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Schools and Capitalism: The Right Kind of Education

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This is a slightly modified version of a pamphlet providing an overview--not a review--of the book Schooling in Capitalist America. A PDF of the pamphlet is available in the IOPS Resource section.

The education writer Alfie Kohn relates a story about school teachers from Florida who, decades ago, visited their Soviet counterparts in the then-USSR to learn from one another and exchange ideas. The Soviet teachers were thoroughly surprised and disappointed by the encounter, as they had hoped to learn from the Americans how to teach and organize schools in accord with democratic principles – the Floridians having taught in the World’s Greatest Democracy, after all [1]. 

Sadly, if the visiting teachers had been from Canada rather than the US—or any of the other advanced capitalist democracies, for that matter—the Soviet teachers would have surely suffered the same letdown.

Importantly, disappointment with our school system extends well beyond Soviet teachers. In 2000 the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment found that 58% of students in Canada are “often bored” at school and that 37% of students “do not want to go” to school at all. And adults don’t think much better of schools: in 2012 an Ipsos-Reid poll found that only 5% of Canadians would give the public school system an “A” for overall quality, while in BC 26% of people would give public schools a “D” or an “F”, the highest failing rate in the country [2].

If over a third of school-aged children “don’t want to go” to school and a majority of kids are bored to tears, clearly we should be searching for whatever it might be that is making school such an awful place for so many children. Or are we just to accept that education is inherently a boring, lousy affair?

There are many reasons for the way that public schools are the way they are today; that is to say that schools are, in brief:

  • compulsory and universal (more or less);
  • hierarchically structured in the classroom, the school and the greater society, with teachers wielding incredible power over students, administrators wielding incredible power over both teachers and students, and students, teachers and administrators all ultimately subject to the dictates of municipal school boards and provincial and federal bureaucrats;
  • focused heavily, perhaps even primarily, on controlling and directing the behaviour of students (a practice, and enormous field of educational research and theory, tellingly referred to as “classroom management”);
  • overwhelmingly grades- and testing-oriented, and often increasingly so;
  • where students are grouped by age, and sometimes “tracked” by ability;
  • where the level of meaningful student choice in course selection is marginal at best, let alone do students have much of a say over what goes on in the classroom or the school at large.

It is a picture we are all familiar with, upon a moment’s reflection. What we are less familiar with, however, is why the picture turned out looking this particular way rather than any other, leading one to ask: What set of social forces and historical circumstances brought the modern public school system into existence? What were the intentions, beliefs and values of the groups who ultimately shaped and molded the system? And, to put it bluntly, in the struggle to create a public education system in a society defined by striking class, racial, gender and power conflicts, who were the winners and losers?

These are a few of the major driving questions behind the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in their landmark 1976 book, Schooling in Capitalist America, a historical and economic study of schools and the role that they play in a modern capitalist democracy like the US (or Canada). At the risk of simplifying their efforts enormously, let us briefly review some of the major findings of Bowles and Gintis’ work.

Do more schooling, get more smarter, make more money!

The argument goes something like this: High-income earners get paid more because their relatively greater amount or quality of education has developed in them greater cognitive capacities, thus making them more productive and worthy of higher pay. Seems like a pretty sensible explanation, right? The argument is quite widely accepted, to the point where it’s invoked repeatedly to justify the multi-million dollar salaries of corporate executives—and inverted to justify the pitiable wages of the majority of the population—by smart folks like David Brooks at the New York Times. There’s just one problem with it, though: it’s completely false.

Indeed, there is a positive relationship between years of schooling and income, as well as between years of schooling and the probability of attaining a high adult IQ, as one might expect. Do more schooling, get more smarter, make more money – right? Well, not exactly. Bowles and Gintis showed that more schooling and a higher IQ, while related, are not, in fact, the cause of greater economic success. They found, for example, that a person with an average IQ and with the highest level of educational attainment had a ten times greater chance of being found in the top 5% of incomes than a person with the same average IQ but with the lowest level of educational attainment, all other things being equal [3].

That’s a bit strange, isn’t it? If intelligence is argued to be the determining factor in economic success, then how do we explain such contradictory results? Is it possible that being rich has little—if anything—to do with being smart?

