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Reading notes on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, ‘The Inheritors’

Etienne Balibar's 1964 critical reflection on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's book The Inheritors remains important reading for Marxists today. 

16 August 2022

Reading notes on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, ‘The Inheritors’

Étienne Balibar

Reading notes on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, ‘The Inheritors’[1]

Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes 3 (1964)

I have been nourished on letters from my childhood, and since I was given to believe that by their means a clear and certain knowledge could be obtained of all that is useful in life, I had an extreme desire to acquire instruction. But so soon as I had achieved the entire course of study at the close of which one is usually received into the ranks of the learned, I changed my opinion entirely… I did not omit, however, always to hold in esteem those exercises which are the occupation of the Schools. I knew... that Theology points out the way to heaven; that Philosophy teaches us to speak with an appearance of truth on all things, and causes us to be admired by the less learned; that Jurisprudence, Medicine and all other sciences bring honours and riches to those who cultivate them.

– René Descartes[2]

One fine morning, in the year 1836, Nassau W. Senior, who may be called the Clauren[3] of the English economists, a man famed both for his economic science and his beautiful style, was summoned from Oxford to Manchester, to learn in the latter place the political economy he taught in the former.

– Karl Marx[4]

Bourdieu and Passeron’s book, which appears at a time when the debate on the ‘crisis of education’ is hotting up both within and beyond the ‘student community’, deserves more than a few remarks. Before any detailed discussion, I want to stress that this is a very important book, able to clarify the debate by analysing what in it is confused, and by distinguishing among the multiple issues involved in this social awareness of crisis, to which everyone brings their particular interests, and their social, technical, political and ideological intentions. One of its main merits, in my opinion, is precisely that it does not have an answer for everything. It can also enlighten those in struggle about their own situation, general ignorance of which is responsible for the main confusions. If we know how to use it, I believe it can serve as an instrument for some real transformations, and give rise to further studies.

By way of some precise, albeit limited, analyses (we shall see what extension this limitation then requires), Bourdieu and Passeron obtain a double result. On the one hand, using material known to all, which has long nourished reflections on educational inequality in our society, they draw something new by a more refined analysis: not simple observation of an inequality and its general correspondence with (economically based) educational inequality, but a description of the mechanism of this inequality. On the other hand, the results, insofar as they are true knowledge, oblige us to change our views on certain points, and reorganise the whole problematic in which we, by which I mean communists (alone capable of applying new knowledge in their practice, because Marxist theory imposes this duty on them), reflect on this problematic. A problematic which too often oscillates between many new analyses of details and a very general ideology of democratisation, in which ideologies of Enlightenment progress (the ‘tradition of the French revolution’), popular culture, Jules Ferry and universal education all jostle together. We think of the difference between the ideal of equal education for all and actual inequality as one between a right and a fact; we demand that the fact follow the right, that is to say that the means be created to make effective the free, secular and compulsory education inscribed in a law that ignores real social inequalities; we do not ask whether the right is not precisely the ideological justification of the fact, its historical product rather than its ideal future.

The preceding remarks are in no way intended to replace reading the book or exploring its consequences, which I have just outlined. They simply indicate some important issues that Marxists may have with its themes, and the concepts they use for this. This is why the questions here do not directly bear on Bourdieu and Passeron’s instruments and results, but on their basic argument and the relevance of the questions they pose.

1. Direct determinisms

The authors’ first step is to take seriously the fact that in our society, for a long time already, the division of labour has created a specialised instance of production and transmission of knowledge (technical to a certain extent; theoretical – scientific and ideological – above all). The university is a reality. There are specific university problems, which cannot be reduced to the general conditions (social, economic) of the overall school system. In order to grasp these, we must consider not only what happens on entry and exit, but also what happens inside. And we must demonstrate along the way that the university, insofar as it is the site of a well-defined practice, which has its place in the technical and social division of labour, is a relatively autonomous system. To say that it is a system means that its functioning has specific laws, that we must understand its determining form if we are to elucidate the meaning of its elements (in the same way that the valorisation of value is the point from which the elements of the system of production in capitalist society can be known). To say that it is relatively autonomous is to say that while there are indeed external conditions or causes that make it effective (those of society itself, particularly those which are determinant in the last instance), these conditions only act in the system as and when reflected, taken up or transformed according to its own laws. It is this refraction which, unveiled by Bourdieu and Passeron in their first chapter (‘Selecting the Elect’), requires that we highlight the mode of action of class division in the characteristics of university practice itself.

Marx has already taught us that there is a contradiction directly resulting from the evolution of the capitalist mode of production between the necessity of providing the greatest number of people with an all-round education and the impossibility of this (Capital Volume One, chapter 15). We shall see by what mechanism this contradiction is resolved. At the level of belonging to a particular social class, what Bourdieu and Passeron call ‘primary determinisms’ play a massive role, that is to say, the objectively given possibilities of participating in or gaining access to possession of the means of production, i.e. cultural consumption. The possibility or not of paying for one’s children’s education. But then, throughout the course of study itself, there are what they call ‘induced determinisms’, ‘relay mechanisms’ which, unlike the first, are ‘expressed in the specific logic of schooling’ (p. 14). Unlike the former, the action of these is concealed:

Privilege is only noticed, most of the time, in its crudest forms of operation – recommendations or connections, help with schoolwork or extra teaching, information about education and employment. But, in fact, the essential part of a cultural heritage is passed on more discretely and more indirectly, and even in the absence of any methodical effort or overt action (p. 20).

