Episode 166: The Convenient Conventional Wisdom of “Education as Great Equalizer” Appeals
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Welcome to season six of Citations Needed. Adam, we’ve been doing this since 2017. We are now back for our sixth season of Citations Needed. We cannot thank you all enough for listening to the show, for supporting the show. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you have not already, please do consider supporting the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded, we don’t run any commercials, we don’t have any corporate funding, we keep this completely independent and the way we do that is because of the support we get from listeners like you.
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Nima: Education “is a great equalizer of conditions of men,” stated school reformer Horace Mann in 1848. “Math is the great equalizer,” preached Edward James Olmos’ character in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. “The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education,” announced President Barack Obama during his 2010 State of the Union.
Adam: This message is everywhere, pervading political speeches, Oscar-bait films, think-tank screeds, and everything in between. The key to economic upward mobility, we’re endlessly told, is education — a societal building block that is, or at least should be, accessible to every child, no matter their race, gender, or income level. It’s a seductive, seemingly unassailable conceit, suggesting that we live in a meritocracy where second chances and generational wealth-building are possible, even probable, with these simple tools.
Nima: But is there any truth to this idea? There’s a growing body of evidence showing that education level does not, in fact, necessarily translate to higher wages. Which raises the questions: Why has the idea that education is the ultimate anti-poverty tool persisted this long? Whose interests are served in its continuation? And who, in turn, pays the price for this myth?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll detail and debunk the widespread conventional wisdom that education is the rising tide that lifts all boats, looking at the ways it reinforces themes of individualism and personal responsibility; obscures systemic issues like racism and worker exploitation in the labor market; and ultimately keeps people entrenched in, rather than liberating them from, poverty and low-wage work.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Cristina Viviana Groeger, a historian of education and work in the modern United States. An Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Lake Forest College, she is the author of the book The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, published by Harvard University Press in 2021.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: So if employers, you know, if there’s a skill shortage, it’s not that they’re not paying their workers enough to make those jobs attractive, it’s that there’s not enough workers who have those skills, and the idea that individuals are to blame for their own poverty, this is an idea that dates back a very long time.
Adam: This is a spiritual sequel to Episode One. To paraphrase George Lucas, it rhymes. We did our very first episode, of course, on the meritocratic mythology surrounding charter schools, this is a spiritual sequel to it, as we are prone to say. One qualifier, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we’re anti-education right up front. Peter, my son, if you’re listening to this 10 years from now, you will be about 12 years old, don’t take this to mean you shouldn’t go to college, you need to go to college. This is a classic example of something we talk about a lot on the show, which is kind of macro-tizing the micro, which is something that it’s kind of like the sort of Theory of Everything tries to have the sort of laws of Newtonian physics break down when you get to large bodies, or I guess, small bodies as well, on an individual basis. Education can and oftentimes is a mechanism of social mobility. But as a societal approach, and this is why it’s so intuitively attractive, right, Nima? There’s not really much evidence that it is, and in fact, as we will explain, in many ways it reinforces and reproduces many of the inequities that it supposedly is meant to curtail or stop.
Nima: Yeah, it also puts the onus on, oftentimes, teachers to be heroes, to be martyrs in the service of education because they are seen as this great hope to lift their students say out of poverty, out of dangerous family situations, the kind of hero trope of the teacher, which we’re going to get into, and what that does is also create dangerous narratives about who is responsible for bettering society, right? Are we responsible for each other? What systems do we have in place? And do we actually need heroes to rely on as we’re told consistently through our media and our pop culture to be our savior rather than taking care of each other.
Now, the notion that education is an anti-poverty tool originated among circles of well-meaning, but ultimately toothless, reformist intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries. The “great equalizer” motto is commonly credited to Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education and early public school advocate. In 1848, Mann stated this, quote, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” End quote.
Now, this ethos would continue as a reaction to the severe inequities of the Gilded Age during the waning years of the 19th century, a product of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1880s, approximately 40 percent of industrial workers earned wages below the poverty line of $500 a year — women, Black workers, immigrants, and children, of course, were paid the least. Meanwhile, by 1890, the wealthiest 1 percent of US families owned 51 percent of real and personal property in the country, while the poorest 44 percent owned a measly 1.2 percent. This dire economic climate would spark a series of historic labor actions — for instance, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Riots of 1886, the Homestead and Pullman strikes of the 1890s, and the 1902 anthracite coal strike.
Adam: Now enter the Progressive reformists — with a capital P — at the turn of the 20th century. A predominantly middle-class group that had benefited financially from the second Industrial Revolution, Progressives were anti-monopolists who sought to preserve, but soften, capitalism through manifold initiatives: business and antitrust regulations, child-labor laws, Prohibition, school expansion, and so on. This, they hoped, would stem further worker unrest and, relatedly, the growth of socialist doctrine.
Out of this rationale came one of the Progressives’ chief convictions: that education could be used as a tool to fight poverty and encourage social mobility. Low-wage workers were given little pay, Progressives contended, because they were low-skilled. Progressives championed the rise of vocational education in areas like carpentry and agriculture for boys and domestic economy for girls; these schools garnered the support of industries as well, as the programs would undermine the influence of craft unions.
Nima: Our guest on today’s episode, Cristina Groeger, explained this more in an interview with Jacobin magazine just last year. She said this, quote:
There were almost no unions in white-collar work at this time and basically no opposition to expanding training. Craftwork and the industrial sector were a different story. Craft workers had organized power in the form of craft unions, and that power came from their ability to control access to specific skills through the union apprenticeship process. Employers of craft workers were very eager to get around the craft unions and the apprenticeship process, both because it regulated the wages they had to pay apprentices and because employers don’t like unions and wanted to undercut the basis of their power.
