Education and Capitalism: A Review of Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America

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Education and Capitalism: A Review of Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America

by Marvin Kalkstein

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 7–11

A primary objective of those in control within a society is to stay in control. Most institutions and organized activities within society function to serve the purposes of the ruling class. One of the primary institutions for maintaining, consolidating, and increasing control over people is the educational system. An excellent book that studies how education has been organized and used within the American capitalist economy is Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradiction of Economic Life by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (New York: Basic Books 1976. 340 pp. $4.95). The book traces and explains the evolution of mass education in the United States to meet the changing labor demands of the developing capitalist industrial economy. 

Education and Socialization 

Capitalist production is not simply a technical process, but also is a social process (Bowles and Gintis, p. 10). In serving the needs of capitalist production, education must not only prepare workers to carry out technical tasks, but also to fit into an appropriate set of social relations. Probably the most important purpose and effect of education is socialization. Education prepares people for their place in society. Contrary to popular belief, education is generally not the means to change one’s place in society. Bowles and Gintis conclude that U.S. education is highly unequal; the chances of obtaining much or little schooling being substantially dependent on one’s race and parents’ economic level (p. 35). They present data showing that: 

intellectual ability developed or certified in school makes little causal contribution to getting ahead economically.(p.110). 

The genetic arguments of Jensen and Herrnstein regarding IQ and its relationship to class are thoroughly exploded in Chapter 4 — “Education, Inequality, and the Meritocracy.” 

Major characteristics of the American workforce, necessary for the social relations of capitalist production, are that it is hierarchical, fragmented, and alienated. The educational process, and the relations experienced within it, “foster types of personal development compatible with the relationships of dominance and subordinancy in the economic sphere” (p. 11). 

The personal traits and attributes that are particularly encouraged include unquestioning acceptance of authority, conformity, acceptance of routine, lack of imagination, discipline, and good work habits (e.g. diligence, perseverance, punctuality). Other characteristics indicated by Bowles and Gintis as rewarded in a New York high school were dependability, consistency, identification with school, empathizing orders, deferred gratification, externally motivated predictability, tactfulness; penalized were creativity, aggressiveness, independence (p. 137). Most of these rewarded traits are ones which will assure a placid workforce that can be readily controlled by management. 

Form and Content of Education 

Since the major concern of schools is for personality and behavioral traits, it is in the form and process, rather than the content, of the educational encounter that our development is conditioned. It begins with the first day we’re sent off to school without parents’ admonition “to be good little girls/boys and listen carefully to the teacher and don’t ask any questions” and continues in different degrees for as long as we remain in the educational system. Bowles and Gintis point out that: 

the educational system operates in this manner not so much through the conscious intentions of teachers and administrators in their day-to-day activities, but through a close correspondence between the social relationships which govern personal interaction in the work place and the social relationships of the educational system. Specifically, the relationships of authority and control between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, students and students, and students and their work replicate the hierarchical division of labor which dominates the workplace. Power is organized along vertical lines of authority from administration to faculty to student body: students have a degree of control over their curriculum comparable to that of the worker over the content of his job. The motivational system of the school, involving as it does grades and other external rewards and the threat of failure rather than the intrinsic social benefits of the process of education (learning) or its tangible outcome (knowledge), mirrors closely the role of wages and the specter of unemployment in the motivation of workers. The fragmented nature of jobs is reflected in the institutionalized and rarely constructive competition among students and in the specialization and compartmentalization of academic knowledge. Finally, the relationships of dominance and subordinancy in education differ by level. The rule orientation of the high school reflects the close supervision of low-level workers: the internalization of norms and freedom from continual supervision in elite colleges reflect the social relationships of upper-level white-collar work. Most state universities and community colleges, which fall in between, conform to the behavioral requisites of low-level technical, service, and supervisory personnel (pp. 11-12). 

The students’ alienation from schools which are dull, routine, and repetitive conditions them for alienated work which is dull, routine, and repetitive and over which they will have no control. To a large extent the workforce internalizes the attitudes and behavioral traits appropriate to its place in capitalist production. 

