School Rhetoric: Ideological Use of the Concept of Social Justice, Part One

Social justice has now become a buzzword these days. There is social justice this and social justice that, here a social justice, there a social justice, everywhere a social justice. This buzzword forms the ideology of the social-democratic left, for example, as well as the conservative right. After all, who is against social justice?

The winter 2015-2016 edition of Leaders & Learners (the official magazine of the Canadian Association of School Administrators, or CASS) has as its title “Social Justice and Social Responsibility.” The content of that particular journal expresses the limited definition (and views) of its middle-class authors.

Let us look at the most radical article in the publication: “The ‘Great (Un) Equalizer’: Using the Bourdieuian Lens to Understand ,the Paradox of Education,” Victor Brar uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital,” among others, to criticize schools. Brar argues that academic achievement is a function of the individual’s cultural capital, which is accumulated as a child experiences the world to form their habitus–the specific way of looking at the world and responding to it. This world, however, is not unitary but riveted by separation through the existence of social classes. Individuals belonging to different classes will have different kinds of cultural capital and different habituses.

In schools, some kinds of cultural capital and habitus will be treated as more valuable than others, forcing those who lack the characteristic cultural capital and habitus of the school system to conform to external requirements–which leads to symbolic violence.

Brar then uses more specific categories of class to criticize the school system. Those children who lack the cultural capital and habitus of schools are “from low SES [socio-economic statu] backgrounds” and will, in a vicious circle, fail to achieve relatively to those students who do possess the cultural capital and habitus of the school; the lower SES students will thus remain in the low SES.

Brar specifically uses the socio-economic status criterion for determining the nature of the lower and middle classes, page 35:

This achievement gap, if further compounded by the fact that because schools are unfairly oriented towards middle class dispositions, then the children from higher SES backgrounds perform comparatively better, thereby widening the achievement gap between themselves and their low SES peers.

Using levels of income (SES) to define class may be useful in some circumstances (for example, in deciding the likelihood of support for certain socialist policies related to housing), the use of levels of income is a social-democratic method of excluding most people from the working class.

The absurdity of classifying people as middle class on the basis of income can be seen from one article on distribution of income in some so-called Third World countries. This article refers to earning $2-$4 a day (presumably in American dollars) as the lower end of the middle class in Guatemala and $6-$10 a day to be the upper end in Guatemala. They justify such a classification in the following manner. From Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, “What is Middle Class about the Middle Classes around the World?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 22, Number 2—Spring 2008, page 5:

In what sense should people living on between $2 and $10 per day be called “middle class”? These households are still very poor by developed country standards; the poverty line in the United States in 2006 for someone who lives in a family of five, for example, was $24,385, which when divided by five people in the family and 365 days in a year, works out to be about $13 per day.

On the other hand, the middle class in these countries are clearly much better off than the poor, who live on less than $1 or $2 a day.

This definition of middle class is purely in terms of relative level of income and takes no account of how this so-called middle class obtains its money. It is a definition based on a “standard of living” concept–a consumerist concept.

Consider the situation of my wife. She was born in Guatemala and earned around 2,800 Quetzales a month–around $373 US a month, or $12,44 US a day. How can anyone call her a member of the middle class? Her last job in Guatemala was a salesclerk in Guatemala City. Before that, she was a receptionist (earning about the same amount), but the company downsized and consolidated positions, throwing her out of work. She was unemployed for several months afterwards, with no income. In all her jobs, she had a boss who evaluated her performance and ultimately controlled her work and indeed whether she would work at all (power to fire). This is the situation of a member of the working class.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as the middle class. My sister-in-law’s husband is a doctor in Guatemala and has his own practice. He sets his own hours, fees and so forth. His work life is much more independent than was the work life of my wife. He can be considered part of the Guatemalan middle class.

Using levels of income or SES to define class implies that everyone can become middle class in a capitalist economy. Thus, if only everyone could achieve a level of income above the poverty line, then there would be no “poor” or working class.

