Bryan Caplan  

If Capitalists Ran the Schools

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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 - and eagerly expel persistent trouble-makers.  The system we have looks more like it was designed by egalitarian bureaucrats trying to minimize the number of phone calls and visits they get from angry parents of kids with bad behavior.

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.

Question: Suppose you were on the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.  If you had a fixed budget to spend on schools (you and the other committee members can't just pocket the school taxes), what would your schools look like?

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COMMENTS (46 to date)
Lewis writes:

A high school version of Hillsdale College (aka Hillsdale Academy).

Ella writes:

Actually, I think capitalists would teach art, history, music, and other humanities. They're vitally important. (Particularly history and philosophy.) They just wouldn't waste time on crap like Maya Angelou, Black History Month, and womyn's studies.

If I had control over schools, my first thing would be to impose discipline. Pregnant students, junkies, and, for the love of God, kids with criminal records would be expelled.

Next, I'd offer a better mix of classical education (history, languages, writing) and actual skills (woodworking, metal shop).

And my curriculum would emphasize things related to engineering, basically all forms of math and science.

Can I also talk about getting rid of teachers unions and education majors and only hiring people who know the subject they're teaching?

Tracy W writes:

Well a Communist caricature of a capitalist, who wanted to reduce the odds of people thinking for themselves and of uprisings, would presumably shut the schools down and return the money to taxpayers. If you look at social history, all the reformers and revolutionaries could read and write and since the 19th century nearly all of them went to school. I want to say "clearly the danger is teaching reading/writing", but the popularity of Bowles and Gintis's silly thesis indicates that it's not clear to many people, so I shall say, that, when I look at history, it's clear to me that teaching reading and writing increases thinking for-selves, and social reform movements and the like.

Failing that, I suppose critical thinking abilities could be effectively limited by bopping the kids on the head with hammers in the right spot on a regular basis, sort of reverse phrenology.

Me, personally, laying aside the caricature specification, I'd focus on teaching reading and writing and basic mathematics well. See the Direct Instruction guys for more details.

Vipul Naik writes:

The first line link in your blog post (to Robin Hanson's blog post on school attitudes) does not work. It has two "http://"s in it. Remove one of them.

david writes:

To the Ed:

First link "warming up" is broken, needs http:// instead of http//

Anyway. I sincerely hope Ella's post was a parody.

Jeremy writes:

I believe if capitalists ran schools with freedom from government, different school types would emerge. There would be schools without history, philosophy, art, etc., and they would cater to different students than the schools that did offer those classes (much like the post-secondary education system looks now).

OneEyedMan writes:

Elementary and junior high school with a focus on basic skill formation. Senior high school with aggressive tracking of students by ability between semi-skilled, skilled, and academic pursuits.

Enrichment classes like gym, art, social studies, and so on may be required not just for their signaling role but also to maintain student interest in providing a high level of effort. It may also be optimal to keep kids in school for longer school days even if skill production requires just a few hours a day. That could be because kids require supervision. If they have to be under someone's watchful eye in any case then perhaps enrichment classes are a good way to spend that time.

My understanding is that kids lose a great deal of academic progress over the summer. I'd replace summer vacation with full time education but allow parents to pull kids out of school for limited vacation without punishment.

A voucher system catering to diverse student interests (meeting minimum basic skill formation requirements) might improve parental satisfaction and interest, regardless of the effect on skill formation (which I assume would be weakly positive) and also thereby encourage high student effort.

The discipline efforts others have mentioned are interesting, but I doubt we want those kids just wandering the streets. We'll need to have some place to hold them even if we cannot educate them in normal classrooms. Maybe that would look like a couple of hours of education a day combined with heavy occupational training and physical education. One can darkly imagine vast detention halls for such people, but the lifetime earnings difference between being semi-skilled and unskilled is enormous, hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the rewards to an executive committee of the bourgeoisie to figure out a way to make them at least semi-skilled is huge.

Randy writes:

1. Develop a series of certifications for core subjects. Allow employers and students to sort out which core subjects have value and which do not. Make none mandatory.

