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Paul Willis Learning To Labour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3070 words Published: 19th Jul 2017

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Much has been written in the social sciences with regard to the role the education system plays within our society. Early investigations into the sociology of education tended to be written within the functionalist tradition with social thinkers such as Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons composing their theories within this framework. This perspective often viewed the education system as necessary for sustaining efficient economic growth and for creating a meritocratic society – a society where the most talented and able individuals can rise through the social hierarchy according to their own ability. However, in recent years, social scientists have found the Marxist perspective more useful in understanding the connection between education, society and the economy. This perspective in general sees society as being a site of conflict between different groups; with education being another battleground where this conflict is acted out. The main function of education then in this context is to continue to reproduce the labour force. But more importantly that the education system favours and will benefit one social group over another – namely the dominant and ruling class over the subordinate. This is perhaps a crude oversimplification of the Marxist case but it is important to have some understanding of this perspective with regard to education as this is the academic context in which Learning to Labour (1977) was undertaken. It is within this perspective that much of this essay will focus, as indeed it is the theoretical framework that Paul Willis is writing from. The aim of this paper is to critically engage with the themes and perspectives presented by Willis in his groundbreaking study on the sociology of education.

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Before we go on to discuss Learning to Labour it is perhaps important to start with some understanding of what came before; so as to highlight how Willis’ findings broke new ground and pushed the debate around education forward. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976) were writing just before Willis and their approach was very similar in that the thrust of their thesis was concerned with how education prepares pupils for their future roles within the labour market. However, their theories were very much formulated around the notion of ‘direct reproduction’ and because of this they have exposed themselves to the usual criticisms of economic determinism. Willis offers a more sophisticated explanation. Although he acknowledges the existence of conflict within education he does not quite share Bowles and Gintis’ view that there exists a straight forward relationship between education and the economy. For Willis, schools are not nearly as successful in churning out a docile workforce as Bowels and Gintis suggest. There is always the opportunity for resistance. The ‘lads’ of Learning to Labour have managed to see through the ideological ‘smoke screen’ of the school and reject it, while at the same time creating their own ‘counter-school culture’. The education system then is not simply a site for cultural reproduction but also a site of production; in that it has quite unintentionally created factors (in this case the counter-school culture) which are not particularly beneficial for the reproduction of capitalism.

The school used by Willis is situated in a working class housing estate in an industrial town in the Midlands. Willis concentrated his study on a group of 12 working-class boys whom he followed through their last year of school and into the first few months at work. Willis soon found that these boys, who he referred to as the ‘lads’, had a distinct attitude towards their teachers and the school. Willis observed that they had developed their own unique culture which was diametrically opposed to the value system of the school. This counter-school culture of the ‘lads’ blatantly rejected the authority of the school and ascribed no value to academic work and saw no use in the gaining of qualifications.

Now it is important to understand what Willis means by the counter-school culture. The acknowledgement of an emergent counter-culture within the school is not in itself new (see Hargreaves, D. 1967) but what is significant about the way Willis uses this idea is that he examines the counter-culture within its wider social context. He quite brilliantly observes that the counter-school culture is “not accidental, nor its style quite independent, nor its cultural skills unique or special” and that it must be understood within the larger framework of working-class culture, particularly in relation to shopfloor culture. For Willis, the counter-school culture is rich with symbols and signs of resistance against the formal zone of the school. The ‘lads’ have, in a symbolic act of sabotage, inverted the values that the school espouses and created their own value system which is in defiant opposition to the institution. This opposition is mainly countenanced through style, Willis notes:

It [the counter-school culture] is lived out in countless small ways which are special to the school institution, instantly recognised by the teachers, and an almost ritualistic part of the daily fabric of life for the kids. (Willis, P. 1977:12)

The counter-school culture is a very masculine domain where overt sexist and racist views are quite frequently expressed. The ‘lads’ continually search out weakness in others and are skilful at undermining the authority of the teachers without it boiling over into outright confrontation. The conformist students are the ‘lads’ main target after the teachers. The ‘lads’ feel superior to them because they, unlike the ‘ear’oles’, have not surrendered their independence to the school – they are still able to have a ‘laff’.