Compare this view with the Marxian definition of class. In the Marxian definition of class, classes are mainly defined in an antagonistic fashion: one class emerges at the expense of another class through control over the conditions of work. One class gains what the other class loses, and the class that loses often tries to regain what it has lost, so there is a class struggle that only ends when either the two classes mutually ruin each other, or the lower class defeats the ruling class and creates a new form of society (with or without classes).

In the context of modern society, it is not the level of income but the fact that most workers have to work for an employer that characterizes class relations. Brar, by defining class in terms of levels of income, fails to develop an analysis that looks beyond the relationship of employer and employees; indeed, his definition of class according to levels of income actually hides the real class relations by excluding a concept of class that involves the exploitation of one class by another.

Even apart from the issue of exploitation, there is the additional issue of treating workers as things to be used by others. In a capitalist society, class power relations are linked to control over things–human beings are controlled through control over things that have social power (such as money, but also machines, buildings and so forth). Things gain human-like power, and human beings become thing-like (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Brar’s use of level of income as the basis for defining class not only fails to capture the need for class exploitation but also fails to capture the need for treating human beings as things and the need for things to gain human-like powers (what can be called commodity fetishism, money fetishism–treating things such as beer, money and means of production as possessing inherent social powers independently of human beings).

It is true that there are members of a middle class in modern society, but they should be seen as related to the two other antagonistic classes. Thus, just like my brother-in-law, doctors can usually be considered part of the middle class, but not just because of the level of income but because they control their own work, on the one hand, and they lack control over many workers lives on the other. Supervisors and lower-level managers could also be considered part of the middle class in that part of their function is to control the work of workers while, on the other hand, they themselves are hired workers who depend on a wage or salary to live. Superintendents undoubtedly can be considered part of the middle class.

Principals may also be considered part of the middle class, but approach perhaps more closely to the position of the working class since they are further down in the dictatorial hierarchy. On the other hand, the extent to which principals  function as oppressors of members of the working class also needs to be taken into account. On a practical level, whether a principal is a member of the working class or the middle class would have to be determined organizationally–whether in fact they oppose the working class or support them.

Despite these limitations, Brar’s characterization of lower SES and higher SES does have some usefulness in characterizing school experiences. Some parents who are members of the working class do see schooling (what they call education) as an investment in the future of their children and seek to ensure that their children have the wherewithal to be successful as defined by school authorities. Other parents of the working class do not. Similarly, some children of the working class do identify with such expenditures whereas others do not.

This view of schooling as investment is, however, characteristic not of the middle class per se but of what Hadas Weiss (We Have Never Been Middle Class) calls middle-class ideology. The ideology functions as a competitive belief in “investment,” whether it is in schooling, housing, pensions, stocks and bonds, etc., with the expectation that the sacrifice required for the expenditure will pay off in the future. The fact that those who make such sacrifices have to work for an employer is simply ignored. Such an ideology, another words, papers over the need for members of the working class to accept their subordination to the class of employers if they are to be “successful” in this social world.

This ideology has undoubtedly served to limit the class struggle of the working class since workers then are prepared to subordinate themselves to the power of employers in the present in hopes of reaping rewards in the future.

Since the level of sacrifice needed in neoliberal times has been increasing and the returns for the increasing levels of sacrifice have been diminishing, this middle-class ideology is being threatened.

Returning to Brar’s article, Brar, rather than exposing the limitation of middle-class ideology and criticizing it, relies on the distinction in order to criticize schools. He does not question whether those who have higher levels of income are in fact members of the middle class or not. He assumes that they are. His criticism of the school is therefore limited. His implicit concept of social justice remains entirely bound to the present social order of a class of employers, on the one side, a class of employees on the other, with another class–the middle class being neither one nor the other. The middle class, then, cannot be determined except in relation to the two dominant classes in a capitalist society.

If Brar’s article, which is the most radical article in the superintendents’ journal, forms an inadequate basis for criticizing schools, then all the articles referring to social justice are bound to form an even more inadequate basis for criticizing schools–as we shall see in future posts.

