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Functions and Fantasies: Understanding Schools in Capitalist America

  • David K. Cohen (a1) and Bella H. Rosenberg (a2)


Schooling in capitalist America will make waves in the history of education, but it is only incidentally concerned with history. Rather, it is an effort to locate schooling in the social and economic context of capitalist society. The authors seek to offer a comprehensive account of the role schools have served in the American economic structure; they advance a critique of efforts to change or reform schools; and they suggest an alternative vision of how school reform should work.



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1. Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York, 1976).

2. Bowles, and Gintis, , pp. 911.

3. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 151.

4. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 179.

5. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 199.

6. Bowles, and Gintis, , pp. 166–67. It should also be noted that some early capitalists argued against the extension of schooling on the grounds that it would overeducate workers beyond usefulness. See, for example, Wyllie, Irvin G., The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches (New Brunswick, 1954). Moreover, there is evidence that the skills required for Massachusetts factories during this period decreased. Following Bowies' and Gintis' argument, increased schooling seems dysfunctional and its support by capitalists irrational. See Field, Alexander James, “Educational Expansion in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts: Human-Capital Formation or Structural Reinforcement?” Harvard Educational Review, 46(November 1976): 544–45.

7. From Mann, Horace, Life and Works of Horace Mann (Boston and New York, 1891), IV, 245–67 quoted in Welter, Rush, Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America, paperback ed. (New York, 1965), p. 100.

8. Mann, Horace, railroad and factory enthusiast that he was, was also intensely ambivalent about the new order. Indeed, many of his schooling arguments were offered in the hopes of preserving an essentially Jeffersonian society. See, for example, Messerli, Jonathan, Horace Mann: A Biography (New York, 1972). It is also interesting to note that had Mann managed to “preserve the legal and economic foundations of the society in which he had been raised,” as Bowles and Gintis claim (p. 173), capitalism as we know it would have been forestalled. See, for example, Horwitz, Morton J., The Transformation of American Law 1780–1860 (Cambridge, Mass. 1977) and Handlin, Oscar and Handlin, Mary Flug, Commonwealth, A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts 1774–1861, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1969).

9. Vinovskis, Maris, “Horace Mann on the Economic Productivity of Education,” New England Quarterly, 43 (1970): 550–71.

10. See, for example, Graham, Patricia Albjerg, Community and Class in American Education, 1865–1918 (New York, 1974).

11. For a valuable treatment of urban life from this perspective, see Mc-Dermott, John J., “Space, Time, and Touch: Philosophical Dimensions of Urban Consciousness,” reprint, Soundings (Fall 1974): 253–74. See also the essays by Clifford Geortz and James Fernandez in the Winter 1972 issue of Daedelus, “Myth, Symbol and Culture.”

12. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 173.

13. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 195. One of this paper's authors once even shared this view; see Cohen, David K. and Lazerson, Marvin, “Education and the Corporate Order,” Socialist Revolution (March 1972).

14. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 198.

15. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 200.

16. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 191.

17. Bowles, and Gintis, , p. 11.

18. See, for example, “Educational News and Editorial Comment,” School Review, 35 (1927): 733–35.

19. Wechsler, Harold S., The Qualified Student, A History of Selective College Admission in America (New York, 1977), pp. 131–66 and Wechsler, Harold S., “The Selective Function of American College Admissions Policies, 1870–1970,” Diss. Columbia University 1974, p. 263.

Mr. Cohen is grateful for comments and arguments on the subject offered during the course of several years by Joseph Featherstone and Eleanor Farrar.


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