Marxist Theories of Teaching
Marxism is much more than an intellectual exercise or a theoretical mode of investigating the world. Marxism is a guide to action, a way to change the world in the interests of the exploited, oppressed, and dispossessed. Yet it is no dogmatic guide. In fact, Marx’s own theories evolved over the course of his life, and they did in response to changes in the workers’ movement in which Marx and his frequent co-thinker, Frederick Engels, were deeply involved. While Marx never explicitly addressed teaching or pedagogy, his work left a rich and capacious reserve from which teacher educators have drawn. However, as Marxism is not a fixed dogma, it’s necessary to clarify that Marxism is much broader than the writings of Marx. In this sense, Marxist theories of teaching are both contributions to teacher education and contributions to Marxist theory and practice.
One of the key pillars of Marx’s work is historical materialism, which asserts that world developments on any level are the result of their historical and material conditions, rather than ideal conditions, or the status of human ideas. Historical materialism doesn’t imply that ideas are irrelevant to world developments, and to understand why this is so, it’s necessary to introduce another Marxist tool: the dialectic. While Marx never outlined the dialectic per se, his work intimated at several points just how crucial this was for his thought process. At the most fundamental level, the dialectic holds that no entity exists independently and that every entity – every object or thought – is not only related to its opposite but actually contains its opposite within it. For example, every commodity is an assemblage of use-value and exchange-value. The use-value is the object’s utility, which is qualitative and singular, whereas the exchange-value is the object’s economic value, which is quantitative and universal. Both of these value-forms are opposed to each other and can’t be realized at the same time. If I have a commodity, I can’t use and sell it at the same time. I have to choose between its use-value and exchange-value. To return to historical materialism, then, we can see that while historical and material conditions are what explain world developments, these conditions also give rise to certain formations of ideas, which in turn can react back upon those conditions. These ideas, however, will also be the result of their historical and material conditions. This entry focuses on the historical and material conditions of capitalist countries rather than those in socialist countries.
Dispossession and Settler-Colonialism
One of the dominant historical and material conditions within which teacher education as a field has been situated at the national and global levels is that of imperialism, colonialism, and settler-colonialism. As such, Marxist theories of teacher education must begin here, understanding themselves as part of this context and intervening in this context in order to transform it into something more just and equitable. The educational theorist who has made perhaps the most significant contributions to this is Sandy Grande (2004), whose book Red Pedagogy changed the entire terms of teacher education by staging a dialogue between American Indian scholarship and critical educational theory. Any Marxist theory of teaching must take up the red pedagogy Grande develops in her book.
Red pedagogy takes inspiration from Peter McLaren’s revolutionary critical pedagogy, which emphasizes collectivity, criticality, systematic analyses, participatory action, and creativity. Grande’s project embraces the tensions between Indigenous praxis and revolutionary critical pedagogy, identifying how the latter rests on a “universalist construct” of democracy and class struggle that are privileged “as the totality” of capitalism, which “underestimates the overarching nature of decolonization – a totality that places capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and Western Christianity in radical contingency” (Grade 2004, p. 51). Grande refers to the main tension between Indigenous praxis and critical revolutionary pedagogy as the latter’s “fail[ure] to consider, and thus, theorize, the fundamental ‘difference’ of American Indians and their dual status as US citizens and members of sovereign ‘domestic dependent nations’” (p. 27). This has important implications, showing how revolutionary critical pedagogy (1) posits human liberation as the ultimate goal, betraying its anthropocentrism and its approach to land and resources as raw materials rather than living entities, and (2) doesn’t account for the necessity of sovereign tribal nationhood, community, and schooling.
Revolutionary critical pedagogy, with all of its current limitations, nonetheless has important contributions to make to red pedagogy. For Grande, the most apparent is its ability to
provide indigenous educators and scholars a way to think about issues of sovereignty and self-determination that moves beyond simple cultural constructions and analyses. Specifically, their foreground of capitalist relations as the axis of exploitation helps to frame the history of indigenous peoples as one of dispossession and not simply oppression. (p. 165)
Red pedagogy, according to Grande, begins with narratives of survival, which locates teacher education within the ongoing legacy of dispossession and frames the act of teaching around “conversations about power” that “include an examination of responsibility, to consider our collective need ‘to live poorer and waste less’” (p. 175). Marxist teaching has to begin with dispossession – which capitalism calls “primary accumulation” – and move to Grande’s “dream,” which “is that indigenous and nonindigenous peoples will work in solidarity to envision a way of life free of exploitation and replete with spirit” (p. 176). This is not just an empty or routine acknowledgment but a deep sense of responsibility from which action springs.
In addition to the dispossession of colonialism and settler-colonialism, the exploitation and oppression of imperialism represents the starting point for Marxist teacher education today. One scholar who has recently forefronted this concern, culling together the necessary resources for moving beyond this starting point, is Malott (2016) and especially his most recent book, History and Education. Malott’s anti-imperialist teacher education emerges in response to the national chauvinism of critical pedagogy as articulated by founding theorists Henry Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz, and Donaldo Macedo (pp. 86–97). By doing so, Malott links teacher education within the historical and material conditions of the actual struggles of the dispossessed, exploited, and oppressed, a complicated continuing history of victories and defeats, triumphs, and tragedies. This instills teacher education with principles of objective evaluation, political realism, and, perhaps most importantly, revolutionary optimism.
