Marx and Education
reviewed by Patrick Comstock - October 05, 2011
In her brief and thoughtful new volume Marx and Education, Jean Anyon casts the modern American educational system in light of Marxist theory and practice. Her project is ambitious and wide in scope. In terrain as broad as this, one senses the twin dangers of, on the one hand, bending Marx out of shape or, on the other, doing a disservice to the complexities of American educational history and policy. Yet Anyon succeeds admirably in her task, and offers to readers not only a Marxist view of education, but also a set of political and pedagogical recommendations based on her insights.
Anyon begins Marx and Education with a very short introduction to Marx and his thought. It is a testament to her strengths as a scholar that Anyon distills the basic ideas of such a complex thinker with ease and brevity. From his voluminous writings she gleans three central insights: first, that capitalism is a source of systemic social, economic, and educational inequality; second, that social class is an explanatory social and educational heuristic; and third, that an analysis of capitalist culture can be an inspiration for practicing critical classroom pedagogy (p. 5). These three insights are woven through her narrative.
One of the most interesting features of Anyons book is that it contains shades of her own autobiography. As she traces the evolution of her thinking on Marx and education, readers are let in on Anyons own development as a scholar and social critic.
In the first chapter, for instance, Anyon draws from her own observations of schools in New Jersey during the 1970s and 1980s. Over a stretch of time she observed working-class schools, a middle-class school, and two highly affluent schools. At the working-class schools, she found the bar set disconcertingly low. Classroom procedures were rote and mechanical; students had little choice or agency; teachers barked orders; and children came to school laden with all the baggage of a stressful family life. A dominant theme at these schools, Anyon recounts, was student resistance.
In the middle-class school, things were better. Here, the pedagogy required at least some student choice, some decision-making. Learning was much more a conceptual process than in working-class schools.
The affluent schools were in a different league altogether. In these schools, Anyon notes, student learning was a creative process; work was academic, intellectual, and rigorous. The affluent schools, though they were in the same city, were worlds away.
The conclusion that Anyon could not help but draw from these observations was that the rote, unrewarding tasks in the working-class school seemed to train students for rote, unrewarding jobs. Similarly, the creative, expressive tasks called for in the wealthy schools mirrored the creative, expressive tasks students would perform in their careers as adults. Her observations confirmed the Marxist intuition that she and other progressive educators had felt all along: far from being a social leveler, schools actually tended to reproduce the very socioeconomic inequalities that the American economic system had created.
If Anyons own observations form the backbone of Marx and Education, it is other scholars who fill out its flesh and blood. Throughout her book, Anyon refers to and integrates the work of many other scholars, including Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis. In effect, she offers an intellectual history of Marxist thought in modern education, and readers profit from her work.
Even so, as careful and perceptive as Anyon is in applying a Marxist critique to education, one still might challenge the set of implications she draws. She suggests, as we saw above, that the quality of a citys schools directly mirrors its economic conditions. According to this view, one cant be fixed without fixing the other. She offered a vivid image of this imperative in her field notes in the mid 1990s. Attempting to fix an inner city school without fixing the neighborhood, she wrote, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door (p. 50).
One might wonder how Anyon (or Marx, for that matter) would respond to those who are now trying to fix schools one at a time, in spite of the fact that they are mired in socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods. In essence, they are trying to clean the air on one side of the screen door. People like these seem to make up organizations like Teach for America, KIPP, Achievement First, and other charter networks. For these reformers, the underlying assumption is that a student can be educated out of poverty. The process requires establishing an alternative, rival culture the culture of school.
In any case, both Anyon and the new cadre of urban teachers and reformers are agreed on the importance of college. A college degree can serve as a ticket out of poverty. In fact, college is the object of one of Anyons policy recommendations in Marx and Education: that the United States fully fund and otherwise support all low-income students who are accepted into a college or university (p. 79). Though Anyon rightly observes that a college degree is no free pass out of poverty, she does take great care in Marx and Education to show why college is such a valuable resource for climbing the social ladder.
There are other valuable resources for combating poverty that Anyon highlights in her book, including the resources of critical thinking and political activism. Both, she suggests, can be cultivated through critical pedagogy. When students are made aware of the ways in which they are oppressed or excluded by the educational, political, economic, and cultural systems they live in, then they are in a better position to change those orders. Here, when describing the substance and effects of critical pedagogy, Anyon is at her best and most inspiring. She shows how teachers can be trained to teach in a way that destabilizes class barriers, and that students can learn to apprehend possibility in what, at first glance, might appear overdetermined or unchangeable racial, class, or gender subordination (p. 98).
Anyon does not claim to be a revolutionary (Revolution itself appears an old fashioned concept, she writes at one point), but in Marx and Education, she offers up to readers ammunition for social revolution in the form of concepts like political activism, critical thinking, critical pedagogy, and educational policy reforms. In light of a renewed recession, and in light of an American educational system in apparent decline, we may find that this ammunition comes in handy, for it is the very ammunition that helps ensure our freedom as citizens. To paraphrase a thinker who was, ideologically speaking, quite far from Marx, but who, like Marx, had a tremendous impact on Western thought: A little revolution every now and then is a good thing.