing society to nothing more than class. For example, Education Policy professor, Kenneth Saltman warns in his otherwise helpful book, The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy, “For the Marxists as for the neoliberals, democracy receives lip service, but these unlikely bedfellows share a commitment to reducing education to economics… The new old educational Marxists view every other perspective and insight about education as a threat to the one true cause of class.” Not only do academics like Saltman completely misrepresent Marxism (without providing much evidence), but they also miss the important contributions Marxists have made to the field of education. Furthermore, they cut themselves off from one of the most important tools teachers, students, and academics have for understanding education politics and policy, for defending public schools and for fundamentally changing education (and society) for the better.

Jean Anyon’s new book, Marx and Education, offers a powerful response to this common critique. The book uses the trajectory of Anyon’s own scholarship, along with several of her contemporaries, as a road map for exploring the contributions of Marxist thinkers to education policy and research. In this short introduction, Anyon hopes to encourage others to use a Marxist framework to solve the many dilemmas educators face today. As Anyon points out, those problems 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.

More and more, middle-class jobs are disappearing, and one in ten college graduates is in a minimum wage job; over a quarter of low-wage job holders have had some college education. Since 2009, more than half the students in the U.S. K-12 classrooms have been eligible for free or reduced lunch. And the proportion of students who attend high poverty schools has increased by 42 percent since 2000, with almost half of black and Latino students in such schools (and five percent of whites). A 2009 study of college completion found that 91 percent of low-income students who enter a four-year college do not finish, with most citing lack of money as the reason. 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 opportunity gap between the rich and the poor and the budget cuts to education and public services that make Marx’s ideas pertinent for educators, but also the deskilling of the teaching profession, the ever-increasing expenditures on capital—computers and other gadgetry—, and the bi-partisan drive to break teachers’ and other public sector unions, that makes Marxism more relevant than ever.

According to Anyon, the introduction of Marxist ideas into the social context of education began in the late 1970s, as leftists inspired by the social struggles of the 1960s and 70s went in to the field of education research. 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 golden ticket out of poverty. In fact, Bowles and Gintis argued that schooling actually 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 lived through the student struggles of the 1960s and saw how schools and colleges can be places where a highly egalitarian and political consciousness is 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. Anyon found that the pedagogy used in each school corresponded to the income bracket that school served:

The Working-Class Schools: In the two working-class schools, work was following the steps of procedure. The procedure was usually mechanical, involving rote behavior and very little decision making or choice on the part of the student. The teachers rarely explained why the work was being assigned, how it might connect to other assignments, or what the idea is that lies behind the procedure or gives it coherence and perhaps meaning or significance. Most of the rules regarding work were designations of what the children are to do; the rules are steps to follow…. Work was often evaluated not according to whether it was right or wrong, but according to whether the children followed the right steps.

Middle-Class School: In the middle-class school, work was getting the right answer. If one accumulated enough right answers one got a good grade. One must follow the directions in order to get the right answers, but the directions often called for some figuring, some choice, some decision making…. Answers were usually to be had in books or by listening to the teacher. Answers were usually words, sentences, numbers, or facts and dates; one writes them on paper, and one should be neat. Answers must be in the right order and one can not make them up.

Affluent Professional School: In the affluent professional school, work was creative activity carried out independently. The students were continually asked to express and apply ideas and concepts. Work involved individual thought and expressiveness, expansion and illustration of ideas, and choice of appropriate method and material. The products of work in this class were often written stories, editorials and essays, or representations of ideas in mural, graph, or craft form. The products of work should not be like everybody else’s, and should show individuality…. When right answers were called for… it was important that the children decided on the answer as a result of thinking about the idea involved in what they were being asked to do. Teacher’s hints were often to “think about it some more.”

