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Journal of the History of Economic Thought,

Volume 38, Number 3, September 2016

THE RADICAL SCHOOL AND THE


ECONOMICS OF EDUCATION
BY

FRANCK BAILLY

The economics of education gradually became institutionalized in the period


following the Second World War. Human capital theory was the central pillar in
this process. Nevertheless, it did not go unchallenged. The first challenges came
from within the mainstream itself, but economists affiliated to other paradigms also
called human capital theory into question. This applied in particular to the work
of the radical economists. The aim of this article is to document this critical episode in the history of ideas in the economics of education. To that end, the nature
of the radical economists critique is examined and it is shown how it connects to
human capital theory.

I. INTRODUCTION
It was at the beginning of the 1960s that the economics of education emerged as a field
of inquiry in its own right and became institutionalized. In recent years, several articles
concerned with the history of thought have related this process of institutionalization
(cf. Teixeira 2000, 2005; De Meulemeester 2007; and De Meulemeester and Diebolt
2004).1 As is noted in these articles, questions of education were not in the past entirely
absent from economists writings. In William Pettys work, for example, there is an
attempt to measure the value of the lives of soldiers killed in battle, while studies by Adam
Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Alfred Marshall, among others, investigate the externalities
of education, its funding, and the influence of education and training on wages.
Franck Bailly, Faculty of Law, Economics and Management, University of Rouen, France, franck.bailly@
univ-rouen.fr. The author would like to thank Bruno Tinel, Jean-Jacques Paul, and anonymous referees for
their comments on an earlier version of this article. Full responsibility for its contents lies, of course, with
the author alone.
1Cf. also Stephen Machin (2008) and Lorraine Dearden et al. (2009), who offer a brief history of ideas in
the economics of education.
ISSN 1053-8372 print; ISSN 1469-9656 online/16/03000351-369 The History of Economics Society, 2016
doi:10.1017/S1053837216000365

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However, it was not until the period following the Second World War and the emergence of human capital theory that a decisive turning point was reached in establishing
a field of economic analysis specifically dedicated to education. According to the
historians of thought listed above, there are a number of reasons for this. While economists had long tended to consider the demand for post-compulsory education as a
demand for a consumption good (Blaug 1976) and, ultimately, to be less concerned
with the effects of education on the labor market, other factors exerted a positive influence: in particular, the intellectual context of the period. After all, this postwar period
saw a revival of interest in theories of economic development, in which education was
seen as a means of breaking free from underdevelopment, and the development of
theories of growth that highlighted the existence of a residual for which the quality of
the labor supply (i.e., education) was a possible explanation (De Meulemeester 2007).
The methodological individualism advocated by Milton Friedman, along with the shift
towards formalism in the 1950s, also paved the way for the acceptance of human
capital theory at the same time as it contributed to the development of that formalism.
Similarly, the affirmation of economists belief in the virtues of the market (Morgan
and Rutherford 1998) was undoubtedly another favorable factor. Finally, the availability of
statistical data meant that econometric techniques could be used to test the hypotheses
formulated on the basis of theory. And beyond the economics profession itself, the
postwar period was dominated by Keynesian thinking and acceptance of the notion
that the state could intervene financially, particularly through expenditure on education.
Against this background, human capital theory, with its concept of rate of return,
emerged as a favored tool for determining funding decisions.
Nevertheless, the increasing importance that was initially attached to human
capital theory did not go unchallenged (see, for example, Blaug 1985; Teixeira
2000). The challenge came in the first instance from the dominant school of thought,
what is generally known as signaling (Spence 1973) or filter (Arrow 1973) theory,
which qualifies or calls into question a key idea in human capital theory: namely,
that the product of education is an increase in individuals productivity. However,
further challenges very quickly came from studies based on different paradigms,
notably those produced by the radical economists. It is this critique that we seek to
document here.
This critique of human capital theory was part of a wider tendency that, in conjunction
with the social and political agitation the USA went through in the 1960s, saw the
emergence of a radical approach to economics. In this approach, the neoclassical economists of the time were criticized for their inability to account for the difficulties of the
period, such as the destruction of the environment and inequalities in wealth and racism
and sexism (Edwards and MacEwan 1970; Lee 2004), as some of the economists
targeted did in fact acknowledge (Lindbeck 1972).
In the field of the economics of education, the radical economists took a very similar line in their critique of human capital theory. For them, human capital theory was
incapable of truly capturing the role that education institutions played in the functioning of the economy. Consequently, a new theory of the education system had to be
developed. It had to be positioned on the same terrain as the contested theory: that is,
it had to ask the same questions and use the same tools. From this point of view, the
work of the radical economists was certainly part of the debates that helped to shape
the economics of education as a field of inquiry in the 1960s.

