The Schooled Society: The Educational Transformation of Global Culture

reviewed by Arnold Danzig & Pam Cheng - May 12, 2015

coverTitle: The Schooled Society: The Educational Transformation of Global Culture
Author(s): David Baker
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804790477, Pages: 360, Year: 2014
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David Baker has written an optimistic and insightful book on the significance of education in modern society and on how the schooled society transforms culture, locally, and globally. The book begins with a preface outlining Baker’s thesis on the schooled society, followed by an introduction, eleven substantive chapters, and conclusion.

The chapters are divided into two sections. Part One, entitled "Dimensions and Origin of the Schooled Society," includes five chapters, which explain and examine the neo-institutional perspective on schooling. Baker provides historical perspective for understanding past, present, and future directions for elementary, secondary, and higher education and its continued expansion. Baker is particularly thoughtful when writing about higher education. He includes important discussion on the growth of the research university (what he terms the "super research university") and supporting explanations for new curriculum areas at the university to support his main thesis, that schooling (the schooled society) is an important driver of culture and cultural change. For Baker, there is no education bubble about to implode, no meaningless expansion of education credentials; rather, the world is an orderly and sensible place, with a long arc of rational deliberation built on cognitive skills and leading to a fair and just society and world. The schooled society, as manifest in the learning sciences and cognitive approaches to learning, is viewed as an independent institutional structure shaping knowledge, construction, jobs, and most other aspects of culture and everyday life.  

Part Two, "Societal Consequences of the Education Revolution" includes six chapters, which apply the neo-institutional perspective across occupational and social life. Baker examines the changing nature of work in the 21st century, the significance of credentialing, the emerging consensus on knowledge and truth claims, and construction of the self, politics, and religion. The book concludes with a restatement of Baker’s view on the power of the neo-institutional perspective to explain the expansion of education at all levels, and ways in which education, as an institution, has permeated other major societal institutions and structures.  

Baker argues that the power of the schooled society is underestimated in scholarly accounts of postindustrial society. Increasingly larger numbers of educated people can be found everywhere in the world, accompanied by a cultural transformation that begins in schools and extends to other spheres at work, home, and society. Ultimately, Baker is an optimist and refers to education research as the Pollyanna science (in contrast to economics, which is the dismal science). He concludes that in spite of limitations of the reach of schooling, it is harder to dominate an educated population than a severely undereducated populace. In this view, education is viewed as a human right, and the application of universal principles of knowledge based on cognitive skills developed through academic intelligence is transformative.


The book is written for graduate students interested in education policy, educational leadership, comparative and international education, curriculum and instruction, and learning sciences. Baker illustrates the transformative power of schooling with empirical evidence documenting educational and school change.  Changes in participation rates, changes to what is taught and studied in schools and universities, and priorities placed on cognitive skills in educational settings all support the view that schooling transforms social, political, and economic forces. Baker reverses the thesis that culture shapes what is learned in school to suggest that schooling shapes culture. What is valued and appreciated in the world—at home and at work—is fundamentally based on what is learned in school and by extension, from reading this book. The power of schooling is in its ability to transform people’s understanding of social, political, economic structures, and it is an independent force exerting pressures which shape how the world is experienced. This emphasis on the transformative power of education is interpreted as an important correction to organizational theories and other explanations that view schooling as reproducing other institutional forces shaping economy and society.


Graduate students will find the book particularly heartening, in that it justifies their major investment in education—not as a defensive measure to stay competitive or to find an academic job—but in terms of the learning that comes from many hours of deep study required to read this thoughtful treatise on schooling. Practicing teachers and school administrators will also appreciate the value placed on the work that they perform, as well as support for their deeper commitments to equity and social justice.


The Preface and Introduction present Baker’s thesis that “widespread education and the values, ideas, and norms that it fosters make it a robust primary institution that now uniquely shapes society far more than it reacts to it” (p. xiii). This theoretical perspective is about how major social institutions constitute society and how they in turn guide behavior and emotions and influence how people consciously experience society. Baker views this neo-institutional perspective as a counter to Marxist accounts of education and inequality. Baker argues that the roots of the schooled society are in the historical development of the university and that the knowledge production logic of universities drives discourse at all levels of education. Similarly, the logic of the schooled society permeates not only educational discourse but also non-educational institutions. Baker provides evidence of expanded participation in schooling, and increasing numbers of students attending high school in early 20th century, and later in college attendance. For Baker, previous research underestimates the effect of mass and higher education on the human actions that result in adopting a modern worldview, achieving independence from traditional authority, believing in efficacy of science and medicine, taking an interest in civic affairs, and moving away from fatalism.   