Education for Capitalist Production 

While it would appear that the major function of the educational system is socialization-to one’s place in the society and the workforce, it also serves the needs of the production system by attempting to provide future workers with at least some of the basic skills needed to do their job. The content of education, some of which is also oriented to socialization, includes work on skills that may be useful in the workplace. That schools may not have done enough of this in the past to satisfy the needs of the capitalist production system may explain the recent emphasis on career education at all levels of schooling, including higher education. 

Again, the content differs as well as the form, with vocational schools for the working class, community colleges and state colleges, focusing increasingly upon vocational subjects, for the working class and lower middle-class students, and the elite private colleges and universities and a few state universities for preparing middle- and upper-management. To a large extent the increased emphasis on career education probably represents another step in further public subsidization of the educational needs of capitalist production. The college graduate of the sixties was found to be in need of a considerable amount of on-the-job-training before her/his labor could provide an adequate profit, or surplus value. With an increased need for service and production workers having low-to-middle-level technical skills, the capitalist economy has placed an added demand on the educational system. 

Education and the Changing Needs of Capitalism 

The history of public subsidization of capitalist production through education is traced by Bowles and Gintis. They argue that the change from an entrepreneurial capitalism to its modern corporate form was reflected in educational policy and theory (p. 63). 

Looking at the growing mill town of Lowell and the rapidly industrializing state of Massachusetts, they connect the birth of the factory system with the nineteenth century common-school movement which molded mass education (Chapter 6). The demands of the mills and factories for large numbers of disciplined workers meant that a large percent of children would become the laborers in the factories. “The structure of employment was changing drastically: between 1820 and 1840, the percentage of the workforce engaged in agriculture fell from 58 to 40 percent; by 1850, the percentage would fall to 15 percent. Employment in manufacturing was growing correspondingly” (p. 165). Bowles and Gintis observe that a stable body politic and a smoothly functioning factory alike required citizens and workers who had embraced and taken on as their own the values and objectives of those in authority (p. 170). Schools were the means to inculcate those values. 

Mass education prepared the large numbers of workers needed for the mills and factories. Making it compulsory assured that all future workers would be exposed to these values and accustomed to the social relationships of dominance and subordinancy in the economic system. The graded school, in which children were grouped according to proficiency as well as age, reflected the principle of the division of labor and the perceived inequalities in positions. Later, tracking systems would insure and legitimize the unequal divisions of labor and position. Finally, by making the system public, the bulk of its cost was borne by the working class rather than by the owners. 

Progressive Education 

In looking at the period 1890-1930, Bowles and Gintis make the point that progressive education was born in a decade of labor strife and was fueled throughout its course by social unrest and the specter of political upheaval (p. 180). This was also the period of the expansion of corporate capital. Under the influence of a corporate economy, the objective of the school reformers was to centralize control of urban education in the hands of experts (p. 187) thus removing it further from the direct expression of grass root impulses. 

Their reforms ushered in an era of tight top-down control, paramilitary discipline, and substantial independence from popular control. Bureaucracy became the watchword of the schools. (p. 189). 

It was under the Progressive movement that secondary schools developed different educational (curricular) tracks, and that testing was pushed by the eugenicists for the purposes of educational tracking. 

Another function of the educational system is credentialling. Educational credentials play an important role in the maintenance of hierarchical authority. 

Employers find it desirable to vest hierarchical authority in well-educated workers, not only because higher levels of schooling may enable an employee to better do the work at hand or because the more-educated seem more fit by their demeanor to hold authority, but also simply because educational achievement—as symbolized by one sort of sheepskin or another- legitimates authority according to prevailing social values. (p. 82) 

The obtaining of the credential, or even one’s continued involvement in education in terms of continued personal subjugation to or acceptance of the process, also represents a form of cooptation. In a sense, it may be viewed as paying one’s dues to a system leading to feeling that one must plug into the system to reap the benefits for which the dues were paid. The period of the Sixties, with the droppping out of some middle class youth, represented a degree of rejection of the system. This was relatively short-lived because of the tightening of the economy. Today’s youth is no less alienated or frustrated, but economic necessity has demanded a reaccommodation to the system. The tighter job market has if anything increased the importance of the credentials in making them a greater factor in the artificial division of labor and as a criterion for employment. Many older workers, particularly in service jobs, are finding that they suddenly need the piece of paper just to hold onto the job that they may have already been performing for years. This trend also serves the needs of the higher education system which can now compensate for the drop-off in the number of traditional college-aged students by an increase in adult education. 

