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 seriously, since “a society that does not have its best men at the head of its leading institutions,” in the comforting words of Daniel Bell—comforting because they imply that this objective is well served by our present arrangements—“is a sociological and moral absurdity.”2

Jencks’s intentions are far more modest, and his conclusions stated more tentatively, than this angry debate might lead one to expect. In the first place, he does not argue that schools “are no longer important” or even that schooling is irrelevant to economic success. On the contrary, his study confirms the widespread impression that people with academic credentials get better jobs than people who lack these credentials. It adds two qualifications to this impression, however; here lies the book’s importance.

It is the amount of schooling rather than the quality of schooling, according to Jencks, that explains why some people get better jobs than others. Even the amount of schooling, moreover, does not account for the great disparities of income within those occupations—disparities that are as important in explaining inequality as the disparities between different kinds of work. Educational credentials, in other words, do not fully explain why some people have much higher incomes than other people. Indeed they do not even account for all disparities in occupational status. Both these lines of argument need to be followed in some detail.

Jencks and his associates found that although the distribution of educational opportunity varies widely, these variations appear to have little influence either on occupational status or on income. In themselves neither intelligence, grades, nor the quality of schools people attend explain why some people end up as doctors and lawyers and others as janitors and mail carriers. Still less do they account for differences in income. What matters is the level of educational attainment—the achievement of academic credentials. What determines the distribution of these credentials?


The answer, in so far as it can be inferred from statistical evidence, seems to be that some people find schooling less painful than others and/or have reconciled themselves to staying in school for a long time for the sake of the rewards to which it presumably leads. There is little correlation between the amount of schooling people end up with and the quality of the schooling to which they are subjected. Neither the great disparity in school expenditures among various districts, curriculum placement (tracking), racial segregation, nor the socio-economic composition of the school seems to have much to do with the level of education students finally attain.

Statistically the distribution of credentials is determined partly by the distribution of “cognitive skills”—ability to use language and make logical inferences, to use numbers easily, and to absorb and retain miscellaneous information—and partly by family background. Since family background influences cognitive skills, it is difficult to estimate their relative weight. Nor is it easy to distinguish between the influence of heredity and the influence of environment on the development of cognitive skills. “An individual’s genes can and do influence his environment.” A child who begins with a small genetic advantage may find it easier to attract the sympathetic attention of his parents and teachers. The important point is that schooling does almost nothing to equalize the distribution of cognitive skills. In general, “the character of a school’s output depends largely on a single input, namely the characteristics of its entering children. Everything else—the school budget, its policies, the characteristics of the teachers—is either secondary or completely irrelevant.”

This information points to the conclusion, in itself surprising perhaps only to professional educators, that the distribution of educational credentials is largely a function of class. Not that economic advantages are automatically transferred from parents to their children in the form of educational credentials. Only about “half the children born into the upper-middle class will end up with what we might call upper-middle class educational credentials, ” while “about half the children born into the lower class will end up with what we might call lower-class credentials.”

The influence of family background depends only partly on socio-economic status. It also includes cultural influences that are by no means strictly dependent on socio-economic status. Jencks’s data seems to show that “cultural attitudes, values, and taste for schooling play an even larger role than aptitude and money.” If middle-class children are likely to “average four years more schooling than lower-class children,” this outcome seems to derive largely from the fact that “even if a middle-class child does not enjoy school, he evidently assumes that he will have to stay in school for a long time.”

This data helps to remind us that culture is an important component of class; that class, in other words, is much more than a matter of social and economic standing.3 The middle class perpetuates itself not by handing down its economic advantages intact but by implanting in the young attitudes that help to keep them in school until they have acquired the credentials necessary for middle-class jobs (if not always for middle-class incomes).

Having established a connection between credentials and class, Jencks traces what happens to people who have acquired these credentials. Do people with college degrees end up with better jobs? Do they make more money than people without degrees? As we would expect, Jencks finds that although “there is a great deal of variation in the status of men with exactly the same amount of education,” occupational status is “quite closely tied to…educational attainment.”

