What do schools produce?

SCHOOLING IN Capitalist America, written by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, has been a point of reference for radical and Marxist education theory since its publication in 1976. It is a sweeping review of countless sociological studies that, when taken together, make a compelling case that the economic status of parents—rather than effort at school or educational achievement—is the best predictor of their children’s future economic status.

More current research by professor and education researcher Jean Anyon has supported their fundamental arguments. For example, one in ten college graduates was working in a minimum wage job in 2005. Of all full-time workers, 41 percent were making “poverty zone” wages, defined as 125 percent of the shockingly low official poverty levels. So, even if every person in America were able to attain a college education, about half of them would still either be working in a low-paying job, or be unemployed (if unemployment remains at about 10 percent.) Additionally, 70 percent of welfare recipients in 1999 had a high school diploma, up from 42 percent in 1979. The poor are much more educated now than they have been in the past. [For a review of Anyon’s Marx and Education, see ISR 78.]

The book also brilliantly describes the contradictions that lie at the heart of public education:

since the mid-nineteenth century the dual objectives of educational reformers—equality of opportunity and social control—have been intermingled, the merger of these two threads so nearly complete that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. Schooling has been at once something done to the poor and for the poor.… The unequal contest between social control and social justice is evident in the total functioning of U.S. education.

Both the conservative myth about schools as “leveling the playing field,” and the liberal dreams of schools as emancipatory sites where everyone is prepared to be a fully developed citizen in a multicultural society, contradict the experiences of the vast majority of us when we go to school. Instead, particularly for students of color and working-class and poor students, schools are a nasty sorting ground. Obedience, rote learning, and most of all boredom rule.

Correspondence Theory
The most famous aspect of Bowles and Gintis’ work is their “correspondence theory,” in which they argue that schools serve a particular function in our society—the reproduction of social relations of production. This means, in part, getting future workers ready for their jobs. The hierarchical relations of work and production are mirrored in the relations we see in schools. The hierarchies between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, students and other students correspond to boss-worker relationships and indeed prepare students to play those roles. Students produce work for external rewards (grades) in much the same way that workers work only for a paycheck, have no control over the product they make and become divorced (or alienated) from its real value. Students don’t “work” for the inherent value of knowledge, but rather do the work they are told to in order to earn a grade, and eventually a diploma. There is a lack of democracy and intellectual control over the content of our studies that’s similar to workers’ lack of control over what they produce.

The “utilitarian” value of schools, according to Bowles and Gintis, is not about producing skills or knowledge that directly correspond to those needed on the job. “The reasons why most larger employers supported public education are apparently related to the non-cognitive effects of schooling—in more modern terms, to the hidden curriculum,” according to Bowles and Gintis.

The educational system selects for and rewards certain personality traits. They cite a study that shows that in predicting a students’ GPA, personality traits are almost as important as cognitive skills. Some of the highly rewarded traits are dependability, perseverance, consistency, following orders, punctuality, and deferring gratification. Traits that have a negative association with GPA are creativity, aggressiveness, and independence. So, schools promote individuals with the personality traits most associated with “good workers.”

Schools also have an important role to play in social control and in assimilation of non-mainstream groups. Compulsory public schools established in the early 19th century in the northeastern United States were born out of an effort to forcibly assimilate immigrant groups in terms of language, culture, and work ethic. Schools were created, in most cases, hot on the heels of factories and served to create stability in the manufacturing towns. Compulsory schooling was, at its inception, undemocratic at best and fundamentally violent at its most extreme, as tens of thousands of Native American children were kidnapped and forcibly assimilated at Indian boarding schools.

Lastly, schools hide the exploitive relations of work in a capitalist economy. The values and behaviors rewarded and reinforced in schools provide “employers with workers with a built-in supervisor,” say the authors. The “self-directed” worker thinks that his salary, prestige, and success at work depend on his intellectual capabilities and work ethic, because, after all, we all got an “equal chance” to go to school.

Contradictions: the key to change 
Bowles and Gintis argue that the educational system is in large part a product of the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. In order to grow and to accumulate more profits and develop the means of production, capitalists needed a workforce that was more highly trained, more intelligent, and self-directed. The authors quote French social philosopher Andre Gorz’s point that people’s “human capabilities need to be developed.” This meant a lot more education, and developing people’s abilities to think, so that they could create the innovations necessary to keep the capitalist system growing.

There’s a conflict between “democracy” in the political realm and dictatorship in the workplace. The concept of “one person one vote,” equal protection under the law, and democratic decision-making only apply to the narrow limits of the political sphere (and even here these concepts are mostly ideological and often violated). But there is no democratic control over decisions about the economy—that is, what gets produced and how it gets distributed. Political democracy is, in a sense, the perfect illusion of equality and equal participation in decision-making, an ideology that comes into friction with the undemocratic nature of work and resource control.

When future workers are grouped together in schools, it is inevitable that some of the tools that are given to them will be used against the capitalist class itself. You cannot teach people to read and then control the content of all the books that they read. And you cannot encourage innovation without encouraging creative thinking. The inventors of new technology will, at certain points, question how their ideas are being used. Furthermore, you cannot stuff enormous groups of young people together into crowded, degrading conditions and not expect them, at some point, to organize for the equal opportunities that the system is promising. Humans are not machines, and herein lies the inherent vulnerability of capitalism.

From this contradiction follow others, including the gap between what we are promised in public education and the reality of what schools look like. For example, the fight for bilingual education arose in part from the contradictions in the migrant experience. Most people who cross the border into the United States report that their most important motivation is to afford their children a better education. Their hopes are often frustrated. In the past, when it became clear that this education reinforced the divisions in society, school became a crucial site of struggle. Even today, education promises to be the antidote to inequality and poverty. And as always, the educational system disappoints. 

