of the Elite
Questioning the tutee, the tutor
and the tutorial
The reproduction of cultural and social power structures in education can be observed in different contexts in China, where hierarchical relations and social inequalities remain strong (Yu, 2021; Xiang and Shen, 2009). From a sociological perspective, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on education can uncover the social complexities that a learning environment reproduces and legitimise but also, from such analysis, enable critical teachers to see that schooling is not necessarily a vehicle for social mobility but a mean to reproduce social stratifications and the dominance of the elite.
As design teacher in a Beijing-based Foundation course for two years, I have often asked myself if tutoring five to eight students coming from advantaged socioeconomical backgrounds in our private training centre has a more lasting social impact than teaching a hundred and fifty students in a public school as I used to do in my former job. Needless to say, the conditions are different, but if following Bourdieu’s analysis on the reproduction of the social order (1990) and Freire’s call for a critical pedagogy (2017), I cannot avoid questioning my role as tutor and teacher. Therefore, this essay will first apply Bourdieu’s theory to my current students’ context, then discuss critically how tutoring sustains the reproduction of the status quo, to lastly suggest changes where possible, reimagining my position while acknowledging the difficulty to alter such mechanisms.
1. Bourdieu’s theory applied to a hybrid learning environment
In educational sociology, Bourdieu’s theory of social and cultural reproduction has made major contributions to better understand the reproduction of inequalities in a classroom (Archer et al., 2012), with notions particularly influential in analysing the context of my institution. The concept of field as social arena where the game takes place (Bourdieu, 1990), is here constituted by the design studios as learning environments, which different social actors aim to rule to impose their view. This happens paradoxically between teachers and students as, even if being an accredited Foundation course, the field is within China’s shadow education system of private tutoring, where profit-driven businesses usually follow a student-as-consumer discourse (Yu, 2021). The field is thus hybrid in its transnationalism; half-Chinese for its students and context outside of the room, half-Western for its curriculum and teachers. Because of this hybridity, power never seems to be really detained by one side, which creates the constant illusion that one could fully dominate the other. I would nonetheless argue that our institution willingly reproduces the elitist values of the students, not even hiding the distributions of power that produce these arrangements.
The students, wealthy Chinese elite of seventeen to twenty years old, whose parents pay 300.000 RMB for the nine-month course, not counting the subsequent tuitions fees during their BA in the UK, are part of the dominant class who has experience imposing their strategies in the national field. These students are usually children at the centre of their family project with the resources, discourses, practices, aspirations and identifications needed to deploy and reinforce their social influence (Archer et al., 2012). This internalisation of dispositions acquired through practical experience in the field is what Bourdieu defines as the habitus (Moi, 1991), an individual and collective set of thoughts and actions common to a social class, which seems to evolve when students embrace international education (Wang, 2020). Further, these privileged students also possess enough capital, another key notion in Bourdieu’s theory, the first being economic as their families can pay high tuition fees, then cultural as they often have studied in similar westernised environments and lastly social as they possess the connections within the system to meet their needs (Xue, 2023). Archer et al. (2012) suggest that the combination of habitus and capital aligned with the students’ aspirations is most likely to maximise their advantages further on. However, their strengthened power relations and sense of dominance fluctuates in some ways when confronted to the hybrid field in which my course is set as they may lack the capability to activate their capital commodities to achieve their goals (Hart, 2018).
At first, students may feel powerless when working with Western teachers, as we function under other tacit rules that can take them months to decipher. Even if they grasp them, China has given certain power and legitimacy to Western teachers principally for their capital and traits of foreignness before considering their actual competence. This social belief of a foreigner being more legitimate than Chinese locals defines part of the doxa, the self-evident social order that stays unquestioned and accepted in the field (Moi, 1991). On the other side, the doxa is also fed by our privileged students, who use symbolic violence to impose their views and actions (Bourdieu, 1990), mainly over the school and its Chinese staff, seen as service providers. The foreign staff contest such position not only because they might value merit more but to avoid this cultural arbitrary to impact their own class privilege. Parallelly, students’ symbolic capital and symbolic violence will be affected in their legitimacy in the UK, as the field will be unknown and it will not be hybrid anymore, not mentioning that they will become a minority ethnic group in a Western country. Having said that, they will still have enough capital, mainly socioeconomic, to keep a dominant position that will even be reinforced when coming back to China with a surplus of cultural capital. In this social order, differences are increased by inherited capital, habitus and symbolic violence rather than merit or a capital acquired through work, which makes me question the aims and values that this type of education produce, including my own privileged position.
2. Tutor for the elite, teacher for the masses
When I started working as tutor, I could understand why pedagogy action through teaching could be seen as a form of imposing arbitrary power while tutoring could rebalance power relations as the teacher is not at the centre anymore but rather supporting students in their intentions. Tutoring has its benefits when allowing learners to direct and regulate their own action by developing agency (Bandura, 2001), while allowing tutors to scaffold tutees based on their actual level of development (Bruner, 1985). However, in its social aspects, in the context discussed earlier, tutoring has become a marketable good which is only accessible to the elite and, from a Bourdieuian lens, the tutorial could be understood as a form of symbolic violence by allowing both tutors and tutees to legitimise their dominance, this time not towards each other, but to all disadvantaged students who cannot even expect having a one-to-one with a foreign expert. As Archer et al. (2018) discuss, lower-social classes could widely accept this imposed cultural arbitrary while also criticise it, which in any case does not alter the outgrowth of class privilege.