On the other hand, his figures show little correlation between educational credentials and income. Intangibles, it appears, have more effect on income inequality than we had supposed—luck, differences of competence that can by no means be put down to education, and the cumulative effect of initial differences in competence, whereby those who have skills often get a chance to develop them more fully, while those who lack them are discouraged from aspiring to more interesting and rewarding work. “Once people enter a particular occupation, those with additional education do not make appreciably more money than others in the occupation.” Of two men working in the same insurance firm, the more highly paid is by no means certain to be the one who went to the better school, got better grades, or even finished more years of schooling.

Even if it were possible to give everyone the same amount of schooling, Jencks concludes, this would have little effect on the distribution of income. A direct political attack on inequality therefore makes more sense than an attempt to equalize educational opportunities. Jencks suggests that the government might provide incentives to employers to rotate jobs, giving employees the chance to develop a variety of skills. Again, it might legislate incomes directly. Whatever the particular measures, the point is “to establish political control over the economic institutions that shape our society,” in short to adopt “what other countries usually call socialism.”4


Some of Jencks’s critics on the left, as noted, have accused him of reviving the myth that virtue is rewarded with economic success. “We are asked to believe in Lady Bountiful,” writes Colin Greer; “we are asked to believe—strange as it sounds—in the rule of luck over the exploitative affairs of men, women, and children in this society.”5 But the Harvard study shows quite clearly that middle-class children start life with enormous advantages; that these advantages enable them to acquire college degrees; and that college degrees in turn have an important bearing on occupational status and even on income, at least to the extent that income is a function of occupational status.

The study also seems to indicate, however, that middle-class children are by no means assured of economic success simply by virtue of their socio-economic status. Jencks goes so far as to say that “there does not seem to be any mechanism available to most upper-middle class parents for maintaining their children’s privileged economic position.” Stephan Michelson has suggested that Jencks’s strategy is to convince “higher status adults” that they have nothing to lose from an egalitarian income policy, since they cannot transfer their economic standing to their children. Whether or not this is Jencks’s intention, his findings about mobility are quite consistent with his general purpose, to destroy the assumption that there is a close connection between opportunity and result, between the distribution of advantages and the distribution of income.

His study seems to show that there is a fair amount of social mobility in America, both upward and downward over small degrees of the social scale, but little equality. Some of the not-so-rich, it seems, get slightly poorer, while some of the not-so-poor get somewhat richer, but the gulf between wealth and poverty remains as wide as ever. Only by confusing equality with mobility, however, can we see these conclusions as reaffirming the “Horatio Alger myth.”

In one respect, it must be said, Jencks’s picture of American society is highly misleading. It omits the upper class, a class so tiny that it altogether escapes Jencks’s statistical filter. Some people do pass on to their children all the perquisites of great wealth and power. They are not numerous, and their influence cannot easily be measured. A limitation of social science, as it has come to be defined, is that it simply ignores what it cannot measure. Another limitation is that it tends to confuse correlations with causes, or at least to encourage this confusion in the reader. One therefore has to insist that Jencks’s study tells us nothing about the way class power is exercised in America, about the connections between money and power, about the underlying sources of inequality, or even about the role of the school system in perpetuating inequality. It merely examines a number of statistical correlations between income and schooling.


In order to understand how the school system really works, we have to examine its historical origins. There now exists a considerable body of historical writing on the development of the American public school, much of it prompted by recent criticism of the schools. Out of this writing—to which the recent books by Katz, Spring, and Greer are important contributions—it is possible to construct the following interpretation.6

The principle of universal compulsory education won general acceptance in the middle of the nineteenth century largely because reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard convinced influential portions of the public that the schools could perform tasks far more important than instruction in academic subjects. They insisted that the school could become an agent of social reformation and/or social discipline.

In soliciting public support, these reformers appealed to the belief that schools under proper professional leadership would facilitate social mobility and the gradual eradication of poverty or, alternately, to the hope that the system would promote order by discouraging ambitions incommensurate with the students’ stations and prospects. The latter argument was probably more appealing to wealthy benefactors and public officials than the first. Both led to the same conclusions: that the best interests of society lay in a system of universal compulsory education which would isolate the student from other influences and subject him to a regular regimen, and that the system must be operated by a centralized professional bureaucracy.

