Schooling as an Ideological State Apparatus (2014)

 [Paper delivered at the 2014 Southeastern Philosophy of Education Society meeting in Atlanta, GA.]

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“Social Efficiency” and the Appeal of Classroom Management

            While the apt management of a classroom may be a useful component of Classroom Management qua William Chandler Bagley (who authored the 1903 text of the same name), it is by no means the chief impetus; this privilege is left to “social efficiency.”  Joel Spring (2011), historian of American education, explains that “[u]nder the doctrines of social efficiency, the ideal was to socialize students for cooperation in large-scale organizations where each individual would be performing a specialized task” (239).  One might see the benefit of maintaining predictable order in a classroom which is a project of behavioral management, but this takes a back-seat to the socio-corporational indoctrination that typifies modern education qua Classroom Management.  For the remainder of this section, “Classroom Management” will refer to the method of training students in “social efficiency”.
            If this conception of our schooling fails to incite controversy, perhaps a few more examples are in order.  Spring continues: 

Classroom Management became a standard teacher training text… between 1907 and 1927. Bagley believed that the primary role of the school is to build good industrial habits of the type needed on the assembly line. …everything was reduced to rigid routine.  Bagley stated that the expert observer could immediately gauge the efficiency of the teacher by “the manner in which lines pass to and from the room.” (p. 259)

            It should be noted that Bagley was not the only progenitor of ideas concerning schooling in the early twentieth century.  John Dewey’s “progressive education” represents an alternative to classroom management.  However, Dewey’s laboratory school at the University of Chicago was tasked with the same ideal of social efficiency represented in the other popular texts at the time.  It is little surprise that his process-oriented, problem-centered approach did not win esteem as the most socially efficient.
            One final example should serve to further demonstrate the purpose of social efficiency as the guiding philosophy of contemporary education.  William Lewis, also writing at the beginning of the twentieth-century, has argued that “the high school’s largest service is to the best possible training for economic efficiency, good citizenship, and full and complete living for all its pupils” (in Spring 2011, p. 239).  He goes on to explain that this may be most expediently brought about by extricating from the curriculum the superfluous disciplines of literature, poetry, algebra, and foreign languages—though these, he admits, may be offered as electives (p. 240).
            If it has been assumed that the focus of schooling is on learning broadly conceived, then the alternative emphasis of social efficiency may seem disconcerting.  Indeed, some may remain reluctant (and, perhaps, indignant) to see the parallels to the contemporary project of schooling.  There might even be the claim that the emphasis on social efficiency must represent a pre-war and pre-depression American education, and this would be accurate.  This, however, does not mean that it does not also represent twenty-first century education.  Should readers find themselves among the skeptics, consider the following explanation of the appeal of schooling and see if it can easily be placed either in this century or the beginning of this century past: “most of the world’s policy leaders promote education as an economic solution for unemployment and improved living conditions. Students often consider schooling as the key to their economic future” (Spring 2011, p. 236).  This sounds much like the contemporary political debate concerning unemployment and underemployment, despite coming to us from the early twentieth century.
            Thus far, two things have been demonstrated.  First, the original incentive behind of American schooling has been that of social efficiency, which may be understood as the training in being a good corporate or factory worker (bureaucrat or machine, respectively; below); this is still the case with contemporary schooling.  Second, this training in “social efficiency” has been packaged and sold to Americans as the single most important opportunity in life.  The explanations provided to enhance the attractiveness of this final point include, but are not limited to: increasing intelligence, establishing oneself, investing in a future, the right thing to do (that is, as an ethical obligation), and, as pernicious as it is mundane, simply ‘that which comes next’ as in the anonymously assumed sequence of life.  
            In this regard, schooling is the paramount system for ensuring the status of the American capitalist economy.  And this is no secret!  “Students often consider schooling as the key to their economic future.”  The only thing misleading about this is that it is not the students’ economic futures that are guaranteed, but the investors and owners of the corporations that will enjoy the future patronage and wage-labor of students.  Despite lip-service paid to student-centered interests, which includes the eminent and edifying value of education, the purpose is for guaranteeing the reproduction of existing capitalistic means of production.  This is the conception of the school as an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA; Althusser, 1970; or, more accurately, Ideological Corporate Apparatus, as the fiscal power has increasingly moved from the public to the private sector; Deleuze, 1992, p. 7; See Boyles, 2012) because it satisfies Althusser’s (1970) definition of ISAs.  “All ideological State apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation” (p. 154).  

