On inequality and education

Published online 7 July 2012.

This diary was prompted by a special forum in the Chronicle of Higher Education which came out this week: Has Higher Education Become an Engine of Inequality?  They assembled a number of academic figures to discuss inequality or something like that.  This is pretty important stuff — the literature in journals which cater to departments of education is full of discussions of inequality.

At the most general level, the discussion of educational inequality, of unequal outcomes and unequal opportunities, is a discussion about fairness.  Educational systems that promise equal educational opportunity for all aren’t supposed to have such unequal outcomes.  The problem, though, is that educational systems are service organizations that cater to participants in the capitalist system, and participants in the capitalist system are highly unequal.  They are, as Marx noted, divided into social classes.

A brief history of inequality: inequality was prominent in the “West” before capitalism.  That inequality, though, was imagined to be ordained by God.  Some people were destined to be kings, it was imagined, and others doomed to be mere serfs, and there were a number of grades in between.  The relationship between the higher and lower orders was cemented by what was later to be called feudal contracts, in which some were lords and others were vassals.  Before then there was the structured system of inequality in the Roman world, and that was set up with the direct intention of making people unequal.

Capitalism introduced a new element into the status scene in the West, especially in the form promoted in the United Kingdom after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when there arose capitalist states.  Capitalism really made it possible for some people to become vastly wealthy, and thus vastly unequal to those in the masses, despite the accommodation of capitalism to regimes of (increasingly) equal rights that accompanied the increased prominence of formal democracy in the world.  In the capitalist core nations, then, people (at least the white males of age) were formally equal while being in real life quite unequal.

Capitalism is the primary engine of inequality today.  One thing we can say for certain is that, throughout this history, education systems have been and are subsidiary engines of inequality, little helpers of capitalist inequality, and adjuncts to capitalism.  Education, moreover, promotes inequality at all levels, from Kindergarten through college.  Educational inequality today is cemented through a system of grades, levels, exams, and credentials in which Joel Spring (in his book Pedagogies of Globalization) calls the “industrial-consumer” model of education.  This model produces winners and losers.  Colleges and universities had two great spurts of growth in American history — between the Civil War and World War I, and also just after World War II.  In each case the growth of American higher education was motivated by heightened demand for entrants into the managerial classes, and specialized workers (like lawyers and doctors) for a complex technological economy.  The colleges and universities themselves produced some degree of training for entrants into the managerial classes, to be sure, but most distinctively they granted nice shiny degrees to adorn and distinguish the resumes of the upward bound.

A good summary of that role of American education in promoting inequality is in David F. Labaree’s book Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.  Labaree argues that schools perform many roles, but that the one which they perform most successfully is that of promoters of inequality — schools offer grades, course credits, degrees, and credentials, all of which are not open to anyone who wants one and all of which allow their possessors to accumulate privileges over those that do not have them.

The process of distinction begins in the lives of the educated early on today.  The sons and daughters of wealthy parents receive competitive shares of toys, books, electronic devices and other objects of learning as soon as they are of school age.  Much of this reality has been well-documented by the critical scholar Alfie Kohn.  In American public schools, good grades are typically dependent upon the student’s prior accumulation of learning (not all of it gained meritocratically — conditions count for a lot — please see Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation for more on this), so that success in school functions as a race in which the poorest (and thus also those with the least access to books and knowledge) are at a significant disadvantage.  Colleges function to amplify the advantages of the wealthy in this race by admitting the sons and daughters of the wealthy to the best colleges with the most opportunities for educational enrichment, well-stocked libraries, and low student-teacher ratios.

Education at any grade appears in many senses to be like a race, with some entrants whose parents bought them Maseratis and others who received Ford Pintos.  The puzzle of why people would hang “equality” on education, then, remains.  (If we really wanted to promote equality, here’s an old idea — let’s tax the rich and spend on the poor!)  Is it that education smells of work and so it makes a natural fit for the American impulse to equality because it incorporates a work ethic?  At any rate, the well-educated Chronicle forum participants ought to know better.  See below for further speculation.

So, given all this, one might wonder why the Chronicle of Higher Education created an educational forum to discuss the matter of “has higher education become an engine of inequality”?  It always was one.  The editors of this forum do not, however, find the answer so clear-cut.  They say:

Education, long praised as the great equalizer, no longer seems to be performing as advertised.  A study by Stanford University shows that the gap in standardized-test scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s — now double that between black and white students.  A study from the University of Michigan found that the disparity in college-completion rates between rich and poor students has grown by about 50 percent since the 1980s.

So I suppose the concern voiced by the editors of this piece is that higher education has become more unequal than it once was a few decades ago.  Maybe they just wanted it a bit less unequal, so that education can be praised as an equalizer regardless of the spuriousness of that praise.  The problem, though, is that capitalism is becoming more unequal.The participants in the Chronicle forum typically chose to emphasize one aspect of the complex of collegiate inequality in their short discussion of the topic.  Here is a summary of their efforts.  Richard D. Kahlenberg suggests that the problem is that “colleges have tilted away from economic need to merit aid.”  George Leef mentions “an array of policies,” but the policies he glancingly mentions are those which “make it more difficult for poor people to start businesses on their own or find job openings with good career paths” (B7). Do poor people start businesses?  What’s a “good” career path?  Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong, professors of sociology, suggest that colleges are now more interested in rich students than the rest.