The ideology of school reform contained a built-in, ready-made explanation of its own failures. Once the principle of the common school had been generally accepted and the memory of earlier modes of education had begun to fade, critics of the new system found it difficult to resist the logic of the position put forward by educators: that the admitted failures of the system could be attributed to lack of sustained and unequivocal public commitment, particularly in the matter of funds, and that the only remedy for these failures, therefore, lay in bigger and better schools, better professional training, more centralization, greater powers for the educational bureaucracy—in short, another dose of the same medicine.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the school system came under heavy public criticism. The schools were inefficient and costly; monotonous classroom drill failed to engage the pupils’ enthusiasm; too many of the pupils failed. This criticism, however, in no way questioned the underlying premises of universal compulsory education; its upshot was a concerted drive to make the schools more “efficient.”

Joseph Mayer Rice, who had inaugurated the muckraking attack on the school system with a series of articles in the Forum in 1892, published in 1913 a tract called Scientific Management in Education. Here as in his earlier writings he stressed the need to remove education from political control. The application of this commonly held idea to education had the same consequences as its application to city government in the form of civil service reform, the city manager system, and other devices intended to end political influence and promote the introduction of “business methods.” It encouraged the growth of an administrative bureaucracy not directly responsible to the public and contributed to the centralization of power.

The political machines which the new system displaced, whatever their obvious shortcomings, had roots in the neighborhoods and reflected—although with many distortions—the interests of their constituents. The new educational bureaucrats, on the other hand, responded only to generalized public demands for efficiency and for an educational policy that would “Americanize” the immigrant—demands the educators themselves helped to shape—and therefore tended to see their clients as so much raw material to be processed as expeditiously as possible.

In 1909, Ellwood P. Cubberley voiced a widespread concern when he referred to the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as “illiterate, docile, [and] lacking in self-reliance and initiative” and argued that the task of the public schools was “to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.” Charles William Eliot of Harvard, in a speech to the National Educational Association in which he urged fuller use of the “public school plant” as “the only true economy,” insisted that educational reform “means a larger and better yield, physically, mentally, and morally, from the public schools.”

The high rate of failure provoked the usual outcries of alarm. One of Colin Greer’s sharpest ideas—an idea, incidentally, that is consistent with the drift of Jencks’s study—is that the unacknowledged function of the common school system is to fail those whom the higher levels of the employment structure cannot absorb; whose class and ethnic origins, in other words, consign them to a marginal economic position. Failure in school thus reconciles a certain necessary part of the population to failure in life. (On this analysis, the current crisis in public education derives from the fact that failure is no longer functional. Since the number of unskilled jobs is rapidly diminishing, those who fail have no place to go and become permanent charges on the state. Many of them also become discontented and rebellious.)

The debates of the progressive period, beginning around the turn of the century, furnish support for Greer’s interpretation. Critics of the schools attacked the high rate of failure while urging reforms that would inevitably perpetuate it. The continuing high rate of failure then served as the basis of renewed appeals to the public, both for money and for additional powers for the educational bureaucracy.

In response to the outcry about failure, systems of testing and tracking were now introduced into the schools, which had the effect of relegating academic “failures” to programs of manual and industrial training (where many of them continued to fail). Protests against genteel culture, over-emphasis on academic subjects, “gentleman’s education,” and the “cultured ease in the classroom, of drawing room quiet and refinement,” frequently coincided with an insistence that higher education and “culture” should not in any case be “desired by the mob.”

The demand for “educational engineering” and the elimination of “useless motions” led to the adoption of an “index of efficiency” of the kind expounded in 1909 by Leonard Ayres in his Laggards in Our Schools, whereby a school’s efficiency would be measured by the children’s progress through the grades. “If we can find out how many children begin school each year we can compute how many remain to the final elementary grade. Such a factor would show the relation of the finished product to the raw material.” Adoption of this principle reinforced the class bias of the educational system. Since children of immigrants and of rural migrants to the city commonly entered school at a later age, the number of “over-age” children did not necessarily reflect their failure to make satisfactory academic progress. Failure henceforth would be tied more firmly than ever to class and ethnic origin.