Statistics, ‘operating a synchronic cross-section’, reveal only the outcome of these determinisms; elimination, relegation and backwardness are the product of an entire school history, of which higher education (where a new dissimulation of real inequalities is added by the relative equality produced by an unevenly rigorous selection – cf. p. 25) is only the culmination. But the indirect determinisms – on entry, in orientation, in schooling – can be found to be those of a class inequality.

1) This is first revealed as an objective inequality of chances of access to higher education (from less than 1 per cent for the sons of agricultural workers to nearly 70 per cent for the sons of industrialists and more than 80 per cent for the sons of members of the liberal professions). This first mechanism is that of pure and simple elimination. Already at this level, Bourdieu and Passeron introduce as an element of the mechanism itself the unconscious awareness of it by those on whom it acts, in the form of ‘subjective expectation’:

Even if they are not consciously assessed by those concerned, such substantial variations in objective educational opportunity are expressed in countless ways in everyday perceptions and, depending on the social milieu, give rise to an image of higher education as an ‘impossible’, ‘possible’, or ‘natural’ future, which, in turn, plays a part in determining educational vocations. The experience of their academic future cannot be the same for a senior executive’s son, who, with a better than one in two chance of going to university, necessarily encounters higher education all around him, even in his family, and perceives it as a commonplace destiny; and, on the other hand, for an industrial worker’s son who, with a less than two-in-a-hundred chance of university entrance, forms his image of students and university education on the basis of impressions filtered through intermediate persons or situations.

When it is borne in mind that extra-familial relationships are more extensive at higher levels of the social hierarchy, while remaining socially homogeneous in each case, it is clear that the subjective expectation of entering university tends, for the most disadvantaged, to be even lower than the objective chances (pp. 2-5; original emphasis).

2) Statistics then show that the educational disadvantage of these same classes is also expressed in the restriction of their choice of studies. This is expressed in two ways: firstly, in the general restriction of choice for girls as compared to boys, whatever their class of origin (literature is always the most likely study for girls, and science for boys); this point is worth noting, as the rate of feminisation is one of the indices usually used to indicate the ‘modernity’ of an education system (as opposed to ‘traditional’ systems). Secondly, in the restriction of choice for students from the most disadvantaged classes. These two restrictions are cumulative: if those sons of agricultural workers who do enter higher education have an 80.9 per cent chance of being in one of the two faculties that prepare for a teaching profession (arts or sciences), this rate rises to 92.2 per cent for girls of the same origin (p. 6). (In other words, if we accept ‘modernity’ among other criteria, the most advantaged classes are always the first to benefit from the modernisation of education.)

In the end, however, ‘the disadvantage of low social origin is ultimately most fraught with consequences, since it is manifested both in the complete elimination of children from the underprivileged strata and also in the restricted choices available to those who manage to escape elimination. Thus, these students must accept the obligatory choice between Arts and Sciences as the price of their entry into a university which, for them, has two doors instead of five’ (p. 7).

For the first time, therefore, we see here a duplication of social determinism, which is expressed, in its very exception, in the new forms that follow the internal organisation of the educational system.

3) Backwardness and suppression of students from the most disadvantaged classes. This is more apparent when we go to the most disadvantaged classes, and means not only that students from these classes are excluded from the institutional privilege of ‘precocity’ in our system, but that they are less likely to be ‘good students’ and more likely to interrupt their studies along the way. Inequality is again manifested here as an unequal rate of ‘educational mortality’.

This is therefore a second duplication, similar to the previous one and in addition to it, since, ‘paradoxically, those most disadvantaged culturally suffer their disadvantage most severely precisely in the situations to which they are relegated as a result of their disadvantages’ (p. 8).

Thus the daughters of industrial or agricultural workers, who have the smallest chance of accessing higher education, have the greatest chance, if they do, of finding themselves in arts faculties, as well as the greatest chance of poor or mediocre results, because arts studies are, as we shall see, those most dependent on a prior knowledge acquired outside school. The most remarkable thing here is that the further social inequality is traced in its superimposed consequences, the more mechanisms are revealed that appear to be linked to the specific characteristics of the university institution; for backwardness and achievement in studies refer us directly to the methods of sanctioning and evaluation which necessarily duplicate and control the methods of transmission of knowledge. We should bear in mind how through examination and competition the educational institution is the very model of the aptitude test, which has now been generalised in many ways. The characteristic of an aptitude is that it can only be grasped retrospectively, in its effects; here, the effects appear immediately as the result of a pedagogical practice, and conceal all the better their external conditions. Even before questioning the hypostasis which makes aptitude, a simple observation relative to the moment when it is assessed and the meaning of the methods used for this, a quality expressing the being of the tested subject (a ‘gift’), it is necessary to see the test’s function as a mask: it allows the agents of the system (teachers, students) to conceive it as closed and homogeneous, with one side dispensing a unique knowledge in the face of which the others are all equal by right, and unequal only by individual properties, both psychological (individuals are more or less gifted) and moral (some work harder than others). Thus, the paradox appears logical.

Finally, the official statistics analysed by Bourdieu and Passeron, revealing inequalities of various kinds, prove that children from peasant and working-class backgrounds always suffer these all at once. Their economic situation sets up barriers to prolonged education which are only the first of a long series; the course of study takes on for them the aspect of an obstacle course, where they are disadvantaged both in terms of propensity (ruling out certain studies as impossible) and facility (cf. pp. 23-4). Especially when one considers obstacles of a purely academic nature (those whose effects the system measures blindly), it is already clear that these are the reverse of the facilities and aids enjoyed by children from other classes, which are increasingly important in the upper reaches of the social hierarchy. This phenomenon, which Bourdieu and Passeron call ‘cultural heredity’, thus manifests all the appearances of a law of reproduction or of population: a law with perhaps a more than formal resemblance with that which perpetuates the opposition of two classes in the system of capitalist reproduction, one of which constantly enriches the other by its labour.

