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Conflict Theories of Education - Correspondence Theory (Bowles and Gintis)

A Level

Last updated 17 May 2019

Bowles and Gintis, a pair of Marxist sociologists, identified a "correspondence" between school and the workplace.

School and work (particularly for working-class pupils and workers) both involve uniforms, strict time-keeping, hierarchy, rewards, punishments, etc. Bowles and Gintis argued that this prepared pupils for life in the capitalist system and prevented rebellion or revolution. The reason schools act in this way is because they work directly in the interests of the capitalist system and the ruling class and their principle purpose is to produce the workforce. Bowles and Gintis use the phrase: “work casts a long shadow over school.”


Aspect of education:

In school there is a clear hierarchy, with the head teacher at the top, a hierarchy of staff and the pupils at the bottom. Often there is an internal hierarchy of pupils too, with prefects, etc.

Correspondence with the workplace under capitalism:

Hierarchy is also apparent in the workplace with a boss (or CEO) at the top of the company, different levels of management beneath that, with the workers at the bottom. Some workers might be given supervising roles, like prefects.

Rewards and sanctions

Aspect of education:

School pupils are rewarded with good marks or with credits/house points/certificates/stars, etc. According to Bowles and Gintis this is often not because of the academically best work, or even necessarily the most effort: what is rewarded is compliance, subservience, punctuality, perseverance, etc. Pupils also receive sanctions of various kinds, usually for disruptive behaviour (some of which could be considered creative or innovative from a different perspective).

Correspondence with the workplace under capitalism:

The rewards for work are pay and perhaps, in some workplaces, bonuses, etc. Again, the reward is for forbearance; for doing as instructed and working tirelessly without complaint and for attending on time and not leaving early, etc. Again, workers can find themselves going through disciplinary procedures or even losing their jobs when they step out of line, which is again reflected in school.

Passive and Docile

Aspect of education:

School essentially trains people (largely because of the nature of what is rewarded as described above) to be passive, docile and uncomplaining. Schools discourage creativity and complaints (is this true? What do you think?) and encourage deference and subservience.

Correspondence with the workplace under capitalism:

The capitalist system is seeking a passive, docile, unimaginative and uncomplaining workforce. The bosses have the ideas and expect the workforce to get on with the work without complaint, and pupils generally do because they have been trained to do that at school.


Aspect of education:

Again, relating to the two previous points, school encourages the idea that the motivation to do well is an extrinsic reward (e.g. marks and qualifications). There is no encouragement of the idea that there might be intrinsic reward in having learnt something, or the feeling of a job well done.

Correspondence with the workplace under capitalism:

In the same way, at work people are encouraged to look to the reward (pay) rather than the work itself. Work in the capitalist system is tedious and unfulfilling, but the education system has trained pupils not to seek fulfilment at work and instead to be satisfied with external rewards. This is key to Marxist theory about work: Marx argued that people want to do interesting and fulfilling work, and capitalism prevents them from doing this – it alienates them from their work because they’re just a cog in a larger system: one piece in an assembly line.


Aspect of education:

Another important feature of school life is the way that knowledge is fragmented. Pupils learn knowledge in clear, delineated disciplines and making connections between them is discouraged.

Correspondence with the workplace under capitalism:

The workplace too is fragmented: people do their task with little knowledge of what else happens in the process. This is again part of the alienation of the worker under capitalism and helps the bosses control the situation. While the workers create the products, no one worker has an overview of the whole process.

...and finally

Again, it is worth pointing out that functionalists would agree with a lot of this, but see it as a positive thing. Yes, education prepares people for what it is going to be like in the workplace, but it’s important that it does. Because functionalists do not see the workplace and the relationship between the employer and employee as one of fundamental conflict, they see preparation for work as a positive function of the education system.

Evaluating Correspondence Theory

  • Bowles and Gintis conducted their research in 1976 and perhaps their findings are more applicable to when they were writing than they are to the present day. After all, the modern workplace is much less like the one described by Bowles and Gintis than the workplaces of the 1970s. Of course there are still factory jobs similar to those described, but a lot of jobs are very different.
  • Of course, this in itself is a further criticism of the education system today, because some say it continues to correspond with the workplaces of a different era, and so no longer prepares people for the modern workplace. (This can be seen in the work of Ken Robinson, who argues that the education system is based on the principles of industrialism but stifles creativity and does not prepare people for their working lives today).
  • However, other criticisms suggest that the education system is no longer as described, and again this is describing schools in the 1970s. In contemporary schools, some suggest, pupils are encouraged to get involved with democratic structures and also to complain about aspects of school they dislike, and to come up with ideas for improvements. These are all things that Marxists would generally assume were unwanted in the workplace in a capitalist system



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