A peculiar feature of neocapitalism in America is the presence of large groups which are excluded from production and which, because they are economically superfluous, must be kept in places of detention. The most important of these groups are the blacks and others of the new poor, young people, and women. By considering these latter groups as superfluous people we can discover the way in which old institutions, like the school and the family, have taken on new functions of custody and detention. We are thus brought face to face with the crisis of American society in one of its most acute forms: for it is precisely those institutions that are breaking apart under the revolt of their subordinate members—students, young people generally, and, increasingly, women. These elements currently form the most militant sections of the white Left.
For young people—and, as higher education becomes compulsory for all, this category includes almost everyone between the ages of, say, thirteen and twenty-two or even twenty-five or twenty-six—the condition of being excluded from useful work is historically new. Formerly young people entered the labor force in large numbers. The gradual achievement of universal education, like many other reforms that appear now only to have hastened the coming of the “technetronic society,” was wrested from the ruling class in the face of determined opposition. The struggle for universal education was part of the struggle of disfranchised groups and classes to free themselves. Thus free schools went hand in hand with efforts to eradicate child labor. Feminism contributed a second source of pressure for democratizing the schools.
These struggles, however, might not have succeeded if capitalism had not outlived its early dependence on child labor and female labor (on unskilled labor in general) at the same time as it was generating a growing need for highly trained technicians and professionals. These developments had the effect of rendering the industrial labor of women and children superfluous, for the first time in history. Together with the unions’ monopoly of a shrinking labor market, the changed situation made it both feasible and desirable to exclude women and children from the working force. Both the family and the school were profoundly altered as a result.
In the case of the schools, these changes, together with an already existing tendency to make the schools into a total educational environment (a tendency that goes back as far as the seventeenth century), spelled the slow death of the medieval concept of education, which left the pupil free of supervision outside school hours. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this concept, already feeble in the secondary schools, disappeared even from higher education and gave rise to the phenomenon of the university in loco parentis: the residential college with its close supervision of all aspects of students’ lives.
The segregation of the young in a state of prolonged adolescence means that they are kept in a subordinate and dependent condition (not merely unemployed but unemployable) at a time when they are…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.