Here too the functioning of the system itself perpetuates an opposition between those who appear as natural owners of culture (by ‘inheritance’) and those who cannot lay claim to it in its full form; as well as the ‘reserve army’ constituted by the immense mass left outside the university, which no technical need has yet forced bourgeois society to really draw from. If this analogy has any value, it at least allows us to eliminate another one, which has had great currency in the circles of ‘revolutionary students’: an analogy that sees the student body as proletarian slaves and their professors as capitalist masters. The real divisions are within the ‘student milieu’ itself, and it is not by chance that we find here, with a small margin of approximation, the class divisions of our society. This is what Bourdieu and Passeron verify by a number of surveys, showing that social origin is the strongest social factor of differentiation in the student milieu, whether perceived or unnoticed (p. 8). They thus initiate an analysis to which I will return: that of educational practice on the extracurricular practice of students. We can conclude in any case that, if there is no such thing as a student condition, there is an educational system, going beyond mere pedagogy, in which students play their role, and whose results are consistent with the discriminatory ends of a class society, beneath the renewed appearances of inequality.

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2. Culture and pre-knowledge

If it is true that the educational system reproduces the characteristic inequalities of the class society in which it is embedded, but true also that it can only do so through its own mechanisms, then it is clear what danger lurks in the intention to reform: that of recognising the cause only in the form in which it is well known, and has long been known, i.e. the form of economic inequality. This ignores the relative autonomy of the system, and at the same time objectively perpetuates it. That would not surprise a Marxist, who would see it as a form of syndicalist anarchism or political economism. Similarly, if one saw the cause only as a political will, whereas the political authorities of bourgeois society most often stick to the letter of a formal egalitarianism which gives them so many advantages.

This is why the most effective way of serving while believing one is fighting it is to attribute all inequalities in educational opportunity solely to economic inequalities or to a conscious political aim. The educational system can, in fact, ensure the perpetuation of privilege by the mere operation of its own internal logic… In short, the potency of the social factors of inequality is such that even if the equalisation of economic resources could be achieved, the university system would not cease to consecrate inequalities by transforming social privilege into individual gifts or merits. Rather, if formal equality of opportunity were achieved, the school system would be able to employ all the appearances of legitimacy at its work of legitimating privileges (p. 27).

(I have emphasised terms which, far from being an oratorical device, clarify the status of this warning. The point is not to deny economic inequalities; on the contrary, it is to show how they operate. It is also a question of not forgetting that economic inequalities, i.e. the very unequal disposition of financial resources, are only the form in which something more than a simple ‘inequality’ is realised: membership of distinct and opposed classes, each of which has a long economic, political and ‘cultural’ history. In other words, to put it in Marx’s terms, economic inequalities are here a material basis, a set of necessary but not sufficient real conditions to produce the effect under consideration.)

In order to explain the fact thus discovered, it is necessary to analyse the characteristics of transmission of knowledge in the university, of which the students are both the users and the product. To achieve this, Bourdieu and Passeron deliberately limit their object of analysis. First of all, locally: their survey focuses exclusively on the arts faculties, not only as a function of information, but also because the arts ‘display in exemplary fashion’ the relationships that the authors seek to study. We have already seen, from the outside, how the effects of inequality accumulate there. In this space, and by an equally deliberate though less explicit choice, Bourdieu and Passeron focus on the techniques of knowledge transmission and the way its agents reflect it. Finally, this leads them to consider the content of the knowledge transmitted from a cultural perspective (cultural inequality, cultural factors, etc.). We need to be aware of the problems this limitation will pose if we want to extend the results of the analysis to other levels of education; we will be obliged to follow distortions of this type according to the specific characteristics of each branch of education. But this limitation is in turn the condition for a more unexpected extension, to a second ‘object of enquiry’ which is the ‘collective consciousness’ of the students; in this case, the results of the enquiry are valid (subject to verification, of course) for the whole of the student body: a very important point to which I will return. In sum, the authors’ methodological divisions establish a critical distance from those institutional classifications that might claim to be self-evident: scholarly activities, classifications of ‘disciplines’, which sometimes provide the illusion of a genuine technical division. If this reworking is well-founded, it would be illegitimate to transpose descriptions from one place to another without modification (a laboratory technique cannot in fact be taught like the arts of speech), but it is legitimate for Bourdieu and Passeron to bring into the relationship the total ‘scholarly’ activity (cultural, trade-union, political).

It is not my intention to summarise the details of their analysis here. I only want to propose a few remarks about the concept that allows the authors to study the relationship of knowledge to the techniques of its transmission: the concept of culture.

1. Culture as a craft technique of language

In Bourdieu and Passeron’s analysis, the term ‘culture’ refers to the content of education in general. In this way, they seek to unify the heterogeneous classifications that are, more often than not, applied to it. Thus a recent issue of the Bulletin du SNESsup (January 1965), which contains very interesting documentation on the problems of pedagogy and the organisation of studies in higher education, begins:

Higher education must fulfil at least six missions:

1) to advance research, contribute to raising the cultural level of the nation, and train researchers;

2) to train senior managers;

3) to participate in the training of middle management;

4) to train teachers of all levels;

5) to ensure the ‘recycling’ of all those it trains;

6) to disseminate culture.