Richard Wolin suggests that the steady withdrawal of public funds from education is largely at fault.  Anthony Carnevale suggests that colleges reproduce advantages gained in high school: “competition among institutions is based on prestige, relentlessly matching the most advantaged students with the most selective institutions” (B8).  William Julius Wilson and Thomas J. Espenshade voice more or less the same thing as Carnevale.  Thomas R. Bailey revoices a concern, which I outline below, about community colleges.  Sara Goldrick-Rab, the most articulate of the forum participants, argues in many ways that neoliberal thinking has made higher education more unequal.

What makes education interesting as a promoter of inequality, I suppose, is that education systems also contain elements which some people trust to promote equality.  American education contains a promise of equal educational opportunity — there is after all, an Equal Educational Opportunity Act which still applies to the public K-12 schools.  Of course, as Labaree points out, the public faith in education as a remedy for inequality is misplaced.  As he says:

School reform can only have a chance to equalize social differences if it can reduce the educational gap between middle-class students and working-students.  This is politically impossible in a liberal democracy, since it would mean restricting the ability of the middle class to pursue more and better education for their children.  (171)

You can make education for the poor better, but that just means everyone else will work harder to preserve their privileges, and so inequality will persist.  At any rate, here is a summary of efforts to impose “equality” upon our educational systems, followed by explanations of why they don’t perform as intended.  To wit:American K-12 education is taught through a standards curriculum.  Supposedly the same curricular objectives are for the most part taught to all students, and so everyone is supposedly given an equal chance at success.  Unfortunately, however, not all students respond to the standards curriculum in the same way.  Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life discusses one reason why: the Publishers Weekly synopsis of this work discusses how “in working class and poor households… parents don’t bother to reason with whiny offspring and children are expected to find their own recreation rather than relying upon their families to chauffeur them around to lessons and activities.”  We can, then, expect a certain advantage in a standardized curriculum to those who are brought up to handle it more efficaciously.  The standards curriculum is typically combined in US education with a regime of high-stakes testing, the combination of which typically results in significantly high dropout rates — when students who aren’t “caught up” reach high school, they are often pushed out of high school early on so that the high schools can keep their aggregate test scores and official graduation rates and all that nice stuff up.  Michelle Fine’s Framing Dropouts is about that.  There’s also a fun piece about this stuff in Mother Jones dealing with Rod Paige, one of the big early advocates of standards and testing, that ought to keep the Romney-obsessives here entertained.

American education provides a broad provision of skills.  Supposedly the diversity and easy access to educational skills in American society gives students a large array of opportunities to succeed, and presumably educational success is connected to success in the business world.  This might be true for some individuals — they can find a lot of places to go to school, do well, and eventually get good jobs.  In the aggregate, however, the colleges and universities do not control the job hiring statistics.  The capitalists and the government decide how many people to hire.  There are a number of jobs provided each year in a capitalist economy.  That number is largely determined by what the investor class is willing to invest in labor at any one time, and not by how many people with skilled credentials or big degrees are out there looking for work.  Having degrees can at best improve one’s ability to net a skilled job from the pool of jobs.  It won’t make the pool any larger.  If everyone had a Ph.D., for instance, there still wouldn’t be a significant increase in the number of jobs which Ph.D.s deserve.  I suppose I should have thought of this when I got my Ph.D., though to be honest I really didn’t care.

(Today, the Huffington Post tells us, half of recent college graduates are not finding full-time jobs.)

American education is also buttressed by a legal and infrastructural framework of equal educational opportunity.  There are laws obliging schools to provide learning opportunities to all students in public schools.  Unfortunately, many of these opportunities are not very good ones.  There are also the community colleges, providing second chances for those who didn’t make it into four-year institutions.  Unfortunately, universal access to education has meant that many such educational institutions serve as institutions of “cooling off,” in which success in education and in careers is tempered with vastly lowered student expectations.  A lot of people fail in community colleges.  This phenomenon is well-covered in a chapter of Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds.  The community colleges, then, do not significantly reverse the trend toward greater inequality, though they might allow a few more students to graduate and move on to four-year universities.  Many such students discover that 1) if they weren’t interested in remedial education when they were in high school, they’re not interested in the same stuff when it’s thrown at them in college and 2) it’s difficult to go to college and work full time.

So education is fundamentally an unequal affair, with struggling workers taking basic English at Riverside Community College while prep-school graduates take physics at Caltech.  Here’s a devil’s advocate question for you.  Why bother with equal educational opportunity at all?  The capitalist system needs a population of vastly unequal people.  It needs a vast mass of workers on the bottom, a managerial class in the middle, and a few owners on top.  Maybe universities should just cater to that?

The concern about equality is at root a concern about social mobility.  Anthony Carnevale voices that at the end of his contribution to the forum.  But ultimately capitalism provides social mobility, and the universities are at best facilitators.  Only one of my degrees really helped me get a good job, and it wasn’t the Ph.D.  So if the universities are really to promote social mobility despite capitalism, they need to encourage college students to question the wisdom of continuing with the capitalist system.

To wit: if the universities really wanted to get serious about equality, they could start to prepare students for a post-capitalist world, for an era after capitalism in which the capitalist rules don’t apply.   In this imagined future, people will be busy saving the Earth from the ecological and economic disaster which capitalism has brought to it.  If we really want education to promote equality, perhaps it would be best if we started a mass movement with the help of critical pedagogy, the better to teach students to find their own equality by changing the world.  After all, global warming (or some other form of death) will eventually bring equality to the vast majority of us (as it puts an end to the capitalist system).  Preparing for the world after capitalism would certainly focus the universities upon the future of the next generation a little more meaningfully than what they’re doing now.


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