The first five chapters in the book examine the origins and societal consequences of this revolution in education and schooling. Chapter One makes the case that an education revolution has taken place, resulting in what Baker calls the schooled society. As evidence, Baker points out the 600% increase in the number of primary and secondary education students worldwide (p. 31) and highlights cities like Washington DC, Seattle, and San Francisco, where half the population has at least a bachelor’s degree or more. The national goals of education are changing as well, with a culture of schooling that promotes four institutional values: (a) education is a human right; (b) universalism of educational merit is a criteria for advancement; (c) individual achievement in school serves as a public good; and (d) universal knowledge is enacted through higher order cognitive skills.

In Chapter Two, Baker continues the theme that the education revolution is constructing culture, rather than simply reacting to cultural norms. Cognitive skills are promoted at school and educational performance legitimizes social and occupational hierarchy. Baker also argues that formal education has come to be seen as a basic human right, in the same way that food, shelter, and security are human rights. Chapters Three, Four, and Five focus on the western university in creating and deepening a culture of learning that is at the epicenter of the schooled society. Baker’s view is that scientific thinking has shaped the university and its universalistic claims. Science improves our understanding of nature (astronomy, physical anthropology, environmental science) and enhances the quality of human lives (psychologically, socially, medically, politically, morally). Baker cites Drori, Meyer, & Hwang (2006) who suggest “the reigning cultural ideology of the postmodern world is, for better or worse, thoroughly scientized” (p. 224). Baker rejects the notion that science is outgrowing its home at the university and gives credible evidence that while non-university support for research and development is growing, university research has expanded too. The knowledge conglomerates that are part of the super research university are less of an anomaly, and more of an outcome of the schooled society and the widespread belief in the value and meaning of formal education. The primacy of knowledge production at universities continues.    

The six chapters that are part of Part Two apply the institutional perspective to other societal spheres. Chapters Six and Seven look at how the education revolution is transforming work. In Chapter Six, Baker counters the views that people are becoming over-educated for the work they perform and that an education bubble is looming. In Chapter Seven, Baker views rising educational credentials as illustrative of how educated people will come to define the work that they do and will update/upgrade new jobs that are built around sophisticated technology, social networks, and the need for collaboration across institutional settings. Chapter Eight proposes that a huge expansion in knowledge drives the expansion in schooling, which in turn drives the knowledge society. Baker explores recent revisions in the work accomplished by sociologist Michael Young and others associated with the ‘new sociology of education.’ Baker asserts that Young’s research (1958, 1971) emphasizes the class basis of knowledge and knowledge construction to understand and explain how people benefit from schooling, which in turn is viewed as a mechanism for social and cultural reproduction. Young’s more recent iteration, according to Baker, is less about the class basis of knowledge construction, and more about an increase in abstract and generalized knowledge at school and workplace, and how it is valued in the schooled society. Learning is less about the specifics of what one knows and more about generalized cognitive ability, abstraction, and problem solving. People who develop these cognitive capacities are then rewarded in school and on the job. In Baker’s view, there has been an epistemological revolution in the nature of knowledge and learning, with movement to deeper levels of understanding and mastery of underlying principles and how they are applied in different circumstances. Ultimately, it is these deeper rules and the cognitive structures that support them, which is the goal of the schooled society.  

Chapters Nine and Ten illustrate three distinct settings in which the education revolution plays out. Chapter Nine considers the large numbers of students in the U.S. that complete the GED in spite of limited immediate payoff for completion. Baker suggests multiple reasons for completing the GED, including avoiding the stigma of being a high school dropout and getting back on track (p. 236). Both explanations serve Baker’s view of the primacy of the schooled society and the power of formal education to provide solutions to non-educational problems. In Chapter Ten, Baker explains the paradox that more educated people do not necessarily engage in traditional citizenship roles. Baker cites evidence that while higher education participation does not promote one particular political viewpoint, as people acquire cognitive abilities and attributes, they are also more likely to become more publicly active. While conventional participation in formal democracy such as voting or registering with a party may be on the decline, Baker reports that other forms of political participation in the schooled society are on the rise, including a rejection of ideological battles.

The final chapter looks at the interplay of education and religion. Traditionally, education and religion have been seen as antithetical. Baker argues that the education revolution does not result in religious decline, but instead, has given voice to a spiritual need that has often gone unvoiced. Others have pointed out that technology and effective outreach are also related to the growth in participation in evangelical churches, although one risk of membership is that participation is more about bonding with like-minded individuals than bridging across communities (Putnam, 2000). Finally, Baker argues that for some, the educational revolution also contributes to a need to focus on the sacred aspects of human life, and that an explicit ethical viewpoint is deeply embedded in the schooled society. Baker concludes that "formally educated people are everywhere," that the "content meaning and function of education permeate other major social institutions,’ and that ‘these effects are synergistic, ubiquitous, and formidable."


