‘Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


It is difficult to find a more revolutionary text than Schooling in Capitalist America by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Haymarket Books 2011 republication of this 1976 book could not be more welcome. The theoretical relevance of the book has increased since 1976. It is surely more politically urgent with its emphasis on the workplace relations governing curricular demands and needs. By the 1980s the book had been thoroughly criticized as economistic and insensitive to teachers and students, overly deterministic, functionalist, and non-dialectical (these critiques are articulated by the contributing authors to Cole 1988). I think these various criticisms have some warrant, but mainly miss the mark. The book’s intention is to demonstrate that major educational reforms have rarely been successful. Bowles and Gintis wanted to provide an explanation of why educational reforms have failed historically, and why they are, by themselves, most likely destined to fail in the future. No Child Left Behind, assessment, testing and accountability efforts, Race to the Top, and the Common Core are merely the latest failed educational reforms.

Bowles and Gintis underscore the importance of the relations of production on what happens in schools. The book deserves a new generation of readers. Bowles and Gintis may have moved away from their more radical politics, but the argument in Schooling in Capitalist America is desperately needed in departments of education, most of which have no understanding of the connection between educational policy and economic social relations of production.

Bowles and Gintis provide the theoretical framework: (1) connecting economic social relations of production and educational policy, (2) historical illustrations of economic transformations and corresponding changes in education, (3) impressive critiques of the predominant social theory (still) informing educational policy today, and (4) radical policy to transform the totalitarian workplace relations and corresponding educational relations which will promote economic and workplace participatory relations, egalitarianism, and emotional and personal development that is currently stifled by alienated labor and highly undemocratic workplace and classroom relations.  

Bowles and Gintis argue that there is an intimate historical connection between economic and educational change in US history (169-75). They argue that during the early and mid- nineteenth century there was significant labor unrest (156). The expansion of capitalist production and the factory system meant simultaneously that the American household was no longer the primary unit of production. There was a continual erosion of single-family farming, and an increase migration from rural America to urban areas (59). Production increasingly happened outside of the household and inside a factory (156-7).

Of course young people were born, reared, and socialized in households. But production increasingly occurred outside of the household and more and more often within factories in urban areas. Training within the family became increasingly inadequate (157-8). During the nineteenth century there were huge influxes of immigrants (59). Training within the family was not only inadequate, but apprenticeships became unnecessary for factory production (199).

One primary reason for the emergence of “Common Schools” in the US was to help socialize new immigrants and rural agricultural workers for urban factory and industrial production. More specifically, Common Schools quite literally emerged from “labor strife” (180). Common Schools would help to instill obedience and a work-ethic conducive to undemocratic authoritarian factory production system (169-70). The leadership of the Common School movement, was not American households and newly arrived immigrants, but industrial capitalists and the business elite (179).

Progressive-liberal education emerging in the period 1890-1930 was also born in a decade of “labor strife” (180). The capitalist-worker hierarchy of nineteenth century U.S. capitalism was replaced by the bureaucratic hierarchy of the modern corporation (184). According to Bowles and Gintis the liberal education emerging from Progressive era politics would ultimately accommodate the labor and management needs of corporate organized production (180-200) and the segmentation of labor throughout the economy (59-83).

The Common School, where all children were offered the same curriculum, came increasingly under attack. Secondary education became stratified into a vocational (blue collar) track and a liberal education (white collar) track (191-5). The “ideology of vocationalism” came to “justify a tracking system which would separate and stratify young people loosely according, to race, ethnic origins, and class backgrounds” (194).

These historical illustrations are an attempt by Bowles and Gintis to demonstrate the “correspondence principle” they propose (53-4 and 130-3). There is a close correspondence between social relations of education and the personal demeanor, modes of self-presentation, self-image, and social-class identifications to perform in the workplace (131). They extend their historical illustration by employing the correspondence principle to explain the changing occupational structure in late twentieth century US capitalism and the “overexpansion” of college enrollments (201-41).

