Education, inequality, and power
from David Ruccio
Is education the solution to the problem of growing inequality?
As I wrote in early 2015,
Americans like to think that education is the solution to all economic and social problems. Including, of course, growing inequality.
Why? Because focusing on education—encouraging people to get more higher education—involves no particular tradeoffs. More education for some doesn’t mean less education for others (at least in principle). And providing more education doesn’t involve any structural changes in society—just more funding. (Of course, suggesting more education under current conditions—when public financing of higher education continues to decline, and students and their families are forced to take on more and more debt—is itself disingenuous).
As a result, there’s a broad consensus in the middle—among conservatives and liberals alike—that encouraging more young people who have yet to enter the labor market and existing workers who want to get ahead to obtain a college education will solve the problem of inequality.
And I proceeded to show how, in terms of declining wages for workers at various levels of education and increasing inequality within the top 1 percent, more education does not actually solve the problem of inequality.
But education is still the preferred solution of mainstream Democrats, and inequality itself is receiving less attention. And Thomas Frank [ht: sm] (in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire aka EduShyster) explains why:
Tom Frank: The Democratic party really doesn’t care about inequality because they’re now a party of the professional class: affluent, white-collar professionals. They themselves say this all the time; they talk about the professional class as being their constituency. But we don’t often try to put the pieces together and try to figure out, well what does it mean to be a party of the professional class vs. the working class? One thing it means is that inequality is seen as the natural order of things. In fact, professionals believe in inequality. They think of inequality as totally fair and the way things should be, and they think that because they themselves are the winners in the great inequality sweepstakes.
EduShyster: There are many great lines in Listen, Liberal, but one of my faves is that whenever the kind of liberal you’re describing stumbles upon an economic problem—say, the collapse of the middle class—s/he sees an education problem.
Frank: That’s one of the lines in the book that I’m quite proud of. The liberals I’m describing are an affluent group, by and large, who’ve done very well, and they attribute their success to their education. The professional class is defined by educational achievement. That’s who they are. They’re defined by how and what they did in school. So they look out at the rest of the country that’s going in reverse, at the middle class dream that’s falling apart, and they say *you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.* But defining every economic problem as an education problem is basically a way of blaming the victim.
EduShyster: Here, allow me to repeat that for emphasis, but with italics to emphasize the condescension: you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.
Frank: There is nothing that gives the lie to the meritocratic view of the world than what’s happened to humanities PhDs. These are people with the highest degree there is. They spent the most time in school of anyone. This is where the idea that education solves economic problems totally breaks down. I spent 25 years in school and got a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, a degree that used to be valued in the marketplace. But the marketplace figured out a way to casualize university labor. The whole idea of the professional, meritocratic way of looking at the world is that if you study, you’ll win—good things will come to you. I studied hard, and I got good grades and I got a PhD and my dissertation was even published. None of it made any difference. What my generation learned, and what everybody is starting to understand now, is that it’s not about education—it’s about power. It’s about power in the workplace. And we didn’t have any.
Basically, mainstream liberals, like their conservative counterparts, believe in “just deserts,” the idea that everyone receives what they deserve in capitalist markets. That means, if there are fundamentally unequal outcomes (which barely anyone attempts to deny these days), it’s because that’s what people deserve.
But of course some within the mainstream do believe inequality is a problem, if only because it might incite a reaction that calls into question the existing order. And that’s where conservatives and liberal begin to differ: whereas conservatives tend to want to eliminate government intervention (e.g., because it creates a dependency on social welfare programs), liberals look to education as the solution (to the problem of inequality as well as to issues of declining productivity, slow growth, and much else).
What neither conservatives nor liberals want to see is unequal power in the workplace—and that’s a problem more education simply can’t solve.