Adam: Around the same time, public high schools were spreading throughout the US. Between Reconstruction and WWI, the number of public high schools increased, by some estimates, from fewer than 100 to more than 6,000. Through public high schools, students, mostly white women and second-generation immigrants, suddenly became eligible for burgeoning post-Industrial Revolution white-collar positions like clerk, secretary, typist, and accountant.
Groeger argues that although this was only the case for a fraction of students and laborers, it became a material basis for the notion of education as an engine of social mobility. In addition, from the start, this notion overlooked the material constraints many low-wage workers faced at the time. Many domestic and other low-wage workers didn’t have time to go to these schools, for example, and many Black workers weren’t in low-wage positions because of a lack of skills or education, but because of racism in the labor market.
Nima: In the years following WWII, economists began to seize on this ideology, popularizing the term “human capital” to refer to individuals’ skills and knowledge as economic assets.
In his 1946 book Education and Economic Change, economist Allan G.B. Fisher claimed historically, “human capital,” quote-unquote, had been neglected, as evidenced in, quote, “the limitations of imperfect systems of education,” end quote. Fisher suggested that a scarcity of skilled labor was detrimental to the economy, and proposed solutions like universal primary education and worker training.
In the ensuing years, members of the economics department from the University of Chicago — one of the US’s most right-wing academic institutions — further built on this idea. In 1961, Theodore Schultz, then head of the University of Chicago economics department, authored an article entitled “Investment in Human Capital,” and it stated this, quote:
Many paradoxes and puzzles about our dynamic, growing economy can be resolved once human investment is taken into account. Let me begin by sketching some that are minor though not trivial.
When farm people take nonfarm jobs they earn substantially less than industrial workers of the same race, age, and sex. Similarly non-white urban males earn much less than white males even after allowance is made for the effects of differences in unemployment, age, city size and region. Because these differentials in earnings correspond closely to corresponding differentials in education, they strongly suggest that the one is a consequence of the other. Negroes who operate farms, whether as tenants or as owners, earn much less than whites on comparable farms. Fortunately, crops and livestock are not vulnerable to the blight of discrimination. The large differences in earnings seem rather to reflect mainly the differences in health and education.
Adam: Somewhat incredibly, racism and the history of slave labor in the US are not factors in Schultz’s mind.
Nima: No, of course not.
Adam: By the early 1960s, Schultz, along with University of Chicago economists Jacob Mincer and Gary Becker had refined what would become known as “human capital theory”: the idea that a worker’s compensation was a reflection of their skill level, usually measured in terms of individualized markers like education and training, without accounting seriously for any systemic factors such as racism, misogyny, de-unionization, corporate profit structures, and so on, keeping workers mired in poverty.
Now cutting to the 1980s, this idea has also been the message, whether explicitly or implicitly, of countless films as well — namely those that are quote-unquote “Based on a True Story” about a dedicated teacher whose unconventional methods, emphasizing personal discipline and responsibility, break through to unlock their once-recalcitrant students’ true potential.
Nima: Yeah. One of the best examples of this is the 1988 film Stand and Deliver which tells the story of teacher Jaime Escalante, played by, of course, the great Edward James Olmos, an effective, stern high school teacher in East LA who taught calculus to largely working-class Latino students. It is one of the most famous examples of the All They Need Is A Good Teacher trope in film and TV. Now, while the theme had been established already in films like 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and 1967’s To Sir, with Love, incidentally both starring Sidney Poitier, and in a different way in films like Born Yesterday, My Fair Lady and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Stand and Deliver leaned more heavily into the idea of education as anti-poverty tool, telling us in the script that, quote, “Math is the great equalizer.”
Jaime Escalante: There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you. There are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do because of your name and your complexion. But math is the great equalizer. When you go for a job, the person giving you that job, will not want to hear your problems and neither do I. You’re gonna work harder than you ever worked before, and the only thing I asked from you is ganas, desire.
Adam: So here we have this very info, Reagan era, patronizing idea that minority, poverty or quote-unquote “ghettos” were the result of a lack of education, that if only they could get better education, they would lift themselves out of poverty, and we would close the racial wealth gap and inch the institutional poverty of our country’s ethnic minorities. We would see the return of the Teacher As Savior theme in the following years. It’s of course perfectly laudable to portray teachers as heroes in books and television and film and obviously we are pro that, we are pro-Teacher As Hero narrative.
Nima: Definitely. Especially if it’s, you know, my wife, that educator.
Adam: It’s true. You’re legally required to say that. But these films perpetuate a very right-wing idea that if we just scold and patronize and discipline minority youth enough that they can somehow lift themselves up out of poverty. These include 1989’s Lean On Me, which was based on the story of Joe Louis Clark, a high school principal in a predominantly Black and Latino working-class part of Paterson, New Jersey. Clark is played by Morgan Freeman. Clark’s school was in danger of being placed into receivership of the New Jersey state government unless students improved their test scores on the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test. To achieve this, Clark employs draconian methods, including expelling 300 students and punishing students if they don’t learn the school song. This is peak Reagan, early George H.W. Bush days. White people love these fucking movies, right? Let’s just be honest, I hate to be the white guy who criticizes white people, but come on, white people love these kinds of fucking movies, where there’s all these kinds of, again, sort of racial disciplining where One of the Good Ones lays down the law.
In this scene, a parent objects to Clark’s draconian approach. In this clip, this is his response to her, in which he characterizes the use of government assistance as a lack of “pride” and of educational priorities.
Joe Clark: Now, you’re right Mrs. Barrett. This is a war. It’s a war to save 700 other students, most of whom don’t have the basic skills to pass a state exam. If you want to help us fine, sit down with your kids and make them study at night. (Crowd sounds.) Give our children some pride. Help them get their priorities straight.
