Let us explore this somewhat counter-intuitive notion to show how the structure of education, and of course its various iteration and contexts, all create systems that are violent or could lead to some form of violence by the people involved or implied in it. Following the work of Galtung (1969), who, in his research on peace and conflict studies, has designed a typology of conflict, I shall outline the symbolic, structural, and physical violence implied by schools.
There are, of course, radical positions on formal education that have pointed out its limitations and, worse, its symbolic violence. By “symbolic violence”, I am thinking of Bourdieu (1988), who uses this term to mean the type of ideological domination that is thrust on the curriculum (I turn to this later in this article), and Gerbner (2002), who points out that demonstrations of power and social control, emblematic in traditional educational systems, are symbolically violent. In Illich’s iconoclastic publication Deschooling Society — in which he advocated, somewhat prophetically, for peer-to-peer learning through computer networks as an alternative to schools — he claimed that “obligatory schooling inevitably polarizes a society; it also grades the nations of the world according to an international caste system” (Illich 1970, p. 9). One of the key reasons for this symbolic violence, according to Illich, is that “neither learning nor justice is promoted by schooling because educators insist on packaging instruction with certification” (p. 11).
In other words, schooling tends to be symbolically violent by the very nature of its hierarchical grading system and exclusivist effect on society. It divides the world’s population into those who are formally educated and those who are not: those who become “certified” —and therefore legitimized — and those who do not. Although the Enlightenment thrust to world literacy is well on its way, with an estimated 86.3% of the world’s population of 15 years and older considered literate (Roser, Nagdy, and Ritchie 2018), high literacy rates tend to be concentrated in wealthy countries and among men. The lowest literacy rates in the world are across parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; whereas, those regions that boast the highest literacy rates, as well as the highest PISA rankings, are wealthy European and East Asian states (FactsMaps 2018). Furthermore, more men are considered literate than women across the globe; something that is symptomatic, again, of hierarchical, symbolic violence whereby some have access to education and others are deprived of it.
Indeed, almost every school on the planet ranks human beings. In some learning environments this only happens at the end of secondary school, when students face terminal examinations, but in others – no doubt a large majority of schools – students are graded and ranked from an early stage. This is a violent process in that it objectifies human beings and creates an aggressive competitiveness between them, sending out messages about comparative human value. For the individual student who struggles with academia, school ranking is the heavy judgment, the fear of tests, the humiliation of failure, and the dark loneliness of not understanding that hang over his or her head at all times, creating a world of doubt and fear.
Ranking is part of a worldview at the origins of modern quantitative, positivist approaches to education. It dates back to the work on normal distribution championed by Galton (1892), who had this to say about human beings:
I have no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, arid that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality. (p. 14)
Defenders of ranking will use “just world” fallacious reasoning: in the “real world” of adult social organization, individuals are differentiated by salary, title, and station. However, one can debunk this by arguing that this so-called real world is, in reality, a violent system of social organization that is the product of human desire and culture and nothing “natural”. The way we organize ourselves need not take such a sharp morphology as the exclusivist one Galton embraced. Things could well be otherwise.
That schools, and educational design in general, need to move away from grading to more authentic and socially harmonious ways of celebrating learning is an increasingly appreciated postulate (see the work of Kohn  and Wiliam , for example). Indeed, some systems will claim that by substituting numbers with coded phrases (“descriptors”) — using criterion-related rather than bell-curve distribution assessments — or by representing performance through graphs rather than tables, the symbolically violent narrative of competition is lessened. However, these efforts are mainly acts of substitution that do not go any real distance, least of all in the face of the increasing pressure on learners to gain entry to tertiary institutions that boast near-impossible entry requirements.
Illich (1970) is also making the point that entire institutions and even countries are ranked according to educational statistics. This is very much the case with the twenty-first-century phenomenon of OECD ranking by PISA scores, and university rankings that in some countries determine subsidies. What we arrive at is a type of first world/ third world scenario where the education system of such-and-such a system, typically in Africa or Latin America, is seen as ineffective; whereas, another system, invariably somewhere in Northern Europe or East Asia, will be seen as highly effective. To make sweeping judgments about entire systems, districts, and even countries based on these mean scores is aggressively judgmental and even attitudinally colonial to the point of symbolical violence. We forget, perhaps, that schools, universities, districts, and countries with low scores might well be operating in a value system that is entirely different from the positivistic globalized one that dominates so much attention nowadays.
The offshoot of this neo-colonial concentration of power can be felt in the staffing of a number of institutions, especially international schools that tend to be dominated by North American and British teachers, advantaged by not only their language but also the country of their certification. Qualifications from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and South America, therefore, seem somehow inferior in comparison to those from Britain, Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and many US states. This is tremendously insulting, patronizing, and violent in many ways that I need not elaborate upon here. Schools would do well to follow the staffing policies of international organizations such as the United Nations to ensure that there is as much healthy diversity as possible in their teaching and leadership teams.