2. Modify existing "education" facilities into tech centers. These would house labs for core subjects requiring expensive equipment.

3. Promote a system of tutors for subjects that typically require more than just the book and the application of the student.

4. Vouchers (means tested).

5. The political class will not be left out, of course, but that doesn't mean that children should be exposed to them for any great length of time. So allow them to administer a citizenship test, and to use the results as a basis for granting or denying the privileges and entitlements which they control.

Isegoria writes:

Corporation hiring young workers just out of school complain that "kids these days" can't communicate professionally and have little sense of responsibility, so a school run for the benefit of corporate employers would probably emphasize straightforward business writing and meeting deadlines.

Instead of poetry, art, history, music, etc., I would expect them to emphasize general business skills — accounting, project management, marketing math — and engineering, along with trade-school skills — metal shop, graphic arts, etc.

Arthur_500 writes:

I look to my Jr High School as a key example of the possible. English, Math, Science and Social Studies were all required. Music/ Art, Shop/ Home Ec and Gym were all required in 7th and 8th grade. This gave all students a solid foundation. I can't see why a Capitalist system would want to ignore any of these parts.

Education must be important and students understand that education is not important when there is no support for education. Trouble students are not disciplined by parents. In fact they are part of a cycle of poor education, unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse, illegal activity and domestic abuse(not that that is legal). You can't control the kids unless you take them away from the parents. That is not going to fly in our society.

One could argue there is no financial incentive for a capitalist system to pay attention to loser kids. I would argue that there is a place but I am not exactly sure how to bring it about. In Columbia, the Mayor of Bogata did very well for a while in improving the schools, increasing the arts, and getting citizens to reduce crime. Could loser kids see better opportunity by getting an education?

Bill Cosby was raked over the coals when he suggested education was the future for black men and it wasn't until Obama was elected President that polls among black people supported what Cosby said a couple of decades ago. That said, if capitalism were to severly punish those who were the losers in our society and help those who tried to help themselves then maybe there would be financial incentive to deal with those trouble students.

Basically I think our capitalist school would embrace the arts as well as gym as it is best for the health of our workers and makes for an enjoyable society. A good capitalist system needs the input of our artists to make our lives more than simply utilitarian. We might want a yacht but we want it to look nice also.

Tom writes:

The problem with higher discipline, as in expelling addicts, the pregnant, the ones with a criminal record, etc., etc., is that it takes them out of the system into a parallel system called the street. In the street these kids that the school capitalists deemed unworthy will then be given status in reverse of what the schools did. Therefore the worse they were in school the better they might be in the street.

As these street kids become adults there societal drain on the other systems will become worse. Having no skills or socialization of schools they will no longer be marketable labor. The crime and other social problems they cause will only increase the burden of the rest of society.

It doesn't take much logic to see that expulsion of "problem kids" is bad for the overall capitalist system.

BV writes:

Initially I would use vouchers: the value of the voucher would be equal to "most of the budget" divided by the number of students. The voucher would "follow the student" to whatever school their parents/guardians wanted.

Pricing at schools would follow a model similar to the Southwest Airlines ticket pricing model: the price to get into a school would go up as the number of seats available goes down.

As a safety net, the "rest of the budget" would be used to ensure that all kids get into a school. This school would look like a current gov't run school.

Tom Dougherty writes:

Successful capitalists are those who serve consumers best. With no barriers to entry, I would bet that Bryan’s school with no “poetry, art, history, music, etc.” would be a very unsuccessful business that would be out of business. Consumers of capitalists’ schools, i.e. the parents of students, would demand poetry, art, history, music, along with math, science, and English. I am surprised that Bryan ignores the one thing that makes capitalists successful and that is serving consumers.

eccdogg writes:

I think some of you are missing Bryan's question.

He is not asking about what private capitalist schools would look like, but instead what schools would look like if the were run by capitalist with the desire of producing workers.

In that case I think he is pretty much right in what would be taught.