Adam: In another scene, Clark imparts a lesson of individual responsibility to the students whose performance he’s attempting to improve.
Joe Clark: My motto is simple: If you do not succeed in life, I don’t want you to blame your parents, I don’t want you to blame the white man, I want you to blame yourselves, the responsibility is yours. In two weeks, we have a practice exam, and the minimum basic skills test on April 13. That’s 110 school days from now. But it’s not just about those test scores. If you do not have these basic skills, you will find yourselves locked out. Locked out of that American dream that you see advertised on TV, that they tell you was so easy to get. You are here for one reason, one reason only, to learn to work for what you want. The alternative is to waste your time and to fall into the trap of crime, drugs, and death.
Adam: And Clark is clearly presented as the film’s hero, methods and ideology are key to the kids’ success, which they invariably have.
Nima: Yeah, so in this Oscar worthy speech by Morgan Freeman, this idea that look, basic skills, literacy, education, extremely important, I cannot stress this enough, we are not anti that, but the idea as presented here, and in so many of these films, that you need this stern discipline, and that it really comes down to proselytizing about personal responsibility, work ethic, ‘this is all on you,’ ‘earn your dream,’ that kind of rhetoric doesn’t take at all a systemic approach to what we know are so many failures in the educational and societal safety net system that we have here.
Adam: Yeah, here you have Morgan Freeman talking about the alternatives are death and prison and drugs, and the idea is that unless you’re educated, right, only those who sort of achieve a certain level of passing tests, that anyone who falls short of that is not worthy of life and dignity and economic security, right? It’s taken as law of nature that that’s just the way society is versus having a floor that everyone’s entitled to of human dignity and enough money to survive and have Bread and Roses, and be able to go on vacation just by virtue of being alive, by being a human being, that you have to somehow prove yourself to pull yourself up out of this trap. It’s the definition of a rat race. There’s this totally artificial society contrived competition TV show, that if you win, congratulations, you’re one of the big winners, but the other 80–70 percent who fail, tough shit, that’s on you, maybe it’s on some bad teachers, I guess that’s how you can sort of justify it.
Nima: Well, which is literally the entire kind of conceit of the charter school lottery system.
Adam: Right, and that’s, it’s all part of the same ideological stew. And so these movies, just one after the other, would fulfill this role of having 52-year-old white men and women look at the screen and nod their head going, ‘Uh-huh, that’s right.’
Nima: Yeah, no, exactly right. And so, you know, you would see this theme in the ensuing years, not coincidentally, as Teach For America became more and more successful. There’s Dangerous Minds from 1996 of course with Michelle Pfeiffer, there’s Finding Forrester from 2000 with Sean Connery, Freedom Writers from 2007, Hillary Swank, The Blind Side is another example with Sandra Bullock from 2009. The list goes on and on. But I can’t move past Dangerous Minds that quickly, Adam. I remember seeing this when I was in high school, Gangsta’s Paradise was on the soundtrack. So I just want to stick around with Dangerous Minds for just a minute. Now, based on, of course, “A true story,” says the title card, it chronicles the experience of ex-Marine Louanne Johnson, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who teaches at a California high school attended primarily by — who? — low-income Black and Latino students. Here is a clip of Johnson in the film speaking to her students in the classroom about making the choice to get educated and abandoning their victim mentality.
Louanne Johnson: Hey, listen, nobody’s forcing you to be here. You have a choice. You can stay or you can leave.
Teenager #1: Lady, why are you playing this game? We don’t have a choice.
Louanne Johnson: You don’t have a choice. You don’t have a choice on whether or not you’re here?
Teenager #1: Nah. If we leave, we don’t get to graduate and if we stay we got to put up with you.
Louanne Johnson: Well, that’s a choice, isn’t it? You have a choice. You either don’t graduate or you have to put up with me. It may not be a choice you like, but it is a choice.
Teenager #2: Man, you don’t understand nothing. I mean, you don’t come from where we live. You’re not bussed here.
Louanne Johnson: Do you have a choice to get on that bus?
Teenager #2: Man, you come to live in my neighborhood for one week and then you tell me if you got a choice.
Louanne Johnson: There are a lot of people who live in your neighborhood who choose not to get on that bus. What do they choose to do? They choose to go out and sell drugs, they choose to go out and kill people, they choose to do a lot of other things, but they choose not to get on that bus. The people who choose to get on that bus, which are you, are the people who are saying, I will not carry myself down to die, when I go to migrate my head will be high. That is a choice. There are no victims in this classroom.
Adam: But there are lots of them. By definition, those who are born into abject poverty are victims.
Nima: Didn’t you know that poverty is a choice, Adam?
Adam: Victimhood is not about the moral properties of the individual being victimized. It’s a material power relation. But anyway, so yeah, this ethos became widely influential, it was kind of the basis of education policy, virtually bipartisan, I think there were a few Democratic holdouts up until the ’90s and then they just kind of went away and this kind of bootstrap, education as anti-poverty measure would become consensus. Former US President George H.W. Bush said, quote, “Education is the key to opportunity. It’s a ticket out of poverty.” Former US President Barack Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union as part of his pro-charter school Race to the Top education initiative, which we detailed in Episode 162 on the dangers of “data-driven” framing, he said quote:
Barack Obama: In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.
Nima: Yes, and the audience watching The Blind Side stands and applauds. Now this message has been used to exalt charter schools as well, as we’ve been discussing, particularly those that have cropped up in resource-starved neighborhoods over the last two decades. Charter schools in poor neighborhoods, the logic goes, can help close the “achievement gap” between quote-unquote “advantaged” and quote-unquote “disadvantaged” students, which, historically, in neoliberal education rhetoric, means white students versus Black and Latino students.