It is this ability of being able to have a ‘laff’ that is a defining characteristic of being a ‘lad’. It also marks them out from the ‘ear’oles’: “we can make them laff, they can’t make us laff”. For Willis the ‘laff’ “is a multi-faceted implement of extraordinary importance in the counter-school culture” and is a vital weapon in the ‘lads’ arsenal in their continued struggle of the informal (counter-school) over the formal (school). This winning of symbolic and physical space from the school is illustrated further in the way that the ‘lads’ seem to construct their own timetable. Through ‘wagging off’ from classes and always trying to get away with doing the least amount of work, the ‘lads’ have become highly skilled in exploiting and seizing control of the formal zone of the school. Cigarette smoking and openly drinking have also become valuable symbols of rebellion as it further marks the ‘lads’ out from the school institution and instead shows them as belonging to the larger male working-class world. Indeed Willis draws our attention to the similarities between the counter-school culture and shopfloor culture. He writes:

The really central point about the working-class culture of the shopfloor is that, despite harsh conditions and external direction, people do look for meaning and impose frameworks. They exercise their abilities and seek enjoyment in activity, even where most controlled by other. They do, paradoxically, thread through the dead experience of work a living culture which is far from a simple reflex of defeat. This is the same fundamental taking hold of an alienating situation as one finds in counter-school culture and its attempt to weave a tapestry through the dry institutional text. (Willis, P. cited in Blackledge & Hunt 1985:184)

When the ‘lads’ reach the end of their final term and the prospect of work awaits them they remain indifferent to the type of manual unskilled labour they will go on to do. They understand that most manual work in industry is basically the same; very little skill is required and offers no satisfaction. The best the ‘lads’ can hope for is an apprenticeship or clerical work, however “such jobs seem to offer little but take a lot”. Although the ‘lads’ might not be able to articulate it, in some respects they do have some understanding of the workings of capitalism. Willis calls these insights ‘penetrations’, where the ‘lads’ have been able to see through the ideological fog created by the capitalist system. An example of this is present in the way that the counter-school culture places no value in the attainment of qualifications through certificates. The conformist student may be convinced by education’s meritocratic façade and the promise of upward mobility but the ‘lads’ know better, they are aware that “a few can make it…the class can never follow”. They understand that individual success will not ultimately change the position of the working-class, and that only through the collective action of the group will this be achieved. This is articulated by the ‘lads’ in the way that they place an important emphasis on loyalty within the group, as Willis observes “the essence of being ‘one of the lads’ lies with the group”. The group always comes first and the rejection of qualifications is a rejection of the individualistic nature of the school, which creates competition between class mates with the proliferation of individual awards through exams. As Willis puts it: “…it is unwise for working-class kids to place their trust in diplomas and certificates. These things act not to push people up – as in the official account – but to maintain there those who are already at the top” (Willis, 1977:128).

Although they may have some understanding of capitalism, Willis contends that while some ‘penetrations’ have been made the ‘lads’ still have not fully seen through all of capitalism’s ideological justifications. They do not possess a complete overview of how capitalism works to exploit them. In some respects the ‘lads’ are unwitting conspirators in their own exploitation in that they are far too willing to enter the world of manual work; and in doing so they enter an exploitative system which will ultimately entrap them. Their attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is also destructive. They serve only to divide the working-class making it that much easier to control. For Willis then, “it is quite wrong to picture working-class culture or consciousness optimistically as the vanguard in the great march towards rationality and socialism”.

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The ‘lads’ of Learning to Labour may have realised their own alienation but ultimately it is their own decisions which have trapped them in these exploitative jobs. Willis has tried to make it clear that rather than being a site for the reproduction of one dominant ideology; the school can be a place where contradictory ideologies come together in conflict. With this study Willis shows us that it is the ‘lads’ resistance to school, with the forming of a counter-school culture, that has prepared them for their future roles within the labour force. Their indifference to school and their behaviour in class has paradoxically prepared the ‘lads’ for the manual unskilled work which they will go on to do. So in this sense education does reproduce the labour force required by capitalism. But it is done not directly and perhaps unintentionally – and most importantly of all; not without a degree of resistance and struggle.

The counter-school culture of the ‘lads’, as we have seen, is not beneficial to the reproduction of capitalism, but at the same time it is not particularly harmful. Willis has shown that reproduction is not a simple process with external economic structures manipulating submissive subjects. He is very critical of these structuarlist accounts. As he says: “Social agents are not passive bearers of ideology, but active appropriators who reproduce existing structures only through struggle, contestation and a partial penetration of those structures”.

