Most social scientists in the U.S. agree that society is stratified into social classes. Social classes are hierarchical groupings of individuals that are usually based on wealth, educational attainment, occupation, income, or membership in a subculture or social network. The class system in America puts those with the most wealth, power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy and those with the least at the bottom.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) based his conflict theory on the idea that modern society has only two classes of people: the bourgeoisie – the owners of the means of production: the factories, businesses, and equipment needed to produce wealth, and the proletariat or workers. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies exploit workers. The owners pay them enough to afford food and a place to live, and the workers, who do not realize they are being exploited, have a false consciousness, or a mistaken sense, that they are well off. They think they can count on their capitalist bosses to do what was best for them.
For Marx all history is class struggle. Exploitation is hidden by the political institutions that exist. The state was a reflection of the most powerful economic classes. Working-class consciousness is then, for Marxists, in comprehending the struggle of the process through which the proletariat develops from its identity as formed by capitalism (the mass of exploited wage-labourers, the class ‘in itself’) to the working class organised as a revolutionary force for the taking of power and the building of socialism (the class ‘for itself’) Then, in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels had written: “. . . a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class . . . in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists goes over to the proletariat.” The proletariat must ensure that the bourgeois ideologists have been educated to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.1
Marx foresaw a workers’ revolution. As the rich grew richer, Marx hypothesized that workers would develop a true class-consciousness, or a sense of shared identity based on their common experience of exploitation by the bourgeoisie. The workers would unite and rise up in a global revolution. Marx’s vision did not come true. As societies modernized and grew larger, the working classes became more educated, acquiring specific job skills and achieving the kind of financial well-being that Marx never thought possible.
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s view there is no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consists of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. Nietzsche (1844-1900) was concerned with the German cultural decline. He believed the cause of the decline included the following: the dominance of commercial society, triumph of philistinism, the death of God, growth of decadence. He was not concerned with the evolution of bourgeoisie society which makes it necessary at some time that such a society be replaced by a qualitatively different system. For Nietzsche the structure of presuppositions which forms the basis of any culture has no external or natural validity, it cannot lead to a qualitatively different system.
For Nietzsche, the values (culture and traditions) of the dominant society (with an ideology consistent with its interests) were oppressing the emergence of a new generation of stronger individuals and a more vigorous society and culture. Darwin effectively showed that searching for a true definition of species was not only futile but unnecessary since the definition of a species is something temporary, something which will change over time, without any permanent, lasting and stable reality. Nietzsche strived through his philosophical work to do the same for cultural values. He substituted Darwin’s adaptive fitness with creative power – for Nietzsche, everything is in flux. Ideas should change as soon as information and input changes.
Early in his life Nietzsche had had the hope that some sort of education regeneration would be possible – finally realizing we are never rid of the past merely by the process of getting older, rather the account requires a change in the manner of understanding. However, Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values.
Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist and philosopher, took issue with Marx’s seemingly simplistic view of stratification. Weber argued that owning property, such as factories or equipment, is only part of what determines a person’s social class. Weber believed that social class is also a result of power, which is merely the ability of an individual to get his or her way, despite opposition. Wealthy people tend to be more powerful than poor people, and power can come from an individual’s prestige. People who run corporations without owning them still benefit from increased production and greater profits.
People are motivated by custom or tradition, by emotions, by religious or ethical values, and by rational goal oriented behavior. All human behavior, Weber claims, is motivated by various combinations of these four basic factors. However, just because an action is rational in terms of fulfillment of a short-term goal, Weber asserts, does not mean it is rational in terms of the whole society. It often happens, he writes, that an excessive focus on short-term goals undermines the very goals of society.
Weber noted by loosening the hold of custom and tradition, rationalization led to new practices that were chosen because they were efficient and predictable, rather than customary. A rational society is one built around logic and efficiency rather than morality or tradition. Rationalization of the economy created the mindset that the economy requires less and less engineering (regulations), and would be capable of fixing itself. This, in turn, created the notion that there exists an inherent natural law unaffected by human endeavor and weakness that drives the economy.
