McLaren on Life in Schools

Peter McLaren, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a strident critic of education in the era of neoliberalism. McLaren analyses some of the consequences of neoliberalism for schools, speaking of life in schools today.

Neoliberalism … refers to a corporate domination of society that supports state enforcement of the unregulated market, engages in the oppression of nonmarket forces and anti-market policies, eliminates social subsidies, offers limitless concessions to transnational corporations, enthrones a neomercantilist public policy agenda, establishes the market as the patron of education reform, and permits private interests to control most of social life in the pursuit of profits for the few (i.e. through lowering taxes for the wealthy, scrapping environmental regulations, and dismantling public education and social welfare programs) …

[T]eachers are faced with overcrowded classrooms, large immigrant populations, outmoded pedagogical theories, stifling bureaucratic demands, top-down centralization of control, management by behavioral objectives, a distrust of teachers’ abilities and judgment in the classroom which has led to the effective deskilling of teachers, insufficient funding and resources, tracking measures and a hidden curriculum that favor certain groups over others on the basis of race, class, and gender …

Rampant illiteracy, growing dropout rates among the poor, and a dramatic increase in classroom violence and despair exemplify the plight of today’s students and teachers … For teachers, this means that we must begin candidly and critically to face our society’s complicity in the roots and structures of inequality and injustice. It means, too, that as teachers we must face our own culpability in the in the reproduction of inequality in our teaching, and that we must strive to develop a pedagogy equipped to provide both intellectual and moral resistance to oppression, one that extends the concept of pedagogy beyond the mere transmission of knowledge and skills …

The school system is mostly geared to the interests, skills, and attitudes of the middle-class child. Though I also argue that the system is failing to educate middle-class students, it is the children of poverty who really suffer, being streamed into courses that prepare them for a life of temporary, dead-end, underpaid, undignified, and menial jobs.

In too many instances where the politics of education is played, it’s the children who lose out—especially the children of the poor. Economically disadvantaged children are being groomed by society at an early age to fail, doomed to perpetuate a vicious and endless cycle of poverty created by a culture obsessed with success and wealth …

We have learned to believe the formal goal of our education system, that it is the ‘great equalizer’ of our society, that it will assist disadvantaged students to bridge the chasm of opportunity that divides them from children from more affluent backgrounds. Unfortunately, this kind of platitude hides more than it reveals … In fact, I would reverse the argument by saying that it’s the latent function of the educational system to maintain the status quo, including existing social inequalities.

We claim to live in a meritocracy where social salvation is supposedly achieved through scholastic merit: Every student will, more or less, reap the academic rewards of his or her own initiative, regardless of sex, religion, or family background. That all sounds fine on the surface, but in reality it’s simply hollow rhetoric. Research has shown that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is socioeconomic status. In other words, although we profess to believe in equal opportunity for rich and poor alike, the fact remains that an individual’s social class and race at birth have a greater influence on social class in later life than do any other factors—including intelligence and merit. Put simply, each child appears to get as many chances for success in school as his or her family has dollars and privileged social status.


McLaren, Peter. 2003. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy. Boston: Pearson Education. pp. 22, 55–56, 42, 178, 176. || Amazon || WorldCat


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