Karl Marx’s Bicentenary: Is there a pedagogical legacy?

Taken from Teaching Sociology Successfully: A Practical Guide to Planning and Delivering Outstanding Lessons (Routledge, 2017). The blog is written out of interest and not as an endorsement of Marxist ideas.

Like him or loathe him, Karl Marx was many things: a journalist, a newspaper editor, a philosopher, a historian, an economist, a political theorist and, of course, a socialist revolutionary. Posthumously he has also been labelled a sociologist, a critical theorist, a ‘Titian of Terror‘ and even a champion of liberal values. However, as far as I am aware, he never taught in a primary or secondary school (unlike some other philosophers, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Satre and Karl Popper).

Nevertheless, although Marx did not really say anything about pedagogy in the classroom, Marxism has a lot to say about education and, therefore, has influenced a whole raft of pedagogical ideas, including the highly influential philosophy cum social movement known as critical pedagogy. Importantly, outside of Communist countries, critical pedagogy is the nearest we can get to a pedagogical legacy for Marx, but its influence transcends Marxism and may appeal to those with more centrist, even liberal, tendencies.  

Reproducing inequality

Essentially, most Marxists see education as reinforcing the class system and reproducing inequality. Louis Althusser (1971) saw this as part of the ideological state apparatus that brainwashes us into a ‘false class consciousness’ of accepting our position in life regardless of our true potential. Bowles and Gintis (1976) developed this further to discuss how we are taught to obey authority in later life as our school rules and hierarchies correspond to the world of work and future exploitation; they call this the ‘correspondence principle’. They go on to say that the idea that school rewards ability and hard work – in the sense that it is part of a meritocratic society – is a complete myth. They argue that schools operate a ‘hidden curriculum’ that aims to teach us the selfish and unequal norms and values of the capitalist system. However, despite the overwhelming negativity of these criticisms, Marxism does see education as a vehicle of liberation; allowing pupils to break free from a life of false class consciousness and exploitation. That is, of course, if you think we are oppressed by those in charge.

Importantly, Marx and Engels argued that without education the working class were condemned to ‘lives of drudgery and death, but that with education they had a chance to create a better life’ (Kellner, n.d., p. 2). Both Marx and Engels believed that with education and experience the proletariat (working class) could eventually use it to fight the bourgeoisie (ruling class). However, they acknowledged that in order to facilitate this any revolution would need a ‘radical intelligentsia’ that would leave the bourgeoisie and live alongside and help further the education of the proletariat. These radicals are those who will raise ‘themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole’. (Marx and Engels, 1975, pp. 494; cited in Kellner, n.d, p. 2). It is here, then, that a radical pedagogy will be needed to reveal to the working classes not only the systems and structures that exploit them, but also the eventuality of their own emancipation.

For Marx and Engels, the importance of education cannot be underestimated as it is needed to create a harmonious socialist society. Nonetheless, neither Marx nor Engels were pedagogues and, as stated by Kellner, they lacked a fully articulated theory of education and subjectivity, which suggests they did not consider what sort of pedagogy is needed for the working classes to discover their own class consciousness as well as the potential of their own agency, or individual capacity, to organise themselves collectively to change their economic position or exploitation (ibid, p. 2).

Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy

As Marx argued that a revolutionary consciousness would develop amongst the masses as they became aware of their exploitation, perhaps all the revolutionary teacher should be doing is ‘painting this picture’ through formal teacher centred chalk and talk. However, Paulo Freire, the radical pedagogue and founder of critical pedagogy, cautions that the teacher should not merely shape the students in the same way that an artist shapes the materials they are working with; in that they are not mugs to our knowledgeable jugs. What a teacher should do is to make it possible for the students to become themselves; thus, reach their academic potential as well as become a source of agency and radical change within society.

Of course, Freire (1970) was known for his criticisms of the banking model of education, in which the student’s mind is viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher’s knowledge. He argued that the banking model simply ‘transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power’ (ibid, p. 77). Freire believed, therefore, that teaching methods that centred on rote learning, even if well-meaning, create a ‘culture of silence’ that could well lead to students simply accepting everything they are taught without really thinking about it, questioning it and challenging the teacher’s or subject’s assumptions. Freire also believed that this culture of silence suppresses students’ self-image as they will not find their voice nor realise the impact their intellect, views and actions can have. Therefore, for Freire, the learner must develop a critical consciousness in order to recognise their self-worth and potential.

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Paulo Freire

One criticism of critical pedagogy, however, is that it can be over theoretical and over concerned with criticising the status-quo as opposed to developing a practical pedagogy for the classroom. In response, Ira Shor (1992: 31–54) advocates critical pedagogy’s emphasis on problem-posing, which builds on Freire’s belief that, ‘People develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves’ when ‘they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation’ (Freire, 1970: 64). Shor goes on to argue that problem-posing ‘aids people in knowing what holds them back’ in order to create ‘a social order which supports their full humanity’ (Shor, 1980: 48). Similarly, Freire (1985: 22) suggests classroom teachers need to ‘problematise [everyday or common] situations’ by contextualising issues pupils face on a day-to-day basis, but with the goal of finding fair and just solutions by seeing them in different ways. Importantly, and especially in relation to Marxist notions of false consciousness, these might be problems that often bypass pupils as issues they have the potential to address.

