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Sentimental Education

Schooling in Capitalist America

by Samuel Bowles, by 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 random in the top 10 percent of the income distribution is likely to receive five more years of education—college plus a year—than one coming from the bottom 10 percent of the income heap. Even among high-school graduates, children of families with incomes over $15,000 a year were six times as likely to enter college as children of families with poverty incomes. Still more striking, among individuals with the same IQ, persons coming from the top of the income spectrum are likely to receive over four more years of schooling than those at the bottom of the spectrum.

Thus we begin with the formidable fact that human capital is not amassed at random, or in direct proportion to “intelligence,” but largely as a consequence of one’s economic starting point. The rich get more education because they are rich, and if education is the key to future income, they thereby perpetuate their economic advantage. But beyond that, as Bowles and Gintis point out, different socio-economic groups get different kinds of education. Schools not only teach children how to read and write, and the “facts” of history and civics, but they also teach them how to behave, how to “relate” to authority and competition, how to prepare themselves for the life that awaits them.

The authors convincingly demonstrate that these extracurricular traits are of the greatest importance in determining students’ standings, and that the desired traits differ from one socio-economic milieu to another. Children going to low-income schools are taught different work habits from those going to elite schools. In the trade schools, the dead-end schools, the ordinary schools that prepare young people for the run-of-the-mill work of the system, the educational environment teaches methodical steadiness, the acceptance of hierarchy, teacher-imposed discipline, conformity. In schools that prepare their students for managerial positions, emphasis is shifted to self-discipline, initiative, creative and critical thinking. The psychological attitudes that win approval in a lower-class school would be regarded as symptomatic of dullness in a good prep school; the questioning approach encouraged in a prep school would be “disruptive” in a lower-class school.

Thus Bowles and Gintis come to two central findings. The first is the surprising, even shocking, finding that schooling has almost no effect whatsoever on earning power. This argument, elaborately and I think formidably buttressed by statistics, essentially implies that the things one learns in most schools make no difference to one’s subsequent economic career, which is largely determined by accidents of birth. Of course a medical education is a prerequisite to becoming a doctor, and a doctor is very likely to earn a high income. But the argument of Bowles and Gintis implies that most entrants into medical school come from social classes that assured them of high incomes, no matter what they studied.

The second finding brings us closer to the main claim of the book, which is that education is a creature, indeed a servant, of the economic system. It produces differently trained young people, equipped not only with the needed general skills but with the requisite conditioning for the work-life they are about to enter. Improving slightly on Aristotle, Bowles and Gintis could maintain that from the hour of their graduation, some are marked out for subjection, some for command.

Amply documented from historical evidence as well as from current findings, Schooling in Capitalist America issues a major challenge to those who see in the educational process a means for substantial social change and amelioration.1 “The essence of the school (or its social surrogate),” Bowles and Gintis write, “lies in its counterposition to the student, who is taken with manifest needs and interests and turned against his or her will into a product of society.” The hope of using the school as an instrument of liberation is thus illusory. Schooling in capitalism exists to produce the socio-economic skills and attitudes needed to perpetuate the economic system.

This is surely a valid contention, and one that goes to the heart of the liberal creed. There are limits to what education can do in any social order. Yet, for all the cogency of the argument, it is here that I take issue with the larger implications of Bowles’s and Gintis’s work. Capitalism as an economic system may indeed require the economic helots they describe, and assuredly the authors are correct in their findings that the educational process is class biased. But the economic system is not the whole of capitalist society. It is conjoined in an uneasy, but not lightly severed, manner with a polity of democratic liberalism and a social structure of bourgeois values. And these accompanying political and social elements powerfully affect the requirements of the “system” for which education prepares its products.

Bowles and Gintis give little recognition to the variety of attributes produced by this system, for they treat “capitalism” as a monolith, modeled on its ugliest American features, and contrast this with “socialism” as an ideal type modeled on the imagination. “Capitalism,” they write, “has produced only the urban nightmare, the opprobrious dormitory suburb, the fragmented megalopolis, and the depressed rural ghetto.” Suppose that they were shown random pictures of city and countryscapes from the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. Could they tell us which were “capitalist” photos, which “socialist”?

Capitalist society,” they go on to say, “exhibits no movement toward more equality in such vital spheres as income, wealth, and power.” This in the face of the statistics of income redistribution in Israel or Norway, or the extraordinary democraticizing of political life in Japan—and in the shadow of the iron centralization of power in Russia and of the political masquerade and manipulation in China!

What is one to make of such arguments? When reactionaries avail themselves of similar tactics, abusing socialism by equating it with the worst of Stalinism, we know that they are trying, consciously or otherwise, to deceive and mislead their readers, to obscure the complexity of social life, to defend a position taken for whatever motives by recourse to words and slogans calculated to lessen our capacity for critical thought. Is there any reason to look more kindly on those who use the same tactics in the name of Marxism?

Why does radical thought, above all in the hands of such sophisticated and sympathetic writers as Bowles and Gintis, retain this stubbornly reductionist and stereotyping aspect? I suspect it is because the prospect opened up by a genuine, rather than pietistic, recognition of the independence of political and cultural elements offers distressing possibilities for someone determined to change the existing system. For example, there is the possibility that bourgeois culture, which will certainly not be encouraged in a socialist milieu, may be a necessary condition for the production of critical, skeptical, heretical minds like Bowles’s and Gintis’s. Or there is the possibility that socialism with its emphasis on an organic and collective culture will require a cast of mind that Bowles and Gintis would find repugnant.2

These are not certainties, only possibilities; but they are possibilities that require to be taken into account if a Marxist account of the possibilities of education in a socialist America—an account with which Bowles and Gintis end their book—is to be taken seriously, and not merely as an exercise in wishful thinking. But this would require abandoning the idea that “the economy produces people” and replacing it by the much more dialectical notion that education mediates between the demands of economy, polity, and society. As such it produces different “types” in different capitalisms and will undoubtedly continue to produce still new types under the many economic, political, and social milieus that we can imagine as “socialism.” To treat the matter more simply is to condemn radical criticism to an immaturity from which it has yet to escape.

  1. 1

    I have passed over a number of subthemes in this book, particularly the authors’ examination of the dynamics of the economic system. This is because I believe the central point of the book lies in its examination of the education structure and the larger society. I should mention however one important caveat. Bowles and Gintis emphasize the distaste for work engendered by the system. In a highly critical, although generally warm, review in The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Jencks charges that the authors have badly misinterpreted or misstated the findings on job satisfaction in the 1972 HEW Report “Work in America.” Bowles and Gintis claim that “most people view their jobs as at best a painful necessity.” Jencks points out that in response to a Gallup question “Is your work satisfying?” 80 to 90 percent give positive responses.

  2. 2

    A friendly account of life in contemporary China reports: “The educational system is a highly structured, adult-oriented one in which teachers rely primarily on approval and moralistic reasoning, and one in which problem-solving and spontaneity or choice of activities are not emphasized” (Science, March 5, 1976, p. 941).

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