What Bowles and Gintis found was that the role that schools play in developing cognitive skills makes only a miniscule contribution to an individual’s eventual economic success. Vastly more significant in determining a child’s future income and occupational status is the socioeconomic background of a child’s family. For instance, holding IQ constant, a child born to parents in the highest bracket of income, occupational status, and educational attainment had a 40.8% chance of ending up in the top fifth of the income distribution; a child born to parents in the lowest socioeconomic bracket had only a 5.5% chance of enjoying the same level of economic success.

The significance is clear. If you ever come across a genie that gives you the magical choice to be reborn to a rich family or to be reborn a super-genius, if your goal is to maximize your future income and status, choose the rich family.

Aside: Inheriting poverty

Interestingly, the above line of work by Bowles and Gintis also went a long way toward disproving the theory of “genetic inheritance of cognitive skill” – better known as the idea, to put it as crassly as contemporary proponents of this theory sometimes do, that poor people are poor because they’re stupid, and they inherited their stupidity from their stupid, poor parents [4]. This is the argument often put forward by people searching for the reason why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in nature itself (i.e., genetics), rather than in the structure of the economy – which, incidentally, they never seem to have any problem with. In reality, as already discussed, an individual’s IQ has very little to do with their future economic status anyway, and at that point the argument completely falls apart.

Schools prepare children to fit into already-existing hierarchical structures in society

Where does that leave schools, then? One of the traditional goals of educators has been to create an even economic playing field for graduates by developing students’ cognitive skills – but if cognitive skills have nothing to do with economic success, and parental socioeconomic background has everything to do with it, then what role do schools play in preparing students for economic life? Obviously there’s not much that schools can do to change a child’s parents. (Except, of course, when the Canadian government decides that Aboriginal children are better off with white parents.)

What the authors of Schooling found, when it comes to where schools fit into the process of figuring out where people end up in the economic hierarchy, is that schools play a key role in socializing children to “integrate” into the economic system. They develop “the types of personal demeanor, modes of self-presentation, self-image, and social-class identifications which are the crucial ingredients of job adequacy” and “replicate the hierarchical division of labor” as reflected in the subordinate position of students in relation to teachers, teachers to administrators, and so on. Indeed, by “structuring social interactions and individual rewards to replicate the environment of the workplace”, schools prepare “people to function well (and without complaint) in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation or public office” [5].

The authors call this structural tendency of public schools to define the roles, expectations, attitudes and activities of students, teachers and administrators in ways that complement future social relations in hierarchical corporate workplaces the “correspondence principle”, which basically claims that all of society’s major institutions must, well, jive with one another, for lack of a better term. Basically, it says that people who are expected to function in a particular way in one setting must function similarly in other settings in order for society not to be a total mess.

In schools, this doesn’t only mean subordinating students to the authority of teachers and principals. As workers in modern corporations have little or no say in workplace decisions—decision-making power being concentrated in the hands of management—and are almost totally removed from the meaning and purpose of their work, children (i.e., future workers) too must be socialized to come to naturally expect such conditions. Thus students have no control over their education, removed completely from decisions about curriculum and pedagogy – let alone attendance, scheduling, class sizes or any other aspect of education, and students are “motivated” to do “school work through a system of grades and other external rewards rather than the student’s integration with either the process (learning) or the outcome (knowledge)” of education [6].

To take another example of how the correspondence principle might work, imagine a sexist society where women are primarily responsible for tasks that involve care-giving and nurturing within families. Would anyone be surprised to discover that nearly all nurses and primary teachers are women in such a society?*

The notion is, it seems, entirely non-controversial. Really, what else would we expect?

At risk of belaboring the point, imagine, for instance, that schools were structured in such a way that they empowered each and every child to pursue their own unique course of intellectual, physical, social, emotional and moral development (with a bit of teacher guidance, of course). In other words, imagine that schools fostered an incredible level and diversity of human flourishing. Young adults emerging from such schools would undoubtedly be independent, critically-minded, creative, well informed, and confident.