Now, a quick aside about this term “achievement gap”: According to scholar Laura Jones, the term originated in a 1956 article in the Washington Evening Star to describe an alleged disparity in standardized test performance between Black and white high school students in Washington, DC. The article was headlined “School Probers Told of Lag in Negro Learning.” The subhead is “D.C. Survey Shows Achievement Gap In Senior Highs.”
Now, Jones notes that the term was effectively cooked up by segregationists using spurious data to make an ostensibly scientific case for re-segregating schools. The timing here is important to note: 1956 was just two years after the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which found that school segregation was unconstitutional. Since then, the term “achievement gap” has exploded in news media and elsewhere. This happened most acutely in the 2000s, when “achievement gap” rhetoric would be used to bolster initiatives like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race To The Top, both of which penalized quote-unquote “failing” public schools in order to pave the way for charters.
Adam: Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools — yes, they call it CEO, I guess it sounds very corporate-y — and charter-school shill, has been a major promulgator of this. In 2016, Duncan argued the following in the pages of The Atlantic, quote:
What is it that schools can do at scale for children to close achievement gaps, even in the face of the real burdens of poverty?
As the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and later as the U.S. Secretary of Education, I had the good fortune to visit dozens of gap-closing charter schools…I always came away from those visits — as I do when I visit any great public school — with both a sense of hope and a profound feeling of respect and gratitude for the school’s educators and school leaders.
Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don’t matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive. It’s the responsibility of schools to teach all children — and to have high expectations for every student, rich and poor.
In 2004, while at the helm of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan closed 80 public schools and opened 100 charter schools as part of a disruptive program euphemistically referred to as “turnaround.” Not long after, as Diane Ravitch notes, some of the turnaround schools failed and were closed. By 2021, the Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously to put an end to the turnaround strategy. Studies have shown repeatedly that charters do nothing to improve the so-called “achievement gap.”
As early as 2010, most studies measuring charter schools’ effects had found that charter schools, which have been in existence since 1992 at that point, produced achievement gains that were about the same or lower than those found in traditional public schools. A 2014 study from the University of Minnesota comparing charter and traditional public schools found that charters usually performed below their district counterparts, and in the cases they do outperform them, it’s only by single-digit margins. Charter schools’ four-year graduation rate was 66 percent compared to non-charters’ 68 percent, and five-year graduation rates were 76 percent for charters and 86 percent for public schools.
Nima: Now, what Arne Duncan was writing about, Adam, it’s hard to argue against the idea that everyone deserves a good education, right?
Nima: That’s actually not the argument. It’s about relying on education as the salve and the solver of poverty rather than addressing what creates poverty. So it’s kind of like a bait and switch in that op-ed because, of course, education level alone does not in fact necessarily translate to higher wages as numerous studies have shown over the years. For example, service workers on average have higher levels of education than they did two decades ago. A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office expressly stated that, quote, “Increases in Educational Attainment Have Not Led to Higher Wages,” end quote, and found the following: That about 22 percent of Americans who earned between $12.01 and $16 per hour held college degrees, compared with 16 percent back in 1995. The percentage of workers who had at least a high-school diploma yet earned the federal minimum wage or below increased from an estimated 70 percent in 1995 to 80 percent by 2016.
Studies have also shown that significant portions of workers make more money than their more educated counterparts. For instance a 2021 Georgetown University report found that roughly 16 percent of high school graduates earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree. Also, 28 percent of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree, and 36 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s degree. So, still, how much one makes comes down more importantly to one’s field of study, right? What your major is, what you really concentrate on, your eventual occupation which sometimes doesn’t have to do with what you studied in school, oftentimes does not, including tons of other factors, of course, race and gender being critical there as well.
Adam: It’s also worth asking, as many are increasingly doing, what would happen to low wage jobs if all people working them advanced one or more education levels? As MIT Professor Paul Osterman has written, quote:
What if all the employees in low wage jobs suddenly acquired a community college degree or better. Would the jobs they hold disappear? Would the wages of all of them rise? The exact answer to this question differs depending on the time horizon; however over any reasonable period the answer would seem to be no.
The education-as-anti-poverty-tool trope doesn’t take into account the necessity under a capitalist system for a pool of low-wage workers, regardless of education status. The United States has long had one of the highest rates of educational access and enrollment in the world, consistently ranking within the top 12 to 10 most formally educated countries worldwide, but it also has one of the highest rates of inequality and disprportionately high rates of absolute poverty.
According to the Census Bureau, the high school completion rate in the United States for people aged 25 and older increased from 87.6 percent in 2011 to 91.1 percent in 2021. Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of people aged 25 and older who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 7.5 percentage points from 30.4 percent to 37.9 percent.
In 2017 however, the US ranked 23 out of 30 quote-unquote “developed” countries in a measure known as the “inclusive development index,” which factors in data on income, health, poverty, and “sustainability” created and designed by the World Economic Forum.
