Despite the sad end to his life – he strangled his wife and spent his last years in an asylum, Althuser, born in Algiers, attempted to reconcile Marxism with structuralism. Like Gramsci, Althusser saw education as the means by which the class system perpetuates itself, stratifying people into workers, the petty bourgeoisie and capitalists. Schools are a means of control by the ruling class and capitalism, and a preparation for work (work being the defining characteristic of submission and class). The appearance of a meritocracy in schools, he thinks, masks the reality of ideological control. He says this through, what at times, is almost unreadable prose and jargon.
Ideological State Apparatuses - schools
Education is an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) working through schools, family, culture, politics, the law and unions. These must be distinguished from a Repressive State Apparatus (RSA); such as the army, police, prisons and courts. He saw himself as providing an improved Marxist analysis of the role of education by identifying it as an Ideological State Apparatus that controls rather than enlightens. However, he avoids interpreting this as a conspiracy or planned phenomenon. It is simply a function of a scientific Marxist analysis of capitalism.
Schools – the primary ISA
Schools (although it is sometimes unclear whether he means schools or education in general) are the primary ISA that reproduce ruling ideology. It does this through grading and assessment, so that the individual strives to achieve what is set as standards of achievement, yet in reality are merely state sponsored selection devices for work and class roles.
Schools and labour
We have much to learn from his analysis of the role of education in sorting and ranking people for the labour market and the political role of assessment and the illusion of meritocracy in schools. Some would argue that education has been subjected to intense political and ideological control, a process which must be rolled back to a more meritocratic and balanced approach.
Education was not the only ISA for Althusser, religion was another and this has turned out to be just as powerful a force in terms of the reinforcement of power through education. In some states, such as Israel and Arab states, the state religion is a core curriculum subject, in many others it is less explicit but just as strong a presence. In many ways this is a more obvious form of ideological apparatus, pushing young minds towards a specific, dominant set of beliefs before they have the ability to choose.
We can learn from Althusser, that education is not a neutral activity. It is often loaded with politics, religion and other underlying belief systems. Rather than being a producing autonomous, open-minded adult, it can to a degree, produce mere followers and close young minds. There is some truth in this idea of education perpetuating the myth of ideological positions but some of Althusser’s theories are extremely abstract, and those who saw themselves as changing the world through education were to be bitterly disappointed. It was they who were seen to be clinging on to an ideology, which in itself has had its day. With Althusser, Marxist theory in education had run its course. History, a much admired Marxist tool, had proved them wrong.
Althusser, Louis,(1977) Lenin and Philosophy" and Other Essays. London: New Left Books
Althusser, Louis. Reading Capital (The Verso Classics Series)
Althusser, Louis. On Ideology (Verso Classics)
Althusser, Louis. For Marx (Verso Classics)
Ferrette L. Louis Althusser, Routledge Critical Thinkers, Routledge.