Bowles Samuel, 1978 "Schooling and the reproduction of inequality," pages 315-329 in The Capitalist System. eds. Richard C. Edward, Michael Reich, and Thomas E. Weisskopf, 2nd edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc. NJ.

Schooling and the Reproduction of Inequality

In analyzing the distribution of income it is important to distinguish between equality of income, on the one hand, and equality of opportunity, on the other. Equality of income means that everyone receives the same income. Equality of opportunity means that everyone has the same chance to reach the top (or the bottom) of the prevailing income hierarchy, in the sense that a person's family background has no influence on a person's chances of economic success. Inequality of opportunity exists to the extent that economic success (or failure) is transmitted from parents to children.

We have seen that capitalist societies are characterized by a high degree of income inequality. A hierarchy of unequal incomes, based on the distinction between capitalists and workers and the hierarchical division of the labor force, is an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production. But does this inequality of income necessarily imply inequality of opportunity as well ? Many defenders of the capitalist order concede that the distribution of income must be and will be unequal, but they argue that it is inequality of opportunity rather than inequality of income that really matters. This raises the question of whether it is possible to equalize opportunity within the unequal structure of a capitalist society.

One important source of unequal opportunity under capitalism is the intergenerational transmission of wealth. As long as income-producing property can be transferred from parents to children through inheritance, the children of the rich will have much greater chances of economic success than the children of the poor-if only because they can count on a steady flow of property income. It would require a drastic curtailment of the rights of inheritance to prevent such intergenerational transmission of wealth; but to interfere seriously with these rights would be as incompatible with the capitalist mode of production as to abolish private property altogether. 

A second source of unequal opportunity in a capitalist society is the intergenerational transmission of the capacity to command labor income. Parents from high socioeconomic classes generally pass on to their children certain attitudes, skills, privileges, etc. which give them better opportunities for success in the labor market than children from lower classes. Some of the economic advantages that are transmitted in this way can be purchased with parents' income (e.g., a first-rate education); others are associated with parents' social status (e.g., useful contacts).

For advocates of more equal economic opportunity within the framework of a capitalist society, it is this second source of unequal opportunity that has appeared to be the most amenable to change. In particular, reformers in the United States have looked to the expansion of the educational system as the most promising means of providing that equality of opportunity which has long been promised to all Americans. Indeed, it has been an important part of the prevailing American ideology that the school system can and does lead to greater equality of both income and opportunity

Yet, as Samuel Bowles argues in the following reading, the American educational system is in fact instrumental in the legitimation of income inequality and in its transmission from one generation to the next. For one of the primary functions of schools in a capitalist society is to reproduce the hierarchical division of labor that is such an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production.

The argument that schooling cannot be expected to reduce inequality in the United States derives additional support from some recent evidence on trends in educational attainment and labor income.1 Since World War II, t he degree of inequality in years of schooling attained by Americans has been significantly reduced, as more and more students finish their high school education. Yet in the same period the distribution of labor income has actually become more unequal. So even when efforts are made to equalize access to education, the impact on the structure of economic rewards is minimal. The impact on the distribution of economic opportunity is likewise very limited, for inequality of both income and opportunity is deeply rooted in the capitalist system.

The following is excerpted from "Unequal Education and the Reproduction of the Social Division of Labor" by Samuel Bowles. From Schooling in a Corporate Society. The Political Economy of Education in America and the Alternatives Before Us, edited by Martin Carnoy (New York: David McKay Co., 1972). Copyright 1971 by Samuel Bowles. Reprinted by permission of the author.


The ideological defense of modern capitalist society rests heavily on the assertion that the equalizing effects of education can counter the disequalizing forces inherent in the free market system. That educational systems in capitalist societies have been highly unequal is generally admitted and widely condemned. Yet educational inequalities are taken as passing phenomena, holdovers from an earlier, less enlightened era, which are rapidly being eliminated.

