Schools as Dominant Ideological State Apparatuses for Failing Students
“But no other Ideological State Apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven.” – Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation)', written in 1970, is still relevant in analyzing the state of education in the context of global capitalism. It provides a theoretical framework for understanding the dominant function of schools in a capitalist social formation. As such it enables one to aptly explain the seemingly contradictory outcomes of its education system.
Althusser asserts that the school is the dominant Ideological State Apparatus in a capitalist society. This is especially the case in what he refers to as mature capitalist social formations. By an Ideological State Apparatus he means those institutions of the state that rely less on (physical) repression to wield state power. In other words, he defines them in terms of what they are not, that is, in contrast to “the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons” (p. 110). As the main instruments of the state’s monopoly of (physical) violence, they tend to rely, relatively more, on repression. It is in this Marxist sense that they constitute what Althusser calls the Repressive State Apparatus whereby the term “Repressive suggests that the State Apparatus in question 'functions by violence' — at least ultimately (since repression, e.g. administrative repression, may take non-physical forms” (Ibid.)
The distinction is thus simply a matter of degree. A school, as an Ideological State Apparatus in Althusser’s sense, functions massively and predominantly by ideology and only minimally and secondarily by repression. It primarily socializes students into class relations through the systematic provision of an education that is ideologically tailored for capitalism. While doing so it may “use suitable methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc., to 'discipline'” (p. 112) but this is only a secondary resort.
Pre-capitalist and Post-socialist countries that had either been inserted into the globalizing world capitalist economy or have been undergoing a capitalist social formation are not immune to this function of schools. If one takes the example of my country, Tanzania, he/she can also easily observe, albeit analogously, this class impact of such schooling:
“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most 'vulnerable', squeezed between the family State apparatus and the educational State apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of 'know-how' wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected 'into production': these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the 'intellectuals of the collective labourer', the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced' laymen). Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfill in class society: the role of the exploited (with a 'highly developed', 'professional', 'ethical', 'civic', 'national' and apolitical consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: 'human relations'), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience 'without discussion', or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader's rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, or 'Transcendence', of the Nation, of France's World Role, etc.) (p. 118-119).
We, in Tanzania, may justifiably lament the recent pathetic results in the National Secondary Education Examinations that determines who would continue with further studies. Indeed we may plausible put the blame on the lack of sufficient educational inputs – books, laboratories, and teachers, among others – but, ultimately, it is the whole “topography” of the system – its infrastructure and ideology – that produces and reproduces such classed results. As Althusser’s analysis eloquently reminds us, this setup is all about the securing of the reproduction of class relations of production.