Sunday, December 07, 2008

Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, by Paul Willis

Willis’ study in Learning to Labor is a study of 12 boys "the Lads" attending the “Hammertown Boys School” from 1972-1975. The book is divided into two sections, ethnography and analysis, which Willis uses both to illustrate and analyze his observations through the lens of Cultural Theory and Marxism. As I read the study, I was intrigued by Willis’ understanding and explanation of how the counter-school culture at Hammertown was created and reproduced and how that same culture went on to be useful in the factories and shop floors of the industrialized world.

Willis’ aim in his research was to look at the way the working class cultural pattern of educational ‘failure’ is achieved. Willis believed that this class pattern was not neutral; it wasn’t a mental category or a set of variables pressing in on the school from the outside. What it was… according to Willis, was a set of experiences, relationships as well as what he termed “systematic relationships,” which set particular choices and decisions at particular times. Willis was interested in how these events are structured--really and experientially--and how these choices came to be defined in the first place (p.1).

We can view the process of cultural reproduction among young, working class boys as a network process of meaning-making and penetration, which Willis defines as containing, “…a certain cruciality in context, embedded and lived insights with respect to their own conditions of existence (*Willis 2004 p. 172).” The Lads understood that the promise of education to lift them out of the working-class world was largely hollow.

As a result of this understanding or penetration “the lads” felt they knew something that other kids [and adults] didn’t know, and were therefore superior to them. They understood that credentials and qualifications didn’t matter in their world, so why try to conform to what teachers and school administration wanted? As a result, “the lads” developed an opposition to authority and rejected conformists. Willis writes, “The Lads specialize in a sort of caged resentment, which always stops just short of outright confrontation” (p. 12).

“The lads” exercised their feelings of superiority through a variety of activities from, “having a laff,” to sexism and racism. Having a laff, occurred whenever the Lads were bored, and consisted of humiliating anybody they could and usually consisted of what we would consider sophomoric pranks, but these pranks could also be cruel and violent. For “the lads,” girls are seen as both sexual objects and domestic comforters. They must be sexually attractive, but not sexually experienced (p.43.) Racism was exercised against the minorities in the Hammertown Boys School and, “racial identity to “the lads” supplanted individual identity (p. 48) According to Willis, “the racism in the counter-school culture is structured by reified though somewhat differentiated stereotypes” (p.49).

The second half of the book focuses on the analysis of Willis’ study and takes a decidedly Marxis approach. Willis writes, “The working class is the only group in capitalism that does not have to believe in Capitalist legitimations as a condition of its own survival” (p.123). The working class exemplifies this belief through labor power and patriarchy i.e. selling one’s labor in exchange for a living and following the rules, about what it is to be a man, handed down by their fathers.

Willis reveals the plight of the working class struggle through his analysis of Learning to Labor. He writes, “Many aspects of “the lads” culture, for instance, are challenging and subversive and remain threatening. There are many breaks, lags, antagonisms, deep struggles and real subversive logics within and behind cultural processes of reproduction which fight for outcomes other than those which satisfy the system for the moment”(p.176).

If you are at all interested in cultural production and reproduction, educational policies, class issues and the notion that we all play a role in the various aspects of society, Learning to Labor is worth the read.
* Willis, Paul (2004) Learning to Labor in New Times. Dolby, Nadine and Greg Dimitriadis (Eds.), Twenty five Years On: Old Books New Times. (pp.167-196). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.

1 comment:

richard said...

Thanks Chris. I read the book several years ago. What stayed in my mind is how the mechanical clock/bell is used to regulate time and discipline behavior. Being in your seat as the bell rings is a form of conditioning congruent with punching a time-clock at the scheduled time.

Willis' Marxist approach can be complimented with the work of two social theorists of the same time period. Michel Foucault's book Discipline and Punish examines institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and the military to suggest how subjectivity is produced within them through repetition and discipline. The spatial arrangement and control of bodies within these spaces lends itself to normalized behavior as well as deviant behavior (such as the kind exemplified by Willis' "lads" when they act out). French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed the notion of "habitus" to explain social reproduction, which basically describes the social context within which things are made to seem natural and agreeable. While it may seem strange that Willis' lads would choose manual labor over education, habitus offers a way to see how the tastes, dispositions, and cultural values practiced in daily life operate to maintain class identity.