Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Paul Willis – Learning to Labor – summary

Paul Willis – Learning to Labor – summary
part 1 - 2

Paul Willis's 1977 "Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs" is based on an ethnographic research on a group of working class high school students in a British industrial town. The question Willis poses in "Learning to Labor" comes from his Marxist point of view and asks how is social reproduction sustained on the individual level, and how can one account for the subordinates' agreement with their condition? Willis points to the paradox in the fact that, at least at the beginning, the working class "lads" he studies are happy to go work at a factory and experience it as a their own free choice, while this "choice" works to preserve their social condition and class oppression. "Learning to Labor" is an attempt to figure out the complex dynamics of this process.

One common argument is ruled out by Willis right at the start, the one holding that the lads are drawn to grunt work on account of being less capable. Willis finds that they are not less talented, but they do develop an antagonism towards the "work hard move forward" mentality of modern education, and develop what Willis terms as "counter school culture". Counter school culture is built around resistance to the discipline enforced by the school system and an attempt for physical and symbolic liberation from it. According to Willis counter school culture is manifested in practice, language, visual expression and style (as similarly argued by Dick Hebdige in "Subculture: The Meaning of Style").

Willis describes a process of differentiation by the lads that distance themselves from the school culture and school requirements, and develop their own counterculture. This counterculture is built on a working class repertoire of privileging practical knowledge, life experience and "street wisdom" over theoretical knowledge, a glorification of hard manual labor, displaying chauvinistic masculinity, challenging obedience, an attempt to acquire non-formal control over the work process and attributing high value to the group.

In "Learning to Labor" Willis describes how these working class materials are organized in a specific form in relation to school and its structures of authority. The lads' resistance to school Is manifested, along with other things, in rejecting what the school is trying to offer: formal knowledge and skill which the lads feel will not serve them in life and will only get them a desk position which demands more of them but is symbolically less rewarding, being considered by them as "feminine". Willis argues that the lads are aware of the fact that what will ultimately determine the fate of their class is not the acquiring of skill, as held by the individualist ethos, but the requirements of the labor market. 

Suggested further reading:

Paul Willis – Learning to Labor – summary
part 1 - 2