The following is a gestural sketch of some overarching ideas coming out of the last few years of my research. I read these for the Critical Theories in the 21st Century Conference. The ideas are very much under construction.
I started studying school funding a few years ago. I surprised myself. Before that I’d studied pedagogy, classroom discussion specifically. I was surprised because the wonky, juridical, and cold economic details of school funding and financing are so different than the precise interpersonal protocols of classroom pedagogy. In explaining this transition back to myself I’m pretty sure what happened was that I took a structural turn. As an education theorist on the left, working in the Marxist tradition, I went from a critical education framework focusing on the classroom to a structural education framework focusing on the scholastic apparatus and its relative autonomy viz. capitalist relations of production.
In this presentation I want to sketch the differences between these frameworks and make a plug for structural education since it seems to me that, in left thinking about education more broadly, it’s under-represented compared to critical education.
The term critical education refers to a number of subdisciplines like social foundations of education, critical pedagogy, education studies, left philosophy of education and strands of urban education. Despite the variety of its subdisciplines, critical education has a rather unified intellectual tradition. Distinct from the tradition of critical thinking that refers to problem-solving and liberal neutrality, the term critical in this case rather comes from the strain of marxism known as critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School.
This framework understands our current society as a system that is oppressive, exploitative, marginalizing, patriarchal, racist, ableist, nationalist, over-rational, colonial, totalitarian, authoritarian, technical-industrial-financial dehumanizing—but also, it says, that society is made up of people and their experiences. These people can rise up and express themselves through critique of the system, raising their own and each other’s consciousness, and acting through creative praxis against that system, resisting it, disrupting it, even prefiguring other ways of being (and not necessarily in that order).
Painting in broad strokes this tradition has two main principles: a critique of dehumanization that when thoroughly followed can lead to liberation, centering human experience against systems via the agency inherent in cultural practices. Freire’s banking concept of education vs. dialogue is a paradigm case of the insight.
The framework’s history can help in understanding these basic premises. The application of marxist thinking to education emerged anew in the US after the repressions of McCarthyism gave way to student rebellions in the late 1960s. In that crucible there were many marxisms available for thinking through educational questions from a left perspective, among them various interpretations of Gramsci, British cultural studies, and structuralism.
Frankfurt School-style critical theory, mixed with a British cultural theory influenced by historian E.P. Thompson (like Paul Willis, who would take up resistance theory), became the hegemonic paradigm in left education thinking during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It rose to prominence through Michael Apple’s interaction with British left scholars of education and Henry Giroux’s work with Stanley Aronowitz, connection with Apple, and subsequent configuration of critical pedagogy, using Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a kind of central text. I’d read the book as a teacher in South America as I was taking a left political turn and it influenced my thinking and organizing, putting me on the path to studying classroom discussion.
My Path to Structure
As part of that work, I found Louis Althusser’s theory of education—that it is an ideological state apparatus reproducing relations of production through interpellation— and how that theory was taken up. I’d found the theory helpful in trying to think through the relationship between classroom discussion and capitalism.
After finding Althusser useful in that project, I kept reading his work. A budding socialist, I also wanted to know what the marxist tradition had to say about education and Althusser’s is a landmark theory in that regard.
I was confused with how critical education interpreted his theory however. Founders of critical education like Henry Giroux and Michael Apple, building off debates in British marxist history, philosophy, and social sciences, claimed that Althusser’s structuralism leaves no room for agency, that it’s functionalist and deterministic. Some even called it Stalinist and totalitarian.
That wasn’t my reading of the theory though. I knew about Althusser’s terrible past and his debatable political positions in the French Communist Party, but his thinking was so important to my field that I wanted to figure out why Apple and Giroux and others had these critiques and if they were right. I have a forthcoming book with all the findings of that research. In revisiting Althusser’s theory and how it was taken up in education, part of those findings is a tradition of structuralist thinking about education cobbled together initially by Althusser and then developed by a diverse group of (largely nonwhite male) theorists like Nicos Poulantzas, Stuart Hall, AnnMarie Wolpe, Michele Barrett, Martin Carnoy, and Zeus Leonardo.