Another form of symbolic violence in schooling can be situated in the choice of curriculum design. We should not be so naïve as to view curriculum as detached from the ideological, social, and economic forces of the time and place in which they operate. We might like to think that good curriculum choices are based on theories of learning alone, but this is wishful thinking; theories of learning themselves are steeped in cultural belief. Philosophies of education are reflections of wider social purposes. As such, Rousseau’s (1762) deontological model of an idealized, naturalist individual learner reflected the growing revolutionary sentiments of the eighteenth century; Vygotsky’s (1978) social constructivism was an echo of Soviet collectivism; and Dewey’s (1916) democratized classroom, a microcosm of a wider US liberal political philosophy. No model of cognition stands outside of history, pressure, culture, and economics.
We hope that young people are being brought to reflect on the world around them with criticality, intellectual freedom, and a sense of volition and personal meaning–making. However, the history topics selected by instructors or examination boards, the works of literature deemed “essential study”, and even the approach in seemingly objective fields outside the ambit of such social values as science and maths — all determine an ideology.
This is well expressed in postcolonial literature, where voices have made it clear that they felt alienated by the cultural message that was being thrust on them, as it described a world in which they could find no place:
What difference did it make to us whether we had an English textbook about Milton’s Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained … or Wordsworth’s poetry about England, or a Telegu textbook which talked about Kalidasa’s Meghasandesham, Bommera Potanna’s Bhagvatam, or Nannaya and Tikkana’s Mahabharatham except the fact that one textbook is written with 26 letters and the other in 56 letters? We do not share the contents of either; we do not find our lives reflected in their narratives. (Ilaiah 1996, p. 15).
We need to look at the postcolonial paradigm not only for the story it is telling about the violence of colonial education on its subjects — a theme picked up by analysts such as Freire, Zinn, Ngugi, and Giroux — but also because of the overarching Marxist idea that a type of ideology is being promulgated through curriculum choices. The enterprise of education is normalizing and legitimizing certain belief systems, behaviours, and approaches to knowledge. In most systems, we could argue, as does Bourdieu (1988), that what is being pushed through the curriculum is a middle-class culture of compliance, economic productivity, readiness for the established work place, and certain types of taste.
Apple (2015) points this out clearly:
The objectives in education are the same as those which guide its economic and social welfare goals. They include the dramatic expansion of that eloquent fiction, the free market; the drastic reduction of government responsibility for social needs; the reinforcement of intensely competitive structures of mobility both inside and outside the school; the lowering of people’s expectations for economic security; the “disciplining” of culture and the body; and the popularization of what is clearly a form of Social Darwinist thinking. (p. 4)
At first, this might seem like exaggeration; but if one considers carefully the predominance of mathematics and science in school systems, the emphasis on workplace skills such as collaboration and creativity, the recent obsession with new technology and role models from the GAFA group (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon), one starts to see the picture more clearly. Equally important is what is being left out of the curriculum: how many schools study the wars in the Congo, contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, literatures from Africa and Australasia, the plight of the Yanomami and Aboriginal peoples? How much time is spent in the history curriculum teaching wars as opposed to teaching opposition to wars? How many students investigate with detail the horrors of colonization and the slave trade or those that rebelled against these power structures, figures such as Nat Turner, Thomas Sankara, Baghat Singh, and Patrice Lumumba?
These strata of ideology — tacitly embedded messages in educational design, discourse, and syllabus choice — are symbolically violent in that they are part of a neoliberal Weltanschauung that excludes other possibilities for social renewal and change such as those found in indigenous knowledge systems. Indeed, for Apple (2015), the Western thrust and monochromatic picture of the world that is painted in most educational discourses actually “[destroy] the cultural and linguistic traditions of an increasingly diverse population in many nations” (p. 900). The simple fact that English is the medium of instruction in most state and private schools and in practically all international schools is an act of violence against linguistic diversity.
The traditional layout of schools is based on the architectural map of the prisons, something Foucault showed in his seminal Discipline and Punish. Like prisons and hospitals, schools serve the function of herding and controlling large numbers of people. The principle of Bentham’s “panopticon”, whereby the gaze of power — always in the hands of a few — has a central position, is played out in the design of most schools: where there are corridors, central quadrangles, playing fields, aisles, and other vistas allowing for effective monitoring (Foucault 1975).
This is exacerbated in the classroom where, typically, the teacher is standing and students are sitting, often in rows facing the teacher. Such controlling protocols as registration, absence management, and, of course, the array of punitive measures schools enact (suspension, detainment, expulsion) all follow the morphology of traditional power structures.
Ultimately, this structural coercion leads to docility: students are taught to queue, to wait, to enter and exit, to stand up and sit down when told to, to hold their hands up, to be quiet, to copy down notes, to work hard, and so on. (In fact, the word “docile” comes from the Latin docere, meaning to teach. In Dutch, the word for a student is still “docent”.) If a student stands up and shouts out that this is an abhorrent class or choses to walk out of a class, in most schools, even forward-looking institutions, the consequences will be dire. This is not only to do with discipline in bringing up children and what one might argue are practical and necessary steps. It is also common in universities and colleges: even young adults are conditioned into a passive acceptance of power through the very structure of schooling.
