School Is Far

Bryan Caplan:

Robin’s been warming up to Bowles and Gintis’ classic Schooling in Capitalist America. The usual summary of B&G is that our educational system is basically a factory that makes good cogs for the capitalists’ social machine.

As a product of Los Angeles public schools, this story strikes me as wildly implausible. The most obvious problem: If capitalists ran the school system, they’d impose much stricter discipline. … Furthermore, if capitalists ran the school system, they wouldn’t teach poetry, art, history, music, etc. Performance in these subjects does signal desirable traits, but if the capitalists were in charge, they might as well impose a curriculum that lets students signal and build job skills at the same time.

My comments:

  1. My self-control hypothesis, that “school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination,” isn’t about capitalism in particular – it makes sense for any industrial society, where the organization of work requires workers to often take orders.
  2. This is a hypothesis about an overall tendency in industrial societies; it needn’t apply well to each and every industry school at all times.  Maybe LA in 90s was different.
  3. Schools could have evolved to achieve this dominance-acceptance function without anyone explicitly designing them that way.  Thousands of school system variations have been tried over the centuries, and those that lead to more prosperous or powerful societies were probably copied more often.
  4. I’m not claiming this is the only function schools perform.

I also suspect that many apparently useless aspects of school, like “poetry, art, history, music”, actually help kids build self-control, by encouraging far views. In fact, I suspect that schools evolved in many ways to encourage far views. Consider these 16 ways schools do so:

  • focus on large scales of space, time, society
  • focus on broad abstract categories/concepts
  • neglect of concrete practical skills
  • offer high confidence in theories taught
  • neglect large deviations of reality from theory
  • emphasize central ideal moral concerns
  • neglect common detailed practical constraints
  • praise supporting underdogs, taking chances
  • push polite language over slang, grunts
  • use large group to enhance social shame
  • make kids feel destined for high status/power
  • focus on positive over negative moods, reasons
  • focus on words over pictures
  • focus on sight, sound over taste, touch, smell
  • repeatedly introduce novel tasks
  • typically bored, with weak motivation

The “broad-minded” schooled are oft contrasted with the “small-minded” and the “provincial.” When you imagine a less schooled person, you imagine someone less interested in far away or abstract things. It seems school evolved to encourage far views, which not only signals individual and society status, but also strengthens self-control, which is especially useful in industrial workers.

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  • ravi hegde

    very profound post indeed. thanks.

  • Also, if you taught everything in grade school using blank verse, students would be able to remember it better, because our rhythmic brains learn better when taught in rhythms.

  • Tracy W

    What is your empirical evidence that schools do in fact lead their students to accept dominance-acceptance more than if those students had not attended school?
    Wouldn’t establishing whether the starting hypothesis is right be a good step, before starting to speculate about why it might have happened.

  • Steven Schreiber

    A simple test of Caplan’s hypothesis would be to examine the curricula of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea and other such countries.

    Old mainline Marxist-Leninist or Stalinist regimes had many of the same motives as capitalists at the level of governance and hence many similar objectives (social control, stability, socialization of workers into productive norms, etc.). Moreover, most of these states made industrial development central after Stalin. Since these regimes really do control the school systems of their countries without much doubt or interference, if they teach roughly the same slate of subjects we do, Caplan’s position would be diminished.

    The other test would be to examine the growth of the arts in school over time (controlling for general budget issues, of course). If Caplan is correct, then we should see a relatively constant attention to the arts. If Caplan is incorrect, then it seems reasonable to expect that growth in the arts would correlate with the relative expansion of the service sector, where the skills people learn through them are most useful. You could also test across geography since the service sector grew at different rates in different places.

  • J

    Is it school that makes kids feel destined for high status/power?

  • Gary

    Via Jason Kottke, “A fascinating 10-minute animated talk by Philip Zimbardo about the different “time zones” or “time perspectives” that people can have and how the different zones affect people’s world views.”

    • To clarify, Zimbardo says “the purpose of school is to take present-oriented little beasts and make them more future-oriented.”

    • It seems to me more likely that schools test ability to delay gratification.

      • axa

        walter mischel’s gratification delay experiments?

  • cournot

    One thing you want to ask is why U.S. schools differ (and differed) so much from those of other nations. Over the last 50 years, the US has seemed to have the one of the least purely meritocratic public school systems in the Western world — whether compared to France and Germany or the old Soviet Union. Compared to both Japan and China and modern Singapore, the US system instills less discipline and less willingness to obey orders or abide by societal norms while also being rather inefficient at learning things like math or standard writing. At the same time, the tying of school funding to local spending coupled with unwillingness to discipline bad kids in poor areas means that the schools sort along class and racial lines more than (or at least as much as) other systems in supposedly more class-based societies. Moreover, US high schools are less hierarchical, less competitive, and less meritocratic than the US university system which the top quarter of all graduates enter.

  • michael vassar

    I thought that promoting far-mode was *explicitly* the point of school, though of course without using the construal level theory jargon.