In “Against Schooling: Education and Social Class,” Stanley Aronowitz critiques the processes and structures used in schools to purportedly educate students, arguing that these educational communities actually serve as a means of perpetuating the class divisions that we find in society as a whole. In a strange way, we are preparing students to be a part of society, but the problem is it is as if they are only that—a part—a piece with a place, in a system that is clearly stratified. In other words, we prepare students to become part of a certain social class, but not part of a solution to the ills that class divisions bring about. While education itself is obviously not inherently bad or good, the education that students are receiving in schools leads one to ponder exactly what it is we are preparing students to be able to do: define, develop solutions for, and solve real-world problems, or fit into the “American workplace, which has virtually no room for dissent” (107). The answer to this seems, unfortunately, obvious when considering the evidence around us: “Schools unwittingly reinforce the class bias of schooling by ignoring its content” (107). It seems that the crux of Aronowitz’ argument is best stated in a great sentence at the end of the first section: “Schools are the stand-in for ‘society,’ the aggregation of individuals who, by contract or by coercion, are subject to governing authorities in return for which they may be admitted into the world albeit on the basis of different degrees of reward” (108). Likewise, he cites Pierre Bourdieu’s similar argument that “schools reproduce class relations by reinforcing rather than reducing class-based differential access to social and cultural capital” (111).
Aronowitz considers a variety of aspects of this underlying problem. In “Access to What?”, he discusses the idea that schooling is often seen as a means of mobility within the class system that is encountered upon graduation, and that this is currently quite untrue, given that emphasis on standards-based curriculum and high stakes testing is in fact the “latest means of exclusion.” The truth of the situation contradicts this belief: “a fairly small number of children of the class of wage labor” are chosen for class mobility (118). In “Education and Immaterial Labor,” he considers one interesting result of the current public educational atmosphere, arising from the concept that school is the place in which one becomes educated. Even “the egalitarians” accept the concept that schools should prepare students for “immaterial labor,” a result of the belief that “the price of autonomy…is to accept work as a mode of life; one lives to work, rather than the reverse” (113).
Aronowitz argues that the way out of this cycle is found neither in the conservative educational policy that supports standardized testing (“the antithesis of critical thought”), nor in traditionally progressive practices that result in making curriculum less formal, “watering down course content and de-emphasizing writing” (107). The solution he poses on pages 120-121 consists of abolishing high-stakes tests that “dominate the curriculum,” incorporating “kids’ knowledge into the curriculum,” and cutting ties to “corporate interests and reconstruct the curriculum along the lines of genuine intellectual endeavor.
Though written in 2004, I would argue that the picture Aronowitz paints is still very much the truth—despite the construction and initiation of the common core and the changing of some assessments, the degree to which public schools prepare students for solving the problems of the real world is debatable. There is no indication that the social construct and curriculum of any given public school is purposefully designed to overcome the barriers and divisions that result from being grouped, sectioned off, or labeled according to performance on some standardized test (a form of assessment which is inevitably not only very narrow in scope regarding the skills and thinking assessed, but also built on standards that “presuppose students’ prior possession of cultural capital,” something that is usually the benefit of a professional or upper-class background). In a sense, as long as there is multiple choice, students will be grouped based on whether or not they filled in or clicked on the correct bubble, and these measures cannot possibly take into account “home backgrounds in which reading and writing are virtually absent” (110). Such “handicaps” were just mentioned at a steering meeting I attended yesterday regarding the fact that students don’t do summer reading, and presumably just do not read at all over the summer (or read things such as Facebook posts and tweets). What might be considered the opposite of standardized testing or standards-based curriculum, shown by an assignment such as just having students write a series of random personal narratives, isn’t sufficient either. In other words, schools (and the communities in which they exist) have not addressed the fact that the rich continue to get richer.
The best of the outcomes that both ends of the spectrum presumably aim to produce (students who not only think for themselves, but know how to make that thinking work in their favor), I would argue, can be achieved through student-centered, constructivist, problem-based learning that is tailored to students’ multiple intelligences. A string of fancy words, perhaps, and the concepts behind them aren’t supported by everyone, but learning how to confront the messy problems that life offers and learning skills through and for one’s strengths seems to make sense to me. That said, I’m not sure how this would “look” in the schools we have now. Additionally, such a concept might be so new and different from the ingrained philosophies of teaching, that it might be considered “Utopian,” but Arononowitz addresses this in the end: “of course, they are [Utopian]. But as many have argued, Utopian thought is the condition for change. Without the ‘impossible,’ there is little chance for reform” (121). It seems strange, however, to argue against an idea for improvement simply by saying that improvement might be one of its outcomes! Utopia doesn’t exist, but who wouldn’t want to be closer to it?
The following might be questions to consider (of course, there is a lot to think about):
- To what extent do our schools perpetuate class structures that already exist? What are some specific structures or processes in place that clearly contribute to these divisions?
- In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that much of instruction is built around the idea of deficits that students are said to have—weaknesses, lack of knowledge, lack of ability, assumptions regarding background. In this context, learning itself might be seen as that which “fills in the blanks.” In what ways might this kind of thinking contribute, or be made to contribute, to the creation of social classes in schools?
- Are the issues of class that we see in schools a derivative of the larger societal tensions that sometimes occur between equality and capitalism, “out of many, one” vs. rugged individualism, that exist outside of them? Is it possible to have a school that would emphasize the best of its society without directly or indirectly perpetuating that society’s shortcomings?
- Why do we continue to structure schools and curriculum in such a way that it becomes perplexing to adequately answer questions about how relevant material actually is or will be to students’ lives, nevermind their ability to improve quality of life?
Here’s a photo of the school house at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Most of the classrooms at my place of work are arranged in the same layout–a row of desks with the all-knowing blackboard at the front!