One critique of Bowles and Gintis is that their ideas are “too deterministic.” Their focus on social structures and the “system” does not allow any space to individual people to do anything about it. In a 1988 collection titled Bowles and Gintis Revisited, Mike Cole, a British radical academic, argues that “the theory can have reactionary rather than progressive implications.” In other words, it leaves radical teachers to feel that there is a lack of space for doing any good now because things are overly determined by the system. “Some of my student teachers,” Cole writes, “have even looked upon the principle as reassuring in its promise of stability and the maintenance of the status quo, while others, with a more radical mind, have despaired at the seeming lack of space for individual and collective action.”

People who desperately want social justice in their lifetimes see schools as an easy starting place for making changes in society. In other words, if you want social justice, then you should enlighten the next generation and become a teacher. Maybe society will be more just and fair if we battle prejudice and ignorance one student at a time. If these are our hopes, then it’s uncomfortable to think about schools as oppressive institutions, shaped by the needs of capitalism and designed to engineer submission to the dominant ideas in society.

Cole also charges Bowles and Gintis with “crude mechanistic economism.” He claims that the theories developed in Schooling in Capitalist America are too simplistic in the way that they argue that the economic base (the way production is organized in the economy) determines the institutions of the superstructure (political and cultural institutions and norms—in this case, schools).

Marx laid out the concept of “base” and “superstructure” in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy with these words: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life.” The economic “base” is the way that production is organized, in this case under capitalism. Resources are privately owned. Owners hire workers and organize their work, and their driving motive is profit. To understand how a society works, it is most crucial to understand the “relations of production” at the base. Who controls the resources? How do decisions get made? What is the relationship between the planners and the workers? Is work a collective process or an individual one?

“Superstructural” institutions are those that are not directly involved in the production process, but take shape to facilitate a smooth running of society. These institutions include governments, and also cultural institutions as they evolve over time. Courts and public schools are two examples of institutions that are “superstructural” branches of the government. To Marx, societies are driven by the way that work and production are organized. The people who control the resources and organize production have the most power to organize society’s institutions to meet their needs. Marx, however, also emphasizes how the economic base and superstructural institutions influence each other.

For example, democratic governments came about as the result of enormous efforts by specific groups of people, with specific ideas, who made revolutions and wrote constitutions. In the first instance, these ideas were shaped by their experiences in opposing monarchies and their tyrannical practices. The monarchies were set up to enforce the economic power and control of the feudal lords. Their system of production and ownership, based on hereditary land rights, was squashing and stifling innovation and more efficient methods of production that were being developed. The democratic governments that the revolutionaries set up created favorable conditions for capitalist property relations and business profits.

Here’s one way that the interplay between base and superstructure can play out with schools. The education system is set up to deliver obedient workers with the right skills and behaviors to the capitalists. The needs of the economic base shape what schools will look like. But the public school system develops with an ideology of equality and “critical thinking.” People hang their hopes on education. This ideology and these expectations lead people to organize for better schools. In the case of the U.S. South, the struggles for desegregation, including access to quality education, led to legislative changes in society as a whole, such as federal anti-discrimination laws. These laws ended up acting as regulations on businesses as well as the public sector. Furthermore, those student organizers carried their ideas, their experience, as well as their taste of victory into their workplaces with them. Some of them became organizers for economic justice.

Marx and Engels, while they argued that the way production was organized shapes a society, emphasized this kind of the feedback between the forces of production and all of the political institutions that society creates. As Engels wrote in 1895: “Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But these all react on one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is the cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity which ultimately always asserts itself.”

The New Left since the 1970s has largely wanted to do away with the concept of base and superstructure.* In Bowles and Gintis Revisited, Robert Moore suggested that in a capitalist economy, there can be “distinctive sites of production, each with their own intrinsic principles and possibilities.” The idea that schools can operate autonomously from the capitalist economy is appealing to some because it means that schools can break out of the role “determined” for them by the needs of a capitalist economy and indeed become sites of liberation. If schools were independent from the economy to a certain extent, it would be easier to imagine (and hope) that schools could play a more fundamentally liberatory role.

Bowles and Gintis have acceded to this critique in important ways. In Bowles and Gintis Revisited, they grant that schools could be “sites of social practice,” which they define as “a cohesive area of social life.” The state, family, and capitalist production are all seen as “sites of production.” Schools “participate” in all of these sites. The “sites” can operate autonomously from each other, and each has relatively equal importance.

But the contradictions that occur between the economic base and the superstructure are the keys to how we can change society. So Bowles and Gintis were pointing to something valuable in 1976 when they showed that the hierarchical and dictatorial rules of capitalism clashed with the ideology of democracy and equality of the political realm. The contradiction between ideology and the way society actually works has the potential to spur people to action—a contradiction is evident in the gap between what schools promise and what they really do. It is thus no surprise that schools are so often sites of radicalization about the broader society. As Marx points out in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, it is in the “superstructure,” the realm of politics and ideas, where people “become conscious of [social] conflict and fight it out.”

But schools can’t be the only place to fight. If they are really shaped by how the economy works, then fighting for more democracy in every workplace, and for more civil rights for all groups in society, can do as much for creating a more enlightened and intellectually engaged next generation as can fighting for better schools. Everyone, not just teachers, can be part of inspiring a new thirst for knowledge. Conversely, even enlightening the next generation won’t solve the problem if we don’t restructure power in our society so that so many of the decisions are not made by so few people.

* For an extended defense of the concepts of base and superstructure, along with a history of the how the concepts have been interpreted, see Chris Harman, “Base and Superstructure,” in Marxism and History (London: Bookmarks 1998).




Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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