The record of educational history in the U.S., and scrutiny of the present state of our colleges and schools, lend little support to this comforting optimism. Rather, the available data suggest an alternative interpretation. In what follows I will argue (1) that schools have evolved in the U.S. not as part of a pursuit of equality, but rather to meet the needs of capitalist employers for a disciplined and skilled labor force, and to provide a mechanism for social control in the interest s of political stability; (2) that as the economic importance of skilled and well educated labor has grown, inequalities in the school system have become increasingly important in reproducing the class structure from one generation to the next; (3) that t he U.S. school system is pervaded by class inequalities, which have shown little sign of diminishing over the last half century; and (4) that the evidently unequal control over school boards and other decision-making bodies in education does not provide a sufficient explanation of the persistence and pervasiveness of inequalities in the school system. Although the unequal distribution of political power serves to maintain inequalities in education, their origins are to be found outside the political sphere, in the class structure itself and in the class subcultures typical of capitalist societies. Thus unequal education has its roots in the very class structure which it serves to legitimize and reproduce. Inequalities in education are a part of the web of capitalist society, and likely to persist as long as capitalism survives.


In colonial America, and in most precapitalist societies of the past, the basic productive unit was the family. For the vast majority of male adults, work was self-directed, and was performed without direct supervision. Though constrained by poverty, ill health, the low level of technological development, and occasional interferences by the political authorities, a man had considerable leeway in choosing his working hours, what to produce, and how to produce it. While great inequalities in wealth, political power, and other aspects of status normally existed, differences in the degree of autonomy in work were relatively minor, particularly when compared with what was to come.

Transmitting the necessary productive skills to the children as they grew up proved to be a simple task, not because the work was devoid of skill, but because the quite substantial skills required were virtually unchanging from generation to generation, and because the transition to the world of work did not require that the child adapt to a wholly new set of social relationships. The child learned the concrete skills and adapted to the social relations of production through learning by doing within the family. Preparation for life in the larger community was facilitated by the child's experience with the extended family, which shaded off without distinct boundaries, through uncles and fourth cousins, into the community. Children learned early how to deal with complex relationships among adults other than their parents, and children other than their brothers and sisters.1

It was not required that children learn a complex set of political principles or ideologies, as political participation was limited and political authority unchallenged, at least in normal times. The only major socializing institution outside the family was the church, which sought to inculcate the accepted spiritual values and attitudes. In addition, a small number of children learned craft skills outside the family, as apprentices. The role of schools tended to be narrowly vocational, restricted to preparation of children for a career in the church or the still inconsequential state bureaucracy. The curriculum of the few universities reflected the aristocratic penchant for conspicuous intellectual consumption.

The extension of capitalist production, and particularly the factory system, undermined the role of the family as the major unit of both socialization and production. Small peasant farmers were driven off the land or competed out of business. Cottage industry was destroyed. Ownership of the means of production became heavily concentrated in the hands of landlords and capitalists. Workers relinquished control over their labor in return for wages or salaries. Increasingly, production was carried on in large organizations in which a small management group directed the work activities of the entire labor force. The social relations of production-the authority structure, the prescribed types of behavior and response characteristic of the workplace-became increasingly distinct from those of the family.

The divorce of the worker from control over production-from control over his own labor-is particularly important in under standing the role of schooling in capitalist societies. The resulting hierarchical social division of labor-between controllers and controlled-is a crucial aspect of the class structure of capitalist societies, and will be seen to be an important barrier to the achievement of social class equality in schooling.

Rapid economic change in the capitalist period led to frequent shifts of the occupational distribution of the labor force, and constant changes in the skill requirements for jobs. The productive skills of the father were no longer adequate for the needs of the son during his lifetime. Skill training within the family became increasingly inappropriate.

And the family itself was changing. Increased geographic mobility of labor and the necessity for children to work outside the family spelled the demise of the extended family and greatly weakened even the nuclear family. Meanwhile, the authority of the church was questioned by the spread of secular rationalist thinking and the rise of powerful competing groups.

While undermining the main institutions of socialization, the rise of the capitalist system was accompanied by urbanization, labor migration, the spread of democratic ideologies, and a host of other developments which created an environment-both social and intellectual-which would ultimately challenge the political order.