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Our efforts to understand the nature of the radical critique that was emerging at the
time and that gave rise to publications in the most prestigious academic journals, such
as the American Economic Review, the Journal of Human Resources, or the Journal of
Political Economy, will be divided into three sections. In the first section, we will
examine the radical economists analysis of the employment relationship, since the
characteristics of this relationship were to shape their analysis of the role of the education system. In the next section, we will outline their analysis of the role of educational
institutions, focusing more particularly on the work of Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis,
and Richard Edwards, who are probably the ones who made the greatest contributions
to the development of a radical approach in this field. In the final section, we will
reconsider the radical economists aim of developing an alternative to human capital
theory.
Thus, our aim is not to relocate the radical analysis of education within a more
extensive history of ideas in order, for example, to discuss differences from, or correspondences with, classical economics. Neither is it to investigate possible and no doubt
important links with the sociology of education.2 And finally, we are not seeking to
discuss, from an econometric point of view, the relevance and limitations of the
applied economic studies carried out by the radical economists, as has been done in
the case of human capital theory, for example (cf. Rosen 1977; Willis 1986). Each such
undertaking would require its own dedicated article.
As far as methodology is concerned, the following choices were made. First, we
decided to focus on the work of the radical economists from the end of the 1960s to the
beginning of the 1980s. The 1980s marked a break within the radical school (Reich
1993; Tinel 2004), even though the origins of that break probably go further back
in time (Mata 2009). This choice of time period enables us to deal with a relatively
coherent set of analyses. Second, while a number of articles by the radical economists
drew on the history of economic and social phenomena, which was one aspect of their
originality (Blaug 1983, p. 229), we decided to focus primarily on the logical organization of their argument, without engaging systematically with the history as such.
Finally, we chose to concentrate on the work of the founding fathers and to disregard
analyses that claim to be affiliated with, or to have been influenced by, them.

II. THE RADICAL ECONOMISTS ANALYSIS OF THE EMPLOYMENT


RELATIONSHIP
The field of labor economics is undoubtedly the one in which the radical economists
critique was taken furthest (Spencer 2000). The central notion around which their
argument is structured, and which explicitly draws on Marxist analysis and terminology, is
that of conflict (Rubitzer 1993; Klein 1992), which has its origins in the very nature of
labor, which cannot be regarded as a commodity. Labor is, after all, embodied in the
person of the worker, who can decide whether or not to become involved, or, to put it

2There

are of course similarities with the work of Emile Durkheim (cf. Blaug 1985, p. 131), as well as with
that of sociologists of education, particularly in France, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron
(1970) or Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet (1971).

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in more modern terms, whether or not to make an effort. Consequently, employers have
to be able to compel the worker to act in a manner that he or she otherwise would not
choose (Bowles 1985, p. 19), their objective being to extract more labor from the
worker than is embodied in the value of labor-power (the wage) (Gintis 1976, p. 37).
However, this conflict does not arise out of the diverging interests of individual
employees and their employer, as is assumed in mainstream economics, with its concepts
of informational asymmetry and incentives to exert effort. For the radical economists,
this conflict between individuals (employee and employer) is above all an expression
of class conflict, in this case between workers and their employers, who own the means
of production.
From this starting point, the radicals analysis was to develop around three main
themes, which are not of course independent of each other (Bowles 1985). The first is
work organization; the second, labor force segmentation; and the third, work discipline
and on-the-job effort. We will examine these three themes in succession before going
on to outline the links between them and education.
According to the radical economists, work organization and the different forms it
has taken in the course of history do not depend, or at least not solely, on technical
considerations. More than anything else, work organization reflects the conflicts of
interest that exist between the employer and employee classes, with the former seeking
to establish their control over the latter. In this sense, production should be seen as a
social as well as technical process (Bowles and Gintis 1975, p. 75). It is from this
perspective that Stephen Marglin (1974), in an influential article (Tinel 2004), analyses
the putting-out system. This is a form of work organization in which workers, who
are provided with raw materials, are given the task of producing, in their own homes,
finished products that are then bought back from them (Tinel 2004). Marglin then
seeks to show that, from a technical point of view, capitalists are not indispensable to
the production process. Having pointed out the weakness of Adam Smiths3 argument
based on specialization, he puts forward the idea that this form of work organization
had its origins largely in capitalists desire to interpose themselves between workers
and the market in order to extract profit from them. If workers had been able to combine the various tasks and produce the entire product themselves, they would have
been able to sell it and take the profit for themselves. Consequently, argues Marglin,
Separating the tasks assigned to each workman was the sole means by which the
capitalist could, in the days preceding costly machinery, ensure that he would remain
essential to the production process as integrator of these separate operations into a
product for which a wide market existed (1974, p. 70). Nevertheless, the putting-out
system came up against its limits, largely because workers continued to determine the
hours they worked and the intensity of their effort. Capitalists were therefore obliged

3Adam

Smith advances three arguments in order to point up the advantages of specialization. Marglin
critiques these three arguments as follows. Although a task certainly requires preparation time before it is
carried out, this in no way prevents workers from performing several tasks and therefore not specializing.
All that is required is for each task to be carried out over a period of time long enough for the preparation
time to be insignificant relative to the total working time. Thus, the argument that time is wasted in moving
from one task to another does not hold. Second, since the tasks performed by workers in the putting-out
system are simple ones, their capacity for invention is reduced accordingly. Finally, the simplicity of the
tasks also makes the argument that specialization increases workers skill and efficiency irrelevant.

