Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Questioning the Function of Schooling: Bowles and Gintis Publish Schooling in Capitalist America

In 1976, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis transformed the realm of curriculum theorizing with the publication of their widely read book Schooling in Capitalist America. Debunking the century-old ideal of public education as "the great equalizer" among disparate social classes in the United States, Bowles and Gintis instead argued that public schooling in fact reproduces social and class-based inequities.

Drawing upon classic Marxist notions of base and superstructure, Bowles and Gintis formulated a comprehensive analysis of schools as institutional constructs operating at the superstructural level, which is in turn inscribed by society's economic base. In such a system, inequities are determined and reproduced in one direction--from base to superstructure. Specifically, Bowles and Gintis attempted to demonstrate the ways in which schools in the United States were closely involved and interrelated with capitalist structures of production. The schools and their curriculum, in other words, structure education so as to produce "good workers" who will fill various socially stratified occupations, thereby maintaining class-based inequities and benefiting the means of capitalist economic production and profit. Bowles and Gintis write:

"The structure of social relations in education not only inures the student to the discipline of the workplace, but develops the types of personal demeanor, modes of self-presentation, self-image, and social class identifications which are the crucial ingredients of job adequacy. Specifically, the social relationships of education--the relationships between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, and students and students, and students and their work--replicate the hierarchical divisions of labor." (Bowles and Gintis, 1976, p.131)

In addition to critiquing the role of schools in reproducing class inequities, Bowles and Gintis were further interested in the problematic nature of school reform. In essence, the authors view school reform in the late 1970s as an ongoing project rooted in systematic failure. To one degree this failure is couched in Bowles and Gintis' belief that several school reforms merely upheld the capitalist order, while operating under the guise of pro-active change. To another degree, the authors found that many reforms were based too heavily in liberation and equality and were unable to succeed given the reality of unjust social conditions in which such reforms emerged. To truly establish effective school reform, Bowles and Gintis suggest that such a project must be considered in terms of a larger goal of social transformation committed to ameliorating social and class-based inequalities. To consider schools as entities in and of themselves, rather that key components operating within the matrix of social relations, in the eyes of Bowles and Gintis, is both unproductive and in most cases retroactive in the struggle for democracy (Cohen and Rosenberg, 1977).

To say that Schooling in Capitalist America was not met with ample critique would be an oversight. Interestingly, some of the most salient critiques waged against Bowles and Gintis' work were produced by fellow Marxist theorists of education concerned with the issue of "reproduction" or "correspondence" as it functions in schools. By the early 1980s, this fundamental aspect of Bowles and Gintis' argument was soundly criticized as being overly reductionistic and deterministic, lacking a cultural analysis, and overlooking the crucial notion of student agency or resistance (Apple, 1979; Giroux, 1983; Strike, 1989). In fact, Bowles and Gintis found some of these same problems in Schooling in Capitalist America, and contributed to the critique of the book with the publication of "Contradiction and Reproduction in Educational Theory."

The work of Bowles and Gintis, as well as several other educational theorists posing Marxist and neo-Marxist critiques of schooling (including Apple and Giroux, most prominently), made an indelible mark on the very nature of questions being raised in curriculum theorizing. As a result of their contributions, it is no longer safe to assume that an educational project, even when imbued with the best of liberal, democratic intentions, will in fact assure equity. Instead, Bowles and Gintis' Schooling in Capitalist America calls for a ceaseless inquiry into the actual social outcomes of such ideals.


Apple, M. (1979). Curriculum and reproduction. Curriculum Inquiry, 9 (3), 231-252.

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1980) Contradiction and reproduction in educational theory. In. L. Barton, R. Meigham and S. Walker (Eds.), Schooling, ideology, and the curriculum. (51-65). London: Falmer.

Cohne, D. and Rosenberg, B. (1977). Functions and fantasies: Understanding schools in capitalist America. History of Education Quarterly, Summer, 1977, 113-137.

Giroux, H. (1983). Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P., and Taubman, P. (Eds.) (1995). Understanding curriculum. . New York: Peter Lang.

Strike, K. (1989). Liberal justice and the Marxist critique of education. New York: Routledge.

Prepared by Alison Kreider (UCLA)

Citation: Kreider, Alison (1997). 1976 Questioning the Function of Schooling: Bowles and Gintis Publish Schooling in Capitalist America. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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