Malott documents how critical pedagogy was founded as an anti-communist pivot in the early 1980s that coincided perfectly with the ascendency of neoliberalism (which critical pedagogy denounced in words but upheld in deed). Against this, Malott reclaims the history of the workers’ movements and their state formations, focusing in particular on the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, as well as liberation groups in the USA that viewed their struggles as linked to these state formations. Malott also provides – or, better, performs – a different aspect of Marxist teaching in his book, as he critiques his own scholarship:
The anti-Soviet position in critical pedagogy is so taken-for-granted, so presupposed, that those of us in the field reproduce it effortlessly like a daily, ritualized routine. I wish my past work were an exception to this betrayal of the most basic norms of the scientific community, but it is not. (p. 89)
This is important in that, while there are many calls for self-reflexivity and self-critique, there are few actual examples of it. Humility is, as such, a key disposition of Marxist theories of teaching.
Malott’s humble self-criticism follows intellectually from his own political resources in the book, which are those associated with Leninism. Malott’s book begins with an overview of Lenin’s writings on the state, which are really tracings of the evolution of Marx and Engels’ own work. In The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written in 1848, Marx and Engels asserted the importance of the working class taking state power, but there was nothing concrete about the assertion. They didn’t see a need to be particularly concrete about it. It wasn’t until after the defeat of the Paris Commune that the need became explicit. The historical and material conditions, in other words, necessitated theoretical and organizational changes. The lesson drawn from this was that the state couldn’t be taken over by the working class; it had to be smashed, and a new state, a workers’ state, had to be built. This is because, as Malott (2016) puts it, “the state emerged as an instrument of class rule” (p. 5). The state exists to serve the ruling class and repress the subordinate class. Under capitalism, the state is a capitalist state and protects the interests of capital at the expense of workers. Under socialism, the state is a workers’ state that protects the interests of workers at the expense of capital.
The primary pedagogical implication for Marxist theories of teaching that follows from this is the recognition that all teaching oriented toward revolution can’t shy away authority or “authoritarianism.” Disavowing authoritarianism outright is incorrect. “The weakness of this position,” he says, “is treating the concept of authoritarianism as a fixed term undifferentiated in different contexts. Rejecting authoritarianism outright amounts to laying down one’s arms while the counterrevolutionaries are still fully armed and committed to restoring the dictatorship of the capitalist” (p. 14). This isn’t to say that teaching is or should be an authoritarian act but that, insofar as it’s oriented toward revolutionary activity, it doesn’t eschew authority or authoritarianism; it doesn’t teach abstract and decontextualized ideals of horizontalism.
Marxist theories of teaching are deeply concerned with the inhabited history within which education takes place, always searching for the larger context within which the educational act is situated. Equally as important, however, are the kinds of educational practices engaged or what we can refer to as the pedagogical logics of teaching. The content and form of Marxist teaching are thus inextricably linked (Ford 2016; Lewis 2018). Economies of extraction, dispossession, and exploitation are also educative processes that are undergirded by certain pedagogical logics, and Marxist teaching has to intervene in these logics, disrupting them and developing new ones.
The dominant educational logic of capitalism is the logic of learning. It’s not hard to see the prevalence of learning looking around our contemporary world. We’re told we are “lifelong learning” living in a “learning society.” Teachers are mere “facilitators of learning,” and schools are reconfigured as “learning communities.” Lewis (2018) helpfully articulates learning as an economy: “I(ntention) + S(tandard) + A(ctualization) = M(easurable outcome)” (p. 2). What this means is that learning begins with an intended outcome, which is set as the standard, and the learner actualizes this outcome in a way that can be measured by another. The learner is one who is in a state of ignorance or lacking when it comes to a particular knowledge, skill set, habit, or disposition. To state that one is lacking implies that there is a standard relative to which the learner is deficient. The goal of the learner is thus to actualize the object of learning to achieve measurable results. Learning, as such, is the transition from potentiality to actualization and is always organized around predetermined ends. It’s only because we know what something looks like that we’re able to learn it, actualize it, and measure it.
Learning is an important part of education and isn’t inherently capitalist. It should be clear, for example, that Grande and Malott both insist that there are certain things students learn, things that are predetermined and can be measured or assessed. Nonetheless, learning undergirds capitalism, providing the educational infrastructure for its extractive pursuits. As a system organized around the commodity form and the production of surplus-value, capitalism prioritizes exchange-value over use-value. What matters is not the specific use a commodity fills but that it can be sold. If something can’t be sold, then it’s useless – literally without value – under capitalism. The need for exchange isn’t just economic; it’s also social, political, cultural, and even educational. This is the first reason that capitalism relies on learning: it prioritizes exchange.
The second reason capitalism relies on learning has to do with that which produces surplus-value: labor-power. Labor-power must be of a useful quality: it has to produce use-values in order for the capitalist to realize the commodity’s exchange-value. Yet once the market is saturated with one commodity, the production of further commodities doesn’t make any sense, and the capitalist has to move on. As a dynamic system, capitalism is endlessly producing new commodities and services and has to produce new forms of labor-power in the process. We have to learn how to perform useful forms of labor, and in a dynamic system, we have to continually understand ourselves as lifelong or perpetual learners, as workers need to refit and retool ourselves to fit the ever-changing demands of global capitalism.
One alternative educational logic Marxist theorists of teaching are working on is studying. Whereas learning is always directed by predetermined and measurable ends, studying is about pure means, about exploring, wandering, getting lost in thought, and forgetting what one knows so that one can discover that the world exists otherwise than the way one knows and experiences it; it’s about dwelling in potential. Studying is an educational process that exceeds intention, actualization, standards, and measures. One way to think about studying is as the educational equivalent of flirting. When two (or more) people flirt, they wander within a state of potentiality. There is the potential of a romantic commitment or other kind of relationship, and the flirters neither actualize that potential nor repress it. They are neither committed nor uncommitted to each other: they are not not-committed.
When we wander in the archives, or when we follow link after link after link on the internet until we end up watching obscure YouTube videos, the ends of our project are distanced, or, more accurately, they are suspended. In the learning society, such wandering is interpreted as procrastination. We tend to think of what is actually studying as getting distracted and sidetracked. The state of impotential has to be overcome as quickly as possible, and anything that interferes with this process is a hinderance. This interpretation follows directly from the obsession with actualizing potential and from the demand that learning contributes directly and immediately to the functioning of capitalism and to self-actualization. Studying doesn’t produce commodities, and it doesn’t produce labor-power.
Seizing Contradictions in Schooling
While Marxist theories of teaching have relevance for a wide range of fields, disciplines, and practices – from social movements and political organizations to media practitioners and philosophers – they generally take into account schooling. One of the main texts that does this is Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. The book continues to serve as a primary resource for those seeking to understand how the system of schooling relates to the reproduction of capitalist relations. Importantly, the book does not posit that schools reproduce capitalism in any mechanical or deterministic way. The arguments are much more complex and illuminate the ways that the dialectic informs Marxist theories of teaching in that they highlight the contradictions and tensions inherent in the schooling and economic system.
The authors document five main findings. The first finding is about the economic system: “the prevailing degrees of economic inequality and types of personal development are defined primarily by the market, property, and power relationships which define the capitalist system” (p. 11). This means that capitalist relations of production (who does and doesn’t hold private property) determine inequality, rather than, say, the intelligence or work ethic of individuals. The remaining findings concern schooling. In particular, findings two and three concern the “correspondence principle.” The second finding is that wealth distribution is insulated from changes in education or, to put it another way, that schooling maintains the relations of production, which includes relations of race and gender. Further, schools provide a cover of legitimacy to inequality through perpetuating meritocratic ideology. The third finding is that this operation takes place over the intentions of individual participants in the schooling system. Instead, it occurs
through a close correspondence between the social relationships which govern personal interaction in the work place and the social relationships of the educational system. Specifically, the relationships of authority and control between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, students and students, and students and their work replicate the hierarchical division of labor which dominates the work place. (p. 12)
It’s easy to see how, taken out of context, this quote could convey that schooling mechanically reproduces capitalism. It is for this reason that the last two findings are so important to making this a Marxist theory.
The fourth finding is that, despite their role in legitimating unequal relations, educational sites “also have become arenas in which a highly politicized egalitarian consciousness has developed among some parents, teachers, and students” (p. 12). When students are taught to read, they can read bourgeois newspapers as well as subversive propaganda. There is no determining the ends to which their skills will be put to use. The fifth finding is that the correspondence between schooling and capitalism isn’t uniform or ahistorical, but rather changes and evolves in response to broader shifts and struggles. Bowles and Gintis are at pains to highlight the nuances of their analysis: “Education in the United States,” the say, “is as contradictory and complex as the larger society; no simplistic or mechanical theory can help us understand it” (p. 13). Bowles and Gintis provide Marxist theories of teaching an overarching yet refined framework for intervening in schooling under capitalism.
Marxist theories of teaching emerge out of and systematically and repeatedly engage in deep study of the histories of exploitation, oppression, and dispossession. This study concerns the origins of capitalism (which are inextricably tied up with slavery and colonialism) as well as the reproductive relationship between schooling and capitalism. They begin here in order to better inform teachers about the relations in which they intervene. This intervention involves both content and curriculum (what is taught) and form and pedagogy (how it is taught). Because Marxism is a doctrine aimed toward revolution, it’s an optimistic project, which is why Marxist theories of teaching highlight and focus on the contradictions inherent in schooling and teaching.
- Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist america: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Ford, D. R. (2016). Communist study: Education for the commons. Lanham: Lexington.Google Scholar
- Grande, S. (2004). Red pedagogy: Native American social and political thought. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
- Lewis, T. E. (2018). Inoperative learning: A radical rewriting of educational potentialities. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar