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Conflict Theories of Education: Willis on Anti-School Cultures

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 26 Nov 2019

Paul Willis takes a different Marxist view on how school prepares children for the workplace from that of Bowles and Gintis.

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For Willis, the experience of being a working-class “lad” at school prepares young people for the boredom of manual labour by allowing them to develop a distinct set of values which serve as a coping mechanism.

He writes about an anti-school subculture, but it is the culture of “having a laff” and entertaining themselves which prepares them for the tedium of work, rather than developing the qualities of subservience and passivity. While doing the right thing and working hard is what is rewarded by the school, it is not what is rewarded by the anti-school subculture, and it is the appreciation of peers that provides a more important external reward than grades and qualifications for pupils who do not expect to do well. For “the lads” the worst thing you could be is an “ear’ole” (a teacher’s pet or swot)

The outcome, however, is the same: an easily exploitable workforce which serves the interests of capitalism. For Willis, “the Lads” – at work – have their little rebellions through schoolyard humour and mockery, which contributes to there never being the sort of big rebellion that could really threaten the capitalist system.

This is a neo-Marxist idea. It does not argue explicitly that the schools deliberately and consciously set out to prepare the workers for their coming exploitation. Willis, like other neo-Marxists, would recognise that a lot of teachers, even some educational managers and educational policy-makers, are not deliberately working on behalf of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system and indeed some might consciously seek not to.

However, the class nature of capitalist society makes it very difficult to work against the exploitative nature of the system or even to recognise your own function in facilitating that exploitation. This can also be seen in neo-Marxist theories that see the education system’s principle function as being reproducing inequality. It is not necessarily that teachers set out to ensure working-class pupils fail and middle-class pupils succeed, but it happens.

Essential Revision Resources for Education (AQA A-Level Sociology)

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