In a free market for schooling their would be demand for "poetry, art, history, music, sports etc" but not for the skills they teach but instead for the consuption value of these classes. Kids take these classes because they like them (or their parents like them to be well rounded), not because they covey any marketable skill. Its the same reason parents are willing to pay for piano lessons.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I think a capitalist school system would look somewhat like David Friedman's thought experiment called "Adam Smith U".

Tom Dougherty writes:

"He is not asking about what private capitalist schools would look like, but instead what schools would look like if the were run by capitalist with the desire of producing workers."

Well, then, this is where Bryan is wrong. Capitalists are not in the business of producing workers, they are in the business of producing profits. Capitalists who do not produce profits are no longer capitalists because losses will ensure that the resources at their command will be moved to others who can satisfy consumers and produce profits.

Bryan's "capitalists" are just central planners with what the central planners think is in the interest of business.

eccdogg writes:

Brian is not arguing that Capitalist are in the business of producing workers.

He is saying that Bowles and Gintis claim our school system is set up as if its goal is to produce workers.

The usual summary of B&G is that our educational system is basically a factory that makes good cogs for the capitalists' social machine.

He doesn't believe that thesis so he asks what the schools should really look like if that were true.

Question: Suppose you were on the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. If you had a fixed budget to spend on schools (you and the other committee members can't just pocket the school taxes), what would your schools look like?

He isn't asking what a free market in schooling would look like. He is asking what would it look like if it really were a tool for bourgeoisie enrichment. With the goal of comparing that outcome to what we really have.

Schooner writes:

In a related tangent:

I've never really understood how a voucher system would work in a practical sense.

The logical assumption is that the majority of people would want to go to the best schools.

Virtually all of the top notch public (and private for that matter) schools are located in upper middle to upper class neighborhoods.

Who decides who gets to go? It seems to me that the kids in that neighborhood would have first dibs and everything would just move down the chain leaving kids in the poor schools in poor neighborhood right back where they are.

Tracy W writes:

Schooner, this only is a problem if the top-notch schools are located only in upper middle to upper-class neighbourhoods. And this in turn depends on your definition of top-notch schools. If your definition of top-notch schools is "schools whose students get a lot of good exam results", then top-notch schools are where the rich are. But if your definition of top-notch schools is "schools who are effective at teaching whatever students come in the door", then on average schools in rich areas don't appear to do any better than average schools in poor areas.

The USA, as a result of the NCLB act, is now breaking down learning results by student income. And there's this fascinating analysis done by KDeRosa at
He looked at low-SES students in "good" schools - defining good as an above-state-average pass-rate for those poor students. He found 18 schools with a pass-rate above the state average and more than 50% poor kids. The pass rate of the poor kids at those schools was 76.6%. He also looked at the pass rate of the poor kids at "good" schools with a low concentration of poor students. The pass rate was 74.7%.

And here KDeRosa looks at low-SES kids attending schools in high socio-economic areas., and finds only a very low relationship, which could be accounted for by differences in those poor kids who are attending high-income school districts.

agnostic writes:

"trying to minimize the number of phone calls and visits they get from angry parents of kids with bad behavior."

Just to spell this out, this must be the real constituency the school system serves -- parents. They're the ones who pay the taxes (and he who pays the piper calls the tune), threaten to move in or out of an area unless the schools do as they say, etc.

Do capitalists care what children have to eat in the school breakfast, lunch, and snack machines? Yet look at how contentious an issue that is -- "we need to feed them more alfalfa sprouts and fresh fruit!" Only his parents freak out about what a kid is eating, not future employers, the kids's friends or enemies, etc.

Schools are the way that parents seek to socially engineer New Soviet Offspring.

JF Sullivan writes:

"Question: Suppose you were on the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. If you had a fixed budget to spend on schools (you and the other committee members can't just pocket the school taxes), what would your schools look like?"

Battle Royale? ( or if you have a stomach for violence).

Tom Dougherty writes:


At 1:38 pm, you say that Bryan is asking "what schools would look like if the were run by capitalist with the desire of producing workers."

In your next post, at 3:08pm, you say, "Brian is not arguing that Capitalist are in the business of producing workers."

