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Learning to Labour

Learning to Labour
Learning to Labor Morningside.jpg
The 1981 Morningside edition
Author Paul Willis
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Sociology
Published 1977
Publisher Saxon House (UK), Columbia University Press (US)

Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs is a 1977 book on education, written by British social scientist and cultural theorist Paul Willis. A Columbia University Press edition, titled the "Morningside Edition," was published in the United States shortly after its reception.

Willis's first major book, Learning to Labour relates the findings of his ethnographic study of working-class boys at a secondary school in England. In it, Willis attempts to explain the role of youths' culture and socialization as mediums by which schools route working-class students into working-class jobs. Stanley Aronowitz, in the preface to the Morningside edition, hails the book as a key text in Marxist social reproduction theory about education, advancing previous work in education studies by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis's Schooling in Capitalist America, as well as work by Michael Apple and John Dewey.

Learning to Labour has been recognized by sociologists, critical pedagogues, and researchers in education studies as a landmark study of schooling and culture, and is one of the most cited sociological texts in education studies.

  • Teaching paradigm: The teaching paradigm is the principal set of demands and incentives used by the school system. According to this paradigm, students consent to behave obediently and in deference to their teacher in exchange for promised credentials that will help them move upward socioeconomically. This paradigm, which helps the teacher with authority, implies the desirability of obedience, deference, and conformity for working-class students, and recalls the banking paradigm in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. However, Willis notes the importance of teachers' winning from their students consent to the teaching paradigm, as their exchange-based authority does not permit them to directly impose it on students.
  • Differentiation and integration: Willis describes differentiation as the process by which working-class students reinterpret, invert, criticize, and reject the teaching paradigm as failing to meet their objective interests as members of the working class. Aspects of differentiation constitute, in part, the lads' counter-school culture. Integration is the opposite of differentiation, the process by which agents of the school system, such as teachers, attempt to legitimize the role of schooling in improving students' lives. The tug-of-war between differentiation and integration is, in Willis's observation, continually manifested through day-to-day contests between teachers attempting to maintain their authority and lads attempting to subvert it.
  • Penetration and limitation: These struggles between the lads and teachers occasionally lead to penetration, which denotes the lads' insights into their own class condition, as interpreted through the lens of their counter-school culture. It is through penetrations that working-class youth recognize the illusions of the teaching paradigm, and more generally of liberal democracy and capitalism's promises of advancement through education. Willis notes, however, that penetrations are, for anyone immersed in their own culture, partial and disorganized, meaning that they are culturally, subjectively distorted, and unable to bloom into politically radical class consciousness. Later, he describes this partiality as limitations. The limitations of penetrations grant the lads a sense of freedom, affirmation, solidarity, and empowerment in their rebellion and embrace of working-class identity. For example, that the lads understand the teaching paradigm's valuation of mental labor as superior to manual labor is a penetration; on the other hand, that they respond by culturally affirming manual labor over mental labor, as more sensual and authentic, shows the partiality of their perpetration. Willis also identifies limitations in the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism: The lads approach manual labor as a means to accomplish a masculine identity, and identify gender domestic labor and mental labor as girlish and "cissy."
  • Ideology: Drawing on the theory of Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, Willis argues that schools are also complicit in social reproduction as state institutions for ideology. Career counseling programs in secondary school emphasize individual competition, promote the desirability of white-collar labor, and reify adult work as an inevitable and natural stage of life. Ideology also has the power to undo any successful penetrations, by acknowledging the facts of economic inequality and domination in the workplace by bosses, without organizing these facts in any kind of systematic framework of class, wage labor, and exploitation. Ideology and penetration are at odds, and help determine the degree to which working-class youth identify with the working class.
  • Recognizing the competition inherent to an educational
  • Respecting the insights and logic of youth working-class culture
  • Communicating to students without denigrating their social identities
  • Discussing elements of students' own cultural forms, including wage labor, street fighting, sexism, and rebellion
  • Recognizing the limits of pedagogy and teaching paradigms in reaching disaffected working-class students, as well as the necessity of some authority in classrooms. Although Willis acknowledges the possibility of using radical pedagogical methods, he suggests they would be ineffective for students as the Hammertown Boys lads, who are likely to register a teacher's withdrawal from authority as simply their victory over him.


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