Now imagine those same young adults entering stultifying, conformist, authoritarian workplaces where someone is always hanging over your shoulder prodding you to work harder and faster – and imagine that all the work is undertaken not to meet the legitimate needs and interests of individuals and the community, but to meet the arbitrary and external demands of profit and competition. If a great mass of free, independent, confident young adults were to encounter such utterly dehumanizing and demoralizing workplaces, clearly something would have to change because the two—independent people and crushing workplaces—simply don’t mesh up. It would be a constant battle; either the schools would have to change to meet the requirements of the workplaces and instead produce obedient, passive, conformist, isolated individuals, or the workplaces would have to become more free and just. Such a mismatch couldn’t exist for long.

Is there any reason why the same insight and reasoning shouldn’t apply as much to schools and workplaces in Canada as they do in the US, or anywhere else? Of course our schools and workplaces (and families, polity and culture) have to coexist and complement one another. If they didn’t match up then the society would be a total mess, a constant and outright war. It just wouldn’t work.

That said, whether one believes that schools and workplaces in Canada or elsewhere produce desirable conditions and outcomes simply comes down to a number of value judgments. For instance, should we have an economy and an educational system where some people give orders (teachers, bosses) and others follow them (students, workers)? Should we have a society where some have enormous power and wealth and others are forced to live and work under humiliating and degrading conditions, if at all? Should we have an economy that, in its built-in drive to ignore costs external to transactions (such as pollution), inevitably leads to social catastrophe and environmental calamity – and which demands a corresponding ignorance and only-in-it-for-myself attitude from the population in order to continue to function?

Returning for a moment to the photographs and story above about schools in the USSR and America, we may find ourselves in some discomfort if we consider how similarly structured schools in the two countries appear to have been. If we are abhorred by—and reject—the authoritarianism and totalitarianism of the dungeon that was the USSR, and correctly so, then should we not soberly and carefully ask ourselves why our schools look so much like theirs? Is the similarity only superficial, or are we perhaps faced with much deeper questions about ourselves and the kind of society we want to live in?

The modern public school system was shaped by major class, ethnic, racial, gendered and political clashes over the last 150-200 years – and, for the most part, the wealthy and powerful won

The authors’ study of the history of the American public school system showed that schools developed “not by the gradual perfection of a democratic or pedagogical ideal but by a series of class and other conflicts arising through the transformation of the social organization of work and its rewards”. Bowles and Gintis point out that universal primary education only emerged in the US at a point when the American economy was shifting from one primarily made up of independent (and often quite radical) farmers and artisans, with mercantilism and trade basically on the margins of the economy, to an industrialized factory system that forced people to work under horrible conditions, not for themselves or their families but for someone else (i.e., a boss or owner), and as a mere instrument of profit-making, as opposed to a human being producing based on need or for the love of the work itself, as it was largely formerly pursued. Thus public education was seen by factory owners, professionals, financiers, and their friends in government, as a means to instill the proper attitudes and skills in children in order to avoid labour strife when those children later became workers [7].

Notable for educators today is the period from 1890-1930, known in the US as the “Progressive Era” and marked by well-known progressive figures like John Dewey. Whereas primary schools had spread widely throughout the US from the mid-nineteenth century onward, high schools were primarily private institutions reserved for the children of social and economic elites. From 1890-1930, high schools underwent a similar expansion into and across the public realm, as “the percentage of all fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds attending public high schools rose from 4 percent to 47 percent” [8]. The growth of public high schools accompanied the continued expansion of the wage labour system across industry, agriculture and commerce, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for formerly independent farmers and artisans to work on their own terms. Not surprisingly, unionization, political organizing, strikes and uprisings increased in frequency and intensity took on a distinctly anti-capitalist character as workers struggled for some modicum of dignity in their lives.

Thus high schools developed in response to growing public unrest, and in accord with the need of corporate managers to motivate and control great masses of workers on ever-expanding shop floors (tellingly, the ratio of foremen to workers rose from 1:89 in 1900 to 1:34 by 1930). Employers began to turn to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “newly launched school of scientific management” for advice on how to structure work roles at each level of the increasingly pyramidal organizational chart in order to extract the maximum possible effort—and obedience—from subordinates. Taylor preached shifting decision-making power into the hands of foremen and upper management while “[urging] the reduction of most jobs to the carrying out of simple and highly explicit directives” [9]. Employers were thrilled with the results, but worried about sustaining their gains across society. Naturally, they turned to the schools.