Paul Willis’ ethnographic investigation has been hailed a landmark study by educators and social theorist alike (Giddens 1984, McRobbie 1978). Indeed any detailed discussion on the sociology of education, subcultures or even deviancy within society would seem redundant if there was no reference to Learning to Labour. One writer has remarked that Willis “has provided the model on which most subsequent cultural studies investigation within education has been based”. However, this does not mean that he is exempt from criticism.

David Blackledge and Barry Hunt (1985) take issue with a number Willis’ conclusions. Firstly they find some of his evidence unconvincing – can the ‘lads’ really be representative of the working-class in general? All the pupils at the school are from working-class families including the ‘ear’oles’ (who are clearly in the majority); surely they are more representative of working-class values and attitudes. Blackledge and Hunt argue that the values of the conformist students, with their emphasis on academic work, are as much working-class in nature as those of the counter-culture. To support this claim they point to a similar study by David Hargreaves (1967) in which he found a significant delinquent sub-culture existing in a secondary school. Like the school of Willis’ study, the pupils where predominantly working-class (their fathers were in manual occupations) and he observed that the school was divided into two sub-cultures: the ‘delinquescent’ and the ‘academic’. However, unlike Willis, Hargreaves does note that there can be a blurring of the two categories with some students within the academic group displaying delinquent behaviour from time to time. But more importantly Hargreaves maintains that the attitudes of the academic group are consistent with the values of a large section of the working-class. So in this light Blackledge and Hunt remain unconvinced that the values of the ‘lads’ are the same as the working-class as a whole. They also have trouble excepting the ‘simple dichotomy’ which is at the heart of this study – that there exists just two main groups, the ‘lads’ and the ‘ear’oles’. For them this does not really do justice to the diversity of the real world in that “[Willis] would have us believe in a one-dimensional world in which there are those who want an education, and those who enjoy life. It never seems to occur to him that these pursuits can be combined, and that the person who takes an interest in his or her education is not, thereby, dull, obsequious and a social conformist”.

Despite these criticisms Learning to Labour has remained an influential and much discussed text. In fact despite being written from a cultural studies perspective its influence is particularly strong within sociology. It is within Marxism that its significance has been most far reaching however. It has encouraged Marxist writers to re-evaluate their approach to the understanding of education; paying specific attention to the different factors at play instead of providing simplistic explanations of the role of education within society. Willis is very critical of structuarlist accounts which have a tendency to see subjects as “passive bearers of ideology” who mindlessly reproduce the status-quo. Willis has given social agents the ability to reject the dominant ideological discourses and to resist in the reproduction of existing exploitative structures. Learning to Labour has sometimes been described as a pessimistic book but I can not help but bring a positive interpretation to the text. It is true that ultimately it is the ‘lads’ own choices that lead them to some of the most exploitative jobs that capitalism has to offer. But by simply having that choice it does allow for the possibility of change. As Willis himself says “there is always the possibility of making practices not inevitable by understanding them”. This, I would argue, is the key thread which runs through Learning to Labour; by understanding the reasons for the forming of a counter-school culture can we bring about positive changes which will be beneficial to everyone and not just the ‘lads’.

Perhaps Willis is guilty of using too many Marxist terms uncritically. The way he employs the category of social class within Learning to Labour is maybe a little outdated now. It is not a stable, fixed construct – it is more fluid than Willis allows for with an interlinking between race and gender etc. Similarly at times he is arguably guilty of slipping back into traditional Marxist territory with the idea of the state being subservient to capitalist class – is that still (if it ever was) the reality? Within a globalised world power is more dispersed and not concentrated in the hands of one ruling bloc; but instead there are perhaps different organised groups competing for power. Economic and informational ‘flows’ can freely transcend national boundaries – it is argued (Giddens 1994) that globalisation has acted to decentralise power preventing any one group from wielding too much economic and ideological control. However, it is to the credit of Paul Willis that his investigation has remained relevant and important twenty-eight years after it was first published. It is still considered a model example of ethnographic research and has encouraged many other ethnographic studies whose emphasis was on style, resistance and cultural symbols (See McRobbie 1978, Hebdige 1979). Indeed, Anthony Giddens’ (1984) structuration theory – which sees subjects as knowledgeable and active agents – owes a considerable debt to the insights made by Willis in Learning to Labour.


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