I don't know what I would do
If I didn't have the gang.
[Except from a poem by Derek, one of the 'lads']
This post is a review of the book Learning to Labour, written in 1978 by Paul Willis, which is best described by the sub-heading: 'How working class kids get working class jobs'.
(Self-) Domination in subordination
We know more about life than they do... they're clever with maths and the science and the English, but they ain't clever in life...
[Spike, one of the 'lads']
The book contains numerous interviews with members of an informal group known collectively as the 'lads'. The 'lads' reject school work in the knowledge that they 'know better'. They are surrounded by, and thus subscribe to, the (working class) view that practice is more important than theory, what Willis calls the 'hegemony of common sense'.
Willis argues that the practice/theory division stems from a division between different kinds of perceived future - what he terms the 'future in the present' - between a life in manual and mental work. Joey, one of the most intriguing members of the 'lads', describes the difference between them and the 'ear'oles' (conformists):
We are thinking about now, and having a laff now, and they're thinking about the future...
Faced with a future in manual work, the 'lads' choose to live in the present. They resist the mental; they choose not to participate in the 'educational exchange'. [This resonates with my life as a young man, which I can only describe as 'chaotic'.]
This resistance is apparent in the rejection of institutional authority, the formation of a tightly-knit informal group, in their desire to have a laugh, drink, smoke and have sex. Through this resistance, they gain self-domination in the acceptance of their future subordinate roles in a capitalist society.
However, in doing so, they reinforce existing social structures. As Willis explains:
There is a moment - and it only needs to be this for the gates to shut on the future - in working class culture when the manual giving of labour power represents both a freedom, election and transcendence, and a precise insertion into a system of exploitation and oppression for working class people... It is the apparent cultural ascension of the working class which brings the hell of its own real present.
The distinction between mental and manual labour reproduces, and is reproduced by, the patriarchy. Manual labour is associated with the social superiority of masculinity:
For the 'lads', a division in which they take themselves to be favoured (the sexual) overlies, becomes part of, and finally partially changes the valency of a division in which they are disadvantaged (manual/mental labour power).
The 'lads' gain self-esteem though doing work that is perceived to be too tough for 'cissies', or women. They gain superiority in courtship, in the home, on the street, in the pub. The patriarchy helps to maintain the unlikely stability of the capitalist social order, and vice versa.
The role of the school in class reproduction
The state school in advanced capitalism, and the most obvious manifestations of oppositional working class culture within it, provide us with a central case of mediated class conflict and of class reproduction in the capitalist order. It is especially significant in showing us a circle of unintended consequences which act finally to reproduce not only a regional culture but the class culture and also the structure of society itself.
Willis suggests that teaching is based on the principle of fair exchange, of knowledge for respect/control. This knowledge is exchanged for qualifications, which is then exchanged for high pay, and ultimately goods and services. The teacher-student relationship is predicated on the consent of pupils to reciprocate willingly in acts of educational exchange (or failing that, presumably through coercion?).
He argues that (these) working class boys perform an 'opportunity-costed assessment' of the rewards for conformism, of entering into the educational exchange, thus revealing some of the shortcomings of the educational exchange, and highlighting fundamental contradictions within the school system:
The importance of institutionalized knowledge and qualifications lies in social exclusion rather than in technical or humanistic advance. They legitimate and reproduce class society... This is because educational advancement is controlled through the 'fair' meritocratic testing of precisely those skills which 'cultural capital' provides.
Insofar as this is an accurate assessment of the role of and importance of qualifications, it supports the view that it is unwise for working class kids to place their trust in qualifications. These things act not to push people up - as is the official account - but to maintain there those who are already at the top... the working class student must overcome his [sic] inbuilt disadvantage of possessing the wrong class culture and the wrong educational decoders to start with. A few can make it. The class can never follow. It is through a good number trying, however, that the class structure is legitimated. The middle class enjoys its privilege not by virtue of inheritance or birth, but by virtue of an apparently proven greater competence and merit. The refusal to compete, implicit in the counter-school culture, is therefore in this sense a radical act: it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression.
This passage suggests suggests that school provides the possibility of social (economic) mobility for a few individuals, but that, on the whole, it legitimates the social order: the 'spurious recourse to merit' legitimates the position of the middle class.
The class division is reinforced both ways. Not all of the working class can, or will, succeed; their rejection of the educational exchange has a 'group' logic. On the other side, those with qualifications can believe themselves to be a different kind person to the 'lads', destined for 'better' jobs. The meritocracy legitimates the position of the middle class: "It is not capitalism but their own mental capacities [that] keep them where they are."
What does this mean for those of us in education?
Willis suggests that we should ask ourselves what the counter-school culture implies about education and qualifications. What do the actions of informal groups, such as the 'lads', tell us about our classroom, school, and education as a whole? How and why the divisions described here - practice/theory, mental/manual, masculine/feminine - come about, and what costs do these bring?
We must recognize the logic of the excluded and disaffected, the meaningless of qualifications set against the backdrop of a future in un-skilled work or possible joblessness, and the contradictions of a meritocratic system where the majority must lose.