Even the more liberal ideas of the progressive educators were turned to the purposes of “efficiency”; when this proved impossible, they were ignored. John Dewey and his followers revolted against unimaginative classroom methods, against the authoritarianism that was built into the school system in so many ways, and against the school’s inability to make modern life intelligible. Their ideas were worked out in such experiments as the Laboratory School in Chicago (1896-1914), the Gary Plan in Indiana (1908-1915), the Dalton Plan in Massachusetts (1919). Except in private schools for the very rich, their good intentions have left few imprints on the educational system. Instead the rhetoric and ideas of progressivism were appropriated by educational bureaucrats for their own purposes.

Ambiguities in progressivism itself facilitated this process. Like the advocates of efficiency, the progressives attacked impractical academic instruction, demanding what would be called today a more “relevant” education. They too exaggerated the influence of the school as an agent of social reform, seeing education as a panacea for all the evils of industrial society. Sharing with the advocates of efficiency a deep antipathy to genteel culture and perhaps to culture in general, the progressives had no secure philosophical basis from which to resist the perversion of their ideas in the practice of the public schools.

Progressivism in education helped to ease the transition from the backward and already outmoded version of the gospel of industrial efficiency promoted by F. W. Taylor and his disciples to the newer version, which stressed “cooperation” in the classroom as opposed to the factory-like drill. Joel Spring shows how many debates about education closely paralleled and were influenced by debates in corporate circles between Taylorites and advocates of “cooperation.” The former wanted to speed up production by means of a crude system of incentives and rewards. The leaders of the “cooperative” movement, on the other hand—industrial innovators like John H. Patterson of the National Cash Register Company, the department store magnate E. A. Filene, and the managers of the H. J. Heinz Company—proposed to “humanize” the factory by introducing suggestion boxes, company newspapers, more “personal contact,” pension programs and welfare plans, social activities, athletics, libraries, schools, training programs, and other integrative devices.

Part of the impetus for educational reform in the progressive period came from manufacturers who wished simply to shift the more costly of these programs, especially the training programs, to the schools. But the more imaginative educators saw that the school itself could become a miniature factory, a “workplace” in which the habits of cooperation could be “learned through doing.” In addition they argued that the schools had to assume functions formerly performed by the extended family, now defunct.

Perhaps the most important effect of these reforms was that they gave rise to a pervasive belief that there is a close connection between education and industry and between schooling and status. Educators insisted that a highly rationalized society, in which arbitrary distinctions between persons were increasingly giving way to the more functional principle of merit, would depend more and more heavily on an efficiently organized system of compulsory education in order to select the right people for the right jobs.7 Employers came to prefer educated workers because they assumed that education instilled orderly habits and a “cooperative” disposition. Their hiring policies in turn appeared to give substance to a growing popular belief that economic advancement depends on aptitude for schooling.

Those who hoped to enter high-status occupations came to take it for granted that they had to submit to sixteen years of schooling and in many cases to extended professional training as well. Those who had no aptitude for school, who could not afford it, or who merely hated it, tailored their expectations accordingly. In this way the school system came to serve the function described by Jencks in one of the most arresting passages in his book, that of limiting the number of aspirants to high-status jobs—jobs that are widely believed (not without reason, but with less reason than is commonly supposed) to depend on schooling. Educational credentials came to serve as “a legitimate device for rationing privilege” in a society “that wants people sorted and graded but does not know precisely what standards it wants to use.”

If there were general agreement on standards, a simpler system of certification could easily be devised—a system of examinations, for instance. In the absence of such agreement, schooling has the advantage not only that it is vague but that in some ways it replicates conditions on the job, providing employers, in Jencks’s words, with something like “direct observation of an individual ‘at work.’ ” The fact that a young person has attained a certain level of schooling, because it is believed to indicate submission to a discipline not unlike that of the job itself, matters more to prospective employers than the skills acquired along the way.

