The Illusion of the Equality of Opportunity

Marxist sociologists Bowles and Gintis argue that capitalist societies are not meritocratic. Against Functionalists, they argue that it is not the amount of ability and effort an individual puts into their education that determines how well they do, but rather their class background.

The simple reality is that being born into a middle class family means that middle class children benefit from material and cultural capital which give them an advantage in both school, and in the job application process, which gives them an unfair advantage compared to working class children.

However, the education system disguises this fact by spreading the ‘myth of meritocracy‘ – the idea that it is solely the ability and effort of the individual which determines the qualifications and the job they get, rather than their class background, and thus individuals end up blaming themselves for their failures rather than inequality of opportunity in the education system.

Intelligence, Educational Attainment and Meritocracy

Bowles and Gintis base their argument on an analysis of the relationship between intelligence (measured by IQ), educational attainment and occupational reward. They argue that IQ accounts for only a small part of educational attainment.

Bowles Gintis Myth Meritocracy

They examined a sample of individuals with a wide range of IQs and within this sample, they found a wide variation of educational attainment within that sample and concluded that there was hardly any relationship between the two variables.

Bowles and Gintis found a direct relationship between class background and educational achievement – the higher and individual’s class background, the higher their level of educational achievement.

So how do we explain the fact that individuals with higher IQs tend to have higher qualifications? they explain this as a by-product of length of stay in education – the longer an individual stays in education, they more their IQ develops. However, it is still family background which mainly determines educational attainment.

Bowles and Gintis also apply a similar analysis to the relationship between occupational reward and IQ – again, in their sample of average IQ individuals, there was a wide variety of incomes, which suggested there was no significant relationship between IQ and income.

As with educational success, what explains high income is family background – the combination of an individual’s class, gender and ethnicity are much better predictors of someone’s income rather than their IQ – educational qualifications are of much more value to the white, middle class male, than to the black, working class female.

Bowles and Gintis conclude that ‘education reproduces inequality by justifying privilege and attributing poverty to personal failure’. The education system effectively disguises the fact that economic success runs in the family, and that privilege breeds privilege. Bowles and Gintis thus reject the functionalist view that education is a meritocracy.

Related Posts 

The other major contribution Bowles and Gintis made to the sociology of education was their work on the hidden curriculum and the correspondence principle.

This is a summary post of the Marxist perspective on education which includes a briefer version of what’s in this post, and the one in the link above.

Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ is often used to criticize the determinism found in Bowles and Gintis.

Sources used to write this post 

Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

 

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