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Study Notes

Classic Texts: Paul Willis "Learning to Labour" 1977


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

Paul Willis used a wide range of research methods - including observations and interviews - to really try and see education from the children's point of view. As a Marxist, he was interested in conflict in education and why working-class children went on to do working-class jobs. But he reached quite different conclusions from Bowles & Gintis.

Willis' study of working-class boys in a Midlands school has become a classic. His study focused on "the lads" - a group of working-class boys who were disruptive, misbehaved and had a very negative attitude to education. They had formed what Willis called an anti-school subculture. Within this subculture it was "cool" to "mess about" and to fail. It really turned the values of the school on their head. From the perspective of this subculture, children who the school viewed positively were the "ear'oles" ("swots"). The last thing you wanted was praise from a teacher. Instead, children could get praise within the group for truancy, bad behaviour and discriminatory attitudes (there was a lot of racism, sexism and homophobia within the group).

With these findings, Willis does not only undermine the arguments of Parsons or Durkheim, but also of his fellow Marxists, Bowles & Gintis. First, he concluded that school was not working very well as an agent of socialisation: there was no value consensus here: pupils were actively rejecting the norms and values of society. As such, they were a long way from the hard-working, docile, obedience workers suggested by Bowles & Gintis! And yet the outcome was much the same: the children of working-class parents going on to do working-class jobs. In this study they played an active role in this: they thought school was boring and pointless and was something they had to endure until they could go to work. They had a similar attitude to work, and got through it using similar techniques: "messing about" and "having a laff".

Willis used a wide range of research methods (known as methodological pluralism) to try and get as true a picture as possible. However, it has been suggested that the boys may have acted up more to "show off" to Willis. This might have occurred when they were being observed (the Hawthorne Effect - people behave differently when they know they're being watched) and when they were interviewed (an interviewer effect).

While Willis was coming from a Marxist perspective, his study does suggest that working-class boys actively chose to fail, rather than the system being designed by the capitalist class to have this outcome. He did suggest that this ultimately benefited capitalism, because there wasn't a meritocracy and instead class inequality was reproduced, and there would not be a revolution because workers had learnt a coping strategy for doing boring, unfulfilling work ("having a laff"). However, it did not produce the productive, docile workers capitalists might ideally like to have working for them!

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