You must have bumped your head sometime between 1:38 pm and 3:08 pm and gotten amnesia.

8 writes:

"He is not asking about what private capitalist schools would look like, but instead what schools would look like if the were run by capitalist with the desire of producing workers."

If that's the question, then the answer is apprenticeships. General education would only be for the brightest of bright students who showed aptitude in several fields of study. Apprenticed students would be getting paid by their mid-teens or earlier and gen ed students would be weeded out mostly by being attracted to high paying apprenticeships.

In terms of the budget, there would be an emphasis on testing and finding out what skills students have and can be developed. Early education (basic reading, writing, etc.) would be public and general, and the initial phase of internship would be publicly funded. A student who tries carpentry, computer programming, dentistry and auto repair would have a higher cost to the public than a student who found they liked computer programming and stuck with it, in that case the company would bear most of the training costs.

Floccina writes:
The system we have looks more like it was designed by egalitarian bureaucrats trying to minimize the number of phone calls and visits they get from angry parents of kids with bad behavior.

So if bad behavior is genetic and by extension good behavior is also genetic, that would explain why good kids can be tortured by bad kids. The good kid's parents are less like to complain about the real harm to their children, while the bad kids parents will complain though their kids are the cause of the problems.

One of the beauties of capitalism is it does not take an awkward and embarrassing confrontation to just stop using a bad suppler. In a private school system you would not even need to acknowledge that your child was subject to bullying, which is embarrassing because it means they were not up to defending themselves.

Should timid and shy people should prefer economic freedom?

David C writes:

My school:
There'd be a lot more business classes (accounting, debate, economics, business etiquette) and a lot less history (besides recent history). Art classes would primarily depend on simple drawing with a focus on observation. Science classes would get back to the basics of critical thinking and methodology. That students can graduate from most high schools without knowing how to write an abstract is a travesty. Art and science classes are two focused on specifics like painting or chemistry which are only used for a minority of disciplines. I'd focus on reading analysis in English as proper grammar is overrated and only important as a signaling method (like History). Math classes should stay as they are. Attendance would not be mandatory, and there would be no grading. Students would be granted scholarships dependent on teacher recommendation. Computer-based and independent learning would be common with very large classes (100 students or so) that are highly variable in size.

My goal is to maximize intelligence. This would be a terrible system if my goal were to get good jobs for the students.

Tom Dougherty the two comments you quoted from eccdog are logically consistent. The key difference is replacing "are" (present tense ie what is happening) with "were" which is used in the form of a what if analysis.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Forget the schools. Let every person come forward in communities who have the ability to teach a life's worth of knowledge and provide it, one on one. Untapped universities exist in far more places than people can imagine.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Darn! Nothing like bad english when I'm arguing for free (as in free to choose) education. Second sentence, there should have been a 'has' instead of 'have'.

Dave writes:

I just have to sat something: these are some of the most interesting comments I have seen here in a while. I was begining to lose faith in this site.

BTW: Discipline, lots of it. Basic skills and critical thinking - the exact opposite of what we have now.

ajb writes:

Wouldn't Singaporean schools be a good first cut in developing a pro-bourgeois schooling system? There would be more old time civics and perhaps more technical writing.

Guy in the veal calf office writes:

I also went to Los Angeles area schools. I imagine myself as Martin Sheen addressing the school administrator named Kurtz--

WILLARD: "They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound."

KURTZ: "Are my methods unsound?"

WILLARD: "I don't see any method at all, sir."

Tom Dougherty writes:

Dave C writes, "The key difference is replacing "are" (present tense ie what is happening) with "were" which is used in the form of a what if analysis."

Dave C, did you graduate from the University of Pheonix?

Tom West writes:

Tom Dougherty, it seems clear to me that pretty much every one else here understands what Bryan was asking *except* you.

I've often found that in these situations that it is often better to just keep quiet and observe rather than loudly (and somewhat rudely) claim that everyone else doesn't know what they're talking about. At least it reduces the amount of eye-rolling :-).

