The Marxist Perspective on Education

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 06, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • Marx and Engels themselves wrote little about education. Nonetheless, there has been a long heritage of Marxists who have argued that education can both enforce and undermine capitalism.
  • The sociologists Bowes and Gintis argued that education serves three main purposes: the reproduction of class inequality, its legitimization, and the creation of a compliant capitalist workforce.
  • Althusser and his successor, Bordieu, believed that education served to benefit the ruling class both by spreading capitalist ideology and transmitting cultural capital, giving more legitimacy to those in the know.
  • Critics have pointed out that those “exploited” by the education system are aware of their status, and do not blindly accept the values of educational institutions.

Marxist Views on Education

Although Marx and Engels wrote little on education, Marxism has educational implications that have been dissected by many. In essence, Marxistss believe that education can both reproduce capitalism and have the potential to undermine it.

However, in the current system, education works mainly to maintain capitalism and reproduce social inequality (Cole, 2019).

According to Marx and Engels, the transformation of society will come about through class struggle and actions — such as the actions that the working-class proletariat can take to disempower the ruling bourgeoisie.

Marx and Engels dis emphasized the role of the spread of "enlightened" opinion throughout society as a way of creating class change. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels both believed that fostering a full knowledge of what conditions under and what it would mean to overthrow capitalism was necessary to enact basic structural change.

Marx believed that the bourgeoisie failed to offer a real education; instead, education is used to spread bourgeois morals (Marx, 1847). Marx and Engles also, however, believed that workers are educated by doing labor and that education in schools should even be combined with labor.

The theorists felt that this combination of education with labor would increase awareness of the exploitative nature of capitalism.

Marxists were interested in two related issues regarding education under capitalism: firstly, how and to what extent education reproduces capitalism, and, secondly, the ways in which education in capitalist societies could undermine capitalism.

Bowes and Gintes (1976)

Bowes and Gintes (1976) were the two sociologists most associated with the Traditional Marxist perspective in education.

In the view of Marxist scholars such as them, educational systems in capitalist systems perform three functions of the elite, or bourgeoisie class: reproducing class inequality, legitimizing class inequality, and working in the interests of capitalist employers.

The Reproduction of Class Inequality

The process of reproducing class inequality works like this: Middle class parents use their cultural and material capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and then go on to achieve highly in those schools.

This can happen through giving children one-on-one instruction with tutors, paying for private school tuition, or, in extreme cases, making donations directly to elite schools that they want their children to attend.

All of this capital meandering means wealthier students tend to get the best education and then go on to get jobs in the middle class.

Meanwhile, working-class children, who are more likely to get a poor education, are funneled into working-class jobs.

The Legitimization of Class Inequality

Marxists argue that, while in reality money determines the quality of one's education, schools spread a "myth of meritocracy" to convince students that they all have an equal chance of success and that one's grade simply depends on their effort and ability.

Thus, if a student fails, it is their fault. This has the net effect of controlling the working classes. Believing that they had a fair chance, the proletariat became less likely to rebel and attempt to change society through a Marxist revolutionary movement (Thompson, 2016).

Bowes and Gintis explain this concept through the idea that students in the capitalist education system are alienated by their labor. Students have a lack of control over their education and their course content.

School motivates, instead, by creating a system of grades and other external rewards. This creates often destructive competition among students who compete to achieve the best grades in what is seen, at least superficially, as a meritocratic system.

Reproduction and legitimization of social inequality - Althusser

Althusser saw himself as building on the conditions that Marx theorized necessary for capitalist production through emphasizing the role of ideology in the social relationships that permeate people’s lives.

He believed that all institutions, schools included, drilled the values of capitalism into pupils, perpetuating the economic system. In this way, he considered education to be part of the “ideological state apparatus.”

Althusser says this influence perpetrates education in multiple ways. This ideological state apparatus, according to Althusser, worked by injecting students with ideas that keep people unaware of their exploitation and make them easy to control.

Secondly, he believed that this injection of ideas produces a complaints and unquestioning workforce, passively accepting their rolles (Ferguson, 2018).

Althusser’s successor, Pierre Bordieu (1971) also believed that the education system and other cultural institutions and practices indirectly benefited the bourgeoisie — the capital class — through passing down “cultural capital.”

Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that someone can use to demonstrate their competence and social status, allowing them to wield influence.

Working in The Interests of Capitalist Employers

Finally, Bowes and Gintis (1976) suggested that there is a correspondence between the values taught by schools and the ways in which the workplace operates.

They suggest that these values are taught through a so-called hidden curriculum, which consists of the things that students learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum thoughts at the school.

Some parallels between the values taught at school and those used to exploit workers in the workplace include:

  • The passive subservience of pupils to teachers, which corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers;

  • An acceptance of hierarchy – the authority of teachers and administrators over students — corresponding to the authority of managers over employees;

  • Motivation by external rewards (such as grades over learning), which corresponds to workers being motivated by wages rather than the job of a job. 

Correspondence Principle

The Key concept in Bowes and Gintis' Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) is that the reproduction of the social relations of production is facilitated and illustrated by the similarities between how social relations in education and in production work.

In order to reproduce the social relations of production, the education system must try to teach people to be properly subordinate and render them sufficiently confused that they are unable to gather together and take control of their material existence — such as through seizing the means of production.

Specifically, Bowes and Gintis (1976) argued, the education system helps develop everything from a student's personal demeanor to their modes of self-presentation, self-image, and social-class identifications which are crucial to being seen as competent and hirable to future employers.

In particular, the social relations of education — the relationships between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, students and students, and students and their work — replicate a hierarchical division of labor. This means that there is a clear hierarchy of power from administrators to teachers to students.

The Myth of Meritocracy

One such aspect of the capitalist education system, according to Bowes and Gintis, is the “myth of meritocracy".

While Marxists argue that class background and money determine how good of an education people get, the myth of meritocracy posits that everyone has an equal chance at success. Grades depend on effort and ability, and people’s failures are wholly their fault.

This casts a perception of a fair education system when, in reality, the system — and who succeeds or fails in it — is deeply rooted in class (Thompson, 2016).

Criticisms of the Marxist Perspective on Education

The Marxist perspectives on education have been criticized for several reasons. 

The traditional marxist perspective on education has been evaluated both positively and negative. On the affirmative side, there is a wealth of evidence that schools reproduce class inequality.

In particular, evidence suggests that those from the middle and upper classes do much better in education because the working classes are more likely to suffer from material and cultural deprivation. Meanwhile, the middle classes have high material and cultural capital, along with laws that directly benefit them.

Another point in favor of the Marxist view of education is the existence of private schools. In these schools, the very wealthiest families are able to buy a better education for their families. This gives their children a substantially greater chance of attending an elite university. 

There is also strong evidence for the reproduction of class inequality in elite jobs, such as medicine, law, and journalism. A disproportionately high number of people in these professions were educated in private institutions, and come from families who are, in turn, highly educated (Thompson, 2016).

On the other hand, sociologists such as Henry Giroux (1983) have criticized the traditional Marxist view on education as being too deterministic. He argued that working classes are not entirely molded by the capitalist system and do not accept everything they are taught blindly. Paul Willis' study of the working-class "lads'' is one example of lower class youths actively rejecting the values taught by education.

There is also less evidence that pupils believe school is fair than evidence that pupils believe school is unfair. The "Lads" that Paul Willis studied (2017) were well aware that the educational system was biased toward the middle classes, and many people in poorly-funded schools know that they are receiving a lesser quality of education than those in private schools. 

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About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 06). The Marxist Perspective on Education. Simply Sociology.


Bourdieu, P., & Bordieu, P. (1971). Formes et degrés de la conscience du chômage dans l'Algérie coloniale. Manpower and Unemployment Research in Africa, 36-44.

Bowes, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in Captalist America. Cole, M. (2019). Theresa May, the hostile environment and public pedagogies of hate and threat: The case for a future without borders. Routledge.

Ferguson, S. (2018). Social reproduction: what’s the big idea? Giroux, H. (1983). Theories of reproduction and resistance in the new sociology of education: A critical analysis. Harvard educational review, 53(3), 257-293.

Giroux, H. (1983). Theories of reproduction and resistance in the new sociology of education: A critical analysis. Harvard educational review53(3), 257-293.

Marx, K., Engels, F. (1847). Manifesto of the communist party.

Thompson, M. (2016). Assess the Marxist View of the Role of Education in Society.

Willis, P. (2017). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Routledge.