All of these tasks are equally important, and the content of education cannot be limited to any one of them...

In a classification of this kind, culture is given a limited place, without its meaning being made clear, because different matters are constantly confused: the nature of the knowledge taught, the relationship between teaching and research, the level of qualification recognised by society for those who have acquired this knowledge, etc. The multiplicity of points of view, which reflects the multiplicity of the technical and social functions of the university, ends up masking the de facto unity of the process in question. Bourdieu and Passeron call this process the transmission of culture.

Nevertheless, the concept is taken by them rather as a given than as an indication of a problem. If a precise definition can be given, it is for them almost implicit, and only revealed in the coherent empirical analysis it allows. If we try to formulate this implicit definition, we come up right away against a great diversity of uses, and we must simply try to classify them.

This whole diversity of meanings unfolds in terms of content: it is present in the comparison between scholarly culture, the ‘aristocratic culture’ of the ‘elite’, and popular culture, a hypothetical ‘mass culture’; it makes it possible to detect an ‘inferior culture’ or a ‘partial culture’, ‘part of culture’ alongside ‘general culture’ (cf. pp. 17-19, 23-4). Perhaps all these uses can be ordered around two poles, which would be:

  1. Culture as any acquired knowledge, characterised from the double point of view of the elements that compose it and the social groups that possess it. The different types of culture listed above are a function of the varying composition of these elements, as well as others that were not included in this study (specialised technical and scientific cultures). It is at this level that we should situate this remark: ‘For the children of peasants, manual workers, clerks, or small shopkeepers, the acquisition of school culture is an acculturation’ (p. 22), although the original meaning of the term designates phenomena of ‘civilisation’.
  2. The ‘general culture’ of a given period which, from the point of view of teaching, serves as a reference for all others, definable objectively as ‘knowledge of the true intellectual or scientific hierarchies’. By law, teaching is based on this culture, and all other cultures borne by students and teachers are confronted with it in practice.

From the point of view of form, on the other hand, we can formulate a single definition, and it is this that gives the true sense of the demonstration. If culture were pure knowledge, the problem of its transmission would not arise, or rather would be immediately resolved by a ‘psychology of knowledge’ of the Piaget type. The only diversity present would be that of individuals unequally advanced on the line of progress of knowledge. However, culture is defined here by Bourdieu and Passeron as the whole of knowledge and know-how: ‘it is the personal manner of performing cultural acts which gives them their specifically cultural character’ (p. 20); ‘when it consists of culture, that is, an acquisition in which the manner of acquiring it is part of its essence’ (p. 25).

The model used by Bourdieu and Passeron is evidently an ethnological model, that of the rite, which is itself an element of culture in the anthropological sense of the term: what confers on the rite its social (religious) value is not only that it conforms to written laws, it is the manner in which it does so. But in order to link this definition to their subsequent analyses, which concern the techniques of intellectual work, I propose here to define culture, in this second sense, as a craft technique of language. It is a technique of language because language is the material support of all the cultures that confront each other in the educational system, and because the acquisition of all new knowledge necessarily involves acquisition of the appropriate language (vocabulary, syntax). It is a craft technique because it is not the application of any science, so that the determining role is played by the skill of the trade. This term, which Marx uses to designate the type of technical knowledge specific to handicraft industry (cf. Capital Volume One, chapters 14 and 15, on ‘manufacture’ and ‘large-scale industry’), covers very well the characteristics analysed by our authors here. As long as a technique is not transformed into the application of a body of scientific knowledge (which presupposes social and economic conditions not at issue here), it is transmitted from one individual to another, and is the personal property of whoever possesses both the knowledge of the material and the required dexterity. For the most part, it is unthinking on the part of those who use it. It is the result of a long experience which constitutes the ‘technical habits’ of a class in exactly the same way as there are ‘cultural habits’ (cf. p. 22). Thus the learning of craft techniques, which for social reasons, also of the order of privilege, is often surrounded by esotericism and mystery, is always presented as the patient assimilation of a know-how, in which previous habits are decisive. These habits constitute a ‘pre-knowledge’ which is indispensable for the acquisition of knowledge (this type of learning disappears once large-scale industry allows the application of science, and thus the appearance of technology).

Bourdieu and Passeron’s entire demonstration explaining the mechanism of privilege enjoyed by students from the bourgeois classes, and especially from the intellectual strata, is based on the evidence of ‘pre-knowledge’ and ‘predispositions’ of this kind. The pre-knowledge that represents the legacy of an aristocratic culture coincides with the culture that the university provides. This is what allows today’s education to further accentuate its irrationality by deliberately ignoring the techniques of intellectual work that it necessarily uses, the most important of which are those of language (‘rhetoric’ is only one aspect). From the outset, students from the bourgeois classes speak the ‘same language’ as their teachers, which is why they can understand them implicitly. The authors say very well that ‘savoir faire’ here is actually ‘savoir dire’. This was already noted by Gramsci:

In a whole series of families, especially in the intellectual strata, the children find in their family life a preparation, a prolongation and a completion of school life; they ‘breathe in’, as the expression goes, a whole quantity of notions and attitudes which facilitate the educational process properly speaking. They already know and develop their knowledge of the literary language, i.e. the means of expression and of knowledge, which is technically superior to the means possessed by the average member of the school population.[5]

