Inequality and Education

Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America

by Christopher Jencks. and others
Basic Books, 399 pp., $12.50

Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools

by Michael B. Katz
Praeger, 153 pp., $5.95

The Great School Legend: A Revisionist Interpretation of American Public Education

by Colin Greer
Basic Books, 206 pp., $7.45

Education and the Rise of the Corporate State

by Joel H. Spring
Beacon, 198 pp., $7.95


The most important finding of Christopher Jencks’s much discussed study can be stated simply. There is little correlation between income and the quality of schooling, and school reform can no longer be regarded, therefore, as an effective means of equalizing income. To put the matter more broadly, equalizing opportunity will not guarantee equal results. If we wish to reduce inequality, we should adopt policies designed to equalize income instead of attempting to equalize opportunity in education, the goal of so much liberal reform in recent years.

Some of the widespread criticism of Jencks’s book rests on misunderstanding. His findings became familiar long before his evidence was published, and they were presented in a way that made them seem to be part of a conservative reaction against the meliorism of the Sixties. It appeared that Jencks was saying that schools “are no longer important,” in the words of one of his critics—an argument that would presumably contribute, whatever the author’s intention, to a new social policy of benign neglect. Together with Edward Banfield, Daniel Moynihan, and Arthur Jensen, Jencks was seen as leading a “new assault on equality.” Not only did he argue that schooling is unimportant, his study, it was said, gave support to the idea that IQ is largely hereditary. Inequality appeared also to stress the role of luck in economic success, thereby reviving the “Horatio Alger myth.” The entire study, it appeared, was pervaded by an “air of resignation.”1

By this time the misunderstandings surrounding the book—not noticeably dispelled by its publication—may be too widespread to be countered by further explanation. It is quite likely, moreover, that the real source of these misrepresentations is a determination to discredit the book by carrying its argument to absurd extremes. To many people—to professional educators in particular but also to many critics of the educational system—Jencks’s findings are inherently unpalatable. Not only do they undermine the popular belief that schooling is an avenue of economic advancement, they also undermine the progressive version of this national mythology—namely that progressive educational policies can be used to promote social justice and a new set of social values: cooperation, spontaneity, and creativity.

Jencks’s evidence strongly suggests that the school does not function in any direct and conscious way as the principal agency of indoctrination, discipline, or social control, and he therefore tends to challenge the progressive critique of the school that has recently reappeared in the form of demands for “open classrooms,” “schools without walls,” etc. The book thus offends both liberals and many radicals as well; while for conservatives, Jencks’s advocacy of equal rights (as distinguished from equal opportunity) doubtless identifies him as a proponent of the “new equality.”

As Irving Kristol has explained, the slogan of equality is used by alienated intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals as a battle cry in their struggle to seize power from the bourgeoisie (just as the bourgeoisie once used equality as a rallying-cry against the aristocracy). Fortunately the slogan does not have to be taken…

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