Pierre Bourdieu Would Support Student Strike and Wear a Red Square

The sociologist leads us to understand that the academic institution can perpetuate social inequalities

While the Charest government refuses to reverse its decision to increase tuition fees for university education, thousands of students cast strike votes and gather in the streets to challenge the validity of this increase. The positional contrast between the Liberal government and Québec students is nothing new.

Photo taken during the Graduate Students Association general assembly, which voted to strike against tuition increases. Montréal, Tuesday, March 6, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

The issue has come up periodically for at least three decades. In spring 2007, Minister Michelle Courchesne introduced a law to end the tuition freeze, requiring student fee contributions to go up $100 per year from 2007 to 2012.

This recurring increase did not lead students toward a general strike. But with the 2010 Bachand budget, which continued the tuition hikes in the same vein, the debate has been revived. If the government prevails, university student tuition fees will begin their increase in fall 2012 by $325 per year, and this for five years, meaning a total increase of $ 1,625. At this rate tuition will reach $ 3,793 a year in 2017.

The Government considers it reasonable for students to consider the fees as an “investment”, because university graduates will receive substantial income once in the labour market. Thousands of students — with ever-increasing numbers — oppose this accountant’s logic intrinsic to the tuition hikes.

It’s a safe bet, and it even seems obvious that Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) would stand behind students in Québec and would display, like them, a red square, symbol of the student mobilization.

The French sociologist, of which it is the 10th anniversary of his death, is recognized for his work on accessibility to higher education, which bring the issue beyond a simple war of numbers.

Bourdieu would support student claims by referring to particular theories and concepts developed in his works, “The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture” (Les héritiers, 1964) and “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture” (La réproduction, 1970).

Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition hikes. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

Socialized to Think

In Bourdieusian analysis, universities perpetuate inequalities that begin in early childhood. Throughout the socialization process, mediated from, among other things, the education received, children learn and master a number of skills that will affect the way they think and act.

Experiences gained during identity construction accumulate, are internalized and leave their indelible mark. These experiences shape and transform.

They end up forming a habitus, which Bourdieu defines as a set of internalized provisions that construct social agents and act as schemes for circumstantial assessment and evaluation that generate ways of doing and ways of being.

These different inculcations condition one’s relationship with the world and determine aptitudes of perception and judgement. From this, a collection of resources and capabilities settle within each of us. Students define their educational path according to this habitus that reflects their social class position.

“Danger! Educated Women!” Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition increases. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

In other words, the desired level of education is developed according to its own logic, influenced by a combination of factors that Bourdieu conceptualized as “cultural capital” (eg, the educational level of parents), “economic capital” (parental income, etc.) and” social capital “(the network that contributes to the socialization). Children are socialized depending on the volume and type of economic, cultural and social capital available to parents. They will learn to see themselves as able or not to attend university.

Making choices about the level of educational aspiration can be explained primarily by a set of dispositions (attitudes, judgments, motivations) and practices rooted in youth. This internalized baggage generates ways of doing and acting that allows them to construct educational aspirations resulting, for Bourdieu, in the mediation of the habitus.

Individuals are therefore largely determined by the habitus that “naturally” guides, subconsciously choosing the level of education. According to the sociologist, the resources available to the student’s family, and within which the student evolves, actually bring about the unequal distribution of youth in university because they influence the capacity to perceive oneself as able or not to enroll and succeed in university studies.

“Women on strike” Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition increases. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

Unlike rational choice theory, Bourdieu refuses to explain the personal decision of whether or not to go to university as being based on merit. To him, this choice does not only depend on hard work and investment of self. Nor does it depend so much on the desire to have a lucrative future.

For the sociologist, the aspirations experienced as “realistic” by students, especially those related to academic success, are intimately related to the (capital) resources that is provided by social class membership.

In other words, the more advantaged the background, the greater the chances are to make ones own “choice” to move towards the academic world, because this will ensure the continuation of one’s class of origin.

Pierre Bourdieu would undoubtedly be opposed to the vision of Education Minister Line Beauchamp, who repeats ad nauseam that the existence of university tuition fees should be seen as a “personal investment” of which the main beneficiary is the graduate herself.

Instead, the author of the theory of habitus, believes that human beings are not mere rational economic agents who are defined by calculations of chance and expectations for profit within current market forces.