Bourdieu and Passeron analyse the forms in which this irrational transmission takes place: the failure to teach the organisation of work (p. 31), the non-existence of cooperation (p. 33); the imaginary models which govern it: ‘The romantic image of intellectual work [i.e. the enthusiasm of creation] and an impatience of self-imposed disciplines lead some people to reject as an insult to the student intelligence the specific activity of the apprentice intellectual, namely, the learning of intellectual activity by training and exercise’ (p. 55). They show the complicity of professors and students in perpetuating this situation:

We have seen…that students, and especially the most privileged students, generally conceal from themselves the objective truth of their situation. It is therefore understandable that they should rarely be inclined to organise their practice rationally by reference to the occupational tasks they will have to perform and that, often maintaining a mystified relation to their work, they attach little interest and value to acquiring the techniques, or even the knacks, that would enable them to organise their learning in a methodical way with a view to a rational end (p. 63).

For their part, teachers ‘generally concur in contempt for pedagogy, in other words for one of the areas of knowledge most specifically linked to what they do’ (ibid.).

Similarly, every attempt to reintroduce ‘scholastic’ discipline into higher education is immediately perceived by students and teachers as offensive to the dignity of the former and incompatible with the mastery of the latter. Here, too, students and teachers collaborate in the exchange of prestigious images: a professor who undertook to teach the material techniques of intellectual work – how to compile a card-index system or draw up a bibliography, for example – would abdicate his authority as a ‘master’ and, in the eyes of the students whose self-image he had violated, would appear as a vulgar schoolmaster who had somehow stumbled into higher education... As for intellectual techniques, such as the ability to define the concepts used or the elementary principle of rhetoric and logic, students regard them, when, that is, they know of their existence, as unacceptable constraints or unseemly gadgets (ibid).

But this end point of the system, where the agents all adopt the ideology that justifies the existing state of affairs, is only possible on condition that the execution of the technical task of teaching is not made absolutely impossible (even if it means training a certain number of inferior intellectuals), that is to say, on the basis of what has been noted: the coincidence between the pre-knowledge of certain students, ‘bourgeois culture’, and university culture. This coincidence may sometimes include particular knowledge contents, as in the literary disciplines (its effectiveness is then reinforced); but above all it acts through form, i.e. ‘the structure of the language spoken’ (p. 71) at home, at the university and in books.

2. Culture, science, ideology

This definition, if accurate, should allow us to better distinguish the levels at which the university’s dependence on a class society can be analysed. ‘Culture’ appears here as the ‘content’ of the practice of knowledge transmission, and as the ‘form’ of knowledge itself. The preceding analyses leave open the question of the nature of this knowledge (is it science or not?), and at the same time, while focusing on the forms of literary teaching, they do not imply any definition of these disciplines, which are heirs to the ‘classical humanities’: which is why they can be typical. In order to go further, it would be necessary to analyse this latter content. That is what Althusser suggests in an article on student problems, where he proposes to apply to the university the concepts of technical division and social division of labour, which are not explicit as such in Marx, but can be drawn from his analysis of the process of capitalist production (as a combination of labour process and capital valorisation). These concepts summarise the relationship which exists, in capitalist society, between the technical necessities of production (and more generally, the material life of society), which are determined at each moment by a certain level of the productive forces (thus of science and technology), and the social form in which these necessities are realised, which is determined by certain class relations. The university, as an institution, also occupies a place in this double division. Asking then in what specific way this double articulation manifests itself there, Althusser writes:

Now, what is precisely remarkable is that in the case of the university social division of labour, and therefore class domination, comes massively into play, but not only – or even mainly – where students and non-student theorists look for it. It comes massively into play, and in a ‘blinding’ way (which doubtless is why one does not always ‘see’ it), in the very object of intellectual work; in the knowledge the university is commissioned to distribute to the students... However, if one ‘saw’ the effects of the social division of labour only in governmental political and administrative measures, the dominant classes’ primary strategic point of action, the action of its ideology – which reaches the very centre of the knowledge that the students receive from their masters – this point of action, the true fortress of class interest in the university, would remain intact. For it is in the very nature of the knowledge which it gives students that the bourgeoisie exerts on them, if not in the short term, then at least in the medium term, its most profound influence. Through the knowledge taught at university passes the permanent dividing line between technical and social divisions of labour, the most constant and profound of class divisions.[6]

If this knowledge is genuine science, it occupies an indispensable place in the ‘technical’ division of labour (which is of course unrelated to its nature as a ‘pure’ or ‘applied’ science); if it is an ideology, it participates in the function of misunderstanding which exists in any class society, in the final analysis at the service of the dominant class. This dividing line may not, of course, exactly coincide with a disciplinary classification in which the nature of knowledge is doubtful, of problematic status or evolving. It is a specifically epistemological task to analyse (to attempt to analyse) it each time. But this is true regardless of the pedagogical methods of knowledge transmission.

