June 24, 2010

The value of college IV

In comments over the past few weeks, Glen McGhee has been doing a lot of work making the argument for a credentialist lens for higher education. And two weeks ago, Jose Vilson's Memorial Day blog entry raised the perennial question of what we're supposed to be educating our children for. So let me address the obvious questions that I haven't answered in the set of blog entries on the value of college. Roughly speaking, my argument is that in the absence of great social upheaval, social institutions tend to have an inertial relationship with the rest of society, and that the school-adult income relationship is an example of that inertial relationship. That's not to say it's just or predetermined or hermetic or even stationary. Rather, it's a statement of the importance of institutional structures once they're set up. Schools can maintain inequalities, they can help students change the world, and all sorts of mixes in between. In other words, formal schooling is a tool up for grabs.

We should not be surprised that without some sort of pressure otherwise, schools would tend to maintain social inequality. That's not because schools are particularly nefarious but because as Charles Tilly argued, humans tend to hoard opportunity for those close to them. So the more advantaged parents, families, and social groups in a particular society would use any childrearing practice as a vehicle for maintaining advantage, and without countervailing pressures, they'd have more options to do so than less-advantaged parents, families, and social groups. The same was true when work occupied more of the lives of children between 10 and 15 than schooling, so why should we expect anything different when formal schooling became more prominent as part of childrearing?

Except that things did not stay the same. As many have noted before me (including Karl Kaestle, Martin Carnoy, Hank Levin, Ira Katznelson, Margaret Weir, and others), the early nineteenth-century North witnessed dramatic expansion of school structures and, almost as importantly, a different way of talking about schooling. Horace Mann was not the first prominent advocate of education as a right; local Workingmen's parties were by the late 1820s, and over a few decades the advocacy of multiple parties expanded the education-citizenship link from a "schooling promotes citizenship" to "schooling comes along with citizenship." The story is long and messy in the nineteenth century, but among other things, that broadened connection was at the root of the mid-century lawsuit against racial segregation in Boston schools (that's mid-19th century), the relationship between compulsory education and compulsory attendance, the power of the state vis-a-vis parents, and so forth.

No one should pretend that Workingmen's parties said "education is a right" and all shouted "Hallelujah!" Far from it; the meaning of education as a part of citizenship was and remains contested. The notion of education became part of a citizenship bundle (what Europeans would call social citizenship, or the American version of it), and as Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick point out, it's a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it provides a lever by which millions have been able to acquire better lives. On the other hand, it has also become the lever on which we rely too much, expecting one institution to solve so many social problems.

Those who wish to use education to address inequality need to think about the multigenerational long term. Part but only part of inequality can be addressed directly in a human-capital sense. Far more has to be addressed by equipping large chunks of the population to change society in other ways, and education is an indirect lever there. W.E.B. Du Bois understood the long game, and despite his young-adult romanticism with social-science research in the Progressive Era, he was persistently thinking about the long game for an entire population. His debate with Booker T. Washington was largely about teacher education: Washington publicly argued that primary-teachers for (and most community leaders among) African Americans in the South had to accommodate racism, with advanced academic training a luxury. Du Bois argued that the new colleges for African Americans (the core of what we call HBCUs today) would inevitably train a disproportionate number of teachers and had to support academic ambitions over multiple generations. His Talented Tenth argument was not about elitism but teachers for mass education.

In part the argument in favor of expanding college experience is not that it will pay off immediately for every student who attends college but that it will pay off for the society and for college students' children and grandchildren. On an email list some years ago, I expressed skepticism when one list member argued that formal schooling was essential for social activism. There were plenty in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement who had no more than an eighth-grade education and put their bodies on the line because they knew what was right. But it helped tremendously that some key roles were filled by African Americans and others who had a college education, a law degree, and so forth. Segregationists had some very well-educated, savvy people working on their side, and it was important to have equally well-educated, savvy people working on the side of civil rights.

That work shifted schooling in a better direction. Not perfect, but significantly better. The structures of formal schooling, including credentials, student aid, legal nondiscrimination requirements, etc., have left formal schooling moving in a different direction from 100 years ago, but the accumulated changes themselves have imparted a certain momentum to the relationship between schools and society. The role of schooling right now still is weighted towards wealthier families, but there are significantly more opportunities for poor children to improve their lives through schooling than 50 or 100 years ago. That doesn't leave schooling as a cure-all, nor does it excuse us from working towards improving the lives of people in other areas, but it gives me some optimism that we can change the way that schools provide differential opportunities, if we push hard enough and cleverly enough.

That leaves me in a somewhat odd mood towards expanding college, pushing an instrumental formal experience in hopes that all the stuff that isn't planned does even more than what is.

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Posted in Higher education on June 24, 2010 2:14 PM | Submit