Ideology may be viewed as the influence of ideas and beliefs in people’s lives, but it also can be seen as something much more complex involving politics and power. As a political concept and practice, schooling represents a set of processes that mirrors perspectives of a society’s vision about the present and the future. Such visions, desires, and beliefs are deeply rooted in the ideological framework of each individual. In essence, what schooling is and what it means to be schooled depends upon particular readings and the imagination and aspiration of present and future societies, which are clearly based on particular ideological frameworks. Such ideological perceptions are totally linked by religious, cultural, political, and economic dynamics that decisively shape one’s vision of social reality.
Schools do not simply process people, but they process knowledge as well. In order to fully understand schools as institutions that process knowledge, one has to recognize them as institutions that have an ideological function. Schools are sites of political and cultural struggles. The curriculum serves to construct a web of assumptions that is legitimized and incorporated into an intimate relation with socialization practices and knowledge formulation processes.
Understanding schooling as an ideological device implicitly recognizes it as a form of social control— that is, as a normative and disciplinary device. At worst, such control may be despotic, but even in the best sense, schools represent a hegemonic framework of co-option and coercion strategies. What is at stake in schools’ ideological function? It is how knowledge is selected, diffused, and evaluated. It is in this context that the historical evolution and development of public education in the United States must be understood. This entry looks at the relationship between ideology and schooling as it has played out in the United States.
Who Decides Content?
Schooling as a form of social control is clearly evident in curriculum content. Thus, the way in which knowledge is structured in schooling is profoundly connected to the principles of social control in a given society. Since Aristotle, societies have been confronted with ideological tensions over what knowledge should be taught in schools. Certainly, the history of the curriculum field in the United States since its inception at the end of the nineteenth century is a clear-cut demonstration of the ideological battles in which particular interest groups—humanists, develop mentalists, social meliorists, and social efficiency experts—argue for control over what will be viewed as knowledge. In fact, what, how much, and who will be learned through schooling is deeply determined by these ideological battles.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the social efficiency model of schooling was the dominant ideological model at work in schools in the United States. Following Taylor’s rationale and influenced by perspectives put forward by other educational leaders such as Franklin Bobbitt, W. W. Charters, and Ralph Tyler, and despite opposition and resistance in the work of John Dewey, George S. Counts, and Harold Rugg, the scientific/behavioral management social efficiency model remained so powerful because it was wisely able to incorporate both dominant and nondominant traditions.
Such dominant ideological tendencies and strategies in schooling would become even more marked and refined with the advent of the New Right policies promulgated by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States during the late 1970s. In this process, schooling came to be increasingly challenged by the so-called market ideology. Such tendencies led to an upgrading and reinforcing in education of an intricate set of tailored management techniques, namely standardized curricula, rationalizing teaching, systems management and management by objectives, competency-based testing and curriculum development, and reductive behavioral objectives.
Since the late 1970s, reacting against this tradition and denouncing schooling as an ideological vehicle, a group of critical scholars (among them Maxine Greene, Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, and Peter McLaren) has emerged as an important force in the literature of schools. Deeply influenced by the new sociology of education, phenomenology, analytical philosophy, and neo-/post-Marxist traditions, much of their work has focused on ideology and its role in schooling.
Critical Educators’ View
For these scholars, school’s lack of meaning and the fallacy of neutral knowledge pushed society into a dead end, creating social turmoil as was the American case with the 1960s student revolts, and the (re)emergence of the civil rights movement. School knowledge tended to be perceived as a psychological object or as a psychological process, something that became deideologized, depoliticizing the culture that schools transmit. Educational institutions were seen as the main agencies of an effective dominant culture, of a significant past that involves conscious and unconscious social and ideological choices.
Basil Bernstein, Michael F. D. Young, Pierre Bourdieu, and others argue that schooling protects the needs of a particular class, and in doing so acts as a significant force in cultural and economic reproduction. To challenge the ideological function of schools means looking at what knowledge is valued: Whose vision does it represent? Which particular “kinds” of students “get” what particular kinds of knowledge and dispositions? Who is selected? Why is knowledge organized and taught in particular ways, and to which groups? Such concerns clearly turn schools, as social systems, into ideological battlegrounds.
Critical educators challenge why and how particular aspects of the collective culture are presented in schools as objective, factual knowledge—that is, how concretely official knowledge represents ideological configurations of the dominant interests in a society.
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