An institutional crisis was at hand. The outcome, in virtually all capitalist countries, was the rise of mass education. In the U.S., the many advantages of schooling as a socialization process were quickly perceived. The early proponents of the rapid expansion of schooling argued that education could perform many of the socialization functions which earlier had been centered in the family and to a lesser extent, in the church. An ideal preparation for factory work was found in the social relations of the school: specifically, in its emphasis on discipline, punctuality, acceptance of authority outside the family, and individual accountability for one's work. The social relations of the school would replicate the social relations of the workplace, and thus help young people adapt to the social division of labor. Schools would further lead people to accept the authority of the state and its agents-the teachers-at a young age, in part by fostering the illusion of the benevolence of the government in its relations with citizens. Moreover, because schooling would ostensibly be open to all, one's position in the social division of labor could be portrayed as the result not of birth, but of one's own efforts and talents. And if the children's everyday experiences with the structure of schooling were insufficient to inculcate the correct views and attitudes, the curriculum itself would be made to embody the bourgeois ideology. Where pre-capitalist social institutions-particularly the church-remained strong or threatened the capitalist hegemony, schools sometimes served as a modernizing counter-institution.

The movement for public elementary and secondary education in the U.S. originated in the 19th century in states dominated by the burgeoning industrial capitalist class, most notably in Massachusetts. It spread rapidly to all parts of the country except the South. The fact that some working people's movements had demanded free instruction should not obscure the basically coercive nature of the extension of schooling. In many parts of the country, schools were literally imposed upon the workers.

The evolution of the economy in the 19th century gave rise to new socialization needs and continued to spur the growth of education. Agriculture continued to lose ground to manufacturing; simple manufacturing gave way to production involving complex inter related processes; an increasing fraction of the labor force was employed in producing services rather than goods. Employers in the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy began to require more than obedience and punctuality in their workers; a change in motivational outlook was required. The new structure of production provided little built in motivation. There were fewer jobs like farming and piece-rate work in manufacturing in which material reward was tied directly to effort. As work roles became more complicated and interrelated, the evaluation of the individual worker's performance became increasingly difficult. Employers began to look for workers who had internalized the production-related values of the firms' managers.

The continued expansion of education was pressed by many who saw schooling as a means of producing these new forms of motivation and discipline. Others, frightened by the growing labor militancy after the Civil War, found new urgency in the social control arguments popular among the proponents of education in the antebellum period.

A system of class stratification developed within this rapidly expanding educational system. Children of the social elite normally attended private schools. Because working class children tended to leave school early, the class composition of the public high schools was distinctly more elite than the public primary schools. And university education, catering mostly to the children of upper-class families, ceased to be merely training for teaching or the divinity and became import ant in gaining access to the pinnacles of the business world.

Around the turn of the present century, large numbers of working class and particularly immigrant children began attending high schools. At the same time, a system of class stratification developed within secondary education. The older democratic ideology of the common school-that the same curriculum should be offered to all children-gave way to the "progressive" insistence that education should be tailored to the "needs of the child." In the interests of providing an education relevant to the later life of the students, vocational schools and tracks were developed for the children of working families. The academic curriculum was preserved for those who would later have the opportunity to make use of book learning, either in college or in white-collar employment. This and other educational reforms of the progressive education movement reflected an implicit assumption of the immutability of the class structure. 2

The frankness with which students were channeled into curriculum tracks, on the basis of their social class background, raised serious doubts concerning the "openness" of the class structure. The relation between social class and a child's chances of promotion or tracking assignments was disguised-though not mitigated much-by another "progressive" reform: "objective" educational testing. Particularly after World War I, the capitulation of the schools to business values and concepts of efficiency led to the increased use of intelligence and scholastic achievement testing as an ostensibly unbiased means of measuring the product of schooling and classifying students. The complementary growth of the guidance counseling profession allowed much of the channeling to proceed from the students' "own" well-counseled-choices, thus adding an apparent element of voluntarism to the system.