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to develop another form of work organization in order to strengthen their control over
their employees.
This interpretative framework, which emphasizes the importance of the conflicts
between capitalists and workers, was also to be used to analyze more recent forms of
work organization. Edwards (1978), for example, was to draw on it in order to account
for the emergence, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, of a form of work organization in which employers exerted control through
technology. According to Edwards, this form of work organization was a response to
the limitations of the paternalistic form of work organization that had prevailed previously and in which employers exerted control directly and in person. They intervened
in the production process by specifying the tasks that each worker had to carry out, and
evaluated, recompensed, or penalized them as they saw fit. This form of direct control
became difficult to maintain as firms became more concentrated and increased in size.
Their response was to create ever more layers of management and recruit ever more
managerial and supervisory staff in order to exert control over workers. However,
the interests of the supervisory staff (general foremen, supervisors, superintendents)
came into conflict with those of the capitalists who employed them and those of the
employees in the lower echelons of the hierarchy whom they were supposed to be
controlling. It was these contradictions that led capitalists to put in place a system of
control based on machines and technology, what Edwards calls technical control. He
gives numerous examples of production systems in which the tasks to be performed
and the work rate are dictated by machines and their execution speed. With this type of
work organization, the actual power to control is thus vested in the line itself rather in
the person of the foreman, and the power relations are made more invisible (Edwards
1978, p. 117). However, the conflicts did not disappear for all that. After all, technical
control went hand in hand with the recruitment of extremely low-skilled workers who
were easily interchangeable. This interchangeability was a threat to employees, since
the most recalcitrant of them could be dismissed and easily replaced. On the other
hand, workers were much more closely linked to each other through the technical
equipment. Consequently, it was easy for them to bring the production line to a standstill. Moreover, their low skill levels meant they constituted a more homogeneous and
therefore more solidaristic workforce. It was in an attempt to overcome these limitations that the bureaucratic control system was put in place. In this system, production
was organized on the basis of rules and procedures that were specific to the firm and
institutionalized hierarchical power. These rules and procedures defined and described
the work that each employee had to do and also specified the rewards to be given for
adequate performance and the penalties to be imposed in the opposite case. They also
laid down the conditions under which workers could be dismissed and defined a series
of jobs and hierarchical levels to which individuals could be promoted. Thus, each
job appeared more unique and individualized by its particular position in the finely
graded hierarchical order, by the job criteria which specified work activities, as a
result of which [i]ncreasingly the individual worker came to face an impersonal and
massive organization more or less alone (Edwards 1978, p. 120).
Over and above these examples, the idea that class conflict is at the heart of the
history and hence of the evolution of the various forms of work organization is fundamental to any attempt to understand the radical economists analysis of the role of the
education system. Indeed, it was these various forms of work organization that were to

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determine what are now fashionably known as the competences that workers had to
possess and through which the role and organization of the education and training
system could in turn be explained. We shall return to this later.
The second theme arising out of the radical economists interpretation of the
employment relationship is labor force segmentation.4 It is also closely linked to their
analysis of the education system. The notion of segmentation, as it appears in their
writings, has to be understood in its broad sense. It applies to the external labor market
but also to employees already in post: that is, to the internal labor market as well. In
both cases, the purpose of segmentation is to heighten employers control over workers.
For employers, there is after all a risk that employees might develop a shared social
identity, voice solidarity with each other, and ultimately join forces (Gintis 1976, p. 48).
This threat is characteristic of the technical control system, which, as has already been
noted, used workers with low skill levels who therefore constituted a homogeneous
workforce (Reich et al. 1973; Edwards 1978).
In order to counter the rise of this class consciousness and prevent the formation of alliances, employers would seek to divide and conquer (Wachtel 1974).
The use of female or immigrant labor, which enabled employers to exploit the
antagonisms between different groups of workers, is an example of such a strategy.5
Later, with the emergence of bureaucratic control, this would take the form of job
ladders that led some employees to be promoted on the basis of their qualifications
or work experience while others remained at the starting level. From this point of view,
labor force segmentation is not exogenous to the economic system (Reich et al. 1973)
but rather reflects, above all, the interests of employers. The same applies to discrimination, which means there is no a priori reason why it should disappear, contrary to the
argument advanced during the same period by Gary Becker (1957).6 Nevertheless,
such segmentation, if it is perceived as unfair by employees, can help to strengthen
their solidarity and consequently turn out to be counterproductive for employers. For
this not to happen, segmentation must appear legitimate to employees (Gintis 1976),
and the education system can be one of the ways in which such legitimacy is achieved.
The last theme emphasized by the radical economists is employee discipline and
employee involvement in work. This theme is not unconnected with the previous two,
since the choice of forms of work organization, on the one hand, and segmentation
strategies, on the other, are also ways of obtaining that discipline and involvement.
However, this question also appears in the radial economists analyses in two, mutually
complementary forms. The first, drawing on a classic Marxist concept, is that of
the army of unemployed (Bowles 1985, p. 17), whose very existence is a threat
to employees and thus serves to discipline them. The second concerns the role of the
education system, and more specifically its influence on preferences and class consciousness (Wachtel 1974). We will return to this question as well.

