Making sense of work and labour in digital schools

The relationship between schools and work is a complex dynamic. On one hand, schools are seen as sites of work for teachers, students, and administrators alike. On the other hand, schools have intimate connections to the larger world of work with the responsibility of preparing future workers, responding to economic imperatives of employability and so on. In making sense of digital education, we must take these various dimensions into account.


The links between schools and work are well rehearsed, not least in Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) seminal study on the relations between capital and education. It is now easy to forget how disquieting this research was at the time. In contrast to progressive views of education as an emancipatory project, Bowles and Gintis outlined how the industrialization of the twentieth century had positioned schools as the primary tool for capital to subordinate labour.


In short, schools were portrayed as a means of coercing young people into roles of disciplined and obedient labourers. This took place through a formal curriculum that taught students the skills and knowledge required to function in vocational life after school. This also took place through a tacit ‘hidden curriculum’ that taught students how to labour and obey. One of the main consequences of such practice, Bowles and Gintis argued, was the key roles schools play in the reproduction of a class-based social system.


While critiqued for its reductionism, the essence of Bowles and Gintis’ work is difficult to refute. Work continues to cast a shadow over what takes place within schools. For Bowles and Gintis, the correspondence between work and school extended beyond knowledge and curricula, into all aspects of social relations, interactions and identity formations. Re-reading their research reminds us how students are moulded for future vocational roles along passive, subordinated lines.  The work that takes place within schools is often described as repetitive and demeaning. The organization of schools mirrors hierarchies of the workplace. All of this leads to schools becoming workplaces that lack in mutual recognition and respect, enrichment, validation and any other quality that would be associated with ‘good’ education (Noble 2001).


One key question for this project, therefore, is how these conditions and correspondences might be present in the digital age. Certainly, the nature of work and labour is significantly different from the industrial era Bowles and Gintis were describing in 1970s’ America. We now live in an age of ‘immaterial labour’, ‘cognitive capitalism’ and ‘knowledge economies’. These new modalities are likely to influence the way that ‘work’ takes place within a school, but in what ways, and to what ends?



Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York, NY: Routledge.

Noble, D. F. (2001). Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.