The class stratification of education during this period had proceeded hand in hand with the stratification of the labor force. As large bureaucratic corporations and public agencies employed an increasing fraction of all workers, a complicated segmentation of the labor force evolved, reflecting the hierarchical structure of the social relations of production.

The social division of labor had become a finely articulated system of work relations dominated at the top by a small group with control over work processes and a high degree of personal autonomy in their work activities, and proceeding by finely differentiated stages down the chain of bureaucratic command to workers who labored more as extensions of the machinery than as autonomous human beings.3

One's status, income, and personal autonomy came to depend in great measure on one's place in the hierarchy of work relations. And in turn, positions in the social division of labor came to be associated with educational credentials reflecting the number of years of schooling and the quality of education received. The increasing importance of schooling as a mechanism for allocating children to positions in the class structure, played a major part in legitimizing the structure itself. But at the same time, it undermined the simple processes which in the past had preserved the position and privilege of the upper class families from generation to generation. In short, it undermined the processes serving to reproduce the social division of labor.

In pre-capitalist societies, direct inheritance of occupational position is common. Even in the early capitalist economy, prior to the segmentation of the labor force on the basis of differential skills and education, the class structure was reproduced generation after generation simply through the inheritance of physical capital by the offspring of the capitalist class. Now that the social division of labor is differentiated by types of competence and educational credentials as well as by the ownership of capital, the problem of inheritance is not nearly as simple. The crucial complication arises because education and skills are embedded in human beings, and-unlike physical capital-these assets cannot be passed on to one's children at death. In an advanced capitalist society in which education and skills play an important role in the hierarchy of production, then, laws guaranteeing inheritance are not enough to reproduce the social division of labor from generation to generation. Skills and educational credentials must somehow be passed on within the family. It is a fundamental theme of this paper that schools play an important part in reproducing and legitimizing this modern form of class structure.


Unequal schooling reproduces the hierarchical social division of labor. Children whose parents occupy positions at the top of the occupational hierarchy receive more years of schooling than working class children. Both the amount and the content of their education greatly facilitate their movement into positions similar to their parents.

Because of the relative ease of measurement, inequalities in years of schooling are particularly evident. If we define social class standing by the income, occupation, and educational level of the parents, a child from the 90th percentile in the class distribution may expect on the average to achieve over four and a half more years of schooling than a child from the 10th percentiles.5 As can be seen in Table 8- N, social class inequalities in the number fears of schooling received arise in part because a disproportionate number of children from poorer families do not complete high school. Table 8-0 indicates that these inequalities are exacerbated by social class inequalities in college attendance among those children who did graduate from high school: even among those who had graduated from high school, children of families earning less than $3,000 per year were over six times as likely not to attend college as were the children of families earning over $15,O00.6


Inequalities in schooling are not simply a matter of differences in years of schooling attained. Differences in the internal structure of schools themselves and in the content of schooling reflect the differences in the social class compositions of the student bodies. The social relations of the educational process of the educational process ordinarily mirror the social relations of the work roles into which most students are likely to move. Differences in rules, expected modes of behavior, and opportunities for choice are most glaring when we compare levels of schooling. Note the wide range of choice over curriculum, life style, and allocation of time afforded to college students, compared with the obedience and respect for authority expected in high school. Differentiation occurs also within each level of schooling. One needs only to compare the social relations of a junior college with those of an elite four-year college, or those of a working class high school with those of a wealthy suburban high school, for verification of this point.

The differential socialization patterns in schools attended by students of different social classes do not arise by accident. Rather, they stem from the fact that the educational objectives and expectations of both parents and teachers, and the responsiveness of students to various patterns of teaching and control, differ for students of different social classes.7 Further, class inequalities in school socialization patterns are reinforced by the inequalities in financial resources. The paucity of financial support for the education of children from working class families not only leaves more resources to be devoted to the children of those with commanding roles in the economy; it forces upon the teachers and school administrators in the working class schools a type of social relations which fairly closely mirrors that of the factory. Thus financial considerations in poorly supported working class schools militate against small intimate classes, against a multiplicity of elective courses and specialized teachers (except disciplinary personnel), and preclude the amounts of free time for the teachers and free space required for a more open, flexible educational environment. The lack of financial support all but requires that students be treated as raw materials on a production line; it places a high premium on obedience and punctuality; there are few opportunities for independent, creative work or individualized attention by teachers. The well-financed schools attended by the children of the rich can offer much greater opportunities for the development of the capacity for sustained independent work and the other characteristics required for adequate job performance in the upper levels of the occupational hierarchy.

