Most of what can be considered Marxist explanations of the working and outcome of educational practices in capitalist societies, can be described as an analysis of the 'hidden' aspects of schooling. The approaches considered below both use this concept of the 'hidden' aspects of schooling. By this, is meant the unacknowledged results and intentions of schooling. The openly stated aims of education are questioned. Marxists view what consensus theorists and liberal theorists can see as the natural results of schooling - the production of educational winners and losers, and stereotyping by ethnicity, gender and class, as the deliberately engineered outcome of schooling.
So, Marxists seek to investigate assumptions concerning the supposedly 'natural' outcomes of schooling, and with good reason, for as Louis Wirth points out:
'The most important things we can know about a man is what he takes for granted, and the most elemental and important facts about society are those that are seldom debated and generally regarded as settled.'
Marxist analysis of education takes as its starting point not the neutrality of education but its political nature, and asks:
In whose interest does education work?
Much use is made of the concept of 'hegemony', used to convey the idea of the totality of the domination of society by specific sets of ideas. These ideas are located so far down in peoples' consciousness that they come to constitute the boundaries of 'common sense'. A particular way of seeing the world becomes accepted as the only way to see it. However, hegemony is culture and as such has to be maintained. Its maintenance depends on legitimation and reproduction, and it is at this point that schools enter the picture, as agents of legitimation and reproduction. Schools are:
'Organised to produce and reproduce the dominant categories, values, and social relationships necessary for the maintenance of the larger society.' (Giroux, 1981).
Schools have the task of perpetuating stereotypes and inequalities because they are structurally committed to the forces that nourish them - the capitalist state.
The economic role of the school
One Marxist approach concentrates on the consideration of the economic role of the school in the reproduction of labour power, and uses the theory of correspondence. The core of this theory is a model of reproduction, the causal and determining force of which is the structure, relations and patterns of the workplace.
The initial influence in this area was the work of Bowles and Gintis (1976). Their analysis of the USA educational system led them to believe that the hierarchies, values, norms and skills of the workplace are mirrored in the social dynamics of the classroom. In this view, schooling functions as a producer of students with a docile and receptive attitude towards the social and economic imperatives of capitalist societies. Similarly, Althusser has argued that capitalist societies are incapable of sustaining educational systems that promote equality. He argues that individuals are accorded a place in the economic system in accord with the amount of schooling they receive, the type of schooling, and with regard to the specific moral and social attitudes they have developed towards work and social control.
However, stripped of its Marxist terminology, correspondence theory is saying similar things to functionalism - schools teach values, ideals and knowledge of a particular society. Both see what schools teach as an adaptation to the needs of the existing social order, and both assume (possibly quite incorrectly) that schools are effective in this task.
Knowledge and culture
A second way that Marxist analysis of schooling proceeds is through the way that knowledge is related to principles of social and economic control. Linking together a number of key concepts can draw out the substance of this approach. The first of these is concerned with how hegemony is maintained. Hegemony depends on a process of incorporation. What becomes incorporated within the dominant culture, and becomes regarded as important knowledge, is only a selection from a multitude of possibilities. This selective process has been called by Williams, the selective tradition:
'From a whole possible area of past and present, certain meanings and practices are chosen for emphasis, certain other meanings and practices are neglected and excluded.'
Those who produce knowledge are thus in a powerful position, both to determine what shall constitute knowledge, and to secure their rights as producers of such knowledge. A consequence of this for schooling is the selection, preservation and dissemination of certain values, norms and knowledge, which form part of the hidden curriculum of the school. The task of the school becomes the creation of people with appropriate meanings and values.
So whose knowledge is this?
Here, two of Bourdieu's terms are useful; habitus and cultural capital. The selections made by the selective tradition are in Bourdieu's terms - the habitus. This is the way he describes the way that a middle class culture is taken as a common culture. Bourdieu makes it plain that this culture is not a common one, but a class culture.
The second term, cultural capital, is a way of referring to the degree of familiarity with, and competence at using, the habitus. Schools employ the cultural capital derived from the habitus of the middle class and use it as if all children had equal access to it. By demanding certain cultural competencies that it does not in itself provide, the school acts as a filtering device in the reproduction of a hierarchical society.
Bourdieu considers that cultural capital should be considered to work in the same way as economic capital. So, just as in our economic system the rich tend to get richer because the system tends to benefit those who already have economic capital, so our education system most benefits those who have more cultural capital. Schools then help to perpetuate differentiation and then present it as a natural outcome of schooling, which in a capitalist system, it in fact is.
In conclusion, it seems that both functionalism and some crude Marxist accounts of schooling overestimate the degree of fit between school and society. There is an assumption that pupils learn what they are taught. Schools are seen as ideological transmission belts, faithfully conveying the values and norms of wider society to the next generation. Both functionalism and Marxism tend to be overly deterministic. Human agency needs to be brought more to the fore. While there are undoubtedly some basic constraints that limit school outcomes, and while schools do by and large reproduce inequality in society, they do not do so in an unmediated way.