Today we recognize the limits of economic rationalization that underpins an ideology based on selfishness. The consequences of the 2008 debacle – slow economic growth and under-employment, and the growing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society underscores the basis of rational self-interest (selfishness). When challenging ideology (in 2015 the status quo) it is necessary to choose criterion for distinguishing ideas that support the relations of domination from those that do not. The fundamental dogmatism of an economic system of minimal government and regulation is codification of a political ideology defended by proxies.
Sociologists still consider social class to be a grouping of people with similar levels of wealth, prestige, and power. Like all societies, the United States is stratified, and this stratification is often based on a person’s socioeconomic status. This complex formula takes into account three factors: education, occupation, and income.
The American education system is based on class. Students who live in wealthy communities have huge advantages that rig the system in their favour – higher rates of high school graduation, college attendance and entry into more selective colleges. The education system favours the well-off with the growing gap between the rich and poor. University fees were raised faster than the median incomes since the 1980s. Middle class students now rack up huge debts to attend college, especially if they want a postgraduate degree.
In the present system education equates to power – the next generation of powerful leaders gains abilities and skills that will be converted into benefits and power within a country that values education and meritocracy. Higher education breeds middle and upper class citizens who gain greater benefits than those in the lower class. In having the power to determine the credible truths of society, higher education has granted degrees that translate into political tools, economic mobility and ultimately power for those who are able to access college or university.
Education has become a prime vehicle to advance one’s social class. The “American Dream” suggests that the harder people work the more they will flourish economically. Data from the past 40 years increasingly does not support this. Progressive thinkers understand this. Bernie Sanders believes that public colleges and universities should be tuition-free, and the government should drastically reduce interest rates on student loan debt. He would tax the hedge fund managers to pay for this investment.
Hillary Clinton also has a plan to support education in the US. Her plan includes incentive based subsidies to higher education by creating a system in which states are eligible to receive federal grant money. It would make enrollment at community colleges free and affordable without loans at four-year public institutions if students contribute the equivalent of wages from a 10-hour per week job and families make the contribution prescribed by aid eligibility formulas. Part of Clinton’s plan includes refinancing debt and reducing interest rates on new loans.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator and philosopher, claimed that the educational process is never neutral and it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies. He believes that the main purpose of the present education system is to reproduce the values and expectations of the dominant society in order to maintain its power. In the present education system students “receive information as passive entities; education makes them more passive, [this]… regulated information allows students to adapt to the world” Education supports the oppressors by “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation that oppresses them, for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated.”2
The present education system persists to support the existing class system and in the process modifies students’ perception of reality and serves to limit situations in which they can transform the system. The proposed education reforms of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are intended to advance individuals from one social class to another. However, neither proposed education plan addresses the root cause of the growing economic inequality. Fortunately, there is an opportunity for change. The American system of education is rooted in the Socratic tradition where questioning and skepticism are the foundation to the teaching-learning process.
Most skeptics believe that by continuously questioning our knowledge, the source thereof, and what is held as “truth,” we can greatly reduce the risk of being deceived. By questioning and doubting the fundamental dogmatism of the rationalists David Hume (1711-1776), one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, helps focus the issue insisting, “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.” Hume’s primary project was to develop a science of human nature; a science stripped of dogma and based on observable fact and careful argument. Subjectivists would argue that even though emotions are irrational, they should be a part of the decision making process because they show us our preferences.
We need to re-introduce into the universities the type of critical thinking that helped illuminate the way for the thinkers during the Enlightenment and created a cultural revolution that produced new ideas and values. This new intellectual revolution needs to question the workings of society and government, explain the purpose of government, and describe the best form of it to create a new middle class wealth boom.
1 Slaughter, Cliff. (1975) Marxism and the Class Struggle https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/slaughte.htm
2 About Paulo Freire. http://www.pedagogyoftheoppressed.com/author/