Nima: Yes, so clearly, high education levels don’t necessarily correspond across the board to, you know, quality of life improvements. I mean, over the past two years, we’ve seen life expectancy drop in the United States, regardless of any kind of metrics that have to do with education, largely, of course, due to the COVID pandemic. This from NPR, quote:
In 2019, someone born in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 79 years. In 202o, because of the pandemic, that dropped to 77 years. In 2021 life-span dropped again — to 76.1 years. And for some Americans, life expectancy is even lower, according to a provisional analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2019, someone born in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 79 years. In 202o, because of the pandemic, that dropped to 77 years. In 2021 life-span dropped again — to 76.1 years. And for some Americans, life expectancy is even lower, according to a provisional analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Adam: And of course, the key metric is poverty. As of 2020 37 million Americans are 11.4 percent of our population that lives in poverty. And so the question is, is all this investment and bootstrapism and the charter school movement in the ’90s, did this actually reduce the “achievement gap” or reduce poverty? And the answer is unequivocally no, it didn’t. Because education in and of itself can’t do that, and frankly really shouldn’t have to do that. That’s not a burden that education as this kind of abstract moral good should have. The thing that should lower poverty is taking all of the stuff that all the people who are filthy rich, and giving it to those that are poor. That way you stop poverty in a matter of days if you want to, versus relying on these kinds of abstract long, decades long horizons of trickle down bootstrap-ism, which are full of cozy rhetoric, but don’t actually do the thing they’re set out to do, which is reduce poverty because we still have a lot of poor people in this country relative to other quote-unquote “developed” countries.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Cristina Viviana Groeger, a historian of education and work in the modern United States. She’s an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Lake Forest College, and the author of the book The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, which was published last year by Harvard University Press. Tina will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Cristina Viviana Groeger. Tina, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: So the truism that education is a mechanism for reducing inequality and poverty is simply taking for granted in liberal and conservative circles alike, while this is certainly true on a micro level — like for example, I want to tell my child or insist that my niece go to college because theoretically, the outcomes are better — on a macro level, this premise begins to break down, and I think many people kind of intuit a micro level with macro policy on its face, it makes sense as you write about and talk about a lot. So I want to sort of begin from the 30,000 foot, to use a horrible corporate cliche, talking about this premise, what theories it’s based on, and what just as a sort of real quick, cursory explanation, what are the fundamental problems with that assumption?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: So I think the kind of broad theory behind the idea that more skills equals higher wages, that’s, you know, that’s sort of the economic theory of human capital, and the premise is that if you can increase the skills of everyone, especially those at the bottom, then that will compress wages, and overall reduce inequality. I think there is a grain of truth to this story and I think that’s important to recognize that historically, and in the present, right, like gaining skills for many workers, but not all workers, gaining skills did lead to real social mobility, and at times, usually, like the middle of the 20th century, we point to was a time when education hugely expanded and that was also a time when inequality went down with a huge expansion of public college, and it also fits a huge expansion of education in the early 20th century that I write about in my book, especially around white collar work, where, you know, there really was for lots of working class students and women for the first time, accessing the skills provided in schools did lead to social mobility and higher wages. The problem is that that equation really breaks down in a lot of cases in practice, and does not apply to everyone, and I think the most obvious example of this is discrimination, right? You know, if you are an African American man or woman and you have all the skills possible, but the decision of an employer not to hire you means that you will make no wages, and so certain groups of people, especially African Americans, or recent immigrants, get put into occupational categories, usually low wage work, not because they don’t have the right skills, but because of systemic discrimination. On the broader level too there have also been periods of history when education has expanded but inequality has actually gone up, and this is the early 20th century is the case study that I look at a lot, and in that case, what we actually see is, throughout the whole educational system, although many people did, this is the time when like public high schools become huge institutions and really expand and those helped a lot of students and a lot of future workers, but it was also the time then that colleges were able to kind of consolidate their central role for the first time really in leading to the top corporate and professional positions when they had not played that role before. As everyone is getting more education, the top, both colleges and kind of economic elite, can just consolidate their advantages more, and so this idea that just by expanding education on a systemic level we’re going to somehow reduce inequality, that doesn’t really account for what’s actually happened. But this is a very useful truism, as you said, because it’s also one that really doesn’t challenge the power of employers or challenge the status quo or challenge the power of those with the most power, and so the example that I talked about in my book is that, you know, for women and immigrants going into white collar jobs for the first time, like that was real social mobility for them, and that’s important to recognize, but at the same time, for employers, it was actually a way for them to cut costs because women were paid half as much as men, entirely non-unionized sector, whereas craft work that white collar work, new sort of engineers and managers try to cut down on and replace, that had been one of the few sectors of work where workers had real power. So we can see the growth of education is both a form of social mobility for those that got it or for certain groups that got it, but also essentially kind of a union busting or an attempt to control the workforce in new ways through shifting the workforce towards workers that had less power than different ones.
Nima: Well, right, because it then establishes just a new way for some people, some segments of the society, some communities to have to, as always, work twice as hard and get half as much, and I think that, you know, part of this truism, as we’ve been calling it, that I want to dig deeper into is the idea that the burden, as you were saying, continues to rely on individuals. These are not then systemic issues, you get to kind of have this platitude of more education equals less inequality, but again, then the burden of fixing inequality is on not for an entire society to make sure everyone is educated in a certain way, but for individuals, or their families, to have to figure out how to educate themselves, right? They need to work harder, they need to get better grades, collectively pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to use that hackneyed metaphor, rather than saying, have a robust redistributive policies that just take money from the rich, provide more for the poor, which would in itself does go a very long way to fixing inequality. But how does this narrative of education as an anti-poverty program deliberately avoid these messy questions of, say, higher taxation for rich people or creating a strong social welfare state?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, well, I think, you know, we have to think about who this narrative benefits, right, and why we would want to avoid those messy questions. So I think, from an employer’s perspective, this narrative of putting the burden on the workers rather than themselves, rather than the state, it kind of absolves those in power from responsibility, right? And so if employers, you know, if there’s a skill shortage, it’s not that they’re not paying their workers enough to make those jobs attractive, it’s that there’s not enough workers who have those skills, and the idea that individuals are to blame for their own poverty, this is an idea that dates back a very long time, you know, and in the Progressive era, it was often proposed, you know, education was a popular solution because it didn’t require real sacrifices, and it didn’t challenge sort of power dynamics really in society broadly, it provided a kind of easy and very popular program for either charity that would be based on, you know, providing say domestic workers with more skills in domestic service so they could become better servants, right?
