It is a matter of faith in our society that more education equals a higher standard of later living—high school graduates earn more than high school dropouts, but not as much as two-year-college graduates, who do not earn as much as four-year college graduates, etc., on up the educational ladder. Of course, the issue is more complicated than this, with gender, race, ethnicity, SES of birth family and neighborhood playing a part (to name just a few of the usual suspects). Additionally, of course, once we move to the ranks of the college graduates and holders of graduate degrees, the degree of status and exclusivity of the college or university matters: the kind of social access attained with the degree varies from school to school.
However, it seems a grievous category error to extrapolate from the extent to which more education equals greater earnings for individuals, to the cumulative loss to the national economy, although this is a category error we consistently and pervasively make. A recent study (http://www.all4ed.org/publication_material/EconStates) reported in Education Week (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/03/24/26mct_gadropouts.h30.html) is a clear example of this tendency and an opportunity to consider why such analysis is both inaccurate and harmful.
Imagine a perfect educational system in which all students receive a perfect education, whatever that might mean. Every student graduates from high school knowing everything that high school graduates are supposed to know. Every high school graduate goes on to the very best college and graduates knowing everything that college graduates are supposed to know. Carry this process on as far as you like. At the end of the day, with all this perfect education, would the supply of perfectly educated workers elevate the salary of the greeter at Wal-Mart or the counter-worker at McDonalds, or reduce the ranks of the unemployed?
My point is that when we look to educational attainment to explain economic inequality, we are engaging a blame-the-victim game, in which the poor are blamed for their poverty: if they had only stayed in school, they would not be poor today. This is obviously a comforting notion to those of us on the right side of the economic divide, just as it helps those on the wrong side accept their deprivations as justified. It conceals from both groups the fact that unemployment in a capitalist economy is both structural and designed in. Unemployment is the result of a shortage of jobs and a surplus of labor, not a lack of educated workers. Again, think of Wal-Mart: given the surplus labor pool, why would they pay more than they do? Obviously they would not. The problem of poverty is structural, not personal inadequacy.
This is not to deny that educational attainment serves to distribute poverty, but that is as very different point. In a society that had the sort of universally perfect educational system described above, we would need to find some other way to distribute inequality. If education were to truly provide an equality of opportunity, and if we chose to continue tax and regulatory policies designed to increase inequality, there would need to be some other way than education for the wealthy to preserve their status and power. An advantage of this state of affairs might be that it would become more transparently true that wealth and power are now generally inherited, not a matter of “meritocratic” achievement (by whatever measure such a thing is determined).
There are two problems with our current state of affairs: we have extremes of wealth and poverty that are unsustainable in a democratic polity, and the mechanisms of the perpetuation of inequality are hidden such that even the victims of the system too-often think the system is fair. Too many of the poor accept the notion that if they had worked harder, been smarter, stayed in school longer they would be economically better off. That is possibly true, but ignores the systemic dimension of poverty: in a world of surplus workers, the movement of one worker up the hierarchy would mean the downward displacement of someone else.
As long as we conceive of poverty as the result of individual failure of will and effort or the lack of talent, we conceal the structural elements that are designed to guarantee a certain level of poverty. As long as we blame the victims of a game played with loaded dice for their losses, we are prevented from making the changes that would result in greater equality and justice. As long as we keep the current game intact, we continue in a downward spiral of competition for the few open places at the top (for example, the search for the “right” preschool that begins with the positive pregnancy test).
And so I wonder how to construct a public conversation about schools that both decouples schooling from being a purely economic and purely competitive enterprise, while at the same time allowing or fostering a public awareness of the fact that the system is rigged. While it may be the fact that the individuals suffering from extremes of poverty are in the situations they are in because of the fact that they did not receive a good-enough education, the fact remains that if everyone worked hard and received a great education, poverty might be distributed differently, but it would hardly be eliminated.
The damage our commonly-held myth about education leading to economic success does twofold damage to our civic life: (1) the myth of meritocracy is a classic case of blame-the-victim, and it prevents us from discussing the real causes of inequality and abject poverty; and (2) it equally prevents us from discussing the purposes of schooling and the meaning of education, since schooling becomes a means to winning the economic competition that defines capitalism rather than the pursuit of either human flourishing in the humanistic tradition or democratic citizenship in the democratic one. And whatever we can say about the arguments for and against the latter two purposes of education, clearly preparation for winning economic races cannot be justified as the goal of education even as it becomes the only purpose of schooling.
What would it look like if we designed a system of public schooling in which we actually tried to educate children?