Despite the egalitarian ideals of modern democratic societies such as New Zealand, some educationists believe that educational attainment is largely determined by socio-economic class position.  It is a society’s hope that educational institutions will provide equal opportunity to succeed and produce democratic citizens.  But are schools providing equal opportunities for attainment or are they simply reproducing inequalities in society?

Schools can reproduce inequalities by reproducing society’s economic structures, through socialisation and reproducing and reinforcing existing cultural differences.

Marx’s analysis of society gives us clues as to the schools role in social reproduction (reproducing characteristics of our social structure).  Marx believes that societies and cultures are structured around how we produce the things we do.

In historical materialism Marx uses the image of a ‘base’ and a ‘superstructure’. The base is the economic structure of society, which includes the forces (means) of production and the relations of production.  The means of production involves all the things you need to produce (machines, land etc..)

The relations of production are where who owns, controls and operates the ‘means’ gets cashed out.  This is where inequalities of wealth and power are born and class distinctions perpetuated.

In a capitalist society it is predominately the middle class who own the ‘means’ of production. The superstructure consists of the cultural and political life of society.  It includes family, art, religion, education and so on. The base influences activity in the superstructure, however the superstructure’s influence on the base is limited.  So what happens in education will be largely determined by what goes on in the base or so Marx thinks.

Marx thought that capitalism seems to be fair, but there is something about the relations between worker and employer that presents as being unjust.  Marx seems to think this has something to do with prevailing ideologies with the social classes and the long-term process that produces social relations. Ideologies are false ideas or beliefs about the world and they can have harmful consequences.  Ideology appears in education in what is taught and learned in the curriculum that is informed by dominant ideologies in society.  There are also ideologies that emerge from the day-to-day life in school that appear in behaviours, attitudes and dispositions.

While ideologies are dangerous and can go unnoticed, I’d argue that they don’t always go untested. Teachers are not mere transmitters of the consensus view.  Learners are not passive receivers of social messages. Teachers in New Zealand for instance are unionized and frequently contest ideologies that they feel are not in the best interest of their students and equality. Furthermore, geographical and socio-economic barriers are dissolving with connectivity from the Internet and students are savvy in this brave new world. Gramsci (1971), argues that it is the prime task of intellectuals to expose the meaning of prevailing ideologies and create some unity of shared values.  Teachers and educationalists have this responsibility and as such should not accept the status quo of reproducing inequalities in their institutions.

Enculturation is the term used to describe the process of individuals learning the norms of the culture they are living in.  Culture would be found in Marx’s superstructure and encompasses things like gender ethnicity, age and popular culture.  Culture is important to education as it can give individuals power or likewise disadvantage them.  Because culture is found in the superstructure it is also ideological and this is bad because differences in culture can present as being natural, all the while benefiting some groups and not others.

Individuals from different socio-economic class position have different levels of social capital and this can disadvantage certain groups.  Social capital refers to assets that promote individuals up the social ranks.  Social capital involves dispositions, cultural goods and educational credentials.  This matters because pedagogies tend to make assumptions about the ideal pupil and the ideal teacher pupil relationship.  These assumptions are more compatible with the middle class than the working class dispositions.  For example, middle class children have access to extensive dialogue and worldly experiences that allows them to identify with the teachers expectations and demands of the curriculum.

According to Young (1971), knowledge is highly socially stratified.  He argued that our curriculum that is characterised by written work, is abstract, individualistic and favours the working class over the middle class.  The school curriculum then, becomes a mechanism by which knowledge is socially distributed.

One could argue that if culture is learned and can be shaped, then the curricula can be adapted to give the working class equal access to its content.  In order to do this, educationalists would need to be committed to teasing out all the bias that lurk in pedagogies and the curriculum.  This is no easy task especially when some beliefs are ideological in nature and present as the ‘norm’.

Bowls and Gintis are two educationalists that think schools do play a significant role in social reproduction by reproducing society’s economic structures.  They argue that despite there being equal opportunity for students to succeed, we still see inequalities in society. They give the example of the progress being made in closing the gap in the number of school years attended between blacks and whites in the USA.  Despite considerable progress being made over the past fifty years in closing the gap, there has been virtually no effect on the distribution of income between blacks and whites.  Bowls and Gintis suggest one reason for this is that the school system lacks power to affect the economic structure. This mirrors the Marxian view that the superstructure has limited power to affect the economic base.

Another reason is that the structure of school overlaps with the structure of the economic life in the factory and office.

Image by William Gill

Image by William Gill

Bowls and Gintis refer to this as the ‘correspondence principle’.  They argue that schools develop patterns of behaviors and puts forward its beliefs essential to the smooth operation of the economy. For example, grades in school correspond to wages in work.  The motivation to get paid roughly corresponds with the motivation to get good grades – the focus is on the reward and not the process of learning.

School is hierarchical just like the office or factory.  Rewards are given out in the form of money and praise, just as rewards are doled out at school in the form of grades, certificates and praise.  Bowls and Gintis looked at how the rewards are distributed in schools and found that educational attainment (achievement) relies on more than just what you know. They found that the traits that are rewarded by getting good marks are punctuality, tact and predictability.  The traits that are negatively rewarded are creativity, aggressiveness and independence – this corresponds directly with what it takes to get approval from your supervisor at work.  Teachers praise and reward certain traits that correspond with supervisors in the workplace.

I’d like to suggest that in the current schooling climate Bowles and Gintis have overlooked the influence of progressive education.  21st century learning is awash with the principles of progressive education.  Learning is student driven, with a high degree of autonomy being promoted.  Furthermore, it is not implausible to suggest that schools can be independent sites of reproduction, with their own values, principles and possibilities.  At the vary least we could say that Bowles and Gintis’s deterministic position is questionable.

These are philosophical and sociological musings from those who look from afar at education. Nevertheless, they raise points that should, at the very least, raise consciousness around ideologies and structures that can perpetuate existing inequalities in education. We should question these covert influences and challenge the status quo where ideologies and structures and practices don’t yield equality for our students.



Bowles, S. (1975). If John Dewey Calls, Tell Him Things Didn’t Work Out… Retrieved from Radical Education Dossier 1, 4–11.

Dale, R. (1995). Social Class and Education in Aotearoa/New Zealand, in James Marshall, Eve Coxon, Kuni Jenkins and Alison Jones (eds), Politics, Policy, Pedagogy: Education in Aotearoa/New Zealand (107–37). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Marx & Engels Collected Works: Volume 35 Retrieved from





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