Nima: Those are just called fellowships and scholarships now.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, right, or internships. But yeah, we see this sort of analysis persist and kind of culture of poverty theories of the 1960s that there’s sort of an inherent problem, and so schools, because they’re transformative, or imagined to be kind of socially and individually transformative, and they’re the right solution. But I think at the end of the day, it’s so popular, because, again, it really doesn’t require any of those in power to really make any sacrifices, and because it has this grain of truth, I think it’s kind of dangerously accepted, right? And not, you know, that’s why across the political spectrum, you see this kind of narrative persist, and it can kind of take hold in a way in popular imagination because it is intuitive. But I think we can see throughout history and in the present the ways that this is kind of letting a lot of those who are ultimately responsible for inequality, for labor abuses, kind of off the hook, and especially employers, they’re very happy to have training done for them, right? It also offloads their cost of training and it basically provides free training through the public school system rather than employers doing it themselves, for instance, which they used to do, you know, in the 19th century.
Adam: Yeah, because you want them to learn how to make a widget but you don’t want them to learn about radical politics or literature. That’s the Koch brothers education model.
Nima: And if they do that then they better have lifelong student debt.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Right.
Adam: Their children can, to be clear, but not the workers. But that’s a separate episode. But I do want to talk a little bit about the charter school movement, something we’ve criticized quite a bit on the show for being astroturfed, billionaire-backed, teachers union busting but much of the narrative of the charter school movement is propped up by this truism that education is an anti-poverty program. That’s sort of the opening premise of Davis Guggenheim’s grotesque propaganda film Waiting for Superman, where he’s like, ‘Here are these poor Black kids who are poor because they don’t have the opportunity,’ and this opportunity narrative, they love this word opportunity. It’s all so fucking patronizing. It’s this head patting, ‘They just need opportunities because I’m over here, I’m some Walton, I have 10,000 fish, you’re starving, but I’m going to teach you how to fish rather than just giving you my fish,’ with an understanding that fish have a very narrow shelf life so maybe this metaphor is not very good, but you see my point. ‘So I’m going to teach you how to fish, I’m going to donate two of my fish to open a fishing Academy.’ There’s sort of this constant kind of hamster on a wheel bullshit, right, to mix animal metaphors, and the charter school movement is pretty much propped up by this assumption, and of course, you combine this with the fact that Black schools were underfunded, objectively, for decades, right? So you had this genuine frustration with the school system that was co-opted by these forces, very sophisticated PR, and then you have this idea that, you touched on it earlier, but this kind of Daniel Patrick Moynihan liberal racism, right, of kind of culture, and you know, we need to have them line up every day on a piece of fucking tape.
Adam: And have the right uniforms, and if they just have better culture, then we’ll have better inequality outcomes. That’s borne out not to be true at all. That’s all bullshit.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Right.
Adam: Not necessarily worse, but basically a wash with some teachers’ unions busted up and school boards undermined, et cetera, et cetera. So talk about the ways in which this kind of, it’s bipartisan, I mean, again, Obama spoke in this language, Republicans, of course, love this language, it’s kind of gone out of favor in the last few years, but this basic premise that this head padding opportunity narrative is premised on this fundamentally false idea, again, that it has a such a bipartisan hold on how we view the purpose of education, how that dovetails with the charter school movement.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, so here, I think, this language of blaming the individual essentially, right, it’s the failure of the individual for having enough skills to get the jobs that would give them social mobility, et cetera, I think that sort of becomes a blaming the school system in sort of charter school reform rhetoric, right, and then blaming entire school systems or blaming public schools, in particular, for failing to provide students with all of the skills but in reality overcome poverty, and provide sort of a magical transformation to allow them to access good jobs in the future. So I think, here’s where the popular imagination of the role of education then can be used to kind of attack one of the most well-developed parts of the welfare state that the US has, which is the public school system, and can become part of a kind of conservative project to undermine it or to dismantle it. But I think because there is a, you know, I’m thinking now why have liberal reformers or the Democratic Party, why have they embraced it as well? I think, because also, again, this narrative tends to favor employers or doesn’t really challenge employers so it’s easier and kind of more politically feasible to focus on education reform, than it is say on tax reform or other kind of more substantive policies that would actually redistribute power, you know, and then I feel like education kind of just becomes a punching bag for everyone, and schools and teachers are blamed, you know, for every problem that that young people and older people may have. But it can always be spun into, you know, ‘the schools are failing or the schools are not doing enough,’ even if, of course, schools are overburdened, and a lot of schools are underfunded and don’t have the resources even to do basic education. But I think it kind of spirals and it fits also with a kind of anti-labor mission, right, in the sense that charter schools are also places where they don’t need to follow labor policies and the public schools can hire whoever they want, although we’re now seeing charter schools’ teachers unionizing themselves. But yeah, a way of kind of getting around some of those labor policies also.
Adam: Yeah, because I think it feeds into this meritocracy, because the only way that a quote-unquote “meritocracy” system, and you look at this country, you see the massive inequality, the racial globalization, the wild racial gap, all this stuff, the only way you could sort of make that make sense, right, the only way I can reconcile that worldview is that we have a meritocracy but there’s all these bad outcomes, right?
Nima: People aren’t trying as hard as they need to.
Adam: Well, right. The only way a liberal can kind of rectify that in their head is to say, ‘Oh, well, they haven’t had enough opportunity.’ Because the right winger would use a kind of quasi eugenicist argument that they’re always going to be poor and so the liberal has to rectify these two things, and that’s where you merge into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan eugenics by proxy when you talk about culture, and then you say, ‘Oh, they haven’t had enough opportunities and so if we could just fix the schools.’
Nima: But not all schools, Adam, only certain schools, only certain pipelines exist for success.