However, your mileage may vary.

mulp writes:

Well, capitalists are running schools. In fact, the claim made by the capitalist who run it is that the largest school in the world is the capitalist University of Phoenix.

But hundreds of other schools run by capitalists are in operation and represent the fastest growing part of the school system, or so they claim. Jack Welch is enthusiastic and investing in them.

wikipedia says "In February, 2000, there were hundreds of thousands of students being taught at 200 for-profit facilities, with approximately six percent of students nationally enrolled at a for-profit institution. Eduventures, a higher education research and consulting firm, states that nine percent of all U.S. college and graduate students attend for-profit institutions."

Two have campuses within 5 miles of me:
Daniel Webster College (Nashua, New Hampshire)
Hesser College (multiple locations in New Hampshire)

DWC is a residence campus, too.

So, how many people do you know who have degrees from a for-profit; how many have you hired; how many have tenure track positions?

Which for-profit university has or will soon list as a graduate a "Nobel" winner or other prestige economics awardee?

MernaMoose writes:

Question: Suppose you were on the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. If you had a fixed budget to spend on schools (you and the other committee members can't just pocket the school taxes), what would your schools look like?

A lot like basic training for the Marines. The drop outs would be summarily cast into the education-less darkness, beyond the gates of our enlightening training center. To fend for themselves in the dark forever.

If I want to maximize my profits, then one thing I need is the best possible measure of how many productive bodies I've actually got to work with. It's part of my resource base.

Troy Camplin writes:

This is something I have thought long and hard about.

First, a hard-core capitalist would learn the best techniques to teach. No more of these ridiculous education fads. Repetition, repetition, repetition (or, as the education establishment, which wishes to discourage this, calls it, "drill and kill") -- that's what works. More, an understanding of how the brain works and how people actually learn would be used. People are nonlinear learners, so linear models would finally be tossed out. The brain learns best under considitons of pattern and rhythm. Thus, music and poetry would in fact be central -- especially since learning music helps with math skills, and the musicality and rhythms of poetry make it easier for chidlren to learn. Literature is vital to narrative thinking; properly taught history is vital for understanding cause and effect. So these would necessarily be central -- even though things like logic and a continuation of grammar well beyond 6th grade would be introduced, as they are necessary for clear thinking and for good writing (things which have always been, and yet is increasingly, important for a good work force). Even engineering firms are looking for good writers.

Another thing I would do is get rid of advancement based on age. I would break the year down into smaller parts and advance students according to ability. Some students need to repeat information a few times before they get it. Others learn much faster. And then, with discontinuous, nonlinear learning, we have students who have to repeat a few times, then suddenly leap forward. Schools need to be designed to take these things into consideration. No more of "The best and brightest will just have to be bored" (the most evil thing I evwer heard an educator say). The best and brightest will get to move forward as they can and should.

Around middle school, I would have separate schools for those who are going to college and those who are not. Those who are not going to college need to be prepared to be employed, which our schools currently fail miserably at doing. High schools would be either college prep or trade schools. We need to prepare people to do things like plumbing, etc. I don't know about you, but I still need plumbers -- and they make a lot of money. Much more money than I make, or even anticipate making. We need to do away with the Leftist, elitist attitude that there's something shameful about physical labor. Unfortunately, it's these snobs who are currently in charge of our schools, though.

I would also never hire anyone with a degree in education. It's the most useless degree ever intvented (right up there with business degrees).

Steve Sailer writes:

Well, what are Cuba's schools like?

My guess is that if you compare two similarly accomplished groups of people -- e.g., the Soviet engineers who put the first man into space in 1961 and the American engineers who put the first man on the moon in 1969 -- their education would be fairly similar.

MernaMoose writes:

Steve S,

The American and Soviet educational systems are/were quite different.

Mr Econotarian writes:

Sweden and the Netherlands make wide use of school vouchers. In the UK, the Torries/LibDem government has announced support for the Swedish voucher system.

Regarding goverent run schools: a government that provides enough freedom not to treat adults like children likely lacks the power to treat children like children, as is needed by schools in loco parentis.