The School as an Ideological State Apparatus: Bureaucratization as Schooling.  

            Rather than a schooling that aims at preparing students to participate as agents in professional, economic, and democratic work, schooling as an ideological state apparatus instead aims at preparing students to capitulate—i.e., without agency—to the reproduction of current forms of professional, economic, and democratic work.  Althusser (1970) explains how schooling provides students with the reproduction of particular skills—e.g. reading, writing, and arithmetic—which comprise the requisite know-how of most work.  He continues:

But besides these techniques and knowledges, and in learning them, children at school also learn the ‘rules’ of good behaviour, i.e. the attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour, according to the job he is ‘destined’ for: rules of morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of the order established by class domination. (p. 132)

Notice how, in addition to the presumption that the existing structures of acceptable knowledge and behavior are unquestionably the best, there is also an ethical element: these are good.  To deny these would amount to a pitiable transgression.  One needn’t venture far to imagine the impact of this malicious element.  High school students must face the guidance counselor when nearing graduation, wherein the expression of disinterest in obtaining a college degree is akin to the confession of a mortal sin.  As Aronowitz (2008) points out, “The days when a teenager could drop out of high school and get a decent-paying factory job or go into retailing or wholesaling with a prospect of eventually earning enough to support self and family with dignity are, it seems, long gone.  …[E]veryone needs a degree” (p. 10).  Try also: how might one live with oneself without a job?  In the latter case, one may add the following as adjectives to job: “well-paying,” “reliable,” “respectable,” and perhaps the most insidious of all, “real.”
            By ensuring students’ pragmatic and moral investment, the existing systems of domination guarantee the former’s patronage and obedience.  In so doing, the corporate, economic, and political statuses remain unchanged.  Workers do not get to participate in the development of the nature or process of their work; this is something they pass on willingly.  Indeed, by the time that workers have reached the stage of applying for a particular job, they have necessarily gathered a host of necessary “competencies” which, as has been demonstrated, betrays more about following orders than understanding the nature of the particular job.  As such, they need merely follow the new set of instructions in order to complete said job—a skill with which they are well-versed, having demonstrated instruction-following time and again.  To question the existing systems of power and domination, much less the instructed procedure, requires the ability to think critically—an ability that has been systematically eliminated though decades of socially-efficient schooling.
            Taking Issue with Schooling as an ISA.  The problems with schooling as an ISA are manifold, but I would like to consider the three most problematic given the alternative conception of schooling which purports to facilitate critical thinking, creativity, and meaningful learning.  First, schooling as ISA has been designed to facilitate the mechanization and bureaucratization of students.  Second, students are inescapably subjected to ideological and repressive State control (to use Althusser’s 1970 distinction) which facilitates and/or directs the self-sacrifice of individuality and capitulation to the existing systems of power and domination.  Finally, participation in the reproduction of this ideological system is in principle impersonal, which means that democracy in schooling is impossible.
            Schooling as an ISA facilitates mechanization and bureaucratization.  A socially-efficient classroom would be evaluated as successful provided its students were shaped into factory workers or company men, machines or bureaucrats.  The achievement of this may be understood from the vantage point of student motivation.  When motivation is completely ignored or rendered benign, students are shaped into machines.  Skinner (1955) explains the brilliant potential of such a classroom.  When motivation is made extrinsic, students are shaped into bureaucrats; Kohn (1993) has described this classroom in some detail.  Since they have performed an in-depth analysis of the abstractification of workers suffered in the workplace, Berger, Berger, & Kellner’s (1973) example may be used to understand the displacement of student-motivation facilitated in the socially-efficient classroom.  In their analysis, factories and corporations structure the modern mind in ways beyond a metaphorical sense.  In the factory, where work is dictated by the laws and proofs of modern science, life is mechanized, reproducible, and logical, and there is no space for motivation.  In the corporate world, life is bureaucratized, managed, and arbitrary.  In both, life is anonymous, impersonal, inorganic, and static.  Mechanization reduces students to abstracted, impersonal automatons; bureaucratization reduces students to anonymous vestiges of arbitrary competencies.  These are not the unfortunate consequences of schooling, but the very impetus behind it.  To think of these as unfortunate consequences would be to hold the mistaken assumption that an alternative instructional methodology might replace the current ones, an assumption which Freire (2012/1970) specifically warns against because this ignores the oppressed.  “Manipulation, sloganizing, ‘depositing,’ regimentation, and prescription cannot be components of revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are components of the praxis of domination (p. 126).
            By problematizing instructional methodology, administration and teachers presume that a solution to schooling likely exists, but that they are merely the unfortunate few for whom the correct method has not yet been adequately employed.  They can thus imagine a situation where teachers might otherwise be able to deliver the valuable and enriched school-experience.  It is in this way that “Ideology”, as Althusser (1970) explains, “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (p. 162).  As long as the solution to the problem of schooling is at the level of instructional technology, the problem will remain.  This is why Aronowitz (2008) proposes drastic measures, namely, de-institutionalization:

The deinstitutionalization of education does not require abandoning schools. But they should be rendered benign, removed as much as possible from the tightening grip of the corporate warfare state.  In turn, teachers must resist becoming agents of the prison system, of the drug companies, of corporate capital.  In the last instance, the best chance for education resides in the communities, in social movements, and in the kids themselves. (50, emphasis added)

      Schooling as an ISA employs a two-tiered system of student control.  The capitulation of students to the control of the corporation is managed by two forms of state or even corporate control.  In its most pernicious form, students actually experience this control as their own “free” choice.  Indeed, this is how ideology works.  Socially privileged students attend college because they “can,” never mind the humiliation associated with choosing any alternative career-path.  A series of these faux choices comprise the career-path of the student.  All of these choices, it seems, have been made for her in advance.  Years tick by and the collection of competencies grows; the singularity of the student slowly dissipates.  As soon as her individuality is completely gone (though admittedly, this is never complete), she is understood to have entered “the real world”—which, to be fair, is always “just around the nextcorner.”  Deleuze (1992) explains how this perpetual merry-go-round of competency collection is characteristic to the “society of control,” wherein “one is never finished with anything” but must always admit ignorance, requiring still higher levels of training (p. 5).  Aronowitz (2008) explains how “Students who would have sought good factory jobs in the past now believe, with reason, that they need credentials to qualify for a well-paying job” (p. 26).  In this manner, the disciplinary society guarantees that its denizens never reach a state of autonomous competence; indeed, appeal must continually be made to the state (or corporation) for nods of approval.  However, rather than demonstrating competence, “achieving a credential signifies mainly that the student is more or less reliably integrated into the work-world system” (p. xiv).  This form of control is understood to be on the level of ideology, because the appeal is necessary only in principle, not because such supervision is necessarily required before moving on—that is, developing—in life. 
            It is also worth mentioning that Deleuze’s notion of “perpetual training” for the sake of eventually attaining some degree of anonymous status is another form of inhibiting students from recognizing their real conditions of existence.  Rather than see their present status as competent and capable agents of change in their own life, students are instead intent on developing acceptable, i.e. real levels of competence and capability—aspects that they have yet to be developed.  The distancing of student from her individual experience of capability may also be understood from the perspective of Foucault (1995/1975), who discusses this in terms of normalization, which may be seen in the issuing of grades, class-rank, etc.  He writes:

The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of the… (teachers’ training colleges)…  [N]ormalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age.  For the marks that once indicated status, privilege and affiliation were increasingly replaced… by a whole range of degrees of normality indicating membership of a homogeneous social body but also playing a part in classification, hierarchization and the distribution of rank.  In a sense, the power of normalization imposes homogeneity. (p. 186)

Moreover, Foucault explains how homogeneity may be systematically brought about in the classroom through the examination, which allows the individual to be understood exclusively as she “may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in [her] very individuality” (p. 191).  Students are thereby objectified and compelled to mechanize, but this is done seemingly by their own accord.  For instance, students may wish to score higher on a particular element of individuality so as to become something better.
            The brilliance of this first tier of control is that the deference to authority is carried out by willing, even grateful, subjects.  However, when such deference is not forthcoming, the society of control makes use of a second system for ensuring surrender: this is by way of disciplinary control.  For instance, students who think it unreasonable to attend classes every day will be subjected to punishment wherein, variously, their diploma will be withheld indefinitely; they will be held in school against their will after-hours; or they will be given pep-talks that outline the parameters of the heavily-weighted faux choice of class-attendance.  While these punishments remain on the level of ideology (by withholding the delivery of competences that have no material value whatsoever), there is a strong relationship between these ideological and punitive sanctions.  In education, this link has been referred to as the “pipeline to prison”; Fowler’s (2011) meta-analysis provides the following facts:

·      Holding all other risk factors statistically constant, students involved in one or more disciplinary incidents were 23.4 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system. 

·      …In Texas and nationally, high school dropouts constitute a large percentage of inmates in juvenile and adult prisons. (citing Dillon, 2009; p. 16)

A methodologically shrewd reader may wonder if it might be the case that delinquent students are simply more likely to require disciplinary action.  Among the piles of reports included in her analysis, Fowler has plenty of examples of why “sample bias” is not responsible for these figures.  “The wide variation of disciplinary practices among schools and districts indicates that where a child attends school—not the nature of the misbehavior—is the primary factor in whether a student will receive disciplinary action” (p. 16).  In addition to location as a factor responsible for the incidence of disciplinary measures, race and cognitive impairment have also been implicated: “African American and special education students are consistently overrepresented in Texas schools’ discretionary disciplinary decisions” (p. 17).
            In the first instance, students obligingly submit to the reigning values of the society of control.  This has been orchestrated though ideological control.  Where such capitulation is not forthcoming, material forms of control are employed.  These Althusser (1970) has called “repressive State apparatuses.”  What begins as an ideological sanction inevitably leads to incarceration, as seen in the “pipeline to prison” examples.  In the wake of the material consequences for the decision not to surrender oneself, one sees the implausibility of the null choice in the first instance.
            Schooling as an ISA removes democracy from the classroom.  While the first and second problems of schooling as an ISA are particularly egregious, the third one is equally so.  Indeed, it is that which specifically follows problems one and two; it amounts to the actualization of these two problems.  Together, the mechanization and bureaucratization of students by way of ideological and repressive State control achieve the absolute relinquishment of student liberty.  As such, students are no longer recognized as being worthy, capable, or responsible as participants inschool (or State, or corporation).  In order to take part in schooling, one must in principle give up any say in what this comprises—must relinquish one’s democratic rights.
            Instead of recognizing the grave injustice that is being done to students as well as teachers, focus remains at the levels of instructional, administrative, and curricular decisions—all of which create illusory problems that mask the usurping of democratic rights.  Aronowitz and Giroux (1993) explain how “the failure to recognize that the ideological and political interests underlying the dominant thrusts in school reform are at odds with the traditional role of organizing public education around the need to educate students… for democratic society” (p. 17).


            Schools that excel in the area of social efficiency—an area that has earned much esteem of late—may be understood as exemplars of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses.  As such, they are responsible for the de-democratizing of education for the sake of reproducing the existing (capitalistic) modes of production.  This is at the expense of an education that facilitates learning, understanding, creativity, spontaneity, etc.  Through the systematic mechanization and bureaucratization of students by way of ideological and repressive forms of disciplinary control, the contemporary classroom has been the vehicle by which the ruling class has subjugated the working class.  Among many social injustices, this has included the consequence of a meaningless, uncreative, uninspired, and impersonal classroom that has alienated students not only from the material conditions of their existence, but their own experience as well.


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