Characteristics and Implications of Education within the Western, Capitalist System: Contradictions to Human Potential

The current structure and culture of our educational system is a function of the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. Today, as a result of this increasingly archaic underpinning, the manner in which knowledge and education are structured within western, capitalist culture has profound effects on our educational system and subsequently on how students identify themselves, not only as learners within the school system, but also as individuals within society. The characteristics and subsequent implications of this model, which are contradictory to holistic human development, are systematically alienating scores of children by siphoning their creativity and preventing many of them from discovering and embracing their true potential. As global cultural and economic paradigms shift away from a dependence upon traditional labor/market relations, so must the system within which we educate those leading us into this unknown.


Historically, there have been a wide variety of human institutions, be they religious, political or otherwise that have existed to serve the political or economic elite. Neo-Marxist educational theorists hold that the educational system within the United States is one such institution, whose role is to culturally reproduce the dominant capitalist culture (Sarup, 2013).  This role is fulfilled in two ways. First and rather explicitly, studies suggest it is promulgated via the content of the curriculum provided to students via inaccurate or biased information within text books (e.g., Ashley & Jarratt-Ziemski, 1999).  Additionally, and in a much more insidious manner, elite political and economic structures are being supported and advanced within our educational system through what Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis refer to as the correspondence theory. According to this theory, the dynamics present within work environments are being replicated via the atmosphere and culture of schools and are subsequently teaching societal roles and the submissive characteristics deemed attractive to employers in addition to the curriculum (Bowles & Gintis, 2002).  Personality traits desired by employers and promulgated via the cultures of our schools include consistency, a willingness to follow orders, and the ability to delay gratification (Bowls & Gintis, 2002). Children move from class to class at the prompting of ringing bells and are batched according to age, as if this is the most important common factor. Students earn external rewards (grades) for their work rather than being intrinsically motivated and have very little, if any, say regarding what they are learning mimicking the capitalist workplace in the way workers are motivated by a paycheck and are alienated from the product of their labor (Bowles & Gintis, 2002).


There are three principles upon which human life and progress flourish, each of them being contradicted by the culture of education in this country (Robinson, 2009). First,  humans are naturally diverse. We each have different interests, different talents and different ways of doing the same thing. Despite the absolute certainty of this human characteristic, education today is based on uniformity and conformity rather than on diversity (Vidal, 2013). Knowledge and education are compartmentalized. Because our educational system was birthed to meet the demands of industrialism, there exists a narrow, hierarchical focus on science and math over disciplines of art, physical education and music. There isn’t a school on earth where art is taught as often and as systematically to children as math is. Expertise is an ever narrowing endeavor. The further one climbs up the educational ladder, the more acute her focus becomes. This narrowing and compartmentalization had a practical purpose at one time but with it has come a lack of ability to see the bigger picture – to see the interdisciplinary and interconnectedness of subjects, thoughts, and ideas (Vidal, 2012). This byproduct of our educational paradigm is dangerous and counterproductive to creating empowered, creative, and thoroughly intelligent citizens. Math and science are essential but they are nowhere near sufficient. We must give equal weight to art, physical education, and music, each of which speaks to parts of a child’s being that may otherwise lie untouched.


Humans are naturally curious. When engaged in something of great interest to them, an individual gains a sense that time is passing rapidly (Conti, 2011). This is the engine of achievement and if we can tap into something a child enjoys or finds interesting, they will learn almost on their own (Vidal, 2012). However, knowledge and instruction within our culture have been commoditized thus squelching any chance of entertaining curiosity. The international shift within the past thirty years towards standardized testing and, most recently, the invention of value-added measures are evidence of business models and paradigms being implemented within the educational system (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). Testing has its place but once again, has adverse consequences. The concept of being able to quantify the value of knowledge has led to a pedagogical approach within which teachers are the depositors or “subjects” of knowledge and education while students are merely “objects” or bystanders in their own educational journey (Freire, 2000). This is the reality of our educational system today and was coined “banking education” by Paulo Freire in his classic piece, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As a result, we have a culture of compliance rather than curiosity or imagination. We need to attribute great worth to the high art that is teaching and expect that instruction will be comprised of provoking, engaging and stimulating students to be active participants in the learning process.


Finally, humans are inherently creative. A longitudinal study was done within which 1600 kindergarten children were administered an assessment of divergent thinking, a fundamental aspect of the creative process (Land & Jarman, 1998).  Divergent thinking often involves thinking in analogies or in metaphors, thinking matrically, and being able to see many patterns of possibility (Vidal, 2013). The study aimed additionally to look at the effects of the educational system on a child’s capacity for divergent thinking over time, with increased exposure to the system. Upon first administration, 98% of the children obtained scores high enough to be classified creative genius. Five years later, at ages 8-10, 32% scored at the genius level. At final administration, ages 13-15, only 10% scored at this level. Given the same assessment, only 2% of 200,000 adults (all over 25) scored high enough to be classified creative genius. The outcome of this study implies two things. First, we are all born with immense creativity. And second, as we grow and become educated via our current system, this creativity leaves us (Land & Jarman, 1998).  “Small children are creative actors. The socialization process in modern societies does not enhance and develop their creativity. On the contrary, their creativity is discouraged in many ways” (Vidal, 2012).