Baker’s argument on the revolutionary effect of schooling on individuals and on the broader culture will appeal to many readers, practitioners and scholars, graduate students, and professors. The Schooled Society reminded me of my days as a graduate student in the mid-1970s. My introduction to the schooled society came in a seminar in the sociology of education, taught by a young assistant professor, Jeylan Mortimer, now a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. One of the assigned books for the course was a reader in the sociology of education by Sam Sieber and David Wilder, The School in Society (1973). The institutional perspective was introduced in an article by Robert Dreeben (1973) with an explanation for how institutional norms of independence, universalism, achievement, and specificity were applied in school settings, in standardized testing, rules about cheating, independently graded assignments and homework, age graded classrooms, differentiated curriculum and tracking, etc.

The Schooled Society also provides a way of understanding the close relationship between schooling and the workplace. For Baker, education and work connections are symbiotic, as relatively similar educational practices worldwide pave the way for today’s globalized economy. Modern jobs have evolved with the preparation of modern workers, more and more of whom have graduated from post-secondary colleges and universities. Among other influences, higher education has led to a culture of expertise by defining what counts as knowledge and the avenues for its creation. In Silicon Valley, industries built on data collection and analysis feed a growing global culture where data drives everything from school rankings to the newest books about fitness training.

The power of education to allocate social legitimacy also explains why outsiders routinely look to higher education as a way to forge upward-moving pathways. Immigrant success stories derive from and feed back into widening the reach of the education revolution. Similarly, broadening areas of study influenced by academic “outsiders” have led to new areas of learning such as gender studies, multicultural studies, and degrees in business administration. In these ways, the education revolution serves as an avenue for dialogue and mutual influence between the learner and the learned, the neophyte and the veteran.

The Schooled Society also provides readers ways to look at recent curriculum changes in education that are being negotiated in K-12 public education. In Baker’s view, the adoption of Common Core State Standards across 45 states and the District of Columbia would likely provide an example of an upgraded curriculum with greater focus on cognitive skills and abstraction that contributes to workplace success. Baker writes “curricula will continue to take on active, scholarship-type qualities, and grow ever more cognitive” (p. 294).  He predicts that the privileging of academic intelligence will continue to grow, an outcome of the schooled society.

Theory aside, many educators are likely to be predisposed towards Baker’s vision of the school as a primary institutional form exerting influence and shaping culture. Teachers and administrators in the trenches of the schooled society will be invested in many aspects of Baker’s theory of neo-institutional educational transformation; they will no-doubt want to believe in the impact of their endless efforts. Even so, the claim that the education revolution has molded much of the modern world’s culture seems a little too ambitious a claim for us.


Baker cautions readers that any social order will prove oppressive to some degree and that the inequality that exists in school and society will persist in a schooled society, privileging academic intelligence over other earlier dominant sources of power. Who does the schooled society leave behind? Those who focus attention on educational inequality will be disappointed with the tone of the book, as well as Baker’s interpretation of evidence to support his case. Critical theorists and Marxist views on schools as sites of conflict will focus on schools as sorting machines reproducing inequality.

Sieber and Wilder’s sociology of education reader was followed by a different reader, Power and Ideology in Education (Karabel & Halsey, 1977a), which introduced the new sociology of education that Baker alludes to in this book, along with the work of Michael Young. The argument made by Karabel and Halsey (1977b) was that there was a need to connect the research of critical theorists with the more micro-sociological and interpretive work done to explain dynamics in actual school settings, explanations for how participants (students and educators) experience schools and schooling. Essays by Cicourel and Kitsuse (1977) and  Rist (1977) explored ways in which teachers sort academic talent and label students; Bernstein’s (1977a, 1977b) exploration of language code was used to illustrate how language (along with other aspects of everyday life) bewitches listeners by shaping their expectations and the value attributed to the speaker and speech (see Danzig, 1992).

Baker reinforces the idea that those who do not fit the mold of schooling are at risk of becoming marginalized, but does little to explain how this occurs or what to do about it. As the emphasis on cognitive skills and academic intelligence has intensified, rates of those diagnosed and treated for ADHD have risen (Friedman, 2014). While theories about multiple intelligences provide face-saving alternative definitions of human capacity, they do little to change high school dropout rates or community college transfer rates.  The cultural advantages for achieving a GED are limited by the real and consequential economic price of dropping out of high school, which is greater today than 50 years ago.

