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School Is Far
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 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.
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.
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.
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.