Study Notes

Conflict Theories of Education - Louis Althusser


Last updated 10 Nov 2019

Louis Althusser argued that the education system was part of what he called the ideological state apparatus.

Althusser on Education

Althusser argued that the bourgeoisie maintain power by using both repressive state apparatus (coercive power like the police and the army) and ideological state apparatus: institutions that spread bourgeois ideology and ensure that the proletariat is in a state of false class consciousness.

Schools and educational institutions are, for Althusser, part of the ideological state apparatus: they prepare working-class pupils to accept a life of exploitation.

In a way this is similar to Durkheim’s view that education serves to teach people the norms and values of society, to preserve the value consensus, only for Althusser these norms and values are those that serve the interests of the ruling class and it is a capitalist consensus that prevents necessary social change.

Education can perform this ideological role through both the formal curriculum and through other aspects of school life (which is often described as the hidden curriculum). In terms of the formal curriculum, decisions about what is taught and what is not taught impact the nature of the value consensus that the education system produces.

When former education secretary Michael Gove argued that pupils should learn more British history, he meant British history where the British are heroic: repelling invaders, winning battles, ending slavery, defeating fascism and all the great men and women and kings and queens. He certainly did not mean the history of Britain invading and occupying other countries, starting wars over the opium trade, of leading the slave trade, of indifference to suffering in Irish and Indian famines. If education was simply about imparting knowledge one would expect all of that to be in the curriculum. If education were about developing a “neutral” value consensus there would be a strong argument for including it: only by learning about the past can we avoid repeating it. But the UK education system is much keener to learn from the mistakes of Germans, Russians and Americans, while learning the triumphs and justice of the British. A lesson that Britain is always right, that our leaders are wise and just and that it is important to preserve our great traditions, is a very effective conservative ideology that helps people to believe that it would be wrong to push for radical social change.

Outside the formal curriculum, education also teaches us about hierarchy, respect for authority, obeying the rules. Again, while functionalists might argue these are important values and skills for society to function properly, Marxists like Althusser would argue that that these serve to keep the rich and powerful in their positions and to prevent rebellion and revolution. It is a good example of how sociological perspectives work: two groups are observing the same social phenomena but from very different points of view.

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