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Fourteen: A Critique of the Educational Nature of So-called Educational Reforms

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
Attached is another article that I sent for the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following:

Daniel Rossides’ article, “Knee-Jerk Formalism: Reforming American Education,” provides a detailed criticism of various school reforms in the United States. Since it does not focus on reforms for high-stakes testing (which have not found general acceptance in Canada), much of his criticism is also directed to Canadian school reforms.

Rossides not only argues against the neoliberal reform effort at high-stakes testing but also liberal reformers of schools. In fact, he argues that all school reform efforts in their current form will lead to naught.

He questions the view that schools (he calls it education) produce good workers and good citizens. There is no evidence to support those two claims. He also questions the view that schools sort individuals into various hierarchies at work according to relative merit.

Rossides’ reliance on educational research to justify his conclusions is all the more interesting since educational research invariably assumes that modern schools constitute the standard for determining the validity and reliability of educational research. The inadequacy of educational research will not be addressed here, but on the basis of educational research itself changes in schools can do little to offset the disadvantages of poverty.

Rossides argues that the school outcomes of those children and adolescents whose parents are from the lower classes will not change unless we shift resources both to those lower-class families and to the schools where those children and adolescents attend. School reforms that aim at supposedly changing the outcomes for the lower classes have been shown to be historically ineffective. School reform focuses on—school reform and not in reform of the socio-economic conditions of the lower class families and their neighbourhood.

The modern school system is characterized by a class system according to socio-economic status (SES). [The adequacy of such a definition of class should be queried, but I will not do so here. For some purposes, SES is legitimate—but it is hardly an adequate characterization of class since the source of income and not just the level is relevant in determining class.]

It is the middle- and upper-classes who have aided in producing lower-class learners with disabilities, the mentally retarded and so forth—by defining children and adolescents of lower-class parents by defining the characteristics of such children and adolescents as learned disabilities, mental retardation and so forth and then treating the children and adolescents as learners with disabilities, with mental retardation and so forth.

The extremely skewed nature of wealth and income, the persistence over generations of middle- and upper class dominance and lower class subordination, an excess of workers over the demand for workers (especially at the lower levels) with corresponding  poverty-stricken families and the domination of social and political life by the middle- and upper classes aids in defining the children and adolescents of the lower classes as deviant and labelled according to middle- and upper-class standards (and not, of course, vice versa—except when rebellions break out).

Although Rossides referent is the United States, there is little doubt that much of what he writes applies to Canada.

The modern school system is characterized by what seems to be classlessness: all classes attend the same school. The facts belie such a rosy picture.  Features of the school system are biased towards the middle and upper classes and against the lower classes; such features as an emphasis on literacy, abstract knowledge and patriotism (one—white—principal had the hypocritical audacity to announce over the PA system that Canada was the best country in the world—when two thirds of the student population were probably living in substandard conditions).

The fact that children and adolescents of various classes attend the same school, given the emphasis on middle-class and upper class concerns and definitions of what constitutes and education (such as academic subjects and literacy rather than the use of the body in combination with literacy and academic subjects), along  with a grading and testing system that streams or tracks students, as Rossides notes, hardly leads to a meritocracy. Rather, it merely reproduces the status quo.

Furthermore, there has been a decided trend towards class-based segregation of schools, with inner-city schools for the children and adolescents of the lower classes and suburban schools for the middle- and upper classes. (Of course, there is an added racist aspect of this structure, but poor white children are also caught in the web—or trap).

Rossides notes that, when SES was factored out of the equation, school reforms had little impact on the academic outcome of children and adolescents from poorer families. (Note, however, the bias of defining “success” in terms of academic outcomes.) The author points out that what is needed is not just more resources at the school level but more resources at the level of the family. Without addressing the extreme inequality of family incomes, changes in school resources and school reforms will likely have little effect in changing outcomes (despite the rhetoric of school bureaucrats and liberal ideologues in universities).