The American educational system, it would seem, rests on one of those illusions that acquire a certain validity simply because they are so widely shared—in this case, the illusion that schooling is an indispensable precondition of economic success. Because “the myth that schooling is synonymous with status [to quote Jencks again] is…even more widespread than the reality,” the illusion is self-validating, like “confidence” in the stock market. So long as people believe in the myth and act accordingly, it has some semblance of reality. If events were to shatter the illusion—for instance, prolonged unemployment among a high proportion of college graduates and people with advanced degrees—the entire structure might gloriously collapse.

I have said that revisionist histories of education seem to suggest the foregoing interpretation. The authors themselves, however, would probably reject the two conclusions I draw from their work (as well as from Jencks’s)—that inequality can be reduced only by economic and political action, not through educational reform, and that the merits of the present school system therefore have to be discussed without counting on the system’s putative influence on economic success, social mobility, and the eradication of poverty. Educators themselves, these authors still retain a “fragile faith in the schools,” as Herbert Gans puts it in a perceptive introduction to Greer’s The Great School Legend.

Whereas Gans reads Greer’s study as supporting the view that “an overall strategy” against poverty “must be mainly economic,” Greer himself clings to the hope of school reform. Instead of changing the class structure, he proposes to change the school. He recognizes that “the actual educational power of public education” has been “vastly overestimated” and that in view of this fact, “we should really consider the school to be a symbolic mechanism that holds a diverse, highly competitive society together.” Yet he cannot bring himself to relinquish the hope that under proper conditions “schools could be an agent for major change”—for example, by discouraging “hostile competitiveness.” In his recent assault on Jencks, Greer retreats completely from his perception that education is a “symbolic mechanism” and insists that the content of schooling really matters—from which it follows that progressive educators, by changing this content, can change the direction in which society is moving.

Katz’s book ends on a similarly indecisive note. On the one hand, Katz believes that radical critics of education “oversimplify” when they describe the school’s function as the inculcation of “middle-class attitudes.” Indeed he suggests that the newly fashionable educational radicalism, infatuated with creativity, spontaneity, and other neoprogressive slogans, “is itself a species of class activity,” since it is only the affluent who can afford to worry about whether the school encourages children to “express themselves.” The poor may well prefer a school system that teaches their children how to read and write, and Katz himself thinks that it might be a good idea “to take the schools out of the business of making attitudes.”

At the same time, however, he describes the radical criticism of the schools as “profoundly true.” Like Greer, Katz is unwilling to admit that recent educational radicalism is merely an updated version of progressivism. Yet this radicalism not only adds little to the progressive indictment of the schools, it reaffirms the very belief it claims to criticize, namely that schooling is a powerful instrument of social policy. Instead of disposing of the “great school legend” once and for all, it merely gives it a radical disguise.

The confusion surrounding the revisionist history of education is most clearly illustrated by Joel Spring’s book on the progressive period. In many ways this is the best of the three historical accounts at hand. It both complements and corrects Raymond Callahan’s earlier study, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which identified the efficiency movement too narrowly with Taylorism and thereby missed the congruence between “efficiency” and progressivism.

Spring’s analysis of the ideology of “cooperation” is shrewd and perceptive, not least because it exposes some of its inner inconsistencies. Thus the reformers of the progressive period introduced vocational guidance in order to channel people into careers appropriate to their “abilities,” only to find that tracking systems divided the school along class lines, giving rise to tension and hostility instead of “cooperation.” Another series of “reforms” then had to be introduced in order to overcome or to paper over these divisions, the same integrative devices previously tried out in the factory—clubs, extracurricular activities, homerooms and assembly, student government, “school spirit,” and above all athletics.

Spring’s study might have led him to conclude that educational reformers have never really succeeded in turning the school into a smoothly functioning machine that molds the human “raw material” into a single pattern. For one thing, this objective is inconsistent with the need to reinforce existing class distinctions. For another, the school has to compete with the family and the street, influences on the child which it has never managed to supersede. The intentions of educational reformers, therefore, have been consistently thwarted in practice: one cannot take their intentions as an accurate description of the system as it actually operates.

