Bourdieu in the Classroom
Olssen, Mark (eds.)
Culture and Learning: Access and Opportunity in the Classroom.
(International Perspectives on Curriculum).
Full text not available from this repository.
Bourdieu begins his 1964 publication Les Héritiers with a quotation from Margaret Mead’s Continuities in Cultural Education. In it she describes the practice amongst North American Indians of using visions as a social rite de passage. Young men who had not yet received visions would listen to others’ accounts of what constituted a true vision and the special circumstances from which it arose. This preparation was important in developing knowledge of the ‘authentic’ vision and thus having your own. A vision conferred on the visionary the right to start a business, to hunt and fight in war. In the case of the Omaha Indians, however, this knowledge was withheld. All young men had the potential for visions. They would go out alone into the desert, fast and return to tell stories of the visions they had experienced. The elders of the village would then explain to some of them why theirs was not a real vision. Mead noted that this designation of authenticity acted as a form of social selection: genuine visions were most common amongst the sons of the ruling, elite families. In other words, membership of the groups nominating the chiefs, tribe doctors and army generals was controlled in order to preserve the privileged inheritance of certain families.
Bourdieu offers this epigraph to his book without comment. However, the analogy he is drawing between the nature of modern education and primitive society is clearly implied. Like traditional communities, the modern world has established institutionally-based routes through which everyone must pass. In schools, there is the same claim to meritocracy: education is available to all. Yet, the function of the process is social selection: to legitimate and replicate the dominant factions within the social hierarchy. Because this selection function goes unacknowledged and therefore unrecognised, it is all the more powerful and pervasive. It is the job of sociology to blow the whistle on what is going on; to reveal the true processes and products of systems which legitimate and justify their operations by appealing to principles of fairness and equality. In short, Bourdieu writes, sociology must ‘give itself the task of restoring to men the meaning of their actions’ (1962: 109).
These words and Les Héritiers were written some forty years ago. The purpose of this chapter is partially to examine their continued worth. I want to address how sociology can give us a perspective on aspects of education which are not immediately apparent and certainly run counter to their stated aims and objectives. More specifically, I need to discuss how the ideas of Bourdieu provide insights and possible ways of understanding which enrich our knowledge of pedagogic processes. This discussion will involve examination of classroom discourse in order to tease out the underlying structures of teaching and learning. It will also involve a challenge to how we interpret what we see and hear, and therefore alter the way we view what is happening in the classroom. Firstly, however, I want to develop Bourdieu’s early thesis on education and set it in the context of the times. I will also consider what he called his ‘thinking tools’ in order to appreciate what they provide us with as means of explanation and understanding.
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