French philosopher, Louis Althusser writing in 1970 (La Pensée, 1970) held that education is one of a range of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA – the Church is another) which provides children with:
“the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric”
Althusser went on to note that “virtues” such as “modesty, resignation, submissiveness on the one hand, cynicism, contempt, arrogance, confidence, self-importance, even smooth talk and cunning on the other” are also taught in other arenas, but that no other ISA has the hour by hour, day by day, week by week, year by year unfettered access to children enjoyed by the education system.
Althusser has some thoughts for teachers and, I guess, heads and senior leaders: “I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!).”
The immediate reaction to these ideas is, perhaps, to reject them with no further thought, but a little more reflection leads one remember again the importance of thinking clearly about the purposes of education. Certainly those of us in the privileged position of leading a school, do NOT want to promote by negligence, a culture which supports simply teaching children who controls time and space that they occupy now and might occupy for the rest of their lives and, therby, their position in society. A culture in which teachers are merely agents or preservation of a severely hierarchical society and as the old hymn has it: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.”
I would argue that the lesson to be drawn from Althusser’s analysis is that, if we don’t consciously manage school culture (one of the prime roles of a headteacher), our schools could indeed function as factories, machining varying sizes of cogs to fit into predetermined slots in an Althusserian societal machine.