Teaching, opposed to tutoring, could be seen as a good for the masses as it implies a group in which the individual is one more, and valued for making learning accessible rather than privileged, which is limited in its extension when tutoring. This is even more evident when comparing with my former school in the Chinese public system, where the habitus and capital of the students was different to my current context, but where the opportunities we could bring to them felt more socially just. This only happened inside the classroom as the bureaucratic mainstream system did not support our work outside of it, even downgrading our conditions, which led me to leave; similar to what some teachers discussed in Gandolfi and Mills’ study (2022). But by recalling this experience, it feels that teaching truly has the capacity to be dialogical despite the context, engaging students in problem-posing and problem solving, leading them to co-construct their knowledge of the world to alter actively the status quo while taking ownership of their own learning (Zygmantas, 2009; Freire, 2017). At the end, no matter how honourable is fighting for social justice in education, local changes outside the classroom are inevitably challenging.
I thus believe essential to oppose tutoring to teaching given that the former strongly reproduces the social order and its inequalities, as the hidden tool of the doxa to sustain the system in ways that do not support learning, but only consolidate the hegemony of the elite. In opposition, critical pedagogy could lead students to become critically engaged citizens (Giroux, 2010), enabling educators to also reflect critically on the system, their own pedagogical practice and decide to act otherwise. Such raised consciousness towards my learning context has clarified that both my institution and position privilege a cultural arbitrary at the expense of the non-elite (Hart, 2018). This diagnosis seriously questions my role as educator in perpetuating rather than transforming the status quo. Ideally, by transforming reality I would transform myself (Zygmantas, 2009), as well as those I teach, but I cannot ignore a contradiction that Freire (2017) does not hesitate to point out, is that even if conscious of that reality, my position as oppressor or ally in the quest, could not contribute effectively to a liberating pedagogy, even more when those I teach are to be the ruling elite. Despite this radical view that could bring a sense of guilt, quite usual coming from Marxist thinkers, I will now bring forward some reflections and actions for change to support those oppressed by the social stratifications that I consciously reproduce.
3. A dialogical and accessible design education
Although Bourdieu and Freire had antithetical approaches to solve the way education reproduces domination, one by creating universal access to bourgeois society while the other seeking an alternative pedagogy starting from the lived experience of the oppressed (Burawoy, 2012), they both shared the same diagnosis, offering enough conceptual tools for a critical teacher to confront reality. I would be tempted to follow Bourdieu’s pessimistic stance that an alternative education is not possible as long as the class structure exists as it is. However, it remains possible to develop a dialogic teaching in the classroom, not transforming the system in its entirety but still sustaining change. For example, when tutoring the elite, I usually shape their critical thinking skills and push them to work on themes of social justice in their design projects, which engages them beyond imagined. I have also recently worked on bringing back learning through teaching rather than tutoring by developing my own course on my website (see Verbal, 2023), as a digital learning environment complementary to the physical classroom. I expect testing its content and structure with students of next academic year, to then improve it and possibly transfer it to other contexts that do not necessarily include elitist students; which may probably be elusive in a field that mainly benefits the middle class (Bowl, 2012).
By reimagining this course for Chinese students from lower social groups, it seems evident that they could have the talent of my students, but without the habitus and capital needed for an international design education, with parents who lack contacts, time, mindset and resources, financial but not only, to support them (Xue, 2023). Mastering English also creates a social barrier in China as it brings an additional challenge in giving the dominated classes the means of appropriating the dominant culture (Bourdieu, 1990), to which I could respond if fluent in Chinese. Xue’s suggests (2023, p.41) to “develop special tutoring programmes for working class students”, where students could probably obtain a scholarship for their studies and be assigned tutors to guide them in their learning, but even then, it would demand considerable effort in appropriating the habitus of a transnational education and having the ability to perform appropriately in the given field. Further, it is very likely that these students could be resistant of this training education (Bowl, 2012) unless we become less academic and more vocational, which would lessen our status. Ultimately, I could leave the private sector, come back to the public and let aside my commodities, but this would not automatically suppose finding the right school, not counting that the possibilities to contribute to social transformations as a foreigner in China are extremely limited unless, as I said earlier, these happen in the classroom, the only domain of the teacher and his students.
This essay has exposed the reproduction of social and cultural power structures in a transnational tutoring centre where students, as the new generation of Chinese elite, struggle to take advantage in a field where Western teachers are also privileged. I have also suggested that the tutorial could be seen as symbolic violence enforced by tutees and tutors, thus questioning my role as educator in a discontinued fight for social justice. At last, I have discussed how a dialogical design education could be made more accessible given the context, revealing a feeling of powerlessness in seeing schooling reproducing rather than transforming the social order.
In a critical sociology of Chinese education, further studies could analyse the aspirations of lower social groups towards international education, by including capital and habitus as variables. The power relations applied by Western tutors in China could also be analysed more in depth, uncovering class and race differentiations. At last, it would be influential to analyse case studies of successful social mobility in context to envision learning environments that are more accessible.