The focus of employers during this period, in brief, was to centralize control over the school system and to put it in the right hands – that is, of wealthy professionals and employers themselves. They did this by replacing the relatively decentralized system of ward elections for school boards—sometimes resulting in boards with dozens or even hundreds of members in larger US cities—with the citywide board elections that we know today, by redefining qualifications for who could become a board member, and then to systematically shift power from the schools to the board.

They were stunningly successful in their efforts. Professionals and big businessmen in St. Louis, for example, came to fill 83.5% of board positions after the reforms, where they had only held 14.3% of seats before the reforms. Wage-earning workers were represented by 28.6% of school board positions before the reforms; after, zero. In Philadelphia, social elites went from controlling 12% of the board to 76% of its positions after that city’s reforms [10]. The idea was that having the “right people” in place would ensure that the school board made the right decisions – curiously, consistently in the interests of professionals, businessmen and social elites.

Now in control of the schools, elites embarked on a reform program that centered around opening vocational schools and introducing extensive tracking and testing into the schools. Vocational schools were viewed by the National Association of Manufacturers as “the one and only remedy for the present intolerable conditions”, referring to the horrific practice of skilled labourers controlling the shop floor and hiring and training their own helpers and apprentices [11]. If the employers could convince the public to open trade schools, they could take control of training and build up a surplus supply of skilled labourers (a supply which at that point skilled labourers themselves controlled), the better to break unions and lower wages with.

Meanwhile, testing and tracking were seen as legitimate ways to channel students into their proper place in society “on the basis of their ethnic, racial and economic background”. If standardized tests and IQ tests could “prove” that Blacks, Jews and poor people were of a lower intellect, or that boys and girls were inherently different, then they could just as well prove that white, wealthy people deserved their higher place in the food chain – and that “girls should be encouraged to develop their ‘unreasoning’ instinct to ‘… pet, coddle, and ‘do for’ others’” [12]. As such, IQ tests and the like were sophisticated but deceptive methods for further cementing and legitimizing already existing (and growing) inequalities in society – a crucially important task for schools to undertake in a society where the masters only remain on top if we allow such inequalities persist.

Lessons learned

It seems appropriate to end this exploration of the role that schools play in a capitalist democratic society like our own—that is, to reproduce hierarchical social relations and legitimize vast inequalities in power, wealth and life opportunities—by looking forward and again raising the question of values.

What do we want for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for our society and our planet? If we are truly committed to freedom, justice, diversity and equity, then is it not incumbent upon us to act upon our values? Indeed, can we honestly claim such principles if, in the face of systemic injustice, oppression, conformity, inequity and domination, we do nothing – or worse, accept things as they are and become complicit in their perpetuation?

If we are committed to good values and a better world, there is much we can learn from Schooling in Capitalist America, among other great works of social insight, and much we can do. What is clear, at the very least, is that we cannot change the structure of the economy by making changes to the schools alone. Similarly, any strategy for educational reform must explicitly put schools into the proper context of the broader society and must take into account the great political, economic and social forces interested in keeping things just the way they are.

Which is only to say: With clear and worthy commitments, careful planning, plenty of people actively participating, and a willingness to lose a few times, we have a pretty good chance of winning.


*The correspondence principle—that role definitions in society’s major institutions must “correspond” (fit) with one another—is built upon and expanded in important activist theoretical work in Michael Albert et al., Liberating Theory (Boston: South End Press, 1986), resulting in a powerful explanatory and analytic framework for social change known as “complementary holism”.



Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Chicago: Haymarket, 2011. (Original work published 1976)

Kohn, Alfie. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide.” PHI DELTA KAPPAN (September 1993).