While much of the inequality in U.S. education exists between schools, even within a given school different children receive different educations. Class stratification within schools is achieved through tracking, differential participation in extracurricular activities, and in the attitudes of teachers and particularly guidance personnel who expect working class children to do poorly, to terminate schooling early, and to end up in jobs similar to their parents.8

Not surprisingly, the results of schooling differ greatly for children of different social classes. The differing educational objectives implicit in the social relations of schools attended by children of different social classes has already been mentioned. Less important but more easily measured are differences in scholastic achievement. If we measure the output of schooling by scores on nationally standardized achievement tests, children whose parents were themselves highly educated outperform the children of parents with less education by a wide margin. A recent study revealed, for example, that among white high school seniors, those students whose parents were in the top education decile were on the average well over three grade levels ahead of those whose parents were in the bottom decile.9 While a good part of this discrepancy is the result of unequal treatment in school and unequal educational resources, it will be suggested below that much of it is related to differences in the early socialization and home environment of the children.

Given the great social class differences in scholastic achievement, class inequalities in college attendance are to be expected. Thus one might be tempted to argue that the data in Table 8-0 are simply a reflection of unequal scholastic achievement in high school and do not reflect any additional social class inequalities peculiar to the process of college admission. This view is unsupported by the available data, some of which are presented in Table 8-P. Access to a college education is highly unequal, even for children of the same measured "academic ability."

The social class inequalities in our school system and the role they play in the reproduction of the social division of labor are too evident to be denied. Defenders of the educational system are forced back on the assertion that things are getting better; the inequalities of the past were far worse. Yet the available historical evidence lends little support to the idea that our schools are on the road to equality of educational opportunity. For example, data from a recent U.S. Census survey reported in Table 8-Q indicate that graduation from college has become increasingly dependent on one's class background. This is true despite the fact that the probability of high school graduation is becoming increasingly equal across social classes. On balance, the available data suggest that the number of years of schooling which the average child attains depends at least as much now upon the social class standing of his father as it did fifty years ago.10

The argument that our "egalitarian" education compensates for inequalities generated elsewhere in the capitalist system is patently fallacious. But the discrepancy between the ideology and the reality of the U.S. school system is far greater than would appear from a passing glance at the above data. In the first place, if education is to compensate for the social class immobility due to the inheritance of wealth and privilege, education must be structured so that the poor child receives not less, not even the same, but more than equal benefits from education. The school must compensate for the other disadvantages which the lower-class child suffers. Thus the liberal assertion that education compensates for inequalities in inherited wealth and privilege is falsified not so much by the extent of the social class inequalities in the school system as by their very existence, or, more correctly, by the absence of compensatory inequalities.

Second, considering the problem of inequality of income at a given moment, a similar argument applies. In a capitalist economy, the increasing important of schooling in the economy will increase income inequality even in the absence of social class inequalities in quality and quantity of schooling. This is so simply because the labor force becomes differentiated by type of skill or schooling, and inequalities in labor earnings therefore contribute to total income inequality, augmenting the inequalities due to the concentration of capital. The disequalizing tendency will of course be intensified if the owners of capital also acquire a disproportionate amount of those types of education and training which confer access to high-paying jobs .