4On

this question, the radical economists were particularly influenced by the work of Peter Doeringer and
Michael Piore (1971) (cf. Tinel 2004, p. 64).
5As Michael Reich et al. (1973, p. 362) note: Employers also consciously manipulated ethnic antagonisms
to achieve segmentation. Employers often hired groups from rival nationalities in the same plant or in
different plants.
6Indeed, according to Becker, firms that discriminate make less profit and are therefore destined to disappear from the market.

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III. THE RADICALS ANALYSIS OF THE ECONOMIC ROLE OF


EDUCATION
One of the accusations the radical economists brought against mainstream economics
was that it was unable to account for the problems of American society at the time, and
this led them to attach particular importance to education.
They did so initially as teachers. Bowles offered the following explanation:
The first year I taught introductory economics, one of my students asked me something
like this: in view of the fact that scientific knowledge is freely available and peoples
biology is relatively similar around the world, why it is that some nations are so rich
and others so poor? Another wanted to know whether this came about because they
were incompetent or because we exploited them. I had no answer; my training in
neoclassical economics had left me totally unprepared to address these questions
the chasm between the important issues of the day and what economists taught was
simply too gaping for many of my generation to tolerate. I decided that I could not
face my students unless I reeducated myself. (Arestis and Sawyer 2000, p. 73)7

As a result, the radical economists sought to develop a different approach to the


teaching of economics. It was for this purpose that radical economics textbooks were
to be published and Bowles was to establish courses at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst that combined neoclassical, post-Keynesian, institutionalist, and Marxist
approaches (Tinel 2004). At the same time, the radical economists also sought to promote
courses that used different teaching methods and practices: for example, by questioning the role of grades or using innovative teaching materials, such as films or poems
(see, for example, Bramhall 1975; Edwards and MacEwan 1970).
This desire to reform the teaching of economics was not motivated solely by pedagogical considerations. It was also linked to the role played by the education system in
the organization of society, which, according to the radical economists, enabled
employers to more firmly establish their control over their employees. Thus, reforming
education was for them a means of thwarting this control and reducing the inequalities
that flowed from it (Edwards and MacEwan 1970; Bowles 1974).
This analysis was to be developed principally by Bowles, Gintis, and, to a lesser
extent, Edwards. It was an essential element in the internal coherence of radical
thought, since it was closely linked to the analysis of the employment relationship
already outlined above. However, it was also fundamental in that it lay at the heart
of the debates that helped to shape and institutionalize the economics of education
in the period following the Second World War. The aim of the radicals analysis of
education was, after all, to develop an alternative to, and a critique of, human capital
theory. Thus, we begin by outlining, in this section, their analysis of the economic role
of education before going on to examine this critique in greater detail in the following
section.
The radical economists argument was based on the idea that the arena of class
struggle has been extended to include the schools and colleges (Bowles 1974, p. 101)

7Cf. the accounts in a similar vein given by Stephen Marglin and Thomas Weisskopf, for example (Tinel
2004; Arestis and Sawyer 2000).

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and that consequently the social relations of production are replicated in the schools
(Bowles 1978, p. 788). Developing this line of interpretation, the radical economists
were to emphasize the role of the education system during the bureaucratic control
phase, which, in the USA at least, tended to predominate at the time they were writing.
They highlighted two essential functions fulfilled by education, over and above the
transmission of knowledge in their strict definition of it: a socialization function, in
this case preparation for the labor market, on the one hand, and a legitimation function,
on the other. These two functions contributed to the reproduction of inequalities,
in which children from modest family backgrounds were allocated to the lowest positions in the corporate hierarchy and hence in their turn occupied the same modest
positions in the social hierarchy their parents had occupied. Let us examine these two
functions in turn.
First, education prepares young people for the labor market by facilitating the segmentation of the labor force. The education system is indeed organized hierarchically
by level of qualification, the nature of the teaching (more or less vocationalized or
technical), and even the reputation of individual schools (Bowles 1973). During
the bureaucratic control phase, firms were organized in accordance with rules that
segmented the workforce into various hierarchical levels whose purpose was to divide
and conquer. The educational hierarchy further reinforced the segmentation operated
by firms by allocating individuals to the various levels of the hierarchy on the basis of
qualifications (Bowles 1971).
However, the socialization of labor function also operates through the internal
functioning of the education system. The rules that characterize bureaucratic control
lay down a set of work criteria attached to each job, on the basis of which workers
are evaluated by their hierarchical superior. However, it is difficult to specify precisely and completely in advance the work to be carried out. The rules are therefore
necessarily incomplete. Consequently, the immediate supervisor has a certain degree
of freedom to intervene directly. However, this also encourages firms to seek out
employees with personal characteristics, which, although not directly productive,
facilitate the employers task of maintaining control over them. Thus, at the bottom
of the hierarchy, priority will be given to potential employees whose behavior is
rule-oriented, since authority and control are mediated through rules, as well as to
those likely to obey the spirit of the rules so that they are transcend(ing) the particular rules to carry out the intent of the rules (Edwards 1978, p. 58). For positions
further up the hierarchy, employers will be looking for loyalty and commitment,
qualities that, despite the need at this level for greater autonomy, will lead employees
in these positions to identify with the firm by internalizing its objectives and values
(Edwards 1976).
The education system produces such characteristics (or skills) through the way in
which it functions. In class, pupils must respect the teachers authority. They also learn
to accustom themselves to the existence of rules such as punctuality or discipline.
Furthermore, for those children likely to occupy positions in the lowest echelons of the
corporate hierarchy, autonomy and creativity are not qualities sought out and recognized by schools (Gintis 1971). On the other hand, for a pupil likely to fill the highest
positions, behaviors characterized by self-confidence, initiative, and authority over
much of his own affairs will be valued (Bowles 1974, p. 108) and demanded of them
once they have been recruited.

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Moreover, impersonal relations and a competitive spirit are also encouraged in both
these types of organization (firms and schools), and the rewards for good effort go
beyond mere personal satisfaction; they include promotion and pay rises for employees
and, for pupils, a good report from teachers (Bowles 1971, p. 5; Gintis 1971, pp. 274276).
Thus, there is what the radical economists call a principle of correspondence between
the functioning of a firm and that of the education system.
Nevertheless, this correspondence cannot be analyzed as a mere balance between
labor supply and demand, and neither can it be a reflection of individuals capabilities
and merits. For the radical economists, indeed, it was merely an expression of the
education systems role in reproducing social inequalities (Bowles, Gintis, and Meyer
1975, p. 233).
Several factors are at work in this reproduction process. The first is the differences
in the financial resources available to schools in the USA; a lack of money means that
schools in the poorest areas cannot afford to have low pupilteacher ratios, which in
turn explains the drive to instill obedience and discipline, which are also the qualities
expected in the workplace. Neither can lessons be varied and thereby help to develop
creativity. In the better-funded schools in the socially more advantaged areas, on the
other hand, pupils are able to develop other qualities: namely, those required for the
higher levels of the corporate hierarchy, such as independence, autonomy, and selfconfidence. The second factor at work here is the way in which teachers, guidance
counselors, and school administrators define what constitutes success for their pupils.
After all, their attitudes are influenced by the social class to which the pupils belong:
Schools often encourage students to develop aspirations and expectations typical of
their social class (Bowles 1971, p. 24). The last factor is the educational ambitions
that families nurture for their children, which will vary in intensity, depending on the
families social position. Over and above such ambitions, the values families transmit
to their children are also going to coincide with their social position and their place in
the corporate hierarchy, which in turn will reinforce the influence of the education
system: working class parents value obedience, neatness, and honesty in their
children, while higher status parents emphasize curiosity, self-control, and happiness
(Bowles 1973, p. 353).
Besides the socialization functionthat is, the preparation for the labor market just
mentionedthe radical economists also stressed the education systems legitimation
function. The idea here is that it is through the education system that individuals are
persuaded that it is fair and naturali.e., objective and inevitablethat they occupy
different social positions and, in particular, lowly or more elevated positions in the
corporate hierarchy, depending on whether or not they succeeded in the education
system (Bowles, Gintis, and Meyer, 1975).
However, this legitimation is not recompense for the investment individuals make
in their education. On the contrary, for the radical economists, this legitimation function lies at the heart of the conflicts of interest between the social classes. Indeed, since
success or failure in the education system depends on an individuals social class in
accordance with the mechanisms described above, the purpose of the legitimation
function is simply to gain acceptance for the social inequalities in education.
This process of acceptance depends on, among other things, the emphasis within
the education system on values such as sacrifice and effort. It is also linked to the fact
that young people spend a relatively long time in education, which tends to make the

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selection that takes place seem objective and fair. Finally, this acceptance is further reinforced by the endogenous nature of preferences (Gintis 1974). Families educational
expectations and ambitions depend, after all, on their social class. However, as already
noted, educational success is socially biased, to the disadvantage of the lower classes.
Thus, this social bias in the functioning of the education system tends to reinforce
families initial expectations and ambitions and thereby leads them to accept the
inequalities.
Ultimately, the result of this dual socialization/legitimation function is that, under
the guise of meritocracy, the education system reproduces social inequalities from
generation to generation, thereby catering to the interests of employers.
Nevertheless, the economic role played by the education system is fragile. The very
inequalities it helps to reproduce may push it to the limit. It is in this sense that there
is a contradiction between accumulation and the reproduction of the social order
(Bowles 1978; Carnoy 1971). The protest movement that emerged on American campuses at the end of the 1960s illustrates this idea. After all, the development of mass
higher education may have been a way of producing the skills required for economic
growth. However, this response to economic needs was not to be allowed to interfere
with the positions occupied by the economic elite educated in the most prestigious
universities. Thus, the development of two-year colleges and post-secondary technical
institutes, of lower quality, went hand in hand with that of mass higher education but,
contrary to their expectations, did not enable the students who attended them to attain
the positions they hoped for in the corporate hierarchy, against which they finally
rebelled (Bowles 1974).
As we have just seen, the radical economists analysis of the economic role of
education puts the emphasis on the social inequalities in access to education. The
other forms of inequality in education, notably those linked to gender or to ethnicity,
are not absent but analysis of them is less well developed. This is due, first, to the
fact that the various forms of inequality are seen as cumulative (Glenn 1985).
Second, and perhaps above all, it is due to the central role played by class conflict,
which results in the other forms of conflict and inequality being underplayed
(Folbre 2012).
Nevertheless, these other forms of inequality of access to education are included in
the radical economists analysis of the historical dynamic of the education system and
also underlie their analysis of the family.
After all, the radical economists did not limit their studies to the period of bureaucratic control referred to above, even though it predominates in their writings. This
period is integrated into a broader historical analysis. From the point of view of the
history of the American education system, therefore, the various forms of educational
inequality, whether related to social class, gender, or ethnic origin, should be understood as the counterpart of employers wishes to incorporate (or exclude) particular
categories of the population into the wage labor system. This applies, for example,
to the development of public elementary and secondary education in the nineteenth
century, which was a way to integrate peasant labor, both immigrant and native,
into the burgeoning corporate capitalist relations of production. Similarly, the
recent period of education change and ferment is a response to the integration
of two major groups into the wage labor system: uprooted Southern blacks, and the
once respectable solid members of the pre-corporate capitalist community or the

