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Marxist classics on science and higher education. Part 2

Mainstream higher education researchers, often uncritically, applaud the “achievements” of the Californian model of higher education expansion. Contributions by founders of a more nuanced theoretical reflection on the processes, figures like Burton Clark or Martin Trow, are widely used in explaining the massification and universalisation of access to higher education. Nonetheless, some healthy criticism would be of use in this context. It is hard to find a better Marxist narrative on the processes in question than one offered by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2011 [1970]) in Schooling in capitalist America. Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Writing under the strong influence of the waves of students protests of 1968, Bowels and Gintis put the massification and universalisation of higher education processes into the context of the general contradictions faced by the US capitalist economy of their times. 

This fascinating book is only partially devoted to higher education, yet it can offer some substantial Marxist insights into analysing changes in the sector. Bowles and Gintis based their project on three basic assumptions. First, educational institutions contribute to the reproduction of social inequalities rather than helps to undo them. Second, templates of social relations and stimuli at schools, universities included, are drawn from the social relations and imperatives of the workplaces in the capitalist economy and are traversed by both conflicts and contradictions that can be found there. In other words, if the modern workplace requires us to be obedient and disciplined, so do the educational institutions. Or the other way round, if the contemporary capitalist exploitation demands more flexible and mobile workers’ subjectivities, the school and the university have to catch up with that demand as well. In other words, “the structure of production in the corporate sector is reflected in the social relationship of education” (2011 [1970]: 212). This is “correspondence principle” that suggests that any transformation in the educational environment and educational technologies will not fall from the sky or will flourish as the result of some democratic ideals of individual radical educator, but is tightly connected to the changes in the economy at large and can be brought in as a result of the struggles aimed at radical material transformations.

Chapter 8 of the book, which deals directly with the higher education sector, opens with the words by Clark Kerr, who diagnosed the merge of the two worlds, that of the university with that of the industry. Bowles and Gintis focus on the consequences of this merge for higher education, observing how the broader economic transformations are reflected in the condition and the tasks of the sector:

The integration of the white-collar labor into the dominant wage-labor system has required changes in the quality of work similar to those which blue collar workers experienced in a previous era. Prominent is the fragmentation of white-collar skills, which mirrors the process whereby capitalists wrested control over the production process from the highly skilled craft workers in the late nineteenth century. The compartmentalization of white-collar skills has become an essential aspect of the capitalist “divide and rule” strategy for the control of the labor force. Even in well-paid and high-status jobs worker’s discretion and participation is increasingly limited. Equally important, the creation of a reserve army of underemployed skilled white-collar workers whose jobs by no means exhausts the limits of their skills or abilities has increased the pool of available labour. By reducing job security, this reserve army acts as a critical buttress to the power of employers over their workers.

Bowles & Gintins 2011 [1970]: 204

Here lies a core tension that the university contributes to and makes even more severe. The core function of higher education become to be about “bringing student hopes into line with realities of the job market” (2011 [1970]: 211), so in the end, it is similar to what Burton Clark termed the “cooling out” function of higher education.

What I genuinely like about the Bowles and Gintis book is its rooting in the perspective of students and working-class struggles as the only active motor capable of bringing about the change. Although they posit themselves consciously on a more gradualist side (close to Gramscian “long march through institutions” strategy), they express a healthy distance from Marxist determinism and dialectical materialist automatism. As they put it:

The contradictions of corporate capitalism will not by themselves create a revolutionary movement, but they do give birth to a revolutionary potential. The contradictions now manifest in higher education provide us with the opportunity to organise, and to bring that revolutionary potential to fruition.

Bowles & Gintis 2011 [1970]: 223

Therefore, a revolution that will abolish capitalism and transform its universities is seen here as a process of organisation. It will develop mobilised by the two parallel processes. The deinstitutionalisation of capitalist power, a struggle for the reduction of the capacity to control the economic life by capitalist institutions on the one side, and the processes of institutionalisation and expansion of the cooperative capabilities and democratic control by the people on the other.

Published inMarxist Higher Education Research