Ipsos-Reid. “Canadians Give Overall State of Public Elementary School System Mediocre Marks.” Northumberland View, September 3, 2012. Accessed June 10, 2013. http://www.northumberlandview.ca/index.php?module=news&type=user&func=display&sid=17001

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000.” Data file; no date. Accessed June 10, 2013. http://pisa2000.acer.edu.au/interactive.php



1. Alfie Kohn, “Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide,” in PHI DELTA KAPPAN, September 1993.

2. Ipsos-Reid, “Canadians Give Overall State of Public Elementary School System Mediocre Marks,” Northumberland View, September 3, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.northumberlandview.ca/index.php?module=news&type=user&func=display&sid=17001; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000,” Data file (no date), accessed June 10, 2013, http://pisa2000.acer.edu.au/interactive.php.

3. See Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), and chapter 4, esp. 110-122, for this section.

4. Ibid, 114-122, for further discussion on the genetic inheritability of IQ.

5. Ibid, 131; ix-x.

6. Ibid, 131.

7. Ibid, x. Also see chapters 6, 7 and 8 for this section.

8. Ibid, 181.

9. Ibid, 185.

10. Ibid, 189.

11. Ibid, 191-195.

12. Ibid, 195-198.

Discussion 7 Comments

  • Kristi Doyne-Bailey 8th Sep 2013

    thanx for that excellent information...
    as one who unschooled our son, i couldn’t agree more...
    additional authors to read would be: john holt, grace llewellyn and john taylor gatto...and AERO is reaching many, http://www.educationrevolution.org/?utm_source=9%2F1&utm_campaign=9%2F1%2F13&utm_medium=email

    unschoolers are definitely faced with an unpleasant reality check when they hit university and the working world though...the mismatch you refer to...
    i think it’ll take a lot more parents willing to unschool before the numbers will facilitate the change we want...

  • Jon Doe 8th Sep 2013

    this is great. thanks for thinking seriously about schooling, and sharing your thoughts.

  • Dave Jones 10th Sep 2013

    I wonder if you don't want to put scare quotes around "democratic" capitalism? It seemed to me that the major argument in Bowles and Gintis' book Democracy and Capitalism was exactly that this contradiction gets a pass in modern social thought.

    Anyway, I am glad to see a focus on pedagogy. We are all students on some level.

  • Howard Goldson 14th Sep 2013

    I join in the "congrats" for your fine work as well as the importance of the questions you raise. I would like to start a discussion list here.

    My first thought would be this: There is no one way to be a human being. Consequently, education must be an open formant in which people engage with each other for the purpose of assisting each individual to define their particular form of being human. Our discussion then must envision an open PUBLIC space in which there can be no claim of ownership and to which all have unfettered access. The many claims now asserted to ownership of this space are well articulated in your article. To rid the PUBLIC space of these illegitimate claims brings back memories of Zuccatti Park.

    So we have a two front task. We must begin the process of envisionment, of what such a space would look like, and simultaneously evict present day squatters.

  • Haroon Bajwa 15th Sep 2013

    Thank you for this wonderful article, Andre.

    I instinctively always believed that schools hindered rather than nurtured the natural curiosity and independence of mind in people. As you make mention, schools do not operate inside a vacuum. There is an interdependence amongst the spheres of economy, politics and education. Transforming one sphere, alone, is not enough. Rather, a wholesale transformation is required in all spheres in order to inspire and sustain truly democratic values and principles in each sphere.

  • Howard Goldson 17th Sep 2013

    Roger Berkowitz (Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College) posted an important comment this week. Berkowitz discussed education with respect to children. As a teacher of adults I have redacted some of his thought to make it more generally applicable. He wrote,"...the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and ne3w people. Education must love this transformative nature... Education must not strike from their hands (children for Berkowitz, all for me) their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen... to prepare them... for the task of renewing a common world."

  • Sarah Owens 26th May 2014

    Our chapter was discussing how a participatory society would "educate" its "children" recently, having read as a group the essay in "Imagine a Socialist United States" by Bill Ayers. Let me just say we didn't get very far; it was too hard for us to imagine in the broader circumstances of post-capitalism. I thought maybe we would have to keep the process closer to home because of transportation "costs", which would have implications for the urban-rural divide, and have fewer "professional" teachers and less emphasis on "sports." The more I thought about it, the more difficult and unimaginable it seemed.

    Unrelated to my comment, but somewhat relevant is this blog by a member of our chapter: