Restoring Societal Balance Through Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Everyone knows that the American Middle Class is facing a slow and painful death at the hands of economic hardship and the slow draining of wealth by the elite (Tavernise, Nov. 15, 2011). Read between the lines of Vice President Biden’s announcement about the formation of the Middle Class Task Force, and you can see the importance of restoring and supporting the future growth of the middle class for securing the future well-being of the nation.

MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu believes that the United States is headed for a catastrophic failure in line with many other past superpowers such as the Roman Empire because of the increasing disparity between poor and wealthy and the death of a vibrant middle class (Why Nations Fail, NPR, March 21, 2012). Acemoglu has a forthcoming book on the subject on which this lecture at the University of Scranton is based:

Given Acemoglu’s credentials – as an endowed chair in economics at MIT with an MA and PhD from the London School of Economics – it is safe to assume that his conclusions about the dire consequences of increasing income disparity are accurate, and that our future looks bleak if current trends persist. One way that this growing gulf between the rich and the poor/middle class can be decreased or erased is through education.

Educating for Democracy
Thomas Jefferson was an advocate for public education from the time of the founding of the country, stating that, "whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights" (Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress). It was Jefferson’s belief that the strongest republic would be populated with a broadly educated citizenry who would be well informed enough to be responsible for running the country. In 1773, he proposed the "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," as part of rewriting the laws of Virginia. Though free, universal, compulsory education never became law either federally or in Virginia as a result of Jefferson’s efforts, the legacy endured and was taken up by Horace Mann in the 1830s.

A Massachusetts statesman, Mann is generally considered the father of universal education because of his work implementing universal public education in his State and for his failed efforts to enact similar reforms nationally (PBS, The Story of American Education) []. Despite the federal failure, Mann is considered by historians to have contributed to creating a more equitable and democratic society through his work. His hypothesis, that broadly available education was a powerful social and political force in creating and sustaining a just and verdant society has been supported by recent research. 

Two studies in particular demonstrate the power of a more broadly educated population to sustain a more economically dynamic society due to the increase in equity at all levels. Gylfason and Zoega (2003)  found that "in a sample of 87 countries at all income levels, we also find that more and better education appears to encourage economic growth directly as well as indirectly through increased social equality and cohesion."

Gorovy (2005) explains the ways in which "education lowers the cost of political activity through fostering socialization skills. . . . the more inclusive nature of the democracy means the spoils of leadership reach more people." Education of the masses is the key to creating a strong, sustainable economy. Spreading the benefits of that economic prosperity widely through education is essential. While we have universal, free education at the primary and secondary levels in this country, we do not have an equitable system which allows all members of society to be equal participants in the "spoils of leadership."

The Difference between Rich and Poor Schools
There is one fact that best summarizes the difference between poor/working/middle class schools* and elite institutions at any level – the difference in the conception of authority and rules. Sociologist Jean Anyon, in her groundbreaking 1980 essay, Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work observed five elementary schools over the course of a school year and made a shocking discovery:

It’s no surprise that schools in wealthy communities are better than those in poor communities, or that they better prepare their students for desirable jobs. It may be shocking, however, to learn how vast the differences in schools are – not so much in resources as in teaching methods and philosophies of education. Jean Anyon observed five elementary schools over the course of a full school year and concluded that fifth-graders of different economic backgrounds are already being prepared to occupy particular rungs on the social ladder. In a sense, some whole schools are on the vocational education track, while others are geared to produce future doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. (Summary from the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project)

One of the primary differences that Anyon observed in the curriculums at the different types of schools was that children in the lower socio-economic status schools were being conditioned to follow rules and respect authority, while children at what she called elite executive schools were being taught that questioning authority is expected and that they were being groomed to make their own rules. In effect, for elite students, rules were made to be broken.

I demonstrated this concept to great effect in a class on "Toxic Literacies" that I taught at an elite private college. The exercise was simple, I wrote the sentence, "Rules are . . ." on the board, with two options: "absolute," and "flexible." I then asked the students to first raise their hands if they agreed with the second option. All but one of them did. I then went around the room and asked each student to describe their high school. All but that one had attended a prep school, private school, or elite public school. The lone absolutist – he had attended a regular old diverse public school near his home in a working class neighborhood and was attending the school on a scholarship. The students were absolutely shocked by this result and a great discussion ensued in which each side tried to convince the other of their perspective on authority. This has been a roundabout way to explain that our schools are not equal. Despite what anyone may say about resources, per student spending, etc. there is a fundamental difference in the ways in which students in these institutions are educated and that difference divides our society in two in about a 99 to 1 ratio (technically it’s more like 85 to 15, but I’ll go with the popular label).

Educating for Equality
Seldom is there a simple answer for a complex problem. That is not the case, however with creating a more balanced and equitable society through education. All we have to do is make education equal for every student. And that equality needs to begin with providing all schools with the funding necessary to hire outstanding teachers; provide top-notch resources; conduct systematic outreach and education programs for families; provide universal free computers, Internet access, and technology training for students and their families; make sure that all school-age children are healthy and well-fed; and allow teachers the autonomy to teach students to be innovators. To accomplish these goals all we need to do is make education, the most important of our fundamental rights as Americans, the national priority that it should always have been. Robert Reich proposes the following solution to solving this problem:

"A big part of the answer has to be more government support for public education at all levels. This requires more tax revenues – especially from Americans who are best able to pay. Most Americans still believe in the ideal of equal opportunity. And most harbor the patriotic notion that we have responsibilities to one another as members of the same society.
The two principles lead to an obvious conclusion: America’s richest citizens have a duty to pay more taxes so kids from middle and lower-income families have chance to make it in America.”
(The way to save the shrinking middle class, Feb. 29, 2012)
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* I have placed these three social strata together in this section because the socializing conventions of schooling function the same way in all of them. The purpose of education, for those attending non-elite schools, is to socialize them to follow rules.