Finally education is supposed to contribute to personal development and societal betterment. The concern is not for realizing the individual’s potential and creating a more equal and just society, but for the maintenance of an economic system with its mandated inequalities and personal limitations. To the extent that the educational system is responsible for the instilling and nourishing of values, it is those values- conformity, competitiveness, self-centeredness- which are supportive of a profit-oriented system based on inequality, rather than the values—autonomy, cooperation, and common interest—which would underlie a more just and equitable economic and social system.

Need for Structural Economic Change 

For change to occur, Bowles and Gintis recognize that the necessary changes cannot be limited to the schools or the work place, but must entail a radical transformation of the very class structure of U.S. society. They suggest 

that movements for educational reform have faltered through refusing to call into question the basic structure of property and power in economic life …. the key to reform is the democratization of economic relationships: social ownership, democratic and participatory control of the production process by workers, equal sharing of socially necessary labor by all, and progressive equalization of incomes and destruction of hierarchical economic relationships. This is, of course, socialism, conceived of as an extension of democracy from the narrowly political to the economic realm. (p. 14)

Bowles and Gintis stress the need for a revolutionary class consciousness: 

The overriding strategic goal of a socialist movement is the creation of working-class consciousness. (Bowles and Gintis, p. 285) 

The last part of Schooling in Capitalist America is devoted to examining the question of change for “an equal and liberating education system which can only emerge from a broad-based movement dedicated to the transformation of economic life (a socialist movement)” (p. 266). Most of this part of the book is an analysis of the conditions for a socialist movement, but it also provides some guidelines for organizing and struggle. For the educator, Bowles and Gintis do have some suggestions: 

Even within the classroom, the dissident teacher can become an effective subversive through teaching the truth about society; through inspiring a sense of collective power and mutual respect; through demonstrating that alternatives superior to capitalism exist; through fighting racist, sexist, and other ideologies of privilege through criticizing and providing alternatives to a capitalist culture (p. 274). 

However, the movement is not going to succeed on the basis of individual actions or the actions of a particular stratum of the working class. One of the lessons of this book, and a major part of their analysis of strategies for social change, is that the struggle proceeds on principles of unity, equality, and cooperation of a broad-based movement comprising students, parents, workers, and community members. 

Need for a Broadly Based Movement 

While the classroom may be a good setting for fostering a critical consciousness and cooperative behavior, we must remember that learning is not confined to our schools or to a particular age group in our population. We are all learners and learning continues throughout our lifetimes. Because of the repressive nature of the capitalist educational system, learning and actions outside it may be more important for the struggle for revolutionary educational change as well as for social change in general. As participants in such a movement, we must engage ourselves with others in their progressive struggles as well as our own.


Samuel Bowles. Herbert Gintis, and Peter Meyer, “‘The Long Shadow of Work: Education, the Family, and the Reproduction of the Social Division of Labor”, Insurgent Sociologist, Summer 1975 

A.A. Potter. Personnel Work as Applied to a College of Engineering”, Proceedings of the Twenty-Seventh Annual Convention of the Association of Land-Grant Colleges, November 1923, pp. 398-412.

Bishop, “The Cooperative System”, p. 141. See also “‘The Cooperative Plan of Engineering Education in the Pittsburgh Industries”, School and Engineering Brochure 1924-5, University of Pittsburgh Archives. 

The Big Business Executive/1964: A Study of His Social and Educational Background (New York: Scientific American, 1965). 

The Harvard Business School Bulletin, November 1972, p. 20. 

Economic Power and Political Pressure, Temporary National Economic Committee Monograph No. 26, pp. 22-3, quoted by Lynd, “‘You Can’t Skin a Live Tiger,” p. 109. 

David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). 

Marvin Kalkstein is a nuclear physicist who teaches at the University Without Walls, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been involved in alternative education and in Science for the People for ten years. 

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