Bowles and Gintis argue that the critical element of progressive liberal education is contradictory to the successful reproduction of capitalist social relations. When college students were destined for positions of leadership, the critical element of liberal education caused little problem (206-7). However, with the rise of “subprofessional” white-collar jobs, such as secretaries, lower-level supervisors, sales workers, etc., the critical element of education becomes increasingly problematic in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. There emerged in this era a “vocationalization of the curriculum” (213) and the legitimizing (82) of the class structure of labor segmentation (56-63) in corporate production (231). The “school system has played the role alternatively of recruiter and of gatekeeper – depending on the level of labor needs – of the dynamic sectors” (234).

The book seems today even more urgently needed than in 1976. This is because inequality (in income, wealth, and educational opportunity) has sharpened. The segmentation of labor has widened. The vocationalization of the curriculum and the legitimizing of class structure has become more pervasive. In the US 23% jobs pay $50,000 or more and more than 30% of the population graduates with a four-year college degree. With the growth of surplus labor skills from college educated youth and the shrinkage of well-paying jobs, the diploma increasingly becomes “a glorified lottery ticket, paying off only for the lucky” (216).

The curricular implication is non-benign. Elite colleges and universities continue to offer a critical curriculum and open campus. But the non-elite colleges and universities increasingly resemble secondary education with totalitarian systems of discipline and student management, they are merely high schools with beer and sex (212).

Bowles’s and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America is less a historical text and more a theoretical text, specifically the book can be interpreted as a twofold sustained immanent critique of: (1) liberal/progressive education in United States, and (2) human capital theory of education. It is here that Bowles and Gintis are at their best. And it is here that once again Bowles and Gintis have gained in both theoretical relevance and political urgency.

In desperate brevity, their critique of liberalism maintains that there are three simultaneous educational functions. Education provides an integrative function, whereby, young people attain the various occupational, social, political, familial, and other adult roles culturally expected of them (21). Second, schools function as the “great equalizer” for various social inequities and life chances (26). Third, schools have become a “family surrogate” (38), to help promote the psychic and moral development of young individuals. These functions are respectively called: integrative, egalitarian, and developmental functions of educational institutions.

The basic critique is that in capitalism these educational functions are incompatible and antagonistic with each other. The primary contradiction, generating disharmony between these educational functions, is that the politics of modernity has a highly democratic pulse while the workplaces of corporate capitalism are profoundly antidemocratic (46) and totalitarian (54).

During the expansion of corporate capitalism in the period 1890-1930, the integrative function of new workers into the wage-labor system came to dominate schools and the others two liberal functions of education (181).

Students would integrate into capitalistic workplaces where the majority of workers had a surplus of powerlessness and confronted a bureaucratic hierarchical structure that generates (a sense of) isolation. Moreover, in that the goods that are produced are for profits, not human needs, a lack of workplace meaningfulness is pervasive and endemic (72).

A review of educational history reveals that egalitarianism has hardly been the result, even when it has been the intent (27). While there has been a significant decrease in inequality as regards years of schooling and educational opportunities, inequality in income and wealth robustly persists (34). Social class inequalities in our school system are too evident to be denied (33). Bowles and Gintis conclude that “the educational system does not add to or subtract from the overall degree of inequality” (11), but merely reflects and reproduces existing patterns of inequality.

Human capital theory of neoclassical economics nuances the educational arguments of liberalism. Human capital theory maintains that capitalistic labor markets are meritocratic, and workplaces technocratic. According to this “technocratic-meritocratic view,” inequality of income, wealth, power, and status is a reflection of unequal mental, physical, and other skills between individuals (22). Likewise, the repression of personal psychic and moral development is more a problem of technology than of social or political domination (104-5).

The more subtle position of human capital theory is powerful. It begins its analysis with the fact that the American economy is unequal and workplaces undemocratic. However, these phenomena are explained by the meritocracy of achievement and technical efficiency of production.

Human capital theory is an impressive theoretical development that successfully supersedes educational liberalism. Bowles and Gintis maintain that human capital theory is not wrong, but highly incomplete. This is an absolutely crucial insight. The problem with human capital theory is not in its wrong ideas but in what it leaves completely out of its analysis.

