Grammar Schools: WWBS What Would Bourdieu Say?

How can an education system consistently produce steady patterns of inequality whilst either being, or giving off the illusion of being, a democratic lottery of effort and ability?

Bourdieu’s ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’ is excellent, and those who wish to dive deeper into it can find it in ‘Power and Ideology in Education’ by Karabel and Halsey, and also in ‘Knowledge, Education and Cultural Change’ by Brown.

Just like every dinner party in the 1980s needed hors d’ouevres, every analysis in the 2010s needs Bourdieu. As Grammar Schools edge back towards reality, questions of social mobility, social equality and social justice need to be looked at with fresh eyes, and the Bourdieusian lens is an interesting one to peer through.

As Loic (Menzies not Wacquant) has already indicated in his Uncle Steve post, everyone can point to an example of a working class kid done good through the grammar schools. The follow up questions ought then to be about what set ‘Uncle Steve’ apart from his classmates and what happened to his mates, and then the focus should shift.

Who is it that gains from the sharing of these trope-like stories about the poor kid done good; why are they so public when they happen? Who benefits from these stories?

My standpoint is that a tripartite system as it existed before was steeped in injustice, and that it stratified pupils at age 11 on how much social and cultural advantage they had accrued through childhood, considering this to be intelligence.

Undoubtedly there will be pupils from poorer backgrounds whose ferocious intellect and dedication to study saw them climb the greasy pole of social mobility through grammar schools. Congratulations to them –  genuinely. There are still children from less affluent backgrounds whose intellect, flair and knowledge can see them reap opportunities from the selective education system, but in the average classroom in a poorer area, these pupils would be the genuinely exceptional ones who have a thirst for knowledge and learning that is rare even amongst their other high-attaining less-affluent peers.

But within their new grammar school class they will be joined by more affluent children whose parents poured tuition down their throats from childbirth. They will be joined by children who grew up in homes full of books, whose cultural education is intuitive rather than something that needed to be grafted at. The 11+ is the ultimate apparatus of selective education, but what it selects and judges is not necessarily what it says it selects and judges.

So to Bourdieu.

Education and Social Reproduction

Bourdieu argues that the purpose of the sociology of education is to be a ‘science of the relations between cultural reproduction and social reproduction’ – he is concerned less with correlations between such things as a child’s academic success and their parents wealth, than he is with the ‘study of the mechanisms which tend to ensure the reproduction of the structure of relations between classes’.

[The substantialist mode of thought] is unaware that the controlled mobility of a limited category of individuals, carefully selected and modified by and for individual ascent, is not incompatible with the permanence of structures, and that it is even capable of contributing to social stability in the only way conceivable in societies based upon democratic ideals and thereby may help to perpetuate the structure of class relations.

Bourdieu is highlighting that the fact an individual from a low position in the class system can end up climbing their way to the very top is not evidence of the dissolution of class-based educational outcomes; actually, people’s support for our education system, in its flawed form, actually relies upon the exceptional upward mobility of a minority of pupils, in order to present the system – in total – as a democratic and level playing field (though it is not).

Bourdieu outlines how our focus must be on the production of the habitus – ‘that system of [individually held] dispositions which acts as mediation between structures and practice’ – and that as people interested in studying social reproduction…

it becomes necessary to study the laws that determine the tendency of structures to reproduce themselves by producing agents endowed with the system of predispositions which is capable of engendering practices adapted to the structures and thereby contributing to the reproduction of the structures.

The social structures of the education system are reproduced when the pupils passing through them become imbued with the dispositions and motives that may lead them to self-stratify into the existing configuration of things. For example, we should be looking at how a school like Eton can so reliably produce pupils who are predisposed towards possessing the traits that would allow entry to the higher professions (professions which welcome such pupils into their existing networks), as well as looking at how schools in disadvantaged areas can reliably and consistently, over generations, turn out pupils whose ambitions are stymied enough that they see themselves as best placed in low paid work, or the trades.

To paraphrase, Bourdieu is asking ‘How can an education system consistently produce steady patterns of inequality whilst either being, or giving off the illusion of being, a democratic lottery of effort and ability?’

There is no solution to the problem of the transmission of power, argues Bourdieu, that is ‘better concealed, and therefore better adapted to societies which tend to refuse the most patent forms of the hereditary transmission of power and privileges’ than the education system.

Education reproduces class distinctions, and can conceal the fact that it does so.

The Role of Culture in Social Reproduction 

Bourdieu holds the function of cultural reproduction to work with the function of social reproduction within education. Bourdieu spends time outlining how cultural practices such as theatre attendance and reading are stratified along the lines of occupational categories, to bolster his suggestion that ‘the inheritance of cultural wealth which has been accumulated and bequeathed by previous generations only really belongs…to those endowed with the means of appropriating it for themselves’. The ability to accumulate cultural-goods as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ is an ability available only to those who ‘hold the code’ and know how to decipher them.

