Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality? Not in the USA.

Education can't solve economic inequality

When my guru forwarded Nick Hanauer's article in The Atlantic, "Better Schools Won't Fix America," I devoured it enthusiastically.  Hanauer, a wealthy American philanthropist, with considerable credentials as a patron of education in the USA, was disavowing the dogma that education can erase the income gap--a dogma he calls "educationalism."  Hanauer's criticism of his  cohorts in the 1% is scalding.  "Educationalism," Hanauer writes, "appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power."

Global education versus American education

The article does not devalue education, but debunks a generalized notion that education alone can solve economic inequality.  His argument, in a nutshell, is that "great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around."  However, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which is arguably the Bible for crusaders against income inequality,  Thomas Piketty, argues that "the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill and education, [ . . .]."

The world's poor and the American lower middle class

How can we rectify this shared preoccupation with wealth inequality leading to such different conclusions?  The simple answer is that Hanauer is talking about the USA  (once known as the land of opportunity) and Piketty's perspective is global.  As Steve Pinker observes, in Enlightenment Now, "the world's poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class."

"The American lower middle class" (whom Pinker identifies as the Trump constituency) were exactly the people who were ill prepared to take advantage of globalization.  In contrast, highly educated individuals from emerging economies, whose expertise, skills and products easily crossed national boundaries or flourished in cyberspace, enriched not only themselves but their home countries as well.

Education and the classroom

The American vision of education (which tends to be shared by most Canadians) is that it begins and ends in the classroom.  The classroom, if you stop and think about it, is a very poor learning environment.  A lot has to happen outside the classroom if the education which is initiated there is going take hold and have any effect.

Money isn't usually the purpose of an education

Economic advantage is rarely the unique objective of education, but most people, quite rightly, expect  economic stability, if not affluence, to be a beneficial side effect of an education.  That expectation is frequently disappointed.  The problem is that cost effectiveness and capital gains (in every sense of these terms) have come to dominate the thinking of both educational institutions and some individual educators.  When everyone is asking "What's in it for me?" the average student is left out in the cold.

The simple solution

Hanuaer's got it right that putting more wealth into the hands of Americans in the bottom half of the socio-economic ladder is the obvious, Occam's-razor solution to wealth inequality.  He's also right that education in the USA would improve if more American families were empowered with the affluence, influence and the confidence to make themselves part of the educational process, rather than turning over the young of America to schools and universities in the vain hope that education will just happen, and the future will, magically, be richer and brighter than the past.


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