Breathes There an Educated Capitalist?


Schooling and Work in the Democratic State, by Martin Carnoy and Henry M. Levin, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 297 pages, $32.50/$10.95

What's happening in the school systems of the Western democracies? Why? And what does the future hold? Schooling and Work in the Democratic State is intended as a scientific description of the educational landscape focusing on these features.

What lends the inquiry urgency for the authors is the very answer to the first question; for what is happening today, particularly in the United States, contend Martin Carnoy and Henry M. Levin, is a seemingly irresolvable crisis. The authors see an abundance of youths with a very high degree of formal education—but a lack of jobs conforming to their expectations and educational training. So they are forced, on entering the job market, to accept work that is boring, unrewarding, and alienating. As a result, we face an unstable, potentially explosive social condition and a loss of productivity and profits in industry and elsewhere because of absenteeism, carelessness, and even sabotage.

What has caused this crisis? The authors lay the blame at the door of an ongoing educational "contradiction" in democratic capitalism. (This is familiar territory for coauthor Carnoy, whose earlier work, Economic Democracy: The Challenge of the 1980s, has served as a sort of bible to progressive-left community activists.)

Capitalism, they argue, imposes by its very nature a nonegalitarian and nondemocratic workplace. Genuine responsibility and challenging, productive work are reserved for a select few.

Workers, however, "are made, not born," say the authors. In advanced capitalism, where public education has replaced family education and the apprentice system, it is the school system that molds workers. The capitalist, needing workers, tries to see to it that the school system reproduces the non-egalitarian and nondemocratic workplace. He does this through his control, or partial control, of school boards, the media, and political parties. In the 1950s and '60s it seemed that a more highly trained and educated workforce would be needed to man the new, more-automated instruments of production. Thus, capitalists urged that higher education be expanded and made available to greater numbers of the young. But they did so without meaning to alter the repressive structure of their workplace.

Even in capitalist democracies, though, it is not just the capitalists who shape the educational system. There is also a spirit of egalitarianism, presumably a social shaping-force intrinsic to schooling itself but most notably expounded, as Carnoy and Levin see it, by the philosopher John Dewey.

Thus the inherent contradiction embodied in the school system of a capitalist democracy: the nonegalitarian mandate to reproduce the nonegalitarian workplace butts up against the broad social mandate initiated by schooling itself to impart to schooling and even to the state and other institutions an egalitarian, democratic shape and ethos.

In the past, higher schooling was associated with upward mobility in society, better jobs, higher pay, and so on. This association, under the lens of the egalitarian ethos, translates into higher education for all. In the '50s and '60s, the spirit of egalitarianism, combined with the capitalist's desire for more highly educated workers, spurred the production of a large population of well-educated youth. The economic contraction of the late '70s and early '80s, coupled with the discovery that automation does not result in interesting and rewarding work for most workers, left this population high and dry, so to speak. Thus the present "crisis."

How will it be resolved? The authors review various alternatives, some pertaining to the workplace, some to the broader political environment. They themselves seem to think things will go like this: The capitalists will try to eliminate boredom, absenteeism, alienation, and other productively dysfunctional factors in the workplace. They will do so by exchanging the routine assemblyline operation, which is perfectly calculated to alienate more-educated minds, with largely autonomous work teams. These teams will be responsible for their own production, setting of standards, and so on. They will, however, still be under the final control of the capitalists. The employment of such work teams, it is inferred, will allow the exercise of imagination, reasoning, and responsibility on the part of a more highly educated workforce and so moderate its alienation.

As a largely self-governing body, the work team will naturally embody the principles of egalitarianism and democracy. The school system will reflect this change by exchanging its individualistic, competitive structure for one in which, mirroring the work team, projects will be assigned as team projects. Capacities to work well with others will replace the individualistic skills that are now emphasized and competitively graded.

Thus, except that the capitalist with his nonegalitarian status and control of things will remain in ultimate power, the workplace, the school, and the spirit of democracy and egalitarianism will be brought into unison. The authors hint, but no more than hint, that the final, stable resolution of the present crisis will necessarily involve the replacement of capitalist ownership by syndicalist or some related form of ownership and control.

Needless to say, I have only touched upon the main points and proposals of Schooling and Work in the Democratic State. I have not considered a good deal of supposedly empirical tissue supposedly supporting the authors' claims. Even the claims themselves have been boiled down to the bone. The same boiling-down will have to characterize my evaluation.

The objective reader of Carnoy and Levin's book will find in it several interesting things: the authors' attempt to propose a dynamic theory of education having an empirical, scientific base and providing seemingly scientific predictions of the future; their ingenious attempt to weld Deweyian progressivism, wherein schooling is the primary force behind the accomplishment of the social ideal of egalitarianism and democracy, onto Marxian functionalism, wherein schooling is a derivative force that serves the aims of whatever economic system happens to be in place; and their focus on over-education of today's youth.

My own, nonscientific prediction is that the same reader will conclude that the scientific pretensions of this work are just that and nothing more, that the amalgamation of Dewey and Marx in no way disconfirms the saying that two wrongs don't make a right, and that, for all its good intentions, the authors' treatment of the problem of over-educated youth is quite inadequate.

They repeatedly represent questionable and even discredited dicta of Marx and Dewey as self-evident truths. Without one batting of a critical eye, for instance, they have employers extracting "surplus value" (sic) from workers. They divide the population neatly and systematically into capitalists and workers. Every conflict is a contradiction. Capitalism a fortiori opposes social mobility, the hiring of women and minorities, and so on. Egalitarianism and democracy are unmitigated goods. And so on.

One is tempted to cry out, "For shame!" For certainly, an open, inquiring, self-questioning mind is called for by science. And scarcely a modicum of that graces this work.

Considering with what a bland face Schooling and Work in the Democratic State promulgates questionable and even bad theory as plain fact, and the prestigious role it is unfortunately likely to play in schools, councils, and bureaucracies of education, the objective reader may be pardoned, I think, a number of grave forebodings. How dreary, for instance, the prospect of schools dedicated to team projects predictably of the sort, "How can the renting of houses be made more democratic?" How dreary for all concerned, teachers and students alike.

John Nelson is a professor of philosophy, emeritus, at the University of Colorado, Boulder.