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small business people, the independent professionals, and other white collar workers
(Bowles 1974, p. 104).8
Furthermore, the familyas we have seenplays a central role in social inequalities in access to education through the values it transmits and through family expectations. However, the familys influence on the other forms of inequality of access to
education, particularly that related to gender, is only implicit in Bowless and Gintiss
work. The fact that gender inequalities within the family were initially analyzed, at
least by some of the radical economists,9 as a consequence or by-product of class
conflict undoubtedly explains this characteristic of their early work. Nevertheless,
in their later work, Bowles and Gintis (1986) did investigate the question of gender
inequalities within the family. Taking up arguments previously advanced, for example,
by Nancy Folbre (1980) or Heidi Hartmann and Ann Markusen (1980), they argue that
conflicts and inequalities within the family should be conceptualized differently from
class conflict. The family is said to have the ability to produce gender inequalities by
itself, as it were. The explanation is a psychological one. It is linked to the role mothers
play in the care and upbringing of children, which leads young people to develop
different personalities depending on their gender and to reproduce the structure of the
family in which they grow up. Mothers role in the upbringing of their children is
reinforced by the difficulties women encounter in entering the labor market, which
increase their economic dependency on men, and by public policies, which may be
unfavorable to them (Folbre 1984). For all that, the link between the familys ability
to endogenize preferences with respect to gender (McCrate 1988) and the subsequent
educational trajectories of boys and girls was not explicitly made in the analyses
of the period. The development of economic studies focused principally on questions
of child raising within the family, on the one hand, and, on the other, a shift in Bowless
and Gintiss concerns, which led them to attach less importance to the education
system, undoubtedly explain this situation.

IV. A CRITIQUE OF HUMAN CAPITAL THEORY


The radical economists analysis of the role of the education system sought to account
for inequalities in access to education (the trade-off for employers desire to control
employees) and the consequent inequalities in social position. Broadly speaking, at
least three major explanations can be advanced to explain these inequalities. In the
first, social positions are regarded as a reflection of individual choices, mediated notably through their investment in education. This is the starting point for human capital
theory. In the second, social positions are regarded as not having been chosen by individuals at all. Rather, they are explained by an individuals inherent characteristics,
particularly his or her genetic characteristics. This notion was the basis for what the
8This

historical perspective also leads them to note that the education system has not always played an
economic role. In pre-capitalist societies, after all, the knowledge to be acquired remained relatively stable
from generation to generation. The transmission of that knowledge and the socialization function were the
responsibility of the family and of the wider community. Moreover, social positions were reproduced
through the transmission of capital by means of inheritance.
9Cf. Quick (1977).

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radical economists called IQism. From this perspective, as Bowles and Valerie Nelson
summarize it (1974, p. 39), The poor are poor because they lack mental skills. In the
third and final explanation, social positions are not the result of individual choice,
either. This time, however, genetic considerations play no role. Rather, social position
depends on the mode of social organization, and in particular on the education system
and its mode of functioning. This last explanation is that advanced by the radical economists. It implies that inequalities in social position are in no way fair or normal.
While the radical economists certainly attempted to challenge IQism (Bowles 1973;
Bowles and Nelson 1974; Bowles, Gintis, and Meyer 1975), it was undoubtedly human
capital theory that was their principal target. They acknowledged, first, that human
capital theory had added to the complexity and richness of analysis of the labor supply
and in that sense constituted an advance. In human capital theory, indeed, labor is
regarded as a factor of production that is itself produced. Second, it is no longer
regarded as homogeneous, and social institutions (such as education and the family)
are reintroduced into the sphere of economic analysis (Bowles and Gintis 1975). For
all that, human capital theory is not, in their view, completely satisfactory, hence the
desire to put forward an alternative theory. The radical economists critique was
targeted at four main aspects of the theory: the definition of the concept of human
capital, the failure to take account of interclass conflict, the refusal to consider the
education system as a black box, and the stability of individual preferences.
The first aspect concerns not only the definition of the concept of human capital
but also the returns to education. In human capital theory, these returns depend on the
productive nature of education: i.e., on the fact that education increases individuals
productivity through the acquisition of cognitive skills. The radical economists do not
deny that this is so. However, they stress the idea that the education system also develops
characteristics that are not directly productive; these behavior traits are sought after
and rewarded by employers. As already noted, these may be, for workers in the lowest
levels of the hierarchy, obedience, rule orientation, and respect for authority. These
not-directly-productive characteristics were not initially taken into account in human
capital theory. As Sherwin Rosen (1977, p. 17) in fact acknowledged, these are a
different kind of human capital than crude notions of labor efficiency and skill that
underlie most empirical work.
These characteristics could be incorporated into a more broadly conceived concept
of human capital, as Assar Lindbeck (1972) or Mark Blaug (1976) note. This applied,
in a way, to empirical analyses based on human capital theory that incorporated
explanatory variables such as gender, ethnic origin, or age (Edwards 1976). The
radical economists critique of this more broadly conceived concept of human capital
was somewhat different. They called into question the internal coherence of the approach
adopted by human capital theorists, noting that the incorporation of these not-directlyproductive characteristics should have given rise to a much more complex notion of
the firm than that represented by the production function, which still had great resonance at that time (Tinel 2002). Thus, Edwards (1976) noted that when economists
consider race, sex, and other ascriptive characteristics, there is no place in the model
for these characteristics per se to bear any direct or intrinsic relation to the actual
process of production (p. 52).
However, the radical economists critique is not solely conceptual and theoretical.
Edwards (1976), for example, drawing on surveys carried out in firms, notes that the