Equalizing school expenditures will not address the inequities that characterize income inequalities.

Rossides points out that study after study has shown that school aspirations, school outcomes, expenditure per capita, regularity of attendance, scholarships, entrance into college or university and so forth correlate highly with social classes and class origin.

In post-secondary institutions, the proportion of members of the lower classes represented on governing boards is lower than their proportion in the population and, correspondingly, the proportion of members from the middle and upper classes is overrepresented.

The proportion of those young adults who attend university is class-based, with more than double, for example, attending a four-year college program than those from the lower middle and working classes. Scholarships are skewed towards to those already with high grades, and these are typically not the lower classes. Thus, young adults whose parents can more afford to pay for their tuition and other expenses receive free money whereas young adults whose parents cannot afford to pay for their children’s tuition and other expenses are excluded from consideration—all this under the cloak of equality of opportunity.

The divide between public universities and colleges and private ones has practically been removed in many instances, with public colleges and universities operating as private institutions, with high tuition and partnerships with private firms (but with no public accountability in many instances). Public universities and colleges function more like markets than public institutions and are accessible to those with money—or high grades (which often probably correlate).

Rossides pinpoints formal education’s simple role: to determine where one enters in the occupational hierarchy. Formulated differently, the primary role of schools and other formal institutions linked to them is to allocate people to positions on the market for workers. The rhetoric about learning is secondary to this role.

Employers certainly believe that more formal schooling results in better workers, so credentials are important for hiring. However, once hired, differences in levels of formal schooling, surprisingly, do not lead to increases in productivity. 

Credentials and class are correlated, so credentials form another mechanism for the perpetuation of class differences.

Rossides also criticizes the view that schooling leads to improved citizenship—increase in knowledge about politics and creative public service (active and creative political participation). Political participation in fact has declined. Furthermore, in the United States, schools have not led to increased integration of children and adolescents through civics and other courses. The rhetoric of schools as producers of good citizens hides a reality of schools that perpetuate class divisions and inequality.

Although Rossides’ point is well taken, he seems to miss something vital about what schools do when he refers to schools hiding the real nature of schools. Schools do in some ways serve to integrate children and adolescents into the real world of inequality and class divisions by—hiding those realities from them. (Besides, he implies as much further in the article, in relation to his explanation of why school failure continues for the lower classes.)

 Through the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, civics and other courses (such as history), children and adolescents learn the supposed equality of all and supposed meritocracy. Rather than having children and adolescents learn just how unfair and inequitable modern society is, schools cover up the reality through the administrative, hierarchical structure, with administrators frequently attempting to impose their middle-class will on working-class children and adolescents (who may rebel in school through various means, ranging from passive absenteeism to active “misbehaviour”) in the name of efficient administration and ”learning.” By redefining children and adolescents as pure “learners” (learning machines), administrators then often discipline them for not acquiescing in the unequal situation in which many working-class (coupled often with racially oppressed) youth find themselves.

Schools have also not led to increased knowledge of the world in which they live that they can and do use in their daily lives. The knowledge that children and adolescents learn in schools is often what could be called “inert” knowledge—knowledge that is never used. Even if children and adolescents learned abstractly what political participation involved, since they do not use such knowledge in their daily lives (perhaps they would use it against school administration), they do not really learn to become good citizens.

Schools also serve to depoliticize learning by focusing on abstract cognitive skills rather than skills that relate to the daily lives of children and adolescents. Individuals become, to a greater and greater degree, interchangeable non-political units. Abstract literacy, by failing to link up to the social experience of children and adolescents, is soon forgotten outside school boundaries. The environment in which it is learned is so artificial that children and adolescents cannot transfer what they have learned to any other environment.  Furthermore, we have one life, but the fragmented way in which we study the world in school and formal learning prevents any synthesis of our experiences in school. That too leads to rapid forgetting of what was learned in schools.

This fragmentation of experience contributes to the continuance of the status quo since those in and outside schools can focus on their limited activity within a fragmented, academic and abstract curriculum and ignore the poverty, oppression and devastation that the children and adolescents inside and outside the school experience.