I do not believe that Althusser’s analyses are incompatible with those of Bourdieu and Passeron; it is enough to show that their objects are different, and to situate them in relation to each other. At the same time, the limits of Bourdieu and Passeron’s analysis can be made clear. Both sides agree that, before any solution can be found, the question must focus on what makes university practice a specific practice and the university a system with its own laws. And consequently, they focus on what precisely does not reduce the problems of education to directly economic or political causes. Bourdieu and Passeron’s method, (‘sociological’) in terms of situation and conduct, makes it possible to think about the relationship of students, insofar as they actually belong to different social classes, to the norms of the educational system; it reveals the relationship that the phenomena that manifest themselves in class relations through language already have in advance with ‘culture’, i.e. with knowledge considered from the formal standpoint. It allows us to consider on objective foundations the problem of the democratisation of education, which is a problem relatively independent of the nature of knowledge. Althusser, for his part, does not provide any answer to this problem: it is not his object. It should be noted, however, that his analysis also obliges us to conceive the teaching of the humanities as a neuralgic point: it is not only the place where the features noted by Bourdieu and Passeron are most clearly manifested, it is also the place where the nature of knowledge (aesthetic, philosophical, historical, that of the ‘human sciences’) is most ambiguous. Above all, it allows us to conceive the conditions for extending sociological analysis to other disciplines, as I mentioned earlier.

It is impossible not to take into consideration this nature of knowledge: with regard to exercises and exams, for example, Bourdieu and Passeron show how, among students and teachers, the practice of exams engenders the ideology of the ‘gift’, of individual ‘aptitude’; how teachers, believing they are judging individuals, are in fact judging social predispositions (p. 24); how their frequent refusal to reveal the ‘rules of the game’ and the principles of their judgement reinforces the cultural privilege and irrationality of pedagogy (p. 63); how the categories of ‘seriousness’, ‘brilliance’, etc., which are recognised on both sides, make the exercise and the examination a reality oscillating between a game and an ordeal, increasingly distant from work (cf. pp. 42-3). These characteristics certainly apply to all disciplines, to varying degrees. But in order to push the analysis of content further, it would be necessary to introduce differences: the nature of the examination is certainly not the same in the philosophy degree as in the mathematics degree; but in both cases, the exercise fulfils an essential pedagogical function: for the student to show that they know, they must show they can do it again. But the similarity ends here, because to repeat can also mean to rediscover or to imitate. In the scientific disciplines, a problem can be rigorously defined on the basis of the theory; and finally, the judgement always relates to a distinction between true and false which has an unequivocal meaning; beyond the unequal value of the ‘solutions’, i.e. the methods which lead to them and cannot be justified by theory. In disciplines that are not, or not obviously, sciences, where, as Bourdieu and Passeron say, ‘the frontier between sententious chatter and scientific discussion is more blurred than elsewhere’ (p. 50), the exercise has only an imitative function. This difference could be symbolised by the two borderline characters who reveal it by escaping the common norms: the student who knows all the problems by heart, and the one who knows how to do essays without ever having learned.

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3. Scholarly and extra-curricular activities

Bourdieu and Passeron’s analyses of students’ self-image, the way this organises both their scholarly and their extra-curricular activities, and the ideologies that justify it, are likely to be among the most irritating for readers who might recognise themselves in them. Yet it is impossible to deny their immediate interest if, to give just one example, we think of the current situation of the Union des Étudiants Communistes. One by one we find all these characteristics: the desire for originality for its own sake, the play of internal oppositions which always preserve an essential agreement, the fascination of (revolutionary) exoticism, the desperate negation of social origins and real conditions (in a position opposite to the Communist party, we find in the UEC the most relentless defenders of the student wage, the best ideologists of the student condition and student revolution). One could illustrate by such a ‘literary debate’ the propensity ‘to enter the games of literary Paris’ (p. 49): students here are all the more ‘objectively invited to intervene in the ideological debates of the day’, in that they are no longer simply ‘a disputed public’ but a moral and political stake. Above all, the differences revealed by Bourdieu and Passeron between Paris and the provinces permit us to understand better the current organisational divisions, which broadly coincide with this difference, and not by chance. Finally, it would be interesting to carry out in the UEC a study like that whose results Bourdieu and Passeron present on participation in union life (p. 123). We might also find that students hailing from the upper classes and middle classes are represented in positions of responsibility to a degree that does not correspond to their rate of membership in the organisation (but which tends to re-establish the general proportion of the student milieu). It seems that the UEC admirably ‘reflects’ all the characteristics of this milieu.

These analyses are particularly interesting for the relationship they establish between students’ extra-curricular activities in general and their properly academic activities in the literature faculty (which cease here to be simply typical, and actually become a model). Everything happens as if students had delegated to a section of their number the functions of consciousness; but in reality, this delegation is formed in advance in the university system itself, where the teaching of literature appears as the great producer and provider of ideology. Besides, ideology simply comes to fill a place left empty by the simple content of academic activity. In the literature faculty, it is manufactured professionally. (The remarks on pp. 42-4 on philosophy teachers should be further generalised.)

These extra-curricular activities, whatever their particular content, are all of the same type, and display the same image of the typical student, who is the student from the bourgeoisie, perfected in dilettantism. (Cf. p.47: ‘this tendency ‘can operate equally well, and simultaneously, in the political field, the philosophical field, or in the aesthetic field’). The same social hierarchies are present here as in properly academic activity. Now this is possibly only because all these activities relate to the same model, which is that of academic practice in the strict sense. This, in my view, is one of Bourdieu and Passeron’s most important discoveries, that in certain conditions it is teaching which produces student ideology; far indeed from this being the result of free reflection, the mark of a critical distance of the agents from the process in which they are engaged, student ideology is its direct expression and implicit justification.

The authors show in what conditions this extension is possible; that these are indifferent to the contents and are remade by the form. This is what designates their concepts: game, identification, imaginary, unreality. It is no accident that we see here the appearance of a series of terms that tend to describe the ways of the imaginary: all ideology is a mode of organisation of the social imaginary, in each case anterior to critical reflection and imposing the conditions of this. When Bourdieu and Passeron show us the image of the most favoured students imposing itself as a general model, we find here the means by which the dominant ideology is always the ideology of the dominant class.