In Bourdieu’s view, the reductionist visions of the government conceal the crucial fact that the economic competence necessary to properly evaluate the best possible strategies for the future is unevenly distributed in the population and among social classes. “As in the entrepreneurial spirit, economic information is a function of control over the economy, because the propensity to acquire it depends on the opportunities for its successful use, and that the opportunities for acquiring it depend on the chances of using it successfully.”

Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition hikes. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

“Realistic” Aspirations

In this way, the “logical” choice of a poor student in terms of having less favourable social, cultural and economic capital, is to remove himself from the path to university. This is what Bourdieu calls the “internalization of objective conditions.”

Stronger than any law, this phenomenon ensures that individuals stick to ambitions that appear to be “realistic” for their social category.

Thus, “students are even more modest in their academic ambitions and even more limited in their career plans [when] belonging to social categories whose educational opportunities are the lowest.”

According to Bourdieu, individual exclusion from the academic milieu would therefore depend directly on the objective conditions to which the individual is able to judge the genuine chances one’s social class has at gaining access to this environment: a decision not to enroll in university because it is felt that, anyway, “it’s not for us.” One accepts, even legitimizes, dominant social relations by placing oneself in this position of inferiority.

Roses dropped at the feet of riot police on the front steps of a Québec administrative building housing offices of the Ministry of Education. Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition increases. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

In this sense, increasing tuition is a very concrete way to objectively reduce the probability of gaining access to higher education by discouraging all identification with the university milieu, a milieu that will be henceforth require an “investment” to gain access.

This “realism” structures the sense of reality and of realities. It is such that, beyond the dream, each person tends to live according to his condition. By maintaining its decision to raise tuition, the government will certainly further exacerbate the deterrence to one day gain access to university.

Bourdieu would thus oppose the discourse supporting student contribution to the costs of schooling because, in the long run, it would the student who would appropriate the bulk of the return on his investment.

Moreover, the sociologist would probably say that it is precisely this type of discourse that contributes to further contain the horizons of students from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds, by presenting as a natural talent deserving of what constitutes in actuality a mere sanction of the cultural and social heritage transmitted in the most privileged classes.

Protesters in front of a Québec administrative building housing offices of the Ministry of Education. Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition increases. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

To strike

One might object knowing that Bourdieu’s works have received their share of criticism. The concept of habitus has been likened to a strict and unforgiving determinism. Others might point out that they are over 40 years old and were made in particular social conditions present in France in the 1960s. But in France at the time (as it remains to this day), tuition was non-existant.

In Quebec’s current context with its university access fees that are designated to increase, a return to Bourdieu seems very informative. Despite the geographical and temporal distance, we can better grasp the full weight of the social in its most insidious substantiation.

We also better understand that the mechanisms of elimination that exclude some students from the education system operate increased vigor once deterring obstacles like high fees are added. And particularly so, when they are presented as objectively legitimate.

We must also admit that Bourdieu represents the antithesis to his own thesis. Although he did not inherit any significant “cultural capital” from his parents modest origins, from his postman father, Bourdieu became one of the youngest researchers to access the Collège de France and one of the most quoted intellectuals in the world.

Despite that, he greatly influenced the world of education. Even today, his theory of reproduction is constantly challenged in the field of education, but even his fiercest critics acknowledge the contribution of the “habitus” in the inequality of opportunities, particularly academic.

“Women students against tuition increases.” Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition increases. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

Inaccessibility of higher education

Despite all the criticism, Bourdieu helps us understand that the probability of accessing higher education is not simply the result of a meritocratic selection among the most talented. On the contrary, the sociologist tells us it is our duty to present the current functioning of the educational institution as it really is.

Particularly, its role in maintaining the social status quo, which leads the institution to want to the perpetuation inaccessibility to higher education, through, among other things, high tuition fees.

In the end, Bourdieu is inspiring by the fact that he fought long and hard against all forms of domination, not only theoretically, but also directly in the streets, accompanying strikers and participating in many demonstrations, notably during the strikes of 1995.

We want to follow in his footsteps in order to oppose the effect that schools have in perpetuating social inequalities. Those, specifically, with its tuition increases, the Charest government now seems to legitimate.

Protesters march beneath the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. Photo taken during the feminist march against tuition hikes. Montréal, Thursday, March 8, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor


Translation by David Widgington (original text by Maxime Marcoux-Moisan et Caroline Dawson as published in Le Devoir, March 3, 2012)

Photos by Eduardo Fuenmayor


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