Rossides then explains why, despite the failure of schools to make children and adolescents better workers and citizens, by noting that the situation accords with the interests of the upper class in maintaining the appearance of a meritocracy; in other words, the present school system aids in hiding its own oppressive nature of the working class. Those who have an economic and cultural interest in maintaining the present system of inequality limit access to credentials to their own children while presenting the present system as the very embodiment of equality and meritocracy. Much of what is studied, the author implies, is irrelevant, but it serves to weed out the lower classes from occupations that pay higher incomes.

The claim that schooling (or “education”) is the key to ensuring equality, social justice and equity serves to divert attention, as well, from the social inequalities, social injustices and social inequities rampant in our society.

After briefly looking at the invalidity and unreliability of mass testing suggested by conservative proponents of school reform, the author makes an interesting and important point about how conservative school reform has pushed for student outcomes based on so-called objective norms (outcome-based education again). Since Rossides considers this a conservative reform effort, it can be concluded, if his analysis is valid, that the NDP has instituted a conservative performance system provincially without many people, including teachers, even raising objections to this conservative trend.

He mentions in passing that parents of the upper class oppose any attempt to eliminate the grading system since the grading system is integral to the children of the upper class “inheriting” the same class position—a very interesting observation that warrants much more analysis and serious discussion. Unfortunately, it seems that educators do not want to discuss seriously such issues.

Rossides does maintain that the push for outcome-based education has no objective basis since there is no agreement on what constitutes objective standards. It would be interesting to have the Minister of Education, Nancy Allen, in the spotlight in order to determine how she defines such objective standards and how she developed such standards—along with other conservatives, of course.

The author argues that there are two real reasons for the poor performance of the United States (and, I might add, Canada). Firstly, there is the belief and practice that an unplanned economy, including unplanned capital investment, will lead to the good life. Secondly, there is the belief and practice that the antiquated political-legal system will enable most people to live a good life.

The back-to-basics movement (reading, writing and mathematics) typical of the present trend in the school system substitutes what should be means to ends into ends in themselves. (The same could be said of the so-called academic subjects.)

Rossides does contend that schools do matter, but he then commits similar errors as the views that he has criticized. He outlines what a good school is in purely conventional terms, such as a strong administrator who emphasizes academic subjects and reading. Rossides takes from one hand and gives with the other. He further argues that the main problem with schools, as learning institutions, has not been historically and is not now at the elementary school level but at the high-school level. Such a view deserves to be criticized.

Elementary schools focus mainly on reading—without many children (especially those from the working class) understanding why they are engaged in a process of learning how to read, write and do arithmetic. There is undoubtedly pedagogical process, but such progress applies just as much to high schools as it does to elementary schools.

The main function of elementary schooling is to have the children learn to read, write and do arithmetic, with the primary emphasis on reading. Elementary school teachers are specialists at best in reading.(It would be interesting to do a study on how many reading clinicians started out as elementary school teachers and how many taught only at the high-school level.) There are many problems with such a conception of learning. I merely refer to the many articles on Dewey’s philosophy and practice of education.

The author vastly overestimates the efficacy of elementary schools as institutions for real learning (as opposed to learn to read, write and do arithmetic—often for no ends than to read, write and do arithmetic. In other words, elementary schools, instead of teaching reading, writing and mathematics as means to an end, generally reduce them to the end of elementary school education.

Of course, the lack of inquiry into the world, a lack so characteristic of elementary schools and contrary to the nature of young children, becomes a burden that eventually distorts most children’s minds. The wonder of childhood becomes the boredom of formal learning rather than an expansion and deepening of our grasp and wonder of our experiences of the world.

Rossides` article, therefore, does have its limitations. Despite these limitations, his article contains an incisive critique of the neoliberal movement towards educational reform—and, more generally, the rhetoric that surrounds educational reform.

Should not those who attempt to achieve equity and social justice expose the rhetoric of educational reform?