Sentimental Education

Schooling in Capitalist America

by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
Basic Books, 340 pp., $13.95

“The economy produces people,” write Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis early in this important, original, and I think seriously limited study of the role of schooling in a capitalist system. The sentence sums up both the principal strength and the main weakness of their criticism of education. The strength is that their book focuses on the schooling process from a perspective largely absent from books on education. In this perspective, education becomes the most important institutional means by which a society reproduces itself—the means by which it shapes protean humanity into the hunters or diggers, hewers of wood or drawers of water, acquiescent bureaucrats or complacent ruling classes who transmit an existing social order from one generation to the next.

The weakness is that the economy does not produce people. It produces food and clothing, entertainments and weapons. It is society that “produces” people, and society is a larger and vastly more complex concept than the economy. The failure adequately to separate one from the other is the most serious deficiency of Bowles’s and Gintis’s analysis, a deficiency that lessens the cogency of their criticisms of “capitalist” education and that vitiates their contentions about the possibilities of education in a socialist setting.

I will return to this crucial weakness, but I want to begin with the contribution that Bowles and Gintis make. This is to disabuse us of the central idea of political liberalism—that education is, or can be, the great solvent of social ills in a capitalist economy. From the days of John Stuart Mill, this has surely been the banner under which all reformers have marched. Education has been viewed not only as an activity to be esteemed in its own right, as the main avenue for personal self-development, but it has been put forward as the great, peaceful, and relatively painless equalizer of social and economic disparities.

Moreover, this buoying faith has been buttressed, seemingly beyond doubt, by the actual results of the educational process. For study after study has shown the close correlation between years of schooling and economic success. There is absolutely no doubt that a college education “pays off,” if we compare the lifetime earnings of college graduates with noncollege graduates: In 1972 about 73 percent of white male adults with sixteen years of education made over $10,000, contrasted with 50 percent of those with twelve years of education. Indeed, one of the touted achievements of contemporary economics has been to treat education as an investment in “human capital,” and to explain much income disparity by the general theory of returns to capital, larger incomes going to those who have accumulated more investment in their skills.

Bowles and Gintis do not question this direct association between education and income. What they contest is the assumption that higher incomes result from more education. As a counterhypothesis, they propose that the amount of income and the amount of education are both mainly determined by the initial socio-economic position of the individual. A person chosen at…

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