In this way, he presents tables of information which show ‘Cultural Activities and Level of Education’, showing that 69% of those surveyed who completed Higher Education regularly attend the theatre, compared to 18% among those who left school before the end of secondary education.

Bourdieu is making the point that the level of education an individual has aligns, generally, not only with their socioeconomic position but with their cultural practices.

Such a powerful and exclusive relationship between the level of education and cultural practice should not conceal the fact that, in view of the implicit presuppositions that govern it, the action of the educational system can attain full effectiveness only to the extent that it bears upon individuals who have been previously granted a certain familiarity with the world of art by their family upbringing. Indeed, it would seem that the action of the school, whose effect is unequal (if only from the point of view of duration) among children from different social classes, and whose success varies considerably among those upon whom it has an effect, tends to reinforce and to consecrate by its sanctions the initial inequalities.

What Bourdieu is saying then is that the education system validates, rewards and structures itself to cheerlead for the forms of cultural knowledge that are already unevenly distributed along the lines of social class, and that the correlation between early exposure to art and ‘high culture’ and the subsequent level of educational success is a forceful enough correlation to suggest that ‘what is measured by means of the level of education is nothing other than the accumulation of the effects of training acquired within the family and the academic apprenticeships which themselves presupposed this previous training’.


By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the education system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give.

What a quotation.

Here, Bourdieu is speaking primarily about the cultural practices of school-based transmission. He is thinking of linguistic and cultural competence and a familiar relationship with culture which can only be produced by family upbringing when it transmits the dominant culture. Education is tasked with teaching children about the best our culture has to offer, yet it neglects to pass on the ‘instruments indispensible to the success of its undertaking’, meaning that those with the cultural inheritance borne of cultural and financial wealth are the ones best-placed to confirm their monopoly over these esteemed forms of cultural knowledge.

The symbolic/cultural products of the different social classes have different value on the educational market, Bourdieu argues, and in the economic market, based on how far they stray from the ‘dominant mode of production’ or ‘from the educational norms of those social classes capable of imposing the domination of criteria of evaluation which are the most favourable to their products.

My old sociology teacher proved this point by calling Eton College during the lesson, sticking it on speakerphone, and seeking a beatboxing scholarship for his niece. The musicality required of a gifted beatboxer is perhaps no less than that of a gifted flautist – the technical range of processes is arguably more complex – but Eton is in the position of a cultural arbiter and can – and did – refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of beatboxing as an esteemed cultural practice.

The Appearance of Legitimacy

The effectiveness of the education system as a sociocultural sieve owes itself to ‘the appearance of legitimacy’ that it brings. An investment in the academic market, through investment of ‘time and enthusiasm for education on the part of the pupils, investments of time, effort and money on the part of families’ is expected to bring future profits on the academic market, which can be exchanged for alternative forms of capital.

Bourdieu argues that negative predispositions towards school ‘result in self-elimination of most children from the most culturally unfavoured classes’ must be seen as an ‘anticipation’ of their low objective probability of succeeding, based on their category position.

The system of dispositions towards the school, understood as a propensity to consent to the investments in time, effort and money necessary to conserve or increase cultural capital, tends to redouble the symbolic and economic effects of the uneven distribution of cultural capital, all the while concealing it and at the same time, legitimating it.

Here we find analysis of notions such as high aspiration and high expectation, with our contemporary familiarity with the idea that one can ‘inspire oneself out of poverty’ and ‘aim high’. Bourdieu, taking a structural view at this, concludes that the laws of the academic market determine aspirations by determining the extent to which they can be satisfied.

Legitimating Social into Academic Hierarchy

By making social hierarchies and the reproduction of these hierarchies appear to be based upon the hierarchy of “gifts”, merits or skills established and ratified by its sanctions, or, in a word, by converting social hierarchies into academic hierarchies, the education system fulfils a function of legitimation…

Judgements of academic qualification serve to lineate our society not by inherited wealth, but by achievement. The fact that wealthy professional parents are fare more likely to have children who will grow to become wealthy professional adults is not the simple the handing down of wealth from one generation to another, which rankles in a democratic society. The children of the well-off will have to ‘fake-earn’ the privilege they already have through academic success, and the Grammar School is a great platform for this. And its free.

Who is it that gains from the sharing of these trope-like stories about the poor kid done good; why are they so public when they happen? Who benefits from these stories?

Expect to hear many more stories of how grammar school education saved particular individuals from the brink of the social abyss. Those who feature in such stories may believe this themselves, and in an individual case-by-case basis, this may well be true for them. But as for who benefits, the issue is much more cloudy. To what extent is the success of one poor kid used to justify the failure of other poor kids, by perpetuating the idea that ‘Well _____ managed to do it, so any of us could have done it’ which completely ignores the role that wealth plays in stratifying society.


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