Adam: Right, and it’s the only way this sort of worldview makes sense, because like you said, it doesn’t upset anyone. I think we’ve talked a lot about the 2000 law that Bill Clinton passed his last week in office that created the tax break for real estate, I think, well, if it was hedge funds and real estate to invest in education for charter schools, and just how perfect that is, because it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s this little device we have, it’s going to save you millions of dollars on taxes,’ which is a form of revenue generation, right? And also, it’s going to help solve racism. It’s like, what a perfect solution!
Nima: For hedge funds and real estate.
Adam: Yeah. What are the odds? Out of all the gin joints.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah.
Nima: To that point, Tina, I want to ask you specifically about your book, The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, and there’s a word in the subheadline that I actually really want to focus on, which is “remaking,” “the remaking of inequality.” Can you talk to us a bit about the approach that you took in your book, what you found and where that remaking, right, not just establishment of inequality in Boston, but that something existed and then it was remade in a certain way and how that relates to schools and education?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, well, no, thank you for the question. So the remake is kind of referring to how, you know, I argue that the educational system ultimately didn’t really challenge some of the oldest hierarchies be they gender or racial or kind of economic or class-based hierarchies that had long existed, right, in a very overt form in Boston in the 19th century, and those overt forms, an extremely segregated labor market, but more through informal and kind of family relationships, because education played a very small role, and most people found work through their ethnic or kinship ties or family networks, social networks, but you know, in an extremely segmented and hierarchical labor market, and the promise of education in the early 20th century was that it would challenge these sorts of overt forms of hierarchy and inequality, but we end up seeing is actually how, through the creation of a very tiered educational system, and so I talk about, you know, K through 12, but also then what’s happening to colleges in the early 20th century too and universities and professional schools, you kind of see the basis of what the economic elite or the financial elite, it switches from a sort of small family-based concentration of wealth to something that’s then actually reproduced through schools. So through Harvard University, most obviously, but the way that in the sort of reforms that happen in universities in this time period, it’s, you know, universities, very actively try to establish connections to economic and professional elites, to become the new training ground for those groups. So I end my book in 1940, or kind of the end of the Great Depression, and by this point, everyone across the board has much more schooling than they did at the end of the 19th century, but inequality has actually gone up in this period, which is an irony if you think that education can reduce inequality, and that’s because now education is actually forming, you know, although there are these individual paths of social mobility, on a broader level, it’s actually forming kind of a new form, a new structure of inequality or a new way that that individuals can be channeled into the right jobs, because specific schools and institutions are very closely connected to employers in the area, and really do function sometimes as direct channels to elite employment opportunities.
Adam: Right. In that case, education ends up reproducing and codifying inequality, as you also talked about.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Right.
Adam: Which, you know, it’s why frats exist, right? Sort of reproduction zones of inequality and exclusion and racial exclusion. So having said all that, education and schooling, as you and we all agree, is intrinsically important. While it may not be an elegant mechanism to solve inequality or to improve the plight of the poor to reduce poverty, obviously society still needs education. So I’m going to ask you, for those listening who’s like, ‘Well, wait a second, well, I have an education, you know if it’s not some great equalizer, then what the fuck is it for?’ Without being too squishy about it, you know, obviously all societies need education, population for civic engagement, et cetera, you know, our plumber-should-read-John-Milton-poems and, you know, that kind of romantic vision of education.
Nima: We are pro-education on this show.
Adam: I happen to be very squishy about education, especially liberal arts education.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah.
Adam: So what is the value? If you were the dictator tomorrow, and you, you know, got to control the Department of Education by, you know, authoritarian rule, what would that look like? What is the point of education?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: As you can probably imagine, this book, talking to largely educators, it sometimes gets me into trouble, because then they ask like, ‘Okay, but are you saying if there’s no point or are you saying we shouldn’t have education? Or what?’
Nima: What are you saying, Professor?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Right, exactly. So in part, because, as we started the conversation, education still is very important for accessing job market outcomes, even though those good jobs are shrinking. But you know, to the extent that they exist, it’s still really important to have education, I think that because that is still true we can’t blame students for having an often very vocational attitude towards their education or say, you know, going to college so that they can have a good career. I think there’s sometimes a sort of liberal arts or sort of handwringing about, ‘Oh, like the careerism of students,’ and it’s like, well, okay, but this is what this is the system that they are part of and I don’t blame them for that. So I want to sort of acknowledge it makes sense given that this is the society that we live in. At the same time, I think that because education is so caught up with that purpose for, you know, its meaning in our society is sort of caught up with that purpose, the only way to imagine alternatives for what education could be is it has to happen after we’ve addressed the job question. So, you know, I think we have to ensure that everyone can access a well-paying job after the end of their schooling, whatever that may be, in order to free up education to actually be about something else. In some ways it’s almost like we can’t really decide now because in the future, we would be able to really reimagine what education could be, and I think there it would have a lot more to do with fostering creativity and curiosity and learning from other people. I mean, I started out as very enamored with John Dewey, that got me interested in education in the first place, and I think in some ways all of those ideals are still true, we should learn by doing, and sort of his idea of education fostering democratic practice. But we can’t do that, right, if the educational system is sort of held hostage by the economy. So that’s one thing. I mean, another way that I’ve been thinking about it lately too is how can we reimagine education to actually be teaching students the skills to remake society. So thinking about political action as a form of education or students leading walkouts, and protests, which —
Adam: Whoa, whoa, whoa. CRT, guys, Ben Shapiro, you’re polluting young minds with this nonsense?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, exactly. Or yeah, even worse, instead of teaching students how to become better employees from an employer’s perspective, why don’t we teach them how to organize a union? Right?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: That seems like relevant job preparation to me, right, in 2022.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: And in ways that, you know, political education, working on a campaign, being part of organizing a union, all of that is also important education and training, you can say, for the kind of political change that, you know, I think we need to actually address inequality. So, you know, I don’t know if schools as they are currently formed are going to be the forum for that form of education, but I think that would sort of be my, you know, in an ideal world, education would actually be about how do you actually change the world and not just go and start a nonprofit, but you know, to really engage in politics in a meaningful way.