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behavior traits identified by theoretical analysis do indeed have a positive influence on


wages and supervisors evaluations of workers performance. This use of empirical
analysis is important, since it demonstrates the radical economists desire to inhabit the
same territory and use the same tools as the human capital theorists.
The second criticism concerns the failure to take account of social class. This flows
directly from the first one. According to the radical economists, after all, the nature of
the not-directly-productive characteristics reflects the conflictive relations between
social classes. To ignore them, as human capital theory does, is to absorb labor into a
concept of capital in no way enriched to handle labors special character (Bowles and
Gintis 1975, p. 74). All individuals become capitalists. It is for this reason that human
capital theory emerges as the most recent, and perhaps ultimate, step in the elimination of class as a central economic concept (Bowles and Gintis 1975, p. 74). This
undoubtedly explains why the radical economists critique focused on this last theory,
rather than on other mainstream approaches to education that emerged at the same time,
such as signaling theory (Spence 1973) or filter theory (Arrow 1973).
This positioning of human capital theory stemmed from the fact that its research
program was characterized by methodological individualism, that is, the view that
all social phenomena should be traced back to their foundation in individual behavior
(Blaug 1976, p. 830). It followed from this that, if individuals accumulated different
amounts of human capital, it was because they had a rational interest in doing so. This
did not mean that the influence of the family environment was denied (Rosen 1977, p. 9).
It was of course taken into account. Nevertheless, the real nature of that influence remained
vague, as Blaug (1976, p. 843) notes:
whether measured in terms of income, occupation, or education, we can never be sure
whether the reported measures of family background refer to pre-school investment,
to later investments complementary with schooling, to post-school influences, or
simply to certain attitudinal changes that provide children in certain homes with a set
of self-fulfilling aspirations.

However, whatever interpretation might be offered, the influence exerted by the


family environment is not analyzed in terms of interclass conflict. For the radical economists, on the other hand, it was this last unit of observation that should be adopted.
This means that the different amounts of human capital that individuals accumulate,
and the ensuing differences in earnings, reflect these class conflicts, mediated by the
mechanisms described above, rather than the behavior of individuals acting in their
own interests, even though they (and human capital theorists with them) believe they
are conducting themselves freely (Teixeira 2011, p. 682). Thus, Bowles (1972), for
example, presents some empirical findings that tend to show that the influence of
education on earnings is somewhat limited and that variables indicative of social class
have a greater impact. Consequently, education cannot be seen as a powerful vehicle
for the equalization of economic opportunity, the redistribution of income, and the
elimination of poverty (Bowles 1972, p. S219).
The third object of the radical economists critique is the status human capital
theory attributes to the education system as an organization. In his 1964 book, Becker
begins by analyzing firms investment in on-the-job training. However, his analysis does
not specify the production function of human capital, the way in which this training
increases workers productivity. Becker then transposes his analysis of on-the-job

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training to the education system, noting that a sharp distinction between schools and
firms is not always necessary: for some purposes schools can be treated as a special kind
of firm and students as a special kind of trainee (p. 31). Once again, however, nothing is
said about the production function of human capital, so that the education system, like the
firm, remains a black box. The same observation applies to the work of the other main
proponents of human capital theory. This is what leads Bowles (1970) to conclude,
The growing popular interest in education has been paralleled by the development of an
immense literature on the role of human capital in economic growth and the distribution
of income. And yet nobody really knows how education is produced (p. 11).
On the other hand, the radical economists efforts to understand the production of
education reflects a long-standing interest, particularly for Bowles, as his early writings show (cf., for example, Bowles and Levin 1968a and 1968b; Bowles 1970).10 This
concern arose out of epistemological considerations that led the radical economists to
advocate greater realism (Flaherty 2008). However, it is also linked to their analysis of
the firm and its organization. After all, to take the view, as the radicals did, that the
production of goods and services depends not only on technical considerations but
also on conflictive interclass relations (and that, consequently, firms recruiting in the
labor market seek out workers with characteristics that are not directly productive)
should lead to an understanding of how such characteristics are produced in the
education system and constitute a point of entry into the black box of the education
system. Once again, this criticism was supported by empirical studies that attempted
to show how the not-directly-productive characteristics sought by firms were also valued
in the education system (Edwards 1977; Gintis 1971).
The final criticism concerned the nature of preferences. Human capital theorists regard
preferences as exogenous and stable over time (Blaug 1983). For the radical economists,
on the other hand, they are endogenous and evolve over time, since they are constructed in the education system, as already noted, as well as in the workplace and the
family (Gintis 1974; McCrate 1996). However, since these institutions (firm, family,
school) are influenced by interclass conflict, to regard preferences as fixed is to ignore
these conflicts and their influence. This accounts for the radical economists desire to
understand how this endogeneity functions by incorporating the internal functioning
of firms and the education system into their analysis.

