Commentary Magazine


Schooling in Capitalist America, by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis

Schooling in Capitalist America.
by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.
Basic Books. 340 pp. $13.95.

Liberal critiques of American education typically stress either the inequalities or the brutalities of schooling. Educational inequality comes in many varieties, but it usually boils down to the idea that some people do not get as much education, or as good an education, as other people, and that systemic forces rather than individual choice account for this uneven access to the pleasures and benefits of schooling. The brutalitarian analysis, by contrast, asserts that under current conditions the more formal education one gets the worse off one is likely to be, for schools impede individuality, destroy curiosity and creativity, and generally repress youngsters in authoritarian ways. Occasionally both themes get linked, as in the charge that the schools attended by the poor are rigid, harsh, and demeaning while those patronized by the prosperous are flexible, nurturing, and pleasant.

Most educational-reform efforts of recent years have sought to respond to one or both of these criticisms. Compensatory programs in the elementary schools, open enrollment in the colleges, the campaign to level school spending across district lines, new federal scholarship schemes, and, of course, the desegregation movement may fairly be viewed as attempts to curb inequality. Alternative schools, learner-centered instruction, open classrooms, student participation, and most curriculum reforms exemplify the quest for less punishing educational arrangements.

Schooling in Capitalist America argues that such reform efforts over the past century have failed to make education significantly more equal or less brutal. Despite the heroic attempts of progressive pedagogues, “schools, by and large, remain hostile to the individual’s need for personal development,” and notwithstanding the well-intentioned schemes of liberal social policy, the schools have also not succeeded in equalizing “economic status or opportunity.”

The evidence cited and allegations repeated by the authors are familiar enough.

On inequality: children from upper-class families typically receive more years of formal schooling than youngsters from less favored circumstances. The wealthy are more likely to attend college. Background counts for more than aptitude. The schools lack the power to correct large inequities of income and status or to overcome the effects of birth and family.

On brutality: successful students display diligence and popularity but not creativity or mental agility, for the educational system does not value or reward the latter traits. Instead, schools breed conformity and docility. Progressivism never had a chance before it was swamped by the requirements of scientific management. Frederick Taylor had a greater impact than John Dewey.

Having established these failures—at least, leveled these charges—a conventional reform treatise would go on to cite promising innovations, to suggest alternate ways of organizing schools and teaching children, or to urge such non-educational measures as a guaranteed income or better community mental-health services. But Bowles and Gintis head in a different direction. To the “egalitarian” and “developmental” tasks of education, they add a third, the “integrative,” a fancy phrase for what educators usually call “socialization”: the view that along with needed skills and credentials the schools imbue children with the norms and mores of the society in which they will live. To Bowles and Gintis, the problem with the “integrative function” is not that the schools have failed at it but that they have succeeded.

If one starts from the premise that American society is evil, the institutions that transmit its features from one generation to the next will hold little appeal. If one views the economy as the pawn of a handful of robber barons who also control the schools and use them to mold docile workers for the wage-slavery of hierarchical factories, then education is an uncertain blessing. And if one believes that the agenda of liberal educators is inherently contradictory, and that so long as “the interests of profitability and stability” dominate the schools, true equality and personal development will inevitably be squeezed out by the demands of the “integrative function,” one is likely to find ordinary reform schemes futile or worse.

For Bowles and Gintis, it all comes back to capitalism. “Repression, individual powerlessness, inequality of incomes, and inequality of opportunity did not originate historically in the educational system, nor do they derive from unequal and repressive schools today. The roots of repression and inequality lie in the structure and functioning of the capitalist economy.” Anyone who seeks school reform must first agree to a revolution.

That much we glean from the initial fifty pages. Nine chapters remain before the call to arms is sounded. (Yes, “It is almost inconceivable that a socialist revolution in the United States would not involve violence at some stage.”) For the most part, the authors amass numbers, historical events, and analysis to support their conclusions. After a long disquisition on the nature of the capitalist economy, a caricature drawn straight from the 19th century and bearing scant resemblance to the United States in 1976, we get an exegesis of inequality (“inequality under capitalism is rooted not in individual deficiencies, but in the structure of production and property relations”), and a discussion of the way in which the classroom mimics the dehumanizing structural relations of the workplace. That this has always been so under American capitalism is the burden of four full chapters, concluding that “educational change has historically played the role not of a complement to economic reform but as a substitute for it.”

In recent years, free schools, alternative schools, locally-controlled schools, open classrooms, and other innovative schemes have spread and, to Bowles and Gintis, these are desirable as far as they go. But no such amelioration “is capable of addressing the major problems facing U.S. society today,” because “the open conflict between the objectives of corporate employers and other privileged elites . . . and the needs of just about everyone else” has produced a deadlock. The goals of liberal educational reform will be stymied until the contradictions of modern capitalist society first get resolved.

_____________

 

Those who enjoy reading such things will derive much pleasure from this volume, for it is a nearly perfect example of its genre. No inequalities can be set right unless all are. Identify a social good about which there is widespread agreement that its current allocation and quality could be improved. Find a worthy and deserving group—children will do—that can be described as victimized by its present deployment. Demonstrate that the condition of this social good is intimately bound up with the economic and political arrangements of the nation, then press inexorably on to the conclusion that only by changing those arrangements in fundamental ways can the particular problem be solved. Never mind that the chances of enacting feasible and—to the liberal—desirable reforms are damaged by such analyses. Those who would settle for such changes are themselves part of the problem, their tinkering an impediment to the revolution.

Written by two professors at a respectable university, subsidized by our largest and most eminent private foundation, and brought out by a serious and generally sensible publisher, Schooling in Capitalist America will command a measure of respectful attention. My chief regret, other than the trees, is that it masquerades as a book on educational reform instead of flying its true colors.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.