In his concluding chapter, however, Spring does just that, crediting the “cooperative” movement with having made the school into a controlled environment that destroys man’s “ability to create his own social being.” Like the reformers themselves, Spring forgets that the life of the child, indeed the social life of the school itself, is shaped only in part—often in very small part—by the school.

Quite apart from the family, we have to reckon with the influence of a youth culture that is at least partially self-created and autonomous, a culture created on the streets but having a large, perhaps decisive influence on the school. Judging the results of educational reform by its intentions, Spring assumes that the school has succeeded in its drive to produce well-adjusted individuals who fit smoothly “into the institutional organization.” But if this is true, how can we account for the present chaos in the schools? Far from generating uniformity, the schools are plagued by boredom, disruption, violence, drugs, and gang warfare. The educational reforms of the progressive period may have subjected vast numbers of people to schooling, but this is not the same thing as bringing “a greater part of the population under institutional controls.” It is precisely the collapse of those controls that those who live and work in the schools are now experiencing as a daily reality—the crumbling of authority and the replacement of authority with violence.


The great contribution of the Jencks study, it has been said, is that it forces us to consider proposals for educational reform on their merits, without regard to their economic effects.8 The proper conclusion to be drawn from Inequality and from recent historical writing on the school is not that schools are “no longer important” but that they are important in their own right. Why have most of the contributors to the debate been so reluctant to draw this conclusion? The idea that education is valuable in itself makes educators uncomfortable because it forces them to struggle with questions they have spent most of their careers avoiding. Why should education be valued? What are the proper objectives of educational policy? Does the present system promote them?

The founders of this country, whose ideas about education are still worth at least a passing glance, believed that the most important objects of public education were to provide for intellectual leadership and to make people effective guardians of their own liberty, in Jefferson’s phrase. Jefferson thought that the study of history, in particular, would teach the young to judge “the actions and designs of men…to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”9

The ideal citizen of Jefferson’s republic was the man who cannot be fooled by demagogues or overawed by the learned obfuscations of professional wise men. Appeals to authority do not impress him. He is always on the alert for forgery, and he has the worldly wisdom of men’s motives, enough understanding of the principles of critical reasoning, and sufficient skill in the use of language to detect intellectual fraud in whatever form it presents itself. In the political theory of early republicanism, the ideal of an enlightened electorate thus coincides with the goals of liberal education.

It is interesting to see how Jefferson proposed in practice “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people.” His bill establishing public education in Virginia (never enacted) entitled everyone to three years of free schooling (more if they wanted to pay) in reading, writing, and arithmetic. A handful of the most promising scholars were to be sent at public expense, along with the children of parents who could afford such schooling, to the grammar schools, where they would learn Greek, Latin, geography, and “the higher branches of numerical arithmetic.” Half of the state-supported grammar school students would be discontinued at the end of six years (some of them becoming grammar-school teachers), while the rest would be sent to college for three years—once again, along with the children of the rich.

The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually, of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, Geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the furnishing of the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense. The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.

In the first stage of this program, Jefferson continued, “the principal foundations of future order will be laid.” Here students will imbibe the first principles of morality, together with “the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” In the next stage—for children roughly between eight and fifteen, whose minds are “most susceptible and tenacious of impressions” but “not yet firm enough for laborious and close operations”—foreign languages are to be emphasized, a form of study that will contribute to the mastery of one’s own language. The highest stage is to be devoted to “science,” the special blend of liberal and professional training that Jefferson later tried to build into his plan for the University of Virginia.

Later generations would find these proposals curiously casual and offhand, indifferent to the “needs” of. the young, insufferably elitist. The reformers of the mid-nineteenth century regarded the old-fashioned curriculum as much too restricted. Overly intellectual, it paid too little attention to the moral development of the child and to the possibility that a program of compulsory education could inculcate habits of industry, thrift, and obedience—qualities essential to the nation’s economic development and to the maintenance of public order.