Even among the elite, there is a counter belief that school learning is not the only avenue for success, and that the power of status allocation and economic success does not rest solely with academic institutions. The myth of Larry Ellison’s Commencement speech to the Yale class of 2000 (Satirewire, 2000) satirically challenged this assumption with the argument that the three richest entrepreneurs on the planet had all dropped out of college to start their own companies. The story goes that just before being dragged off the stage by security guards, he told the graduates that day that it was too late for them, they already knew too much and at best could aspire to work for someone with the audacity to drop out and think independently.  Although the story is fiction the point of the satire is real. In a schooled society, do those who opt out of the schooled pathway actually achieve more?

And then there are those supposedly poor students, bad students, and students who don’t fit the academic intelligence mode who have made it through other means. Fortune Magazine led with a cover article called, “The Dyslexic CEO” (Morris, 2002). Stories of successful business leaders reveal academic struggles—the downside of an ability to think differently—which would eventually prove to be a critical strength. Perhaps the benefit of schooling for these leaders is not the academic learning per se, but the resilience and problem solving that came from persevering in spite of school. In the schooled society, the Dyselxic CEO that rises from mediocre school performance to a success is a long shot.

As indicated, other scholars propose that schooling builds upon the social and cultural capital one brings to school, which also impacts how people enter and experience the workplace. Education has a substantial role in reproducing social class and blocking upward mobility (Cookson, 2013). Independent of learning, graduating from the right schools results in a sense of entitlement: to apply to particular colleges, to seek good jobs and job titles, to ask for higher salary, and to have the confidence to wait until the right job comes along. Class resources provide stability, which provide time to explore options and wait until the right endgame is achieved. These advantages have less to do with the cognitive skills developed as a result of an education revolution and more to do with personal identity and the perceptions of others about who is a smart person, what makes for a good colleague, and what kind of job one is qualified to perform.

While Baker may be correct that schooling provides significant experiences, which people take to the workplace, it is less clear the extent to which people actually define the work to be performed. Educational settings should serve as a cautionary tale. At one time school teachers and college professors took pride in creating their own curriculum, and applying it to original course syllabi and lesson plans. In today’s education climate, national standards and state credentialing agencies dictate what is to be taught and how it will be measured. For teachers, there has been increasingly less discretion as state mandates for subject matter, and high stakes testing require more routinized skills and less cognitive demand to write curriculum or measure its effective delivery. Similarly, college professors, especially in colleges of education where enrollment is dependent on credential programs, are less able to decide what to teach and how it is measured. Is the education revolution implied by the schooled society defining new cognitive skills that will be required of teachers and administrators? Not if current trends continue.

All of this discussion is a prelude to the fact that we are not persuaded by Baker’s thesis that schooling is transforming society and should be viewed as a primary institution shaping culture and cultural capacity. It is not that we think education and schooling are unimportant—quite the contrary—we believe that education can have a transformative effect on individual lives, but that in today’s climate, schooling is ultimately not understood or valued because of its transformative effect on minds or the cognitive abilities that develop from participation. This optimistic hope is dashed by an education system that overwhelmingly rewards those with significant resources and harshly penalizes those with less valued social and cultural capital. Schools struggle to mediate and reverse the conditions of poverty that are located outside of schools, but a high stakes testing movement and business model which prioritizes testing over learning, perception over reality, works against these goals (Berliner & Glass, 2014). Unless there is a transformation in thinking about the meaning and purposes of an education, schools will continue to be blamed for these unequal outcomes, and continue to re-translate social class bias, income inequality, and social injustice.

While we aspire to be Pollyanna, and to look for the good in all things, our minds (and hearts) are not able to overcome the attacks on public schooling and accompanying attempts to privatize education in ways that benefit the few and penalize those with the fewest resources. Unfortunately, Baker’s book yields no explanations for today’s winners and losers or descriptions of the mechanisms by which some are advantaged and others defeated. While private interests that use education and schooling as another opportunity to earn profits are acknowledged, Baker’s neo-institutional thesis does not provide a way to understand or withstand the attacks on public education, dispel the myths and hoaxes that surround these attacks, or provide direction for creating a future in which the ‘schooled society’ can take hold. Were the world a perfect place, we have no doubt that Baker’s hopeful explanation for what is important about schooling would suffice. Unfortunately, in the current era of educational reform, Baker’s evidence and illustrations largely ignore the experiences of dropouts, pushouts, and all those who marginalized at school, internalizing failure, falling into debt, and being excluded from the dream of the schooled society.    


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 12, 2015 ID Number: 17962, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:05:08 PM

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