How Capitalism Undermines Progressive Education Reform

The basic function of education under capitalism is to produce the next generation of compliant workers. We should fight instead for fully funded schools that empower students — while challenging the capitalist system that undermines progressive education reform.

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In 1842, Horace Mann, one of the most important educational reformers of the nineteenth century, declared that “nothing but universal education can counter this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all of the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor . . . the latter . . . will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former.” This basic idea — that education is the great equalizer — has become a fundamental tenet of liberal education reform.

But there’s a problem. In more than a hundred fifty years of education reform, it hasn’t been true. And crucially, the data we have about the impact of education on material well-being and economic status shows it isn’t true.

In 1976, two Marxian economists, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, set out to interrogate the claims made by liberal education reformers, not only through political theory and philosophical argumentation, but with a quantitative analysis of the relationship between schooling and economics. Nearly fifty years later, their findings, written up in the landmark study Schooling in Capitalist America, remain clarifying. Above all, they identify the systemic barrier to real education reform: a capitalist economy that produces inequality by design.

The Debate on Schools and Economics

Bowles and Gintis were economists in the “heterodox” tradition. Working for many years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as part of a radical group of thinkers that included Richard Wolff, they challenged long-held assumptions within economics about the fundamental rationality of capitalism and the desirability of deregulation.

Bowles and Gintis caught the eye of Martin Luther King Jr in the late 1960s, who asked them to write papers in advance of the Poor People’s Campaign. Their work eventually materialized into their first book-length project.

In Schooling in Capitalist America, Bowles and Gintis responded to elite justifications for inequality while attempting to explain why education reform so often fails. They settled on three propositions.

First, though cognitive skill plays some role in determining economic success, it is an incomplete explanation. Second, although economic status is partly maintained generation to generation through educational credentials, this too doesn’t tell the whole story. Third, despite the soaring rhetoric of those like Mann — who proclaimed that the development of universal K-12 education was a natural step in the evolution of a democratic United States — it was really capitalists and political elites who were the driving force behind expanded public schools.

Bowles and Gintis were not the first to question the effectiveness of education reform. As they noted in their book, the Civil Rights Movement produced several studies, some massive in scale, that investigated the role of schooling in remedying inequality. “By the early 1970s,” they wrote, “a broad spectrum of social-science opinion was ready to accept the view . . . that a more egalitarian school system would do little to create a more equal distribution of income or opportunity.”

The decades since have given us plenty of evidence to support that claim. The wealth and income gap has skyrocketed since the 1980s, even as the number of people attaining high school and college degrees has steadily increased. Education can enable a single individual to earn more income and accumulate more wealth, but for society as a whole, higher levels of education simply do not change the material well-being of the population.

So why does social inequality persist despite higher levels of education and the efforts of education reformers? Bowles and Gintis had an answer — but first they had to rebut the conventional explanations.

Why Doesn’t Education Reform Work?

One explanation for persisting inequality is that individuals simply have different levels of innate cognitive and intellectual skill. Some will learn a lot in school, others will learn very little; some can manage the academic demands of a rigorous PhD program, while others aren’t bright enough to make it through high school. This innate difference ultimately slots people into different economic classes. It’s a simple explanation for entrenched inequality — but the data reveal it’s just not accurate.

In researching their book, Bowles and Gintis reviewed six statistical studies that measured the relationship between IQ and educational progress over time. Four of these studies found that higher-IQ individuals do not show more educational progress than lower-IQ individuals. The fifth study found mixed results. Only one study supported the conventional view that “smarter” people learn more.

Second, even if we take IQ as a valid measurement of cognitive skill, it is not a good predictor of economic success. If that were true, then people with high IQs would have consistently high incomes, and people with low IQs would have consistently low incomes. The data show this is overwhelmingly false. IQ has only a minor correlation with one’s income.

Another explanation of inequality argues that wealthy families have access to a superior education and therefore pass on their economic status. On its face, this idea seems pretty obvious. The children of the 1 percent attend elite private schools with lower teacher-to-student ratios, significant educational resources, and so on. These students then use their education to obtain higher-paying jobs and preserve their inherited economic class. Those who can’t get a high-quality education are left with few resources and subpar services.

But if we dig into the rationale for this theory, it doesn’t quite hold up either. The standard explanation for why more (and higher-quality) schooling results in higher income is that, as Bowles and Gintis put it, “earnings reflect economic productivity.” The theory goes that “[an] individual’s economic productivity depends partly on the level of the cognitive skills he or she has attained. Each year of education increases cognitive skill levels, thus indirectly leading to higher income.” At the end of the day, income is really determined by cognitive skill, even if education is the vehicle used to gain that cognitive skill. Yet as we just saw, cognitive skill is only weakly related to income.

In a 2001 article revisiting Schooling in Capitalist America, Bowles and Gintis evaluated twenty-four studies measuring the effect of cognitive skill on earnings. Although there is some correlation, it is far less than often claimed, and there’s little evidence that “cognitive skill is becoming increasingly important as a determinant of economic success.”

There is a strong connection between the amount of education one has and the income one earns. But this doesn’t mean that more education causes increased income or wealth. In fact, Bowles and Gintis cite a series of studies finding that those who hold an HSE degree (what used to be called a GED), are almost identical to those with no credential at all. The reason? The GED “is a ‘mixed signal’ indicating to employers that the individual had the cognitive skill to complete high school but lacked the motivational or behavioral requisites.”