V. CONCLUSION
Human capital theory was a key element in the establishment of a field of economic
analysis specifically dedicated to education. From within the mainstream, it was challenged for a time by rival theories (signaling and filter theories). However, challenges
10These

early analyses of Bowles may not seem so radical. One explanation may be that Bowles was
seeking above all to account for the production of education in its most academic dimension (as achievement scores): i.e., without any very explicit link with the organization of the firm, and in particular the
organization of work. When this is taken into account, the radical nature of his approach becomes evident
(cf. Bowles 1971; Bowles 1974; Bowles and Gintis 1975, for example). An alternative explanation may
be that Bowles at that time had not yet taken the turn to the left that was to characterize his later analyses.
As Blaug (1986) notes, his early analyses are absolutely neoclassical.

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also came from competing paradigms. We have attempted in this paper to outline the
critique of human capital theory developed by the radical economists in the 1970s. The
nature of this critique seems to us to place it at the heart of the debates that helped to
shape the economics of education as a field of inquiry in its own right.
Since the 1970s, the radical economists work on the economics of education seems
to have attracted less attention. Thus, the recent histories of ideas that trace the emergence and institutionalization of the economics of education in the period following
the Second World War, which we mentioned in the introduction, make virtually no
mention of it. Blaugs earlier analysis (Blaug 1985) is one exception. The same observation can be made of the history of ideas in labor economics, a field of inquiry that
has close links with the economics of education.11 For their part, those studies that
have sought to put the ideas of the radical economists into historical perspective have
also paid relatively little attention to their analysis of the role of education in the labor
market (Rebitzer 1993; Spencer 2000; Tinel 2004), that of Elaine McCrate (1996)
excepted. Recent issues of economic journals devoted to the economics of education12
seem equally neglectful of the radical economists work, even though it could certainly
have been used to illuminate certain topics.
Several factors may have contributed to this lack of interest, which also applies
more broadly to radical thinking in general beyond the specific field of the economics
of education. We can suggest a number of these factors, all of which of course merit
further investigation and qualification.
The first concerns the existence of different paradigms and, within each paradigm,
the hyperspecialization of research fields (Teixeira 2011), which may lead to a lack
of awareness or neglect of research conducted in another field or another paradigm.
Second, the radical analysis of education may also have been considered very close
to the sociology of education, which may have made it less attractive to economists.
Third, there are the various influences to which the diffusion of ideas is not wholly
immune (Dow 2000). Thus, even though a number of the radical economists were
educated in the most prestigious universities, notably Harvard, and even though their
ideas were quickly taken seriously by part of the mainstream (Tinel 2004), they
encountered difficulties in obtaining permanent positions in academia, which contributed to their marginalization (Mata 2009, 2010). The fact that at least part of the
radical school ran out of steam was also probably a factor, as was the incorporation
of another part into the mainstream (Flaherty 2008; Reich 1993). At the same time,
mainstream economists have been active in this process of incorporation.13 For example,
the inclusion in studies by human capital theoreticians of what are called soft skills
11Thus,

the article by Lowell Gallaway and Richard Vedder (2003) or the earlier one by Renato Brunetta
(1991) make no mention of the work of Bowles, Gintis, or Edwards. The same applies to the article
by George Boyer and Robert Smith (2001), even though it gives an account of the debates between the
mainstream and the institutional economists. The older book by Paul McNulty (1980) and the more recent
one by Pedro Nuno Teixeira (2007) devote only a few lines to the radical economists (cf. the critique of the
latter in Bruce Kaufman 2008).
12Cf., for example, the May 2004 issue of the Scottish Journal of Political Economy, the autumnwinter
2004 issue of the Brussels Economic Review, the August 2005 issue of the German Economic Review, the
May 2007 issue of Empirical Economics, and the SeptemberOctober 2010 issue of the Revue dEconomie
Politique.
13As was the case in another field, such as analysis of the firm (cf. Tinel 2002, 2004).

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(Heckman and Kautz 2012) can be interpreted as a desire on the part of these economists
to revive the notion of not-directly-productive characteristics that was emphasized
by the radical economists. Similarly, the emphasis on historical contingencies that was
so dear to the radical economists has been incorporated into the mainstream notion of
path dependency (Reich 1993).

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