Educational theorists of the progressive period were even harsher in their condemnation of the Jeffersonian concept of education. Not only did it ignore the need to educate the “whole child,” not only did it ignore the connection between “learning and life,” but it left nothing to the initiative of the child, content merely to drum a dead culture into the young by means of memorization and drill.

In our own time, early republican ideas appear downright undemocratic. Jefferson’s system assumes that education is largely a prerogative of wealth; nor are we reassured by his promise that “twenty of the best genuises will be raked from the rubbish annually” and instructed at public expense. Yet in the light of what we have recently learned about our own educational system, these objections no longer carry quite the overwhelming force they might once have had. Our own system, it appears, also perpetuates existing class distinctions. It ensures that those who start life with the advantages of money and birth will go further than those who don’t. But at the same time—here is the most important point of all—the prevailing system manages to make this education increasingly worthless. As job training, education is largely irrelevant to the skills actually required by most jobs.10 As intellectual training, American education is half-baked at best.

In short, our school system neither levels nor educates. We could more easily accept its intellectual failures, though we could not forgive them, if we knew that at least the system was an effective instrument of egalitarian social policy. Since it is not, the time has surely come to insist that the two objectives, egalitarianism and intellect, be separated, and that the schools be left free to address themselves to intellectual concerns while the state attacks inequality more directly and effectively through economic policies designed to equalize income.

I do not mean to argue that the entire drift of educational policy for the last 150 years has been an unqualified disaster. Whatever the merits of eighteenth-century educational ideas, they led in practice to a pedagogy that was often narrow and stifling. The best educators of the progressive period and their successors in recent years—Paul Goodman, Herbert Kohl, Colin Greer himself—revitalized classroom practice by appealing to the natural curiosity of the child instead of locking him into dogmatic formulas. Far from advocating a return to McGuffey, I wish to preserve and expand what is valuable in this pedagogy while stripping away the social ideology that has so often been attached to it—the ideology of school reform as the motor of social progress.

It is as a social theory of education that eighteenth-century ideas still have something to teach us. True, they assumed that a close connection between wealth, political leadership, and education was both inevitable and proper. Nevertheless they stated, with a clarity and candor subsequently lost, the two objectives a democratic system of education might reasonably expect to accomplish.

The first of these ends is to give everybody the intellectual resources—particularly the command of language—needed to distinguish truth from public lies and thus to defend themselves against tyrants and demagogues. Is it necessary to insist that this object is more urgent than ever?

The second purpose of education is to train scholars, intellectuals, and members of the learned professions. The eighteenth century saw no other reason for higher education. Neither do I. The dream of bringing culture to the masses, by making higher education widely available, has failed; mass higher education has only facilitated the spread of mass culture, impoverishing popular culture and higher culture alike. Higher education is necessarily “elitist” if it is to mean anything—an education for people with a pronounced taste for intellectual matters, who plan to spend their lives in intellectual pursuits; an education, it goes without saying, that should be made available to men and women of all classes, but only to those who are qualified for it and completely committed to it.

Because any higher education worth the name is unavoidably restrictive in this sense, it should be an object of policy to ensure that higher education is meagerly rewarded in worldly goods. Professionals should be underpaid; scholars should live on the edge of austerity. This will discourage people from seeking higher education because they see it as a means to wealth and power. A democratic society needs intellectual leadership as much as any other kind of society does, but it has a special stake in seeing that an intellectual elite does not become also a political elite, that it carries on its work in the critical spirit necessary to serious inquiry of any sort.

An egalitarian income policy is quite consistent with the type of educational reform that seeks to restore the intellectual value of education. Indeed these aims are mutually dependent. Equality of incomes would deprive education of its cash value (thereby completing a process that market conditions may already, inadvertently, have set in motion). If incomes were roughly equalized, the demand for extended education would diminish drastically; the overdeveloped educational bureaucracy would wither at its source. Is it possible to imagine a fairer prospect?

This Issue

May 17, 1973