Lastly, Bowles and Gintis’s data show that a measure of “non-cognitive traits” like “industriousness,” “perseverance,” and “leadership” was four times more effective in predicting income than a cognitive test, and one and a half times more effective than one’s amount of schooling.

We can also look at how important employers say education is when thinking about who to hire. In their 2001 reflection, Bowles and Gintis cite a study of three thousand employers that asked “‘When you consider hiring a new . . . worker, how important are the following in your decision to hire?’” On a scale of one (unimportant) to five (very important), employers ranked “‘industry based skill credentials’ at 3.2 with ‘years of schooling’ at 2.9, ‘score on tests given by employer’ and ‘academic performance’ both at 2.5. By far the most important consideration was ‘attitude’ ranked 4.6, followed by ‘communication skills’ (4.2).”

The Purpose of Schooling

So if schools aren’t a force for equality or meritocracy, what are they really for?

Simply put, schools produce workers. Schools are the primary social institution that people engage with before entering the workforce. For the system to function, schools must mold students into individuals capable of fulfilling their role in the workplace. For most people, that means being a worker — selling one’s labor to an employer for a set period in exchange for a wage or salary.

Once on the job, workers give up their freedom. What they can or cannot do, and how they can do or cannot do it, is up to the employer. While bosses’ control is constrained by some legal protections (though often violated) and union contracts (also violated), the basic fact remains — the employer decides what gets done and how. Relatedly, worker pay is determined primarily by the nature of the labor market (whether slack or tight) and the level of worker organization (namely whether workers are unionized), not by the number of degrees a worker has.

“The [economy],” Bowles and Gintis write, “is dominated by the imperatives of profit and domination rather than human need. . . . The U.S. economy is a formally totalitarian system in which the actions of the vast majority (workers) are controlled by a small minority (owners and managers).”

This is the social relation that individuals graduate into after their schooling is complete. And therefore the real purpose of schools — “the hidden curriculum,” as Bowles and Gints put it — is to prepare students for life in an autocratic workplace. Schools serving wealthy families are more likely to prompt students to think creatively and systematically, and have them practice making prescriptions for what others should do. Schools that serve working-class students tend to emphasize compliance to predetermined rules, deference to authority figures, and strict disciplinary codes — previewing the lack of agency and democracy they will experience on the job.

Contrary to reformers’ claims that the school system was or could be “the great equalizer,” the history of public schools shows this was never their intended function. Their goal, in mid-nineteenth century America, was to socialize workers into the emerging industrial capitalist economy. As George Boutwell, later Horace Mann’s successor as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, wrote: “The owners of the factories are more concerned than other classes and interests in the intelligence of their laborers. When the latter are well-educated and the former are disposed to deal justly, controversies and strikes can never occur.”

Working people largely opposed the initial expansion of universal public education. First, they feared the taxes that would be imposed on them. Second, they simply did not see the need. Despite grand ideas about the technical training schools would provide, most schools were ill equipped to do so. One-room schoolhouses often combined students of various ages and abilities, and the curriculum often emphasized rote memorization of arbitrary facts and dates.

Bowles and Gintis recount how in 1860 in Beverly, Massachusetts, just a few miles away from the booming industrial center of Lowell, “shoemakers, farmers, sailors, and laborers of the town outvoted the professional and business people and closed down the town’s brand new public high school.”

Their conclusion: “[W]hile the impetus for educational reform sometimes came from disgruntled farmers or workers, the leadership of the movements . . . was without exception in the hands of a coalition of professionals and capitalists from the leading sectors of the economy.”

Realizing Education Reform

Today, things are somewhat different. Expanding public education is extremely popular among working-class voters and unlike the mid-nineteenth century, many jobs do require some college education (though far less than is often claimed). Additionally, struggles over the structure and content of schooling have remade education. The revolution in teaching methods away from rote memory and toward critical thinking; the development of the community school model; and the introduction of ethnic, race, and gender studies has turned public education into fertile ground for struggles over agency and freedom for working people.

Although not originally intended as such, public schools can still become the “laboratories of democracy” that progressive education reformer John Dewey imagined.

For starters, every student should have small class sizes, stimulating curricula, inviting buildings, well-paid teachers, and the “wrap-around” services (nurses, counselors, etc.) that all good schools feature.

More ambitiously, public schools could become the embryos of democratically run workplaces. Adults could foster self-management skills by allowing students to take greater and greater control over their schools as they aged.

This wouldn’t mean abandoning structure, but it would mean empowering students to shape their school day and their lives within it. Students would be treated as thinking, curious human beings whose opinions and preferences mattered, rather than putty to mold or threats to discipline. They could choose to study topics that were deeply fulfilling, but perhaps worth less in the labor market.

At the same time, respecting the autonomy of youth would also means respecting their decision to specialize in a field that yielded employment. It is not inherently oppressive for schools to prepare students for work. It just depends on what kind of work they’re being prepared for. If the work is enriching, collaborative, and fruitful, then school can be the same.

The fight for a democratic education system cannot occur in isolation. As long as workers must participate in an economy rooted in inequality and exploitation, the schools that prepare those workers will never reach their full potential as social institutions rooted in democracy, agency, and freedom. If the school bell rings and students return to dilapidated housing, with little food in the cupboard, no medical care to keep them healthy, and few good jobs waiting for them upon graduation, attempts at radical reform will fall flat.

Teachers, parents, and students organizing for educational justice must keep our eyes on the prize: an economic democracy that guarantees to all the basic necessities of a life well lived.