School Attitudes

In forming my view that school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination, I rediscovered the view of the ’76 book Schooling In Capitalist America:

Schools produce future workers; … schools socialize students to accept beliefs, values, and forms of behavior on the basis of authority rather than the students’ own critical judgement of their interests.

(Weakly) supporting evidence:

A recent survey of 3,000 employers … asked, “When you consider hiring a new nonsupervisory or production worker, how important are the following in your decision to hire?” Employers ranked “industry based skill credentials” at 3.2 on a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 5 (very important), with “years of schooling” at 2.9, “score on tests given by employer” and “academic performance” both at 2.5. By far the most important was “attitude” ranked 4.6, followed by “communication skills” (4.2). …

[In a] survey of 1693 British employers … Of the somewhat more than a third of the establishments reporting a “skill shortage”, personnel managers identified the recruitment problem as “lack of technical skills” in 43 percent of the cases, but “poor attitude, motivation, or personality” in a remarkable 62 percent of the cases. Poor attitude was by far the most important reason for the recruitment difficulty given. The importance of motivation relative to technical skill was even greater among the full sample.

Here’s one accounting of three more specific functions of school:

  • Legitimization: Repeated contacts with the educational system, which seems impersonal and based on reliable criteria, convinces students (and their parents) that they are ending up in an appropriate place in society based on their skills and abilities. Thus, people accept their position in life: they become resigned to it, maybe even considering it appropriate or fair.
  • Acclimatization: The social relationships in the schools encourage certain traits, appropriate to one’s expected economic position, while discouraging others. Thus,certain relationships are considered normal and appropriate. Subordination to authority is a dominant trait enforced for most students.
  • Stratification: Students from different class backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders are overwhelmingly exposed to different environments and social relationships and thus are tracked and prepared for different positions in the hierarchy. The different experiences and successes lead each student to see her place as appropriate.
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  • “schools socialize students to accept beliefs, values, and forms of behavior on the basis of authority rather than the students’ own critical judgement of their interests.”

    How is that any different from how young people acquire the elaborate belief systems and behavioral norms in agricultural or hunter-gatherer societies? It’s not as though young people in the latter groups are acculturated by individual critical judgment, experimental behavior, free-thinking and open debate subject to no punishment if they disagree, etc.

    Certainly the beliefs and norms acquired are different — animism vs. materialism, or acceptance vs. rejection of dominance — but either way the young person gets the message to do things the way the larger group does or else.

    If we did away with modern schooling that emphasized acceptance of dominance of individual authority figures, all we would get is socialization that emphasizes acceptance of the dominance of the tribe’s ways. We would not get young people encouraged to be autonomous, experimental free spirits.

  • Tracy W

    schools socialize students to accept beliefs, values, and forms of behavior on the basis of authority rather than the students’ own critical judgement of their interests

    If so then schools are massively incompetent at this. Since the start of the 20th century we have seen the rise of feminism, of civil rights, of gay rights, of neoliberalism. Possibly you could think that the participants in those movements made the wrong critical judgment about their interests, but they certainly were not just accepting the beliefs, values and forms of behaviour of the authorities around at the time.

  • Konkvistador

    @Tracy: The Federal goverment was already in line with ideas of equality as early as the 1940’s, for example California droped its miscgenation legislation to accomodate the influx of Asian wives. It was the Southern States that resisted civil rights, you seem to forget that they where imposed top down because of the propaganda boon they provided in the context of the cold war, as well as some hope of economic benefits in having a more productive Black minority.

    Feminism enjoyed the support of powerfull players as well. I mean seriusly when have capitalists objected to decreasing the cost of labour? Before feminism and especially the woman’s lib of the 60’s the process started at the time of the industrial revolution of women entering the workforce had stalled. One of the aims of the early trade unions of having wages high enough to support families on one income had thus died a quiet death, surley a win?

    And at the end of the day remember that any politician arguing for the expanding of voting rights for a group will proably enjoy a large part of the new groups vote for a few election cycles.

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  • How would you then reintegrate Karl Popper’s concept of social engineering?

  • jorge

    The problem with the evidence is that IQ and conscientiousness are somewhat correlated. Both are of course correlated with things we call skills or talent and the ability to acquire relevant experience. Moreover, within the relevant IQ range (often sorted by things like education) conscientiousness may matter more at the margin. The latter is strongly connected to “having the right attitude” or at least learning to acquire it. It’s like the bogus findings that grades matter more than test scores of ADMITTED students at many universities. This is selection bias. What you want to ask is: Given two truly random individuals Would you want someone with high IQ and lower attitude or someone with low IQ and better attitude? The answer: It depends on the relevant range. If we’re talking complicated engineering or even high end management, no amount of good attitude will compensate for an iq of 80. A PIA genius might get booted out or he might figure out how to live and let live long enough to get the job done.

  • josh


    Perhaps you’ve noticed that the world has changed quite a bit since the 1970s. I can only speak anecdotally, but in my experience, students are not encouraged to accept hierarchy and authority. In fact, they are taught to despise hierarchy and authority no matter how untalented they may be. Schools are dominated by the politics of the people that control the content of the schools. Certainly, in the late 19th and early 20th century, this ruling elite were capitalists. Since this time their has been a progressive (pun intended) takeover of the education system. Today, it functions mainly as an arm of the university system. We are not encouraging students to be capitalists or even workers; we are encouraging them to be activists.

  • Tracy W

    Robin – your supporting evidence is non-existant. Eg, if hiring is based in part on attitude then obviously employers are not going to hire people that they think have a poor attitude. But that doesn’t tell us what employers think “poor attitude” is and whether that’s related to accepting beliefs, values and forms of behaviour on the basis of authority. For example, if “poor attitude” means “doesn’t want to do any work” or “won’t cooperate with others” then poor attitude would hamper any mass movement for social change, as well as a job. And “communication skills” – let’s see, Martin Luther King – great speaker, now there’s a black guy who is President of the USA. The Unabomber, terrible communication skills, I haven’t noticed the USA drawing away from technology. This doesn’t prove causation, of course, but I find it hard to believe that if only the US Civil Rights movement had sucked at communication skills there would have been a black President of the USA back in the 1950s.

    Konkvistador: you seem to be proposing a theory where by civil rights are expanded just because powerful interests decide to give them away for their own reasons. I find this implausible. For example, in Britain, feminists were agitating for the right to vote from about 1865 to 1914 (they called it off for WWI, in 1918 some women got the right to vote, 1928 equal voting rights). A 49 year battle for the right to vote implies to me that at least some powerful interests were against it.

    The US African-American civil rights movement, I’m not an expert in that particular period but the Wikipedia timeline implies a long fight. See
    I’ll also note that when the US federal government was trying to impose civil rights on the Southern US states, that is another case of people not deferring to authority – in this case the Southern Whites were thinking independently of the US federal government. I think they were wrong to support segregation, but being wrong is different to thinking for yourself. I also note that Nelson Mandela (incidentally, the first member of his family to attend school) was imprisoned for 28 years, again a rather long time if powerful interests were in favour of ending apartheid in South Africa.

    As for your comment about the US Federal Government being in favour of desegregation in the 1940s, that’s 40 years after the start of the 20th century.

    My apologies, Konkvistador, if I have misintepreted what is behind the comments you’ve made here. I’m trying to go from the specific statements to the general underlying principle.

  • Konkvistador

    You mostly correctly interpreted my statements and provided an appropriate response.

    However, I never said strong interests weren’t against many of the things TracyW mentioned. She said that perhaps people in those movements made decisions against their interests but they weren’t following the authorities around the time. I just wanted to demonstrate *some* of “the authorities” where supporting them.

    One lesson history teaches us that “the authorities” are never in complete agreement about their interests.

  • school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination

    The next question is to what degree do they succeed in getting people to accept workplace domination. That may be a goal but I wonder how affective and efficient are schools at achieving that goal.

  • Perhaps you’ve noticed that the world has changed quite a bit since the 1970s. I can only speak anecdotally, but in my experience, students are not encouraged to accept hierarchy and authority.

    Anecdotally, my experience matches Robin’s. Did you go to a school in a largely UMC or UC neighborhood? I went to a highly mixed SES school (small town), obviously tilted towards LC, but still with AP core classes for the “smarter” students.

  • kevin

    Employers care about schooling because they aren’t allowed to submit tests that might have “disparate impact”. So instead they use level of educational attainment and academic aptitude tests as a proxy for (say) conscientiousness and IQ.

    It seems quite likely that public education is about submission to US government. Consider that they pledge allegiance to the country every morning, take heavily propagandized versions of US history, civics, government, etc.

    • anon

      This theory is bogus. East Asian countries do not have the “disparate impact” problem (because East Asians all look alike anyway), and if anything, they care more about schooling, not less.

  • Indy

    Isn’t this what Huxley was writing about the Brave-New-World society – where everyone is conditioned from birth to happily accept their proper place, role, pattern of behavior and life-cycles in the grand scheme of the perfectly organized society?

    Query: Is this truly such a bad thing? Are we doing too much too well, or too little too poorly?

    • Anonymous

      The degree of authoritarianism contradicts the modern propaganda idea that society is free and equal- it is thus clear hypocrisy on society’s part.

      There is a case for what you’re saying, and a case for attempting to move towards genuine equality (as the current situation leaves the alternative of leaving people deluded or them realising and despairing over their absence of hopes in life). There is also a case for keeping the current competition, though acknowledging the near-inevitability of outcome- the prospect of status mobility encourages people to do better than they otherwise would.

  • Tracy W

    Konkvistador – thanks for clarifying what you were meaning. In the case of the authorities like the Federal Government supporting desegregation in the 1940s – authorities are made up of people. And those people were once children, who mostly went to school.

    If schools were churning out people who had learnt to defer to authority, why would their old students when they became authorities themselves have adopted ideas like “segregation is bad”, that differed from previous generations? The simple explanation to me is that schools don’t manage to get students to accept the beliefs, values and forms of behaviour on the basis of authority, even if that’s what schools are intended to do.

    I agree that authorities are never in complete agreement about their interests.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Edgar Friedenberg’s Coming of Age in America, published back in the Kennedy era, I believe, makes some similar points.

  • >The simple explanation to me is that schools don’t manage to get students to accept the beliefs, values and forms of behaviour on the basis of authority, even if that’s what schools are intended to do.

    Tracy W, I don’t think that was the point. It’s not that school has the goal of indoctrinating the students into believing what the current authority wants them to believe. Rather, the goal is to get students to get comfortable accepting domination from whoever the authority happens to be in the future. In the school, that is demonstrated by “Everything the teacher says is right”; in business, that translates to “Everything your boss says is right”.

  • Tracy W

    Thom Blake, you have missed my point. I’m not arguing about what the school’s goal is, I’m arguing about what they manage to achieve, or not. School’s goal may indeed be to get students to get comfortable accepting domination from whoever the authority happens to be in the future, but what I am arguing is that schools don’t achieve that goal, if indeed they do have it.

    If the people who were authorities in the US Federal government of the 1940s really thought that “Everything your boss says is right”, then how come they weren’t all segregationists after Woodrow Wilson’s time? If the people who were authorities in the US Southern States in the 1950s and 1960s were conditioned to believe that “Everything your boss says is right”, why weren’t they following the instructions of the US Federal government? If gays and lesbians were conditioned to believe that everything the authorities say is right, why did they start questioning the medical profession’s beliefs about homosexuality?

  • “Stratification: Students from different class backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders are overwhelmingly exposed to different environments and social relationships and thus are tracked and prepared for different positions in the hierarchy. The different experiences and successes lead each student to see her place as appropriate.”
    Is this saying that school enforces the segregation of groups by race and gender, or saying the opposite that individuals of different backgrounds will be put into a single hierarchy unrelated to background?
    It is hard to believe the former, that mandatory public school supports segregation by background more than the alternatives.

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  • Jenni

    If you are developing the view that modern schooling is about making people ready for the workforce then you must pick up a copy of John Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education. It is about a tad bit more than just accepting hierarchy and domination, but you are on the right path. Gatto’s book will lead you to a wealth of resources where you can read the education pioneers for yourself.