Adam: Yeah. Because theoretically, everyone should be able to pursue education for its own sake. But yeah, maybe 20 percent of the time you learn how to be an engineer or change a tire, someone has to do that shit, right? Not everyone can be podcasters. Some people need real jobs.
Nima: Not everyone has a classics degree and then becomes a podcast. Tina, before we let you go, we’d love to hear what you’re working on currently, where folks can read more of your work, maybe beyond the book that they should all buy, but you know, what are you working on these days? What should people look out for?
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Sure. So well, I published an article called The Fight for a Public University in Boston that kind of came out of this book project. So, there’s a long and interestingly organized labor that was one of the chief advocates from the very beginning, from the 19th century saying workers should have access to higher education, which I don’t think everybody necessarily knows. But there’s an interesting kind of long history because Boston was one of the longest or it didn’t have a public university until the late 20th century. So there’s sort of a long and interesting history of just fighting for public education in Boston. But the question of skills and sort of how we determine what is low-skilled or high-skilled work and just sort of the social determinants of, yeah, the sort of historical context and all the sort of racial and gender assumptions that go into determining what skill is, is a, you know, is definitely a central question in the previous book, is also one that I’m thinking about, and I’m trying to think of ways that we can break down some of the assumptions we have about skill, but in a sort of historical way, and thinking about gender and immigration in particular, and how that relates to the question of skill is something that we’ll see where that goes, but that’s sort of where my brain is right now.
Nima: Awesome. Well, we will definitely look out for that. We’ve been speaking with Cristina Viviana Groeger, historian of education and work in the modern United States. An Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Lake Forest College, she is the author of the book The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, published by Harvard University Press in 2021. Tina, thank you so much, again, for joining us today for this back-to-school episode of Citations Needed.
Cristina Viviana Groeger: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, the sort of history of the existential question of pedagogy is a fascinating one, and maybe it’s a little pat or high minded to say, well, education is good in and of itself. Obviously, it needs to provide people with relevant skills, we need people who can fix toilets and software engineers, that stuff is important, I’m not saying everyone needs to get the sort of proverbial major and beat poetry or whatever kind of Fox News punching bag you want to use. But I want to live in a world where we have those majors and those majors are valued and cherished and not mocked and used as a punch line. I know we’re pandering a little bit because our audience is made up of over-educated downwardly mobile types, but at the same time, it’s like —
Nima: We validate you.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. At the same time, we talk about the great equalizer. It’s like, you know, what’s a great equalizer, taking shit from rich people and giving it to poor quality.
Adam: There’s one weird trick doctors hate them for, yeah, it’s like, there’s this really easy thing you can do, which is to take the thing that people have, and give it to those that don’t have it. This is one really great way of creating a more equal society, maybe not completely equal, God forbid, but reducing poverty, we could reduce poverty overnight if we wanted to reduce poverty. So we have to come up with these, we’re like a carnival barker trying to trick you into playing a game at a carnival, right, sort of throw the baseball at the glass to get the big stuffed animal, there’s a showmanship involved, and doing all this elaborate exotic shit that doesn’t involve actually just creating a more equal society through the mechanism of government redistribution, right? And so we’re constantly being sold different schemes and shell games and elaborate tricks to give you the illusion that you have some agency, when in reality, the solution, and again, I know it’s not that simple, but it kind of is. Meanwhile, the solution is very simple, which is we should just make sure people aren’t poor by providing them a very robust floor of food, groceries, rent, a dignified living, union, you know, protections if they have employment, things of that nature.
Nima: Yeah, and it may not come down to your success being dictated by having a hero in the classroom teaching you, right, someone that sacrificed their own career to go into education, with all their idealism and martyrdom, to lift others out of ignorance and poverty, which is just super patronizing, and also puts a lot of pressure on teachers who already have a lot of fucking pressure on themselves. They don’t need to constantly see hero stories in pop culture, because, you know what that is not doing? That’s not making people flocked to the profession of teaching, right?
Nima: It’s not actually doing that. What teachers need is not these flashy movie commercials, they need safer work environments and more money and then I’m sure there’ll be more teachers. But what these pop culture fantasies do, is it really motivates people who are susceptible to that message to join organizations like Teach for America, not to become teachers because they are educators and that is their job, but it’s a, you know, kind of do-goodie thing on the way to your Wall Street job, you stop over at Teach For America for a few years, and then you move on. So it bloats those ranks while taking away from the idea that teachers alone should not be expected to solve poverty, to solve systems of inequity and oppression that are maintained at the highest levels of our politics, in our society, and so creating these kind of individualistic hero narratives that have to do with personal responsibility and Protestant work ethic and kind of imposing that, not only on students, but their teachers, to all be heroic in the face of oppression is really a fucked-up message to send.
Adam: Yeah, and it’s all part of the carnival game, right? Sort of need the illusion that you’re going to knock that piece of class over and win the teddy bear.
Adam: It’s all tricks to get you to not think about the thing we should be thinking about which is holy shit, we have a lot of very, very wealthy people in this country, and we have a lot of very, very poor people in this country, and those two things ought not coexist.
Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed, our season six premiere. Thank you, everyone, for coming back with us. We are thrilled to be back for this season. We have a lot of great stuff coming up, so we hope you stick with us. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, buy some merch at Bonfire.com, search for Citations Needed, and of course, you can always become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shoutout goes to our critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. Welcome back to Citations Needed for season six. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.