Executive Elite School: In the executive elite school, work was developing one’s analytical intellectual powers. Children were continually asked to reason through a problem, and to produce intellectual products that were both logically sound and of top academic quality. A primary goal of thought was to conceptualize rules by which elements may fit together in systems, and then to apply these rules in solving a problem. School work helps one to achieve, to excel, to prepare for life…. The work tasks of the children in this school seemed to speak less to creativity or thinking independently… In many cases, work involved understanding the internal structure of things: the logic by which systems of numbers, words, or ideas are arranged and may be rearranged. And the type of control for which the children were being prepared involved being treated with respect, as equals. They were expected to set their own priorities, internalize control, and exercise it appropriately.

Anyon’s study certainly seems to confirm Bowles and Gintis’ theory that the traits and skills learned in the education system correspond to the needs of the economy.

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 reveals “that not only does the experience of schooling have reproductive qualities, 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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This is the first part of my two-part review of Jean Anyon’s Marx and Education. Read the second part here.

5 Responses to “The Pioneers of Marxist Thought in Education: A Review of Marx and Education by Jean Anyon, Part One”
  1. Kenneth Saltman says:

    Your review of Anyon’s book thoroughy misrepresents my discussion of a particular strain of educational marxism by taking it out of context, selectively quoting, and by falsely claiming that it is made without providing much evidence. Here is a fuller excerpt including citation from chapter six “The Gift of Education: Education Beyond Economism” in my book The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (Palgrave Macmillan 2010). This excerpt is part of a much larger discussion about educational obligation and social exchange.
    — Kenneth Saltman

    Neoliberal education drives a privatization agenda that includes running public schools for profit, voucher schemes, charter schools, for profit contracting, and commercialism. As an economic project, this treatment of public schooling tends to redistribute public wealth and educational resources upward. The political and cultural costs of such economic and symbolic shifts are great. The social, political, and cultural dimensions of education are impoverished in this view, as market considerations reign supreme. In the accomodationist view of neoliberalism, the only salvation for the individual in a radically unjust social order is to fit in or perish. Education is the means through which the individual is to fight to the top of the heap. The social possibilities of neoliberalism are framed largely through national economic competition in the global economy. The economy is naturalized as the best and only way to think about education among other social issues. Unfortunately, economism has also resurged with the education left.

    Marxist educational theories have offered crucial insights about schooling in capitalism. Some of these insights include how capitalism configures knowledge as a commodity, transforms schooling on the model of the industrial economy, reproduces the social conditions for the reproduction of capital by teaching skill and know-how in ways ideologically compatible with capitalist social relations and class position. As well, such Gramscian Marxist social theorists as Althusser have offered a theory of subject formation: interpellation. Gramsci’s thought on the relationship between politics and education2 has inspired a number of critical pedagogues to theorize the role schooling can play in hegemonic struggle. Other Marxist thinkers on education such as Raymond Williams inspired critical engagement with the question of the “selective tradition,” questions of canonicity which open up critical concerns about the production, distribution, and reception of knowledge, its relations to the securing of social authority, and its relationships to broader structures of power.

    Yet, Marxist economic reductionism has made a disturbing return to the field. While unlike neoliberalism this camp has the virtue of focusing squarely on oppression, social justice, and class warfare, the new old champions of Marxism have not bothered to learn from the many decades of criticism inside and outside the field of education.3 The new old Marxists embrace an anti-democratic vanguardism and class reductionism while failing to deal with the many problems of the Marxist legacy of thought, including the anthropocentric tendency to view nature as ideally exploitable for human uses, the reduction of human value to labor, the patriarchal and racist legacies of the Marxist inheritance, the theory of culture and ideology in Marxism that reduces both to reflections of the economic base, the teleological theory of history, the mechanistic theory of agency determined by class position, the modernist enlightenment tendency towards purity, unity, totality, and harmony that is contrary to thinking difference, among other problems. There continue to be crucial insights to be taken from Marx and the Marxist tradition of thought. However, this “purist” Marxist revival remains trapped in a theoretical time warp, and, more importantly for this book, it remains stuck in what Baudrillard referred to as “the mirror of production” – that is, the expansion of the productivist metaphor throughout social life, the extent to which Marxism remains trapped within the assumptions of the political economy and metaphysics that inspired it, and the restricted understanding of human life and activity by labor.4 Like neoliberalism, its nemesis, Marxist education is hopelessly bound to economism. Critical educators such as Henry Giroux and Stanley Aronowitz have been pointing this out since the 1980’s.5

    Both neoliberal education and Marxist education, due to their economism, suffer from difficulty theorizing the distinction between public and private, the politics of knowledge, and the power-infused workings of culture. Both advance a vision of education inherently incompatible with the democratic possibilities of public education. Neoliberal education collapses the public possibilities of public schooling into the private possibilities of amassing wealth. The public roles of shared control and the civic possibilities of public deliberation, debate, and dissent are undermined by neoliberalism’s push to privatize public schooling, treat students as knowledge consumers, and to treat teachers as deliverers of commodity. The value of knowledge is reduced in the neoliberal view to its exchangeability in the marketplace. Struggles over claims to truth and the relationship between knowledge and power are largely ignored as the neoliberal view pushes hard for the standardization of the knowledge deemed universally of value. Neoliberal education imagines the future as an endless present. Within the supreme imperative for continued economic growth, the possibilities for the individual reside with the uses of education to give the educational “consumer” an edge at competition and national policy should, in this view, be based on global economic competition. The vicissitudes of the market, the economic exclusion and impoverishment of roughly half the planet, and the crises of value and political cynicism produced by the ascendancy of consumer culture, merit hopeless shrugs by the neoliberals whose motto might as well be “adapt or die.” As Lawrence Grossberg suggests, neoliberals are faced with a contradiction when it comes to ethics and morality. While in principle the market is supposed to be self-regulating and to produce the best social outcomes, few neoliberals would allow absolutely everything to be made into a market – human organs, for example – and so they must legitimate their policies through reference to other discourses for morality, such as American exceptionalism or Christianity.6

    The vulgar variety of Marxist education fails to appreciate the public/private distinction by treating public schooling as little more than an arm of capital and a tool of capitalist oppression. Antonio Gramsci stands as a glaring exception to this, having profoundly theorized the struggle for civil society as central to the making of a hegemony forged through consent.7 For Gramsci the “private” realm of civil society must be won by ruling groups not only must the “public” realm of the state and its juridical and coercive institutions be seized to transform the material relations of production and hence the consciousness of men. Consequently the struggle for ideas, the actions of the intellectuals including teachers are not just profoundly political but they are crucial to the winning of the social order by competing classes. Politics is an educational project and education is necessarily political. The role of public schooling as a public democratic institution that prepares citizens for civic engagement is not central to the new old Marxian education any more than it is to neoliberal education because the Marxists imagine a post-revolutionary future that will be run as a dictatorship of the working class. For the Marxists as for the neoliberals, democracy receives lip-service, but these unlikely bedfellows share a commitment to reducing education to economics. While the Marxists rightly attack the damaging structure of global capitalism and its human costs, they are left with no place to go as the alternative educational form can only be derived from class analysis. The crucial questions of cultural politics and the rejection of the theoretical tools developed by multiple traditions of cultural analysis about whose knowledge should matter and what knowledge should matter and how language, meanings, and ideologies relate to material struggles leave such Marxists stunted.

    The new old educational Marxists view every other perspective and insight about education as a threat to the one true cause of Class. Feminism, racial justice, progressivism, socialism, postmodernism, poststructural theory, liberation theology, postcolonial theory, cosmopolitanism, the legacy of philosophical liberalism from which all of these derive, all appear to the educational Marxists as a threat to be annihilated. As Dave Hill, a leader of this perspective, announced at the annual American Educational Research Association conference in 2007:

    “Non-Marxist and Anti-Marxist political forces fail to recognize and combat the essentially class-based oppressive nature of Neo-Liberal Capital. Such forces include Extreme Right Racist/Fascist, Extreme Right Populist, Conservative neo-liberal, Neo-conservative, Third Way/ Revised Social Democratic (e.g. Die Neue Mitte/ New Labour), Christian Democratic, centre-Left Social Democratic, and religious fundamentalist movements and parties, whether they be Islamic, Christian, Jewish Hindu or other religions. .…Objectively, whatever our race or gender or sexuality or ability, whatever the individual and group history and fear of oppression and attack, the fundamental form of oppression in capitalism is class oppression.”8

    In the new old Marxist discourse of purity, different views appear as a danger to the one big truth.9 Such a perspective is hostile to debate and deliberation and tends towards political fundamentalism rather than the kind of public agonism necessary to democratic culture and governance. As political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes,

    “While antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents. They are ‘adversaries’ not enemies [to be destroyed]. This means that, while in conflict, they see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place. We could say that the task of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism.”10

    We can add here that the critical possibilities of public schooling likewise foster democratic culture by both recognizing the inevitable antagonism at the core of the social but also by teaching the theoretical and political tools for hegemonic struggle.

    Neoliberal education is likewise authoritarian in its active denial of politics in favor of the magic of the market. Neoliberal education is fundamentalist in two ways: it is a manifestation of market fundamentalism while denying that there is a politics to the managerial role of markets.11 The neoliberal perspective wrongly insists that free markets govern democratically as people vote with their dollars. What the neoliberal view misses altogether is how the economy functions politically to position people hierarchically based on their capacities to act in the market – capacities to act which are hardly equally distributed.12

    2 See for example Michael Apple, Ideology and Curriculum New York: Routledge 1979 and Henry Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals Westport: Bergin & Garvey 1988.

    3 For examples of the recent Marxist educational thought that has largely eschewed the insights of much of critical theory, postrstructuralism, pragmatism, postcolonial theory, feminism, psychoanalysis, and critical race theory in favor of a return to class above all else see the work of Dave Hill, Glen Rikowski, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole, Rich Gibson, Ramin Farahmandpur. Part of the problem here is that rather than appropriating from these different traditions to strengthen and expand class analysis some of the new old Marxism pits all other traditions of thought as the enemy of the One. This belies a dogmatic religiosity not to mention a failure to grasp the crucial criticisms of the logic of enlightenment. This perspective is a comprehensible over-reaction to some of the worst excesses of the postmodern trend in educational theory that resulted in the depoliticized insistance on localism, the rejection of the category of class and political economic analysis, cultural relativism, the rejection of any narrative of emancipation or progress, the celebration of desire in ways that merely reinscribed consumerism to name a few. Nonetheless, these Marxist authors ought to embrace the selective appropriation of diverse theoretical tools. Part of the problem for McLaren, who was a brilliant theorist of culture prior to his rebirth, is that in order to talk about culture from this limited perspective he is forced to smuggle the tools and select language of poststructural analysis back into the text while disavowing them. Another tragic dimension to this educational trend is that it is out of step with actually existing radical left movements around the world including the Global Justice Movement and the movement towards socialism in Latin America. For example, as I finish edits to this book in Peru, Indians in the Peruvian Amazon are resisting the Peruvian government’s attempts to steal their land to lease it to foreign nations for energy exploitation. People are linking together the class, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and ecological struggles as a singular global movement. The average person understands these interrelated relationships and is not resorting to the hierarchicizing of oppressions characteristic of the new old Marxism.

    4 Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production Telos Press, 1975. In education see Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux Education Still Under Siege Westport: Greenwood 1989 for a brilliant and mult-faceted dissection of the Marxist legacy.

    5 See for example, Aronowitz and Giroux, Education Still Under Siege Westport: Bergin and Garvey, 1989.

    6 Lawrence Grossberg, Caught in the Crossfire Boulder: Paradigm Publishers 2005.

    7 See Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith New York: International Publishers, p. 12.

    8 Dave Hill, AERA Symposium “Tyrrany of Neoliberalism on Education” paper presentation titled “Analyzing and Resisting Capitalist Education: Class ‘Race’ and Contemporary Capitalism” p. 16

    9 Hill, ibid.

    10 Chantal Mouffe On the Political New York: Routledge 2005, p. 20.

    11 See for example John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press 1990 for the classic neoliberal formulation of this position or Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1962.

    12 Much of the literature on reproduction theory in education confronts this. See for example, Bowles and Gintiss’s classic Schooling in Capitalist America the forms of capital addressed by Pierre Bourdieu as well as the more recent literature on neoliberalism in education by authors such as Giroux, Hursh, Goodman, Buras, Apple, and my books Collateral Damage, The Edison Schools, and Capitalizing on Disaster.

    • Thank you very much for your reply. I did not mean in any way to selectively quote or misrepresent the discussion in your book, and I should confess that I had not read the footnotes until now. I want to start by saying I really enjoyed your book and I’ve been a fan of your writing for a while. The discussion on venture philanthropy is one that I think not enough journalists, scholars and teachers are looking into and I hope your pioneering work will be widely read and discussed. I also thoroughly enjoyed your previous book Capitalizing on Disaster which I think does a phenomenal job of adapting Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” theory to education. My appreciation for your work is partly why I was so disappointed to find what I thought were unnecessary attacks at Marxist scholars and marxist thinking in education— especially in a book on venture philanthropy. I think the discussion around venture philanthropy could really benefit from a Marxist economic analysis of the neoliberal era. I’m not an academic, I am a high school teacher beginning to get into the field of education policy and I’ve found Marxism as the most helpful framework for thinking through some of the problems we face in education and how to change them. I confess I have not read all the scholars you footnote here, and I cannot speak to whether they are economic determinists that block out any other forms of thinking. But I’m no more convinced that they do after reading your chapter either. When I say that you provide little evidence what I’m pointing to are quotes like this: “The new old Marxists embrace an anti-democratic vanguardism and class reductionism while failing to deal with the many problems of the Marxist legacy of thought, including the anthropocentric tendency to view nature as ideally exploitable for human uses, the reduction of human value to labor, the patriarchal and racist legacies of the Marxist inheritance, the theory of culture and ideology in Marxism that reduces both to reflections of the economic base, the teleological theory of history, the mechanistic theory of agency determined by class position, the modernist enlightenment tendency towards purity, unity, totality, and harmony that is contrary to thinking difference, among other problems.” You state this list as if it is a given that everyone agrees that these are problems of the Marxist legacy. This seems to paint the entire Marxist tradition (a pretty diverse and varied strand of thinking) with a broad brush stroke—listing issues that Marxists “fail to deal with” without actually proving that Marxists don’t deal with these issues, or that they are problems of the legacy at all. Maybe the point was to refer people to Giroux and Aronowitz who deal with this? But without reading all the books you footnote, I felt that there was little evidence in this chapter to prove your assertions. To someone reading your work for the first time, and reading it as a non-academic hoping to use the ideas in your book in the education activism I’m involved in, this chapter seemed unnecessarily sectarian and completely out of left field to me. I hope you will take this as a comradely criticism and I apologize if I continue to misunderstand what you are trying to say in this chapter. Again, thanks for taking the time to reply.

  2. mclaren says:

    The notion that my work is grounded in an economism is simply a willful misreading, a reductionist reading of allegedly reductionist marxism. My perspective is a decolonial one that sees class exploitation linked to entangled hierarchies involving race, spirituality, gender, sexuality, and a geopolitics of knowledge. My work in Latin America (primarily in Mexico and Venezuela) is grounded in a Marxist humanist trajectory and the work of Enrique Dussel, Ramon Grosfoguel and other decolonial thinkers. Whoever wrote this characterization of my work has a bone to pick, and has not done any independent assessment of my work. They’ve been listening to gossips.
    Peter McLaren

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  1. […] the second part of my two-part review of Jean Anyon’s Marx and Education. Read the first part here. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * In taking us from the early pioneers of Marxist thought in […]

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