In a similar vein, Lewison, Flint and Sluys (2002; 383) outline four dimensions of critical pedagogy that can be applied in the classroom. Although they focus on literacy, they give a good exposition of critical pedagogy as a way of teaching and learning. The four dimensions  include:

  • Disrupting the commonplace: for example, problematising all subjects of study and understanding existing knowledge as a historical product (following on from Shor, 1987) and interrogating what we know by asking questions such as, “How is this text [or view/perspective] trying to position me?” (following on from Luke and Freebody, 1997)
  • Interrogating multiple viewpoints: for instance, reflecting on multiple and contradictory perspectives (citing Lewison, Leland and Harste, 2000; Nieto, 1999) as well as paying attention to and seeking out the voices of those who have been ignored, silenced or marginalised (citing Harste et. al., 2000)
  • Focusing on social political issues: this could include using subject knowledge to engage in the politics of everyday life (following on from Lankshear and McLaren, 1993); and redefining the acquisition of knowledge as a form of cultural citizenship and political literacy that increases opportunities for marginalised groups to participate in society and as an act of resistance (following on from Giroux, 1993a).
  • Taking action and promoting social justice: engaging in praxis by reflecting and acting upon society in order to transform it (referencing Freire, 1970) and to question practices of privilege and injustice (citing Comber, 2001).

For a more in-depth discussion, read their article on literacy and critical pedagogy (click here).

Some may argue that these ideas are not particularly Marxist and are also evident in more general social democratic and liberal perspectives on education. For instance, a lot of these ideas were evident in the Citizenship curriculum developed for English schools under the guidance of Bernard Crick with the support of New Labour’s David Blunket. However, as both Henry Giroux (2003b) and Ali Nouri and Seyed Mahdi Sajjadi (2014) emphasize, the influence of ‘Neo-Marxist’ critical theorists, such as those linked to the Frankfurt School, have had a clear impact on the introduction of critical theory to education studies. It is feasible, they claim, that critical pedagogy results from a dialogue centred on the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in relation to education amongst theorists such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. The main thing that makes critical pedagogy distinct from critical theory is that the former is primarily concerned with oppressive power relations and inequalities in educational institutions, such as schools and universities (Keesing-Styles, 2003; Nouri and Sajjadi, 2014).

Habitus and restricted speech codes

Another thinker whose work is relevant to this discussion is Pierre Bourdieu, especially his ideas on habitus, cultural capital and cultural deprivation. Although Bourdieu himself was neither a pedagogue nor a Marxist, his views on how individual behaviour is constrained by the hierarchical and socially unjust structures that are prevalent in modern society are useful in furthering a Marxist pedagogy. These structures, in Marxist tradition, exist independently of our individual consciousness and include the material and economic structures that shape the class system. However, Bourdieu is also concerned with the social, symbolic and cultural structures that shape our lives and our perception of ourselves within society. Bourdieu called this habitus, which suggests these structures can socialise us with an inhibiting perception of our place in society. This can be as much a burden as any material or economic structure. For instance, after reviewing various studies on cultural habitus and cultural capital, Halasz and Kaufman state that, ‘those students socialised with the cultural habitus, cultural capital and practices of the dominant class are more likely to succeed in the educational field than those who find the cultural codes foreign and more difficult to acquire’ (2008, p. 311).

Bourdieu further developed his ideas with Jean-Claude Passeron (1990) by arguing that formalised testing is also inherently biased as students who come from working class backgrounds will lack cultural capital, which makes their comprehension of questions, texts and wider cultural references found in exams harder than their middle class peers; this theory was tested in the UK by Basil Bernstein (2003), who is often associated with Neo-Marxist perspectives on education; his research suggested Bourdieu and Passeron’s ideas are evident in the English educational system. Moreover, this also affects the eloquence in which students write, their articulation in discussion and debate and their teachers’ perceptions of them. Here, middle class students are seen as having more elaborate speech codes whereas working class students have restricted speech codes. Subsequently, cultural capital is mistaken for merit and students’ mistakes are often due more to cultural deprivation than innate intelligence. In the classroom, these ideas suggest that teachers should constantly look for activities and ways of learning that close the gap between students’ individual starting points – where income and culture are concerned – and that any approach to pedagogy that bypasses this is will only inflame classroom, school and societal inequalities.