If it is the case that the major determinant of attitudes is social origin, and if it is also the case that students from the bourgeoisie are still in the majority and that the values they owe to their milieu continue to influence them and, through them, students from other classes, then it is legitimate to consider that the student milieu owes a number of its characteristics to the group which continues to predominate in number and status (p. 51).

But majority is not an indispensable condition here, as the authors immediately go on to note:

[E]ven when students of bourgeois origin cease to be numerically preponderant, the norms and values they have bequeathed to the student milieu will not cease to be regarded as inseparable from that milieu, even by categories making their first entry into higher education.

Ideology indeed possesses a sufficient relative autonomy, and can be anchored in the characteristics of university critique that generate it. That this ideology is nevertheless taken up and used differently by students from different conditions does not prevent its coherence, which is that of the very system in which it is perpetuated.

The unrealism of student ideology, which maintains the myth of a stable and unified condition even in the face of real diversity (see the table on p. 52), thus refers to what Bourdieu and Passeron calls the ‘unreality’ of university practice. This unreality can be measured as the gap between the ideal type of intellectual learning and actual practice. We should not be mistaken here: what the authors calls an ‘ideal type’ is simply the development of the technical implications of the student situation: a situation of inequality and imbalance which tends towards its own suppression by appropriate methods:

In other words, the student has and can have no other task than to work toward his own disappearance qua student. This would presuppose that he acknowledges himself as a student and as a temporary student: to work toward his own disappearance qua student would then be to work toward the disappearance of the teacher qua teacher by appropriating that of which he is a teacher [i.e. knowledge], being aided in this by the teacher, who would set himself the task of working toward his own disappearance qua teacher (p. 51).

Now this transformation can only be clearly conceived, and therefore rationally organised in a pedagogy, if the end to which it tends is itself clear and present; this is why Bourdieu and Passeron say that the whole ‘reality’ of teaching is ultimately dependent on students’ occupational future, and therefore their social future. The definition of this social future is clearly the link that ultimately binds an educational system to the dominant political goals in society (Bourdieu and Passeron note in passing the diversity of these) and to its level of technical development. Genuine ‘realism’ for an educational system would therefore consist in accepting the constitutive unreality of this transitional condition, by referring it explicitly to its reality, i.e. outside the university. In the teaching of the humanities, at least, the opposite is the general rule: unreality is taken as the only reality; the real future is infinitely postponed, and the ‘student condition’ seems to enjoy complete autonomy, as the domain of creation. Consequently, instead of organising a transformation, university practice, by common consent, postulates an identification of the student with the creative intellectual that the professor strives to embody (cf. pp. 56-7).

It is only because this unrealistic ideology is already present in the course of study itself that it can be transmitted to all student activities, and shape student self-consciousness in advance. We find the same relationship between fictitious autonomy (viz. the influence and importance of ‘eternal’ students in an organisation like the UEC) and the absence of real organisation, replaced by a chain of identifications (in the UEC, there is even a theory about such identification, known as ‘reflecting all aspects of student romanticism’). We should remember that, according to Lenin, the strength of a party or a union is measured by its real power in the organisation of the masses.

However, the use of these categories of ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’ requires discussion. Bourdieu and Passeron seek to use them to understand the production of a particular ideology, whose systematic form they show very well, i.e. the function of misrecognition necessary to the conservation of its own conditions (‘the representation of his situation... can be seen as the inverted image of his true situation’ (p. 51). But I fear that this very opposition makes a theory of ideology in general impossible; this would become apparent if, in order to push the analysis further, we were to look for the origin of the philosophical, political, etc. materials that student ideology seizes upon in order to express itself and justify itself publicly, because these materials are prior to this use; they go beyond the university even if it plays an essential role in their production and dissemination.

Indeed, every social condition lives and conceives itself first in the mode of a certain ‘unreality’, that is, in an ideology; this is not just the privilege of students. Bourdieu and Passeron seem to suppose that certain conditions are lived directly, spontaneously, in the mode of reality; it would therefore be enough to turn the essential determinations of the ‘unreality’ of the student condition upside down, and acquire a real occupation (instead of an ‘occupation by analogy’), membership of a homogeneous social class (instead of an ever-present diversity of origins) and a stable activity (instead of an essentially temporary one). So the term ‘unreality’ risks leading to conclusions that the authors’ analysis does not contain, and that it even excludes since it is entirely based on the reality and efficiency of the university system: simply to conclude that this practice does not exist, that students themselves do not exist. Whereas Bourdieu and Passeron’s point is precisely to demonstrate that neither are what they think they are: ‘It is surely inevitable that an institution equipped with such means of transmission should transmit something, if not necessarily what it wants to transmit and believes it transmits’ (p. 43).

But no condition is lived in this way at the level of its reality, and in particular not the one which might seem, in capitalist society, to carry a particular ‘truth’: the working- class condition. This is why the political and trade-union organisation of the working class requires the discovery of its hidden reality (the reality of the capitalist system of production) and the diffusion of this knowledge. In the same way, students need to get to know the reality of the teaching system, which imposes a particular form of ignorance on them. (It should be noted that such a form is also imposed on teachers, which coincides in part with that of students – Bourdieu and Passeron show that this is complementary – but is certainly different in the same way that teachers are different from students: within this ‘unreal practice’, they have a real job).

