Monday, May 3, 2010

MacLeod, J. (2004). Ain't No Makin' It (2nd Edition ed.). Boulder: Westview Press.

An ethnographic study focused on youth in Clarendon Heights, a low-income housing development in a “northeastern city,” Ain’t No Makin’ It illuminates a culture stripped of hope and devoid of aspiration. MacLeod looks to two groups of boys in these “projects” to explain the process of social reproduction- why working-class children tend to end up in working-class jobs. Prior to his intensive look at the boys from Clarendon Heights, he looks to reproduction theorists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein, Shirley Brice Heath, Paul Willis, and Henry Giroux to explain the varied schools of thought on why and how “class structure is reproduced from one generation to the next.” (11)
Bowles and Ginits, MacLeod explains, note the structural similarities between schools and capitalist economy. “In short, argue Bowles and Gintis, schools train the wealthy to take their places at the top of the economy while conditioning the poor to accept their lowly status in the class structure.” (12) Furthermore, schools themselves have structural differences depending on their location and the population that they serve. “Schools serving working-class neighborhoods are more regimented and emphasize rules and behavioral control. In contrast, suburban schools offer more open classrooms that ‘favor greater student participation, less direct supervision, more student electives, and in general, a value system stressing internalized standards of control.’” (12-13) “Even within the same school, argue Bowles and Ginits, educational tracks, which cater to different classes of students, emphasize different values.” (13). In their theory, schools are a large part of the reproduction of social classes, preparing some to be bossed, and others to be bosses.
According to MacLeod, Bordieu’s contribution to the theory of social reproduction is the idea that “general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills are passed from one generation to the next,” a concept referred to as “cultural capital.” (13) Here again, one could argue, schools are structured in a way that benefits those with the most cultural capital, and punishes those with the least. “The structure of schooling, with its high regard for the cultural capital of the upper classes, promotes a belief among working-class students that they are unlikely to achieve academic success.” (15) Bordieu also points out that a person’s “habitus,” or attitudes and behavior, also pass from one generation to the next, therefore adding to the reproduction of their social status.
Building on Bordieu’s theories, Basil Bernstein and Shirley Brice Heath focus in specifically on the effects of language patterns on social reproduction. MacLeod explains that Bernstein’s theory involves the idea that there are “educational ramifications of divergent linguistic patterns among children of different social strata.” (16) Again, children of working-class families are at a disadvantage because schools tend to operate in a more “elaborated” code. Heath’s research takes race in to account when thinking about the linguistic patterns that effect social reproduction. She contends that the white children from the middle class neighborhood studied are asked more questions from their parents and learned to “label and name objects, to identify the features of the objects, and to talk about the referents out of context: precisely the skills demanded of students in school… The black working-class children are not socialized to cope with the language patterns used in schools and quickly fall into a pattern of academic failure.” MacLeod goes on to connect Bernstein and Heath’s main idea that when the language used at home does not match the language required of children at school, the children face higher rates of failure. (18)
Next, MacLeod notes the work of ethnographer Paul Willis. Willis, unlike those previously mentioned, finds that student’s choice in how they perceive schools also plays a large part in their future success. One group of boys conformed to school rules and aspired to middle-class occupations, while another group tended to “reject the school’s achievement ideology.” These boys were disruptive and disrespectful, and therefore didn’t do well in school. He “believes these boys’ class background, geographical location, local opportunity structure (job market), and educational attainment influence their job choice.” But, he explains that in addition to the structural barriers, the boys’ cultural outlook plays in to their social reproduction. They “equate manual labor with masculinity, a trait highly valued by their working-class culture.” (19) By means of their cultural attitudes and practices, they reproduce their social standing.
Finally, MacLeod looks to Giroux who stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bowles and Gintis. Rather than blaming social reproduction on the structures of capitalist economies and educational systems, Giroux finds that “individual autonomy “ plays a much bigger role than what is typically mentioned in studies. MacLeod explains that Giroux’s theory of resistance is an examination of “student nonconformity and opposition.” (21) He criticizes Giroux, however, for posing the questions of how the students would explain their own behavior in the context of their peer, family, and work relations, but then not going on to answer these questions. (22)
Finally, within the context of these social reproduction theories, MacLeod sets forth to determine the “relationship between structural forces and cultural innovation” by following two groups of boys who come from the same location but who have different outlooks, different aspirations, are from different races, and who will, to some small degree, prove one or more of these theories to be true. According to MacLeod, “of all the factors contributing to social reproduction (e.g., tracking, social relations of schooling, class-based differences in linguistic codes), the regulation of aspirations is perhaps the most important.” (23) The chapters that follow are the stories of the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers as told in interviews and interactions with MacLeod over the course of 12 years. The final chapter of this book gives his final conclusions after so many years with these now men. He eludes to some necessary reforms for society and education.

Prior to reading this book, I was naïve to think that the few mile separation between my school in a working-class neighborhood and a school just four miles away in a middle-class neighborhood was nothing more than geographical. I was sure that with a few quick fixes I could easily resolve the disparity in expectations that have been striking to me over my 10 year term as a teacher here. I was, and still am to a point, indignant that the children I teach should have any less of a chance at future success than someone else because of four miles! Clearly, if we set the expectations high, and teach them the skills they need to be competitive, then nothing should stop them from climbing just as high as anyone else. Higher! These social theorists have pointed out some very eye opening issues that I had not considered before.
Truly, my students come from generation after generation of working -class families. Just four miles away, the neighborhood is full of million dollar homes and a highly educated populace. In the neighborhood where my school resides, most of the parents never graduated from high school, many don’t speak English, several have many other issues weighing on them that are far heavier than my homework. Is it our capitalistic society that aims to keep them down and keep the kids across town on top? Are we, the education system, promulgating this discrepancy? Do my students bring less cultural capital to the table than the kids over there, and is that why the schools seem so different? Have my students been asked fewer questions by their parents, or not been prompted to label and analyze things, and is that why they aren’t as successful on standardized tests? Do these students have free will in deciding whether to go with the program or buck the system? And if so, will those who so choose become successful middle-class Americans someday, while the rebels stay in the hamster wheel?
I have a new lens with which to look at my student’s aspirations, access, and achievement. MacLeod’s research in to the current schools of thought on social reproduction will most definitely guide me on my journey.

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