EP writes:

Assuming that there is some kind of public/charitable funding for low income families and the market was open to competition, each school might better reflect the wants of its community.

Schools in some neighborhoods might have longer hours, even go year round to meet needs of working parents. Some would offer more rigorous math and science courses. Some would concentrate on athletics, etc. Some may cater to those who can't succeed in standard schools.

In the end though, richer neighborhoods would get more out of the system because they can pay more. Which is how it is in Illinois today - it is not a coincidence that the better schools are in neighborhoods with expensive homes and higher taxes.

Tracy W writes:

it is not a coincidence that the better schools are in neighborhoods with expensive homes and higher taxes

This depends on your definition of "better schools". If you mean "schools with students who do well on exams" then yes, the better schools are in neighourhoods with expensive homes and higher taxes. If you mean "schools that are good at teaching whatever students come in the door" then no, the better schools are not in neighbourhoods with expensive homes and higher taxes. At OECD levels of spending, there is no relationship between per pupil spend and student performance, once you control for the incoming student SES.

Brian Clendinen writes:

The short answer is if capitalist ran education there would be no system just an industry.

I mean even most schools in churches are often money makers for the organization. So we already have a good population to examine. Not sure were one gets % of student in for-profit institutions for K-12. However, 10.5% of k-12 enrollment are in Private of which 80% are in religious schools and from what I can tell 20% are homeschoolers, however, most of the homeschoolers are registered under religious institutions. So based on that I would guess 2% might be in for-profit institutions. I would consider homeschooling a form of capitalisms because mothers forgo opportunity cost of a job to teach their kids. So we already have a good base which has been shown what works and does not, why not just replicate it. There are many solutions that give superior results to the few public models used now.

Publius writes:

Does the author of Schooling in capitalist America say when America was a capitalist country? Given that the Tenth plank of the Communist Manifesto calls for government schooling of all children, which was implemented in the 1840-1880 period, and that the Second plank of the Manifesto calling for a graduated income tax was implemented in 1913, it's difficult for me to understand what time period the author references.

Is he talking about the northern sections of antebellum America when slavery was rare and many children learned to read and write without schools or went to schools not controlled by government?

Robin Hanson writes:

I responded here.

staticvars writes:

This conclusion relies on a false premise. The implied condition is that "capitalists" would be looking for what sound like cookie cutter workers in a socialist state, when capitalism is actually a system that encourages entrepreneurship and creating products or services that others desire to exchange for.

If I was running the schools I move towards technology enabled individualized education, and away from lecture form classrooms of kids of the same age. Our elementary schools move way too slowly, thanks to a lack of letting students progress at their own pace, we slow down to the pace that the 10th percentile can handle.

Our standards suggest that a teacher that lets 25% of her students fall behind must be doing a horrible job, and ignore the fact that a teacher going at a pace where 90% of the students can keep up is slowing down most of them.

I see this all of the time in the computer based learning courses I run. If you let people take a pre-test, many can skip out of sections of the course, letting them get further. If you make people take a post-test after each section, many have to go through the source material and video lecture 3 or 4 times and ask for lots of help to make it.

I had the great fortune of taking math in a non-computerized way like this when I was in elementary school, changing teachers every two weeks as we mastered topics, and progressed through 3 years of material each year. I then showed up in middle school and was back on the everyone learn at the same time track, mostly falling asleep.

geckonomist writes:

I would keep my school system as it is/was. Went to public schools but in a country that's in the top 5 in the OECD tests.

Constant writes:

If actual capitalists ran the schools, I mean real capitalists and not left wing fantasy capitalists who run a "social machine" as if they were barely distinguishable from totalitarian communists like the governments of Soviet Union, pre-thaw China, Cuba, and North Korea - in short if the American schooling system were genuinely capitalist with no element of socialism, then the schools would be private, would be entirely optional (no legal requirement to school children), and the purpose would - as always - be to serve the customer, in this case the parents. The parents would in turn choose schools presumably to optimize the prospects of their children, as conceived by the parents.

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