The pervasive and persistent inequalities in U.S. education would seem to refute an interpretation of education which asserts its egalitarian functions. But the facts of inequality do not by themselves suggest an alternate explanation. Indeed, they pose serious problems of interpretation. If the costs of education borne by students and their families were very high, or if nepotism were rampant, or if formal segregation of pupils by social class were practiced, or educational decisions were made by a select few whom we might call the power elite, it would not be difficult to explain the continued inequalities in U.S. education. The problem of interpretation, however, is to reconcile the above empirical findings with the facts of our society as we perceive them: public and virtually tuition-free education at all levels, few legal instruments for the direct implementation of class segregation, a limited role for "contacts" or nepotism in the achievement of high status or income, a commitment (at the rhetorical level at least) to equality of educational opportunity, and a system of control of education which if not particularly democratic, extends far beyond anything resembling a power elite. The attempt to reconcile these apparently discrepant facts leads us back to a consideration of the social division of labor, the associated class cultures, and the exercise of class power.

The social division of labor based on the hierarchical structure of production gives rise to distinct class subcultures. The values, personality traits, and expectations characteristic of each subculture are transmitted from generation to generation through class differences in family socialization and complementary differences in the type and amount of schooling ordinarily attained by children of various class positions. These class differences in schooling are maintained in large measure through the capacity of the upper class to control the basic principles of school finance, pupil evaluation, and educational objectives.

The social relations of production characteristic of advanced capitalist societies (and many socialist societies) are most clearly illustrated in the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the modern corporation.11 Occupational roles in the capitalist economy may be grouped according to the degree of independence and control exercised by the person holding the job. There is some evidence that the personality attributes associated with the adequate performance of jobs in occupational categories defined in this broad way differ considerably, some apparently requiring independence and internal discipline, and others emphasizing such traits as obedience, predictability, and willingness to subject oneself to external controls.

These personality attributes are developed primarily at a young age, both in the family and, to a lesser extent, in secondary socialization institutions such as schools. Because people tend to marry within their own class (in part because spouses often meet in our class segregated schools), both parents are likely to have a similar set of these fundamental personality traits. Thus children of parents occupying a given position in the occupational hierarchy grow up in homes where child-rearing methods and perhaps even the physical surroundings tend to develop personality characteristics appropriate to adequate job performance in the occupational roles of the parents. The children of managers and professionals are taught self-reliance within a broad set of constraints; the children of production line workers are taught obedience.

While this relation between parents' class position and child's personality attributes operates primarily in the home, it is reinforced by schools and other social institutions. Thus, to take an example introduced earlier, the authoritarian social relations of working class high schools complement the discipline-oriented early socialization patterns experienced by working class children. The relatively greater freedom of wealthy suburban schools extends and formalizes the early independence training characteristic of upper-class families.

The operation of the labor market translates differences in class culture into income inequalities and occupational hierarchies. The personality traits, values, and expectations characteristic of different class cultures play a major role in determining an individual's success in gaining a high income or prestigious occupation. The apparent contribution of schooling to occupational success and higher income seems to be explained primarily by the personality characteristics of those who have higher educational attainments.12

Although the rewards to intellectual capacities are quite limited in the labor market (except for a small number of high level jobs), mental abilities are important in getting ahead in school. Grades, the probability of continuing to higher levels of schooling, and a host of other school success variables, are positively correlated with "objective" measures of intellectual capacities. Partly for this reason, one's experience in school reinforces the belief that promotion and rewards are distributed fairly. The close relationship between the amount of education attained and later occupational success thus provides a, meritocratic appearance to mask the mechanisms which reproduce the class system from generation to generation.

Positions of control in the productive hierarchy tend to be associated with positions of political influence. Given the disproportionate share of political power held by the upper class and their capacity to determine the accepted patterns of behavior and procedures, to define the national interest, and in general to control the ideological and institutional context in which educational decisions are made, it is not surprising to find that resources are allocated unequally among school tracks, between schools serving different classes, and between levels of schooling. The same configuration of power results in curricula, methods of instruction, and criteria of selection and promotion which confer benefits disproportionately on the children of the upper class.

The power of the upper class exists in its capacity to define and maintain a set of rules of operation or decision criteria-"rules of the game"-which, though often seemingly innocuous and sometimes even egalitarian in their ostensible intent, have the effect of maintaining the unequal system.