Conclusion: Rational pedagogy and rational politics

Without leaving the field that Bourdieu and Passeron set out to explore (and therefore without anticipating a study of all the problems of education), we can draw some conclusions and practical proposals which logically follow from their study. The authors themselves outline these on one point, when they formulate the project of a ‘rational pedagogy’; we can for our own part outline a second point, which concerns the extra-curricular activities of students.

1) The aim of rational pedagogy is to exert a reverse action on the indirect determinisms that transmit the influences of social origin into the educational system, to counteract their inegalitarian effects. As we have seen, this influence is totally unknown to the agents of the educational process; it is thereby increased. The aim of rational pedagogy is therefore, in this sense, the democratisation of education.

2) Rational pedagogy is obliged to maintain the formalism of the system, which is typically an institution with a double function, technical and social.

In short, though it contradicts real justice by subjecting fundamentally unequal subjects to the same tests and the same criteria, the selection procedure which only takes account of performances measured by the academic criterion, other things being equal, is the only one appropriate to a system whose function is to produce selected, comparable individuals (p. 69).

We may add that the various conceivable systems of ‘differential selection’ turn against their own intention by ultimately perpetuating the cultural disparity they are intended to reduce, or by producing a cheapened version of culture. The culture of the upper classes is objectively the true general culture. (‘But it is not sufficient to observe that school culture is a class culture; to proceed as if it were only that, is to help it remain so’ – p. 71.) The question here is neither its greater or lesser adaptation to new technical tasks (when these become urgent, capitalism knows how to fulfil them at the lowest social cost) nor its ideological content: in any case, in capitalist society the proletarians have no ‘counter-culture’ to oppose to it, only a lesser culture.

3) Rational pedagogy has nothing to do with psychology. Psychology has no bearing on the social conditions of the transmission of culture. It is itself the product of the educational system and its formalism; when applied to it, it only reinforces it and provides it with the pseudo-scientific ideology that justifies it in its social function. By turning students into ‘subjects’, it completes the transformation of the various social privileges into ‘gift’, ‘merit’, ‘individual value’, etc. Psychology is, whatever its scientific methods and accessories, the main obstacle to rational pedagogy.

4) Rational pedagogy is based on sociology, which is the science of the real conditions of practice. To start with, Bourdieu and Passeron implicitly suggest that teachers replace their blind judgments with a kind of ‘sociological division’ of their students.

A truly rational pedagogy… would have to take account of the content of the teaching or the vocational goals of the training, and, when considering the different types of pedagogical relation, it would have to bear in mind their differential efficiency according to students’ social origins. In all cases, it would be dependent on the knowledge that is obtained of socially conditioned cultural inequality and on the decision to reduce it (p. 74).

In other words, it is not a question of replacing a psychology with a psycho-sociology: true ‘sociological listening’ is based on knowledge of all the cultures that are actually confronted at the university, and in particular the diversity of social languages that support non-knowledge, pre-knowledge and knowledge.

5) Rational pedagogy begins by being a codified craft technique: this is the true meaning of its rationality. Instead of practising techniques without admitting to them, it would describe and teach them explicitly. While waiting for other (‘industrial’) means of action, this is indeed the best way to reduce the importance of pre-knowledge. It is therefore necessary to send teaching to school. In this respect, we should note the technical essence of certain exercises (the essay, etc.) or certain examinations, whatever their obsolete character. They cannot be abolished without their technical (intellectual) function being better fulfilled.

This codification, we should note, is relatively independent of the content of the knowledge taught. One can teach an ideology ‘rationally’ or a science ‘irrationally’; a certain psychoanalyst, who fascinates many admirers but trains few pupils and followers, still has every chance of teaching a real science... This is also what makes the transformation possible in the short term: one can rationalise the teaching of psycho-sociology before it has become a science.

Rational politics


1) Communist students cannot form a political organisation by being first among students in the technical sense of the word (rather than in the sense of tastes, morals, ideas, living conditions). This is, however, what a paragraph in their statutes tries to express, in an absurdly moral and petty-bourgeois vocabulary, stating that ‘Communist students take pride in being the first in their discipline...’ It is not in fact a question of being ‘first’, but of how many militants and leaders are also and first of all serious students.

2) There is a very precise reason for this: in their political practice, students precisely need ‘culture’, i.e. history, sociology, philosophy, etc., and techniques of intellectual work that are exactly the same in scholarly exercises. It is not a question of reinventing these: they would never be more than the by-products of existing culture; it is a question of appropriating them in order to be able to transform the (ideological) content. Autodidactism is the greatest enemy of Leninist political organisation.

This is why it is necessary, as Gramsci said (in the text quoted above), to ‘Taylorise intellectual work’. In other words, far from thinking of political activity as an escape from scholarly tasks, to import into political activity the methods of the school. Marx, Engels, Lenin were ‘file-card boxes’.

Only under these conditions can the UEC fulfil its essential role for the communist movement, a role whose necessity is shown more and more each day, the specific role of training communist intellectuals.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] Les Héritiers. Les étudiants et la culture (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1964). The English edition cited here is The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). – Trans.

[2]  René Descartes, ‘Discourse on Method’, Philosophical Works, Vol. 1 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1955), pp. 83-4.

[3] Heinrich Clauren, a German writer of sentimental stories. – Trans.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1976), p. 333.

[5] Antonio Gramsci, ‘The Organisation of Education and of Culture’, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p. 31.

[6] Louis Althusser, ‘Student Problems’ (1964), in Radical Philosophy 170, November-December 2011. Original emphasis.

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