Education IS a panacea. Sort of.
In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, John Marsh argues with great clarity and insight that, as the title of his essay declares, education is not an economic panacea. I say his article is clear and insightful, and I’d go even further to say that the conclusions he draws are correct — but that there is a broader sense in which he is wrong.
While Marsh’s essay is well worth reading, it is also long — and since my own remarks won’t make sense without context, I’ll try to avoid tl;dr-inspired confusion by quoting the key paragraphs of Marsh’s conclusion:
Within the last few years, a number of critics have begun to challenge our unexamined faith in “college for all,” as one economist has put it. Unlike those critics, mostly conservatives, I do not argue that too many students are going to college (Charles Murray), that the United States has overinvested in higher education (Richard Vedder), that more young people should enter the trades rather than attend college (Murray, Vedder, and Matthew B. Crawford), or that since college teaches “few useful job skills,” a degree, as the economist Bryan Caplan puts it, merely signals “to employers that graduates are smart, hardworking, and conformist” (Murray, Vedder, Crawford, and others