The operation of two prominent examples of these "rules of the game" will serve to illustrate the point. The first important principle is that excellence in schooling should be rewarded. Given the capacity of the upper class to define e excellence in terms on which upper-class children tend to excel (for example, scholastic achievement), adherence to this principle yields inegalitarian outcomes (for example, unequal access to higher education) while maintaining the appearance of fair treatment.13 Thus the principle of rewarding excellence serves to legitimize the unequal consequences of schooling by associating success with competence. At the same time, the institution of objectively administered tests of performance serves to allow a limited amount of upward mobility among exceptional children of the lower class, thus providing further legitimation of the operations of the social system by giving some credence to the myth of widespread mobility.

The second example is the principle that elementary and secondary schooling should be financed in very large measure from local revenues. This principle is supported on the grounds that it is necessary to preserve political liberty. Given the degree of residential segregation by income level, the effect of this principle is to produce an unequal distribution of school resources among children of different classes. Towns with a large tax base can spend large sums for the education of their disproportionately upper-class children even without suffering a higher than average tax rate. Because the main resource inequalities in schooling thus exist between rather than within school districts, and because there is no effective mechanism f or redistribution of school funds among school districts, poor families lack a viable political strategy for correcting the inequality.

The above rules of the game-rewarding "excellence" and financing schools locally-illustrate the complementarily between the political and economic power of the upper class. Thus it appears that the consequences of an unequal distribution of political power among classes complement the results of class culture in maintaining an educational system which has thus far been capable of transmitting status from generation to generation, and capable in addition of political survival in the formally democratic and egalitarian environment of the contemporary United States.


The role of the schools in reproducing and legitimizing the social division of labor has recently been challenged by popular egalitarian movements. At the same time, the educational system is showing signs of internal structural weakness.14 These two developments suggest that fundamental change in the schooling process may soon be possible. Analysis of both the potential and the limits of educational change will be facilitated by drawing together and extending the strands of our argument.

I have argued that the structure of education reflects the social relations of production. For at least the past 150 years, expansion of education and changes in the forms of schooling have been responses to needs generated by the economic system. The sources of present inequality in American education were found in the mutual reinforcement of class subcultures and social-class biases in the operations of the school system itself. The analysis strongly suggests that educational inequalities are rooted in the basic institutions of our economy. Reconsideration of some of the basic mechanisms of educational inequality lends support to this proposition. First, the principle of rewarding academic excellence in educational promotion and selection serves not only to legitimize the process by which the social division of labor is reproduced. It is also a basic part of the process that socializes young people to work for external rewards and encourages them to develop motivational structures fit for the alienating work of the capitalist economy. Selecting students from the bottom or the middle of the achievement scale for promotion to higher levels of schooling would go a long way toward equalizing education, but it would also jeopardize the schools' capacity to train productive and well-adjusted workers.15 Second, the way in which local financing of schools operates to maintain educational inequality is also rooted in the capitalist economy, in this case in the existence of an unequal distribution of income, free markets in residential property, and the narrow limits of state power. It seems unwise to emphasize this aspect of the long run problem of equality in education, however, for the inequalities in school resources resulting from the localization of finance may not be of crucial importance in maintaining inequalities in the effects of education. Moreover, a significant undermining of the principle of local finance may already be underway in response to pressures from the poorer states and school districts.

Of greater importance in the perpetuation of educational inequality are differential class subcultures. These class-based differences in personality, values, and expectations, I have argued, represent an adaptation to the different requirements of adequate work performance at various levels in the hierarchical social relations of production. Class subcultures, then, stem from the everyday experiences of workers in the structure of production characteristic of capita list societies.

