Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

School is for social reproduction

It is common in education theory circles to read that schools’ role is to (re)produce the social order. For example, both Bourdieu (cf. 1977) and Bernstein (cf. 2001) argued that schools worked to include some and exclude others. While there are a plethora of terms used to describe this process (for example Bernstein’s controversial code theory and Bourdieu’s habitus + capital + field = practice formula), one used by theorist including Apple (1982), Anyon (1980) and, more recently building on this work, Giroux (2001) is Philip Jackson’s (1968) hidden curriculum.

While Philip Jackson (1968) was concerned with the ways that schools test what they don’t teach, I want to explore the notion of how the hidden curriculum reproduces the social order. By social order, I mean the way that, in spite of rhetoric about education providing equal opportunities for all, most children leave school in exactly the same social position they entered.

For example, Apple (1982) argued that schools hold power because they are one of the arbiters of hegemonic discourses (cf. here for an explanation of this concept). Hegemonic discourses are transmitted by the hidden curriculum. Kentli (2009) cites several of Apple’s papers to argue that schools are both distributors as well as arbiters of knowledge. This knowledge, of how to behave, think, act, sit and be are all elements of a hidden curriculum that is comprised of norms, expectations and values that are associated with the middle and upper classes.

In other words, students encounter various norms and cultures through rules and activities during their school and classroom life that form the social life in the school. Also, in another work, “Ideology and Curriculum”, Apple (2001) identifies that the hidden curriculum corresponds to the ideological needs of capital. Lynch (1989) emphasizes that Apple regards the manner of distributing high-status curricular knowledge as a core element of the hidden curriculum of reproduction.

(Kentli, 2009, p. 87)

Thus, if students don’t come to school with knowledge of the hidden curriculum, or valuable cultural capital (cf. Bourdieu, 1977) or speaking the restricted code (1971), then they will be no better off in terms of their social position at 18 than they were at 5 when they entered.

Does that seem fair? I thought schools were great levellers, they were meant to make the field more equal so that others can play too. It seems that these many theorists think that the level playing field, created by schools, is not the case.


8 Responses to “School is for social reproduction”

    • Rebecca English

      I think that the role of the hidden curriculum, in line with Durkheim, Jackson and Apple and others whose interest is in using different terms (for example Bourdieu and Bernstein), is to maintain and reproduce the social order. Some excellent articles are available from an Australian researcher named Simon Marginson who uses game theory. He describes education as a zero-sum game because what the winners (ie those with power who use educational credentials to reproduce their social position) win, the losers lose. Jane Kenway, Carol Vincent and Dianne Reay also work with Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, as in the theory that kids who come to school knowing what they need to succeed will always be successful, to examine social reproduction through education. Vincent’s work on middle-class mothers involvement in British schools is really very interesting.

      Have you read some of this work? It’s fascinating stuff, but frightening as we’re all sold the myth of the meritocracy. Particularly in Australia where we bang on about the level playing field and classless society that is very unlevel and also highly stratified.

      • sage_brush

        Yes, I have read some of their fascinating work. But the reality is, that none of them seem to be aware of the “why” behind the myth of the level playing field, nor the meritocracy. And many of those who wrestle with meritocracy are only examining the political, temporal aspect. It was never, never intended to be level, though that was what was presented, and the “cultural capital” is part and parcel of the New World Order.

        The decades long inculcated ideal of this Utopian dream, where everyone is fulfilled, and brought to their full “potential” is truly demonic in origin. The upper echelon of academia do not truly desire little Johnny to realize greatness. They are really working at eliminating through government education – the complete eradication of acknowledgment of the Creator, and any responsibility that mankind has to Him. Having adolescent boys sit through “sensitivity” training, to achieve conditioning – is not to protect the sexually confused boy in their gym locker from being bullied- it is designed to emasculate these boys before they can become men.

        My father was a professor of history, and he was right in the thick of the introduction of John Dewey’s “progressive learning.” My dad dropped out of the “indoctrination scene” as he called it, and never returned to teaching.

        John Dewey, Pragmatism, and Progressive Education Quotes

        “In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

        Of course this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will. That is part of the same movement. Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated. The removal of this class, besides linking up with the abolition of education, is, fortunately, an inevitable effect of the spirit that says I’m as good as you. This was, after all, the social group which gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators. If ever there was a bunch of tall stalks that needed their tops knocked off, it was surely they.”

        If you are considering home schooling at all, before you make a decision either way – I recommend you read this excellent book. It is in depth.

        “The Harsh Truth About Public Schools,” Dr. Bruce N. Shortt

  1. Rosa

    I believe compulsory schooling to be a form of institutional violence and is a form of the symbolic violence Bordieu writes about . The village raising our children is manufactured by order of law rather than freedom of choice. The neighborhood public school poses as community but it is a way to prevent citizens from organizing based on common values.

    It is a form of social reproduction that does not serve people. It serves corporations and the elite with their need for obedient workers and consumers. In a capitalistic society, like America, the corporate class is a very large part of the ruling class.

    We can not have a truly free society while making institutional schooling compulsory. We can not flourish as beings while having the way we acquire knowledge so controlled.

    It does not support self-actualization. If we truly want a healthy society for our children we must re-write the social contract.

    • Rebecca English

      Yes! And, like all forms of power, symbolic power requires the dominated to accept their position. If more people refused to send their children to school, it would reveal the lie of the power of schooling.


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