Study Notes

Classic Texts: Bowles & Gintis "Schooling in Capitalist America" 1976


Last updated 18 Apr 2019

A classic Marxist analysis of education which describes how school prepares workers for a life of exploitation in the capitalist system. Unlike functionalists like Parsons, Bowles & Gintis dismiss the idea that the education system is meritocratic, instead describing a system that reproduces social class inequality.

A key aspect of Bowles & Gintis' famous study was the correspondence principle. That is, that school is deliberately made to be similar to work. Like in the workplace, school has a clear hierarchy (including some hierarchy among the pupils/workers to keep them divided). School work is fragmented into different subjects and disciplines, just as people have separate tasks on a production line. People work for extrinsic rewards (i.e. pay for workers in the capitalist system; grades and house points, etc. in school) rather than getting satisfaction from doing the work itself.

Bowles & Gintis argue that the aim of this is to create obedient, docile workers, who will not question how things are arranged and will not work together to change things. Separately, the children of the ruling class are taught in private schools or similar, to be confident and to expect to run things and be in charge. As such, for Bowles & Gintis the schooling system performs a vital function for capitalism: it keeps the children of working-class parents working class, and ensures the children of bourgeois parents remain bourgeois. And it ensure that those working-class children will continue to work hard and put up with low pay and poor conditions. It is the opposite of a meritocratic system. Bowles & Gintis talk about the myth of meritocracy.

Bowles & Gintis also explore the idea of a hidden curriculum - i.e. the things that education teaches us that are not part of the formal curriculum (what we learn about the various subjects in the classroom). Functionalists also recognise that there is a hidden curriculum, but they see this is a positive thing: part of what teaches people the norms and values of society. Marxists like Bowles & Gintis think this only benefits the ruling class and capitalism.

It is important to remember that Bowles & Gintis were Marxists; they were critics of capitalism. This is what they thought education was like, not what they thought it should be like.

Critics would argue that school has changed a lot since the 1970s and so has the workplace. Others would point out that working-class pupils do not always seem "docile" and "obedient" and often seem quite the opposite! However, Willis (in Learning to Labour) suggests that poor behaviour at school still benefits the capitalist system.

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