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