Althusser on Schooling and Education

Any ‘engineer’ will tell you: ‘Fine, but so what? I need someone to run a milling machine, so I run an ad. A milling machine operator answers it. I hire him. Is it my fault that he’s just a milling machine operator?’ Literally, taken in its own limits, this is not ‘wrong’. But, precisely, ‘competencies’, that is, qualifications or the lack of them, owe their existence not to the enterprise as such, but to a system external to the enterprise, the school system that ‘educates’, more or less, different individuals…in ways that vary with the milieu from which they come. These mechanisms reinforce the practical, economic, and ideological prohibitions…which distribute in advance, on a class basis, the individuals recruited by the enterprise. In this respect the entrepreneur’s reasoning is not ‘wrong’. It simply proves that he is not ‘in control of ‘ events. But these events that are ‘beyond his control’ nicely correspond in advance, by an amazing coincidence, to a dispositive ‘distributing-penning-in’ people that is always already ready and waiting in his enterprise, for the purpose, precisely, of exploiting workers. The reason is that the school system that supplies ready-made, at the national level, a predisposition for the ‘distribution-penning-in’ of people that becomes concrete reality in the enterprise is the capitalist school system corresponding to the capitalist class’s system of exploitation, not some other school system. It cannot be other than what it is, whether certain dreamers like that or not, as long as the foundations of capitalist exploitation remain in place–namely, capitalist relations of production. (footnote 24, p.37-8)


We have said that available labour-power must be ‘competent’. That is, it must be such that it can be put to work in the complex system of the productive process, in specific posts and specific forms of cooperation. As a result of the development of the productive forces and the type of unity historically constitutive of the productive forces at a given moment, labour-power must be (diversely) skilled. Diversely: that is, as required by the social-technical division of labor, its different ‘jobs’ and ‘posts’.

How is this reproduction of (diversely) qualified labour-power ensured in a capitalist regime? It is ensured…outside production, by the capitalist school system…

But what do people learn at school? Everybody ‘knows’ the answer: they stay in school for longer or shorter periods but, at all events, they learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. That is, they learn a handful of techniques, and quite a few other things besides, including elements…of ‘scientific culture’ or ‘literary culture’ that are of direct use in different jobs in production (one curriculum for workers, a third to engineers, still another for technicians, a final one for senior managers, and so on). Thus they acquire ‘know-how’.

What everybody also ‘knows’, however–that is, what nobody cares to know–is that alongside these ‘techniques’ (reading, writing, arithmetic) and this ‘learning’ (elements of ‘scientific and literary culture’) that function as ‘know-how’, alongside but also in the process of acquiring these techniques and this learning, people also learn, at school, the ‘rules’ of good behaviour, that is, the proprieties to be observed by every agent in the division of labor, depending on the post he is ‘destined’ to hold in it. These are the rules of professional ethics and professional conscience: that is, to put it plainly, rules of respect for the social and technical division of labor, and, in the final analysis, the order established by class domination. People also learn ‘to speak proper French’ at school, to ‘write properly’, which in fact means (for future capitalists and their underlings) to ‘order workers around properly’, which in facts means (the ideal case) to ‘talk properly’ to them so as to intimidate or cajole them–in short, to ‘con’ them. The ‘literary’ curricula in secondary and higher education serve that end, among others.

To put this in more scientific terms, we shall say that the reproduction of labour-power requires not only that its qualifications be reproduced, but that its submission to the rules of respect for the established order be reproduced at the same time. This means, for the workers, reproduction of labour-power’s submission to the dominant ideology and, for the agents of exploitation and repression, reproduction of its capacity to handle the dominant ideology properly, so as to ensure the domination of the dominant class ‘verbally’.

In other words, the school…teaches ‘know-how’, but in forms that ensure subjection to the dominant ideology, or else the ‘practice’ of it; every agent of production, exploitation, or repression, to say nothing of ‘professional ideologues’ (Marx), has to be ‘steeped’ in that ideology in one way or another in order conscientiously (and with no need to have his own personal gendarme breathing down his neck) to carry out his or her task: the task of the exploited (the proletarians), the exploiters (the capitalists), the auxilaries of exploitation (supervisory personnel)…and so on.

Thus we see that the sine qua non for the reproduction of labour-power is the reproduction not only of its ‘qualification’, but also of its subjection to the dominant ideology or of the ‘practice of this ideology. (p.53)


‘Know-how’. This can mean simple techniques (knowing how to read, write, count, read a map, find one’s way in a chronology, recognize this or that object or reality, and so on). But it can also mean ‘knowledge’, that is, the rudiments or elements…of scientific learning (let us leave literature aside). One does not learn ‘science’ at school, nor even at university, as a rule. One learns scientific results and methods of reasoning and demonstration. Basically, one learns to ‘solve problems‘ or do ‘practical exercises’. That is not, however, ‘science’, but, rather, elements of methodology and scientific results that constitute by products of living science. Living science exists, let us say, in scientific research alone…To capture the difference in a phrase, let us say that the essence of living science consists less in solving problems than in posing problems to be solved. Thus what one learns of science in schools and universities is techniques for manipulating and exploiting certain results and methods completely detached from their ‘real life’. That is why we can range all of the following under a single rubric: know-how; elementary techniques; and elements, even if they are relatively advanced, of scientific learning.  (Footnote, p. 51)


4 responses to “Althusser on Schooling and Education

  1. Precisely. This is what I was attempting to convey in the “What is economy,” post.

  2. So do you agree with Althusser when he says “[The school] cannot be other than what it is, whether certain dreamers like that or not, as long as the foundations of capitalist exploitation remain in place–namely, capitalist relations of production.” He seems against the idea that school can shape society–that school will ultimately be determined by the dominant mode of production in the social formation. No matter what we do as teachers, we can’t change “society” within schools. On the one hand I agree with him, but on the other hand I can’t help but think that within schools there is the possibility for transforming the dominant mode of production. Maybe while school is an institution which reproduces the productive forces, can it also be a place to transform relations of production? I really don’t know.

  3. I disagree with Althusser. Schools can shape society. Althusser would seemingly have school overthrow capitalism. However, schools can influence how we treat & value one another. Schools can teach tolerance and acceptance of divergent viewpoints (they haven’t always done that). Surely teaching these types of attitudes shapes what we being a ‘good citizen’ is.

  4. I really want to believe you! But what do we have to do as teachers to accomplish this? Particularly in an environment of high-stakes standardized tests? Relatedly, is being a “good citizen” being a “good capitalist citizen”? When our school mission statements say that teachers form “productive members of society” , and the like, are they just referring to being good followers of the relations of production already in place?

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