Discourses about students
Then we have the type of discourse that schools encourage by virtue of their function and systems: we hear talk of “good” and “bad” students; complaints about students “not concentrating”, “disturbing others”, “not being focussed”, “being disruptive”, “being disrespectful”, and so on. Razer and Friedman’s (2017) From Exclusion to Excellence looks at just how violent this discourse can become; it does this by quoting real-life utterances from teachers that are indicative of patterns of exclusion and abandonment. Consider this extract from grade 5 teachers:
He was out of school for two weeks, and I felt that the class functioned for the first time. On Monday, when he returned, I said to him, “You were absent for two weeks, and the class functioned for the first time. What do you have to say about that? What do you think about the fact that, when you’re not here, everyone is able to learn? (p. 32)
In this real life case, the authors go on to transcribe what fellow teachers say when hearing this story: “Good job!” “Right, you can’t let him ruin your lessons like that!” “We can’t let one student ruin the lesson for everyone” (p. 33).
We see in the above-mentioned examples how the student in question (about ten or eleven years old) is vilified, ostracized, and labelled, and how teachers support one another in closing in on him. The accusation that a child is stopping other children from learning is a hyperbolic and violent one: what we mean is that the child likes to chat or fool around in class. The accusation of stopping another person’s right to learn is heinous, especially when it comes from the grave and legally mature aura of the adult and is driven down on the fragile, unfinished fumbling of youth.
The lexical field used to describe students’ academic performance in official transcripts such as reports tends to describe behaviours from a utilitarian, pragmatic, and ultimately productivity-oriented perspective. Students’ “effort” is praised; their work might be described as “poor” or “mediocre”. When symbols, letters, or numbers are used, the parametrization of human experience is even more aggressively hierarchical and, in this sense, violent. We speak of “straight-A students” and “failing students”.
Pertinently, and true to Foucault’s (1975) analysis of power that disguises itself in institutionalized language, the subject-object dynamics of the teacher-student relationship are lost in the syntax of utterances about student achievement. A student is described as “good” or, of course, “not good” at mathematics, as if the relationship is between the student and the subject — when, in fact, the relationship is between the teacher and the student around the construct of mathematics. A phrase like “she’s an excellent student of literature” should be properly translated as: “in the class that I teach, according to my metrics and my numerous biases, I think she is excellent at literature”. The empowered teacher is hidden and protected in the phrase “she’s an excellent student of literature” — invisible as author of the phrase, the omniscient narrator who dictates the object but without having to identify herself or himself as the subject of the phrase.
Finally, there are the clumsy phrases that poorly trained or emotionally insensitive administrators use to express themselves to students. The list of systematically violent phrases can be quite long — statements along the lines of “you disappointed me”, “that was the wrong thing to do”, “you don’t understand”, “you’re not listening to me”, and so on. This becomes a form of emotional violence, damaging students’ self-esteem and confidence. We should not forget that it is not necessarily the content of what is said that is violent per se but, more especially, the fact that it is being said by an adult to a child and in a context where there is a severe imbalance of power (in addition to that of their age difference). Students typically look to teachers, understandably, as figures of authority and therefore can suffer considerable psychological damage when the gaze cast down on them is disapproving and negatively judgmental: it can be perceived as a judgment of the whole person, a sweeping admonishment of character and integrity.
Further, let us not forget that the student struggling in school has to face not only the violent judgment of the institution (“You are failing”), and oftentimes the violent language of the teacher that compounds this, but a third level of violence: from parents who may be disappointed after reading the latest report and may invariably take their feelings out on the child in some tactic of pressure. This can range from subtle psychological acts of blackmail (“If you do well on your next report, I’ll do X and Y”), to threats (“If you don’t do well on your next report, I’ll do X and Y”), to less sophisticated strategies of punishment — shouting and even physical violence.
It is important to stand back to view the extreme structural violence implicated in the teacher-student relationship, which follows a Hegelian master-slave dialectic. Here, the teacher holds a particularly potent lease of power. In his or her hand is a double whip: of academic gatekeeping, as the ultimate decider of whether a student can progress to the next year level; and of behaviour regulation, as the judge of whether a student’s comportment is socially acceptable.
The power of the teacher is further compounded by the long-term might of the pen: the teacher not only passes or fails a student but also shapes the student’s final transcript, thus potentially impacting tertiary education opportunities and, by extension, professional opportunities later in life. If a teacher decides she or he does not like a student and chooses to express that through punitive marking, especially in subjects (such as the arts and humanities) where a substantial margin exists for interpretation, the student has few rights and little recourse to any kind of justice. In these situations, the student is helpless in the hands of the instructor. It’s important to note that university guidance counsellors or those writing recommendations for students have significant power, as well.
This is why protocols to make assessment fair, such as externally assessed components (this should be done blind) and moderation of teacher marking, are important. They protect the student from abuses of power.