It is here that Bowles and Gintis are most persuasive. Human capital theory is correct to insist on the import of cognitive, physical, and know-how attributes of workers in the workplace and students in the classroom. Better human capital skills are rewarded with higher incomes in the workplace and higher grades in the classroom. But this is an extremely partial characterization of the capitalist system (47). The American corporate capitalistic system is characterized by hierarchical labor structure (74-6). According to Bowles and Gintis, the hierarchical structure of the corporate workplace has less to do with technology and economic efficiency, a more to do with legitimation of producing for profits and an effective means for retaining economic and social control in the workplace.

Bowles and Gintis are putting forth the segmentation of labor theory. In this theory, the primary labor sectors (i.e. corporate/state) are bureaucratically ordered and hierarchically ruled (66). The purpose of this segmentation is not technical efficiency (74, 80) but a means to have power and control over workers (81-4) to increase the production of surplus value, capital accumulation or internal growth of the firm to achieve oligopolization of the industry (77). Generally this means higher profits for the firm, high incomes for upper management, and relatively high salaries and wages for certain segments of the workforce.

Market domination and internal growth of the firm, not technical efficiency, is the principal reason for the bureaucratic order and hierarchical rule of primary labor sectors. In turn, the bureaucratic order and hierarchical segmentation within the firm is based on (1) human capital skills, but also (2) personality traits, (3) self-presentation traits, (4) ascriptive characteristics (such as race, sex, and age), and (5) educational credentials (125-51). The hierarchical segmentation is argued to have less to do with efficiency and productivity, and much more to do with social control within the workplace.

Schools contribute to this workplace control by instilling personality and self-presentation traits, human capital skill and educational credentials that make stratification and segmentation appear legitimate. Income, occupation, and educational level of parents substantially increases school success of children (30-1), more than IQ (114-21).

This book finishes with a highly positive message of reform. Broadly, Bowels and Ginits desire to make the integrative function of schools, i.e. integrating youth into society and the workplace, non-antagonistic to social egalitarianism and personal human development. This requires first, that inequality must be understood not as question of subcultural values, nor as a biological issue, nor simply as an economic issue, but first and foremost as a political issue and political struggle. Second, human capital theory and other theories that portray inequality as beneficial, just, or unavoidable must be rejected. Third, egalitarian reforms in education must overcome segmentation in the workplace and unify diverse groups (249).

Bowels and Gintis contend that the glaring inadequacies of political democracy in the US are attributable to the lack of economic democracy and the private ownership of the means of production (268). The primary contradiction is not between the individual and school, but between the individual and capitalistic workplaces. There has been a lack of emotional process. Capitalism and the rise of the ‘anxious society’ are one (276). Capitalism prohibits healthy emotional and personal development. “Personal development is inconceivable outside a structured social context, and no community can transcend the individuals participating in its reproduction” (272). Accordingly the problem is not the presence or absence of authority, but an authority and social institutions more conducive to real human needs, in short socialism (272).

The correspondence principle suggests to Bowles and Gintis that the class composition of the work force must be radically transformed for healthy emotional and personal development (253). What is needed is nothing short of “a second American revolution”, institutionally constituted by real economic democracy, that promotes participatory power of workers, and egalitarianism (282). Capitalism has proven its ability to satisfy people’s consumption needs, but the concentration of capital has radically diminished the participatory power of nearly everyone. Labor segmentation has divided worker against worker, corporate bureaucracy is dominant, globalization has done great damage to local communities. “Inflation, commodity shortages, unemployed workers, and unmet social needs all attest to the growing inability of capitalism to meet people’s needs for material comfort, economic security, and social amenity” (281). In short, capitalism is no alternative (CINA).

Raymond Williams and Michael Apple (2013) are surely right to insist that “the long revolution” is our struggle against capitalism. Schooling in Capitalist America reminds us that we must fight politically. As Mother Jones contended: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” (quoted 262).

15 June 2014


  • Apple, Michael W. 2013 Can Education Change Society? New York: Routledge.
  • Cole, Mike (ed.) 1988 Bowles and Gintis Revisited: Correspondence and Contradiction in Educational Theory London: The Falmer Press.

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