During the 2009-2010 school year, 3.4 % of all high school students in the U.S. educational system dropped out (U.S. Department of Education). 511,468 kids felt disengaged and alienated enough to permanently removing themselves from the system. This of course, does not account for the unknown number of students who feel a similar apathy and don’t drop out – the scores of individuals sitting in class, uninterested and dispassionate who are simply existing, going through the motions, in an effort to ensure a prosperous future for themselves. However, the global cultural and economic paradigm shifts that have occurred within the past twenty years mean that graduating from our educational system no longer translates into  being absorbed into the labor market in the manner that it used to.  In 2011, according to  the Economic Policy Institute , there were 4.4 job seekers for every open job (Economic Policy Institute, 2011). These numbers and the general malaise with which generations of individuals are encountering their lives suggest that we are in a crisis.

The United States spends more money than most on education. We have smaller class sizes than most and each year hundreds of initiatives are authored whose aims are to help improve the education of our children. These efforts have proven inefficient as the problem is larger than can be remedied by an improvement in the current system. The problem is such that we need a revolution – a complete shift of paradigm to match those that are occurring within the global cultural and economic context. We need divergent thinkers. We need to view and embrace a purpose of education that encompasses more than the production of competent citizens that are able to contribute to a shifting cultural and economic system. We are in need of a system that is able to individualize instruction – fostering and encouraging any part of themselves an individual is drawn to discover and develop. We need to attribute a much higher status to the art of the teaching profession and we need a system that is able to devolve responsibility to the school level, as this is where learning occurs. Education today ought to engage and value a learner’s entire being and encourage the development of each individual’s strengths and abilities, not mine a subcomponent based upon what is deemed a worthy contributor to increasingly archaic cultural and economic paradigms.


“The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being. Other statements of educational purpose have been widely accepted: to develop the intellect, to serve social needs, to contribute to the economy, to prepare students for a job or career, to promote a particular social or political system. These purposes offered are undesirably limited in scope, and in some instances they conflict with the broad purpose I have indicated; they imply a distorted human existence. The broader humanistic purpose includes all of them, and goes beyond them, for it seeks to encompass all the dimensions of human experience.”

-Arthur W. Foshay, “The Curriculum Matrix: Transcendence and Mathematics,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision,

“Every child is born an artist. The problem is to remain one once they grow up.”

-Pablo Picasso



3 thoughts on “Characteristics and Implications of Education within the Western, Capitalist System: Contradictions to Human Potential

  1. Hello Missy! I really did enjoy your post, but it needs to be debated, I agree with you that the education system in this country needs to be reformed, we spend the second most money in the world on every student, yet they fall in the bottom 15% in the world when it comes to arithmetic and science. These subjects are very important as they teach how to solve problems in complex matters using a step by step process. It is hard to reform education in a one size fits all process because as we are all created with the same rights, we are not all created equal as far as talent, knowledge, and even beauty. In High School, I failed English my freshman year and had to take it again to comply with the curriculum to graduate and in the mean time I was placed in a math class 2 years ahead of my grade. During the same time I taught myself how to play the drums and competed in the state track meet twice for pole vaulting. We do need to find everyone’s talent and embrace it, as high tides lift all ships. I do not think that the education system is the soul area that distinguishes our future but it is the responsibility of parents to raise a child. If a child is having problems, a parent should be there to help. When it comes to the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”, people forget that the biological parents will care for and love there own more than the rest of the village will. From that being said, I feel that a good family bond can be the most valuable thing for a persons education.
    When it comes to Marxism, we are talking about a utopian left-wing philosophy that would require one citizen to sacrifice the fruits of their labor to another that has not contributed the labor to aquire their own fruit. Marxism will never work and never has because it also requires the person in power to give his or her own power, it will not happen especially when wealth and fame is involved. Cuba is a great example of this. They claim to have a great health care system, 1 doctor to 200 citizens, we actually modeled our highly successful “Obama care” (lol) after, but they fail to report that most of these doctors either move to the U.S. to practice medicine or take jobs like taxi cab driving because they make more money doing that then being a doctor in a communist state.
    Education reform is a great idea, but please don’t attack capitalism for the down hill progress in the education system!

  2. Hey there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds
    me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
    I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.

    Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s