It should be clear by this point that educational equality cannot be achieved through changes in the school system alone. Nonetheless, attempts at educational reform may move us closer to that objective if, in their failure, they lay bare the unequal nature of our school system and destroy the, illusion of unimpeded mobility through education. Successful educational reforms-reducing racial or class disparities in schooling, for example-may also serve the cause of equality of education, for it seems likely that equalizing access to schooling will challenge the system either to make good its promise of rewarding educational attainment or to find ways of coping with a mass disillusionment with the great panacea. 16

Yet, if the record of the last 150 years of educational reforms is any guide, we should not expect radical change in education to result from the efforts of those confining their attention to the schools. The political victories of past reform movements have apparently resulted in little if any effective equalization. My interpretation of the educational consequences of class culture and class power suggests that these educational reform movements failed because they sought to eliminate educational inequalities without challenging the basic institutions of capitalism.

Efforts to equalize education through changes in government policy will at best scratch the surface of inequality. For much of the inequality in American education has its origin outside the limited sphere of state power, in the hierarchy of work relations and the associated differences in class culture. As long as jobs are defined so that some have power over many and others have power over none-as long as the social division of labor persists-educational inequality will be built into society in the United States.


1. This account draws upon two important historical studies: P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood (New York: Random House, 1970); and B. Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society (New York: Random House, 1960).

1. See Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America
(New York: Basic Books, 1976), pp. 33-34, for documentation of this point, the data cited by Bowles and Gintis refer only to men 25 years or older, but the same general pattern no doubt applies to women as well.

2. See D. Cohen and M. Lazerson, "Education and the Corporate Order," Socialist Revolution 2, No. 3 (May/June, 1971).

3. See Reich, Section 5.1, p.179.

4. See S. Bowles, "Contradictions in U.S. Higher Education, in James H. weaver, ea., Modern Political Economy (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973).

5. The data for this calculation refer to white males who were in 1962 aged 25-34. See S. Bowles, "Schooling and Inequality from Generation to Generation," Journal of Political Economy, 80, No. 3 (May/June 1972).

6. For recent evidence on these points, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, Nos. 185 and 183.

8. See P. Lauter and F. Howe, "How the School System is Rigged for Failure," The New York Review of Books (June 18, 1970).

9. Calculation based on data in James S. Coleman et al. Equality of Educational Opportunity, Vol. II (Washington U.S. Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare, Office of Education, 1966), and methods described in Bowles, "Schooling and Inequality from Generation to Generation."

10. See P. M. Blau and O. D. Duncan, The American Occupational Structure (New York: Wiley, 1967). More recent data do not contradict the evidence of no trend towards equality. A 1967 Census survey, the most recent available, show s that among high school graduates in 1965, the probability of college attendance for those whose parents had attended college has continued to rise relative to the probability of college attendance for those whose parents has attended less than eight yea rs of school. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Report, Series P-20 No. 185, July 11,1969.

11. Ed. note: see Edwards, Section 5.3, p. 193.

12. This view is elaborated in H. Gintis, "Education, Technology, and Worker Productivity," American Economic Association Paper Proceedings, May 1971.

13. Those who would defend the "reward excellence" principle on the grounds of efficient selection to ensure the most efficient use of educational resources might ask themselves this: Why should colleges admit those with the highest college entrance examination board scores ? Why not the lowest, or the middle ? The rational social objective of the college is to render the greatest increment in individual capacities ("value added" to the economist), not to produce the most illustrious graduating class ("gross output"). Yet if incremental gain is the objective, it is far from obvious that choosing from the top is the best policy. And because no one has even attempted to construct a compelling argument that choosing from the top is the policy which maximizes the increment of learning for students, we can infer that the practice is supported by considerations other than that of efficient allocation of resources in education.

14. See Bowles, "Contradictions in U.S. Higher Education."

15. Consider what would happen to the internal discipline of schools if the students' objective were to end up at the bottom of the grade distribution!

16. The failure of the educational programs of the War on Poverty to raise significantly the incomes of the poor is documented in T. I. Ribich, Education and Poverty (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1968). In t he case of blacks, dramatic increases in the level of schooling relation to whites have scarcely affected the incomes of blacks relative to whites. See R. Weiss, "The Effects Education on the Earnings of Blacks and Whites," Review of Economies and Statistics 52, no. 2 (May 1970), 150-59.