My old teacher, the structuralist Peter Caws, used to say that philosophical distinctions are small but make a big difference. This is true of the structural framework for left thinking in education and the critical framework. While small, it makes a big difference.
Structural education says society is a formation of forces. These forces come from relations between people and groups of people. The relations show up in practices: the ways the people have their hands on things, how they treat each other, how they understand and enact their positions in society. People come in and out of these positions, but the positions themselves stick change and stay the same at a different pace.
There’s thus a key difference between people and their positions, and the different ways positions impact people and vice versa. The basic insight here comes from the early 19th century linguist Ferdinand d’Saussure. In his landmark Course on General Linguistics, Saussure says that languages change, but not because any one speaker by themselves decides to change it through speech. The language rather exists in the collectivity over time. Indeed, by thus separating language (a well-defined object outside the individual that they cannot modify by themselves) from speech (individuals speaking), Saussure states that “language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual” (14).
Structuralists use this distinction to understand society. While the speaker has to learn the language through somewhat passive assimilation, that’s not to say that language doesn’t change or can’t be creatively exploited, shifted, etc. That change just happens under certain conditions at a certain temporality. Language is different than speech; position is different than individual persons. Individual speakers have agency but that agency runs up against a more obdurate structure of the language. So it goes with social structures like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
When it comes to the dynamic between experience, agency, and structure I have been playing around with a river metaphor. Peoples’ experiences run through structures like water through rock. The rock is solid, forceful, and has its own tendencies distinct from the quick flow of water. Each have a power, each impact one another, but differentially.
The structural insight is that we have to understand both these effectivities if we want to change the terrain of social structure. Rock is very solid, directing the water. But the water changes the rock over time. Neither is impervious to the other but their effectivity—the quantity and quality of the force they exert one one another—differs. Geology is different than hydrology.
When it comes to education, the structural framework is distinct from the critical framework. I don’t think they’re incompatible, but historically they’ve been at odds. While the critical side has said structuralism prohibits agency, the structural framework has argued that critical theory is ambivalent about revolution and actually changing social relations.
To me, these critiques of structure fall short because attending to structure means attending to the rock and its dynamic with the water rather than just the water. The structural tradition bears this out.
When it comes to education, Althusser’s claim is that schools are ideological state apparatuses, one mode of intervention for a capitalist ruling class to maintain their favored relations of exploitation by making sure people in the institutions toe their line. The schools get young people with the program of society, make them productive members of it as it is and not necessarily as it should or could be. Michele Barrett and AnnMarie Wolpe have analyzed how schools articulate relations of patriarchy and exploitation in curriculum, pedagogy, and discipline.
Poulantzas used this framework to critique bourgeois arguments about the causal relationship between schooling and inequality. He helpfully points out that schools do not create inequality. It’s not because schools educate in a certain way that people are exploited. It’s rather because there is a society with relations of exploitation dominant that influences the school to educate as it does.
To Martin Carnoy, this means schools mediate struggles in capitalism. They soften contradictions, like correcting for changing labor markets and perpetuating symbolic promises of democracy. Henri Lefebvre has a whole book on what it would mean to produce new relations in urban life.
Finally, the structural framework has a theory of race/class and education Zeus Leonardo, drawing from Stuart Hall’s work on the concept of articulation, has conceived of schools as racial state apparatuses, understanding contemporary education policies like NCLB as upholding white supremacy.
It’s this lens through which I’ve started thinking about schools’ relationship to racial capitalism through their funding and financing: the ways property taxes, real estate, segregation, and bond markets combine to reproduce racial capitalism.
Understanding education as an apparatus brings our attention to these structures and how they work. At least, when I studied the structural framework, that’s where my attention went. As I was studying it I got really interested in school funding, the relationship between private property and municipal finance, school district law. In other words, the structure of education and capitalism, which is very different than classroom pedagogies like discussion.
My closing pitch is that it might be time to take up the structural framework again. The end of history is over. Socialism has a mainstream appeal that it hasn’t had in a century. And if we’re serious about changing the system then we should attend more carefully to that system, how it changes, what it takes to change it, and the structural framework helps us do that.