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Basil Bernstein

Perhaps a more open question for Marxists is what this pedagogy will consist of in terms of learning activities, differentiation and assessment, as even the ideas outlined above by Lewison, Flint, and Sluys are still largely focused on ideological principles and outcomes as opposed to actual teaching methods and strategies per se. Therefore, Nouri and Sajjadi (2014; see also Eisner, 1995; Gutek, 2004) argue that critical pedagogy in particular needs to move from text to practice – a criticism that has already been aired in this blog. They contend that there are too few writings in critical pedagogy and Marxist literature which clearly explain how to put these radical left-wing ideas into practice in the actual classroom; this criticism could be extended to how critical pedagogy and any Marxist pedagogy would address students’ access to educational support and resources within a comprehensive school.

For instance, would the application of critical/Marxist pedagogy involve ‘affirmative action’ in terms of assistance to learning, perhaps through targeting teaching assistants to those with less access to resources at home? Are more class/income based interventions needed, such as additional classroom resources and texts for working class students – not only in quantity, but also written in a way to bridge the cultural divides between classes? Are there certain ways of scaffolding written responses that build up elaborate speech codes? Should we jettison middle class language and teach in a working class vernacular (if such a thing exists)? Should we bypass middle class reference points in favour of working class ones?

There are, undoubtedly, plenty of pedagogical ideas out there that can contribute to this, but they are not necessarily Marxist; for instance, teaching methods focused on enhancing the learning of students’ with English as an Additional Language (EAL) are hardly monopolised by those on the ‘left’ and many writers championed by those on the ‘right’ of the political spectrum, such as E.D. Hirsch and Daisy Christodoulou, see themselves as promoting pedagogy or educational reforms that will benefit all pupils’ in society, including those from poorer backgrounds (neither of these writers identify themselves as ‘right wing’, however). Moreover, and especially if we are to mention Hirsch and Christodoulou, critics of some of the ideas discussed above will say that the whole idea of not teaching working class students content that supposedly champions middle class values and tastes (or content that promotes ‘high culture’) is counter-productive in a way that actually reinforces inequality. As the conservative (with a small ‘c’) philosopher Roger Scruton states, “A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.” It is also worth mentioning that some orthodox Marxists would simply see any of the above measures as embedding false class consciousness; the point of any Marxist pedagogy should be to facilitate a socialist revolution. 

The problem of ideological indoctrination

A more controversial issue is what is taught by teachers trying develop a Marxist or critical pedagogy, especially in terms of any political ideology expressed by teachers. As suggested, an orthodox Marxist pedagogy would have to include a Marxist ideology. For those who agree or sympathise with Marxism, as well as some of its Neo-Marxist variants, this would be a no-brainer; what – after all – is so bad about liberating the oppressed and emancipating the dispossessed through values education in the classroom? However, the issue here is consensus, pluralism and the freedom to think critically. Yes, it can be argued that the implicit analysis of inequality, questioning of injustice and critical thinking advocated by critical pedagogy is important if society is to be more just, equal and fair, but is that belief limited to Marxists and Marxism? Other ideologies champion justice too, but will have differing perspectives on how this can be achieved and what it should look like. There are alternatives and students may not share the ideological perspectives of their teachers.

Furthermore, any overt ideological instruction would be indoctrination. In the UK, not only does the law require teachers to present balanced interpretations and time to competing arguments, but it also prohibits political bias in the classroom. In this sense, any Marxist pedagogy in the UK would need to be limited to closing the attainment gap between rich and poor, or rather, the working class and middle class; in this sense it is more social democratic than revolutionary – a teacher would probably end up being sacked if they routinely told their students to smash the ruling class.

A legacy of sorts?

In conclusion, perhaps the closet thing Marx has to a pedagogical legacy is critical pedagogy. Although not all of its adherents are avowedly Marxist, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) is clearly built around a Marxist theory of education and the work of Ire Shor, Douglas Kellner and Henry Giroux all share a Marxist worldview. However, critical pedagogy is largely limited to academic thinking on pedagogy in higher education, particularly in the US and developing world, and is not really heard of, discussed nor known in UK schools. I came across it on a PGCE course that only really included it as the subject I trained in was Citizenship Education. Furthermore, despite my assertion that critical pedagogy is limited to academic discussion on pedagogy, absolutely none of the four universities I work with include it as part of their teacher training education (my trainees haven’t come across it) and it is not included in any of the in-school professional studies’ sessions I am involved with; therefore, if this is Marx’s pedagogical legacy, it is a weak one in terms of influencing teachers’ practice.   

Nonetheless, away from the classroom, Marxism has massively impacted on the sociology of education and some classical studies in this area of research have influenced policy makers. Therefore, Marxist ideas on education, especially cultural deprivation and inequality of educational opportunity, have influenced mainstream education policy at intermittent points over the last century and Marx can be seen as having some kind of legacy in the classroom – even if this is nowhere near enough for a genuine socialist revolution. After all, it can be said that we live in a social democracy, which is seen by some as emerging from a revision of orthodox Marxism, and that government policies from governments left and right, such as Sure Start, Free School Meals, Pupil Premium and extra resources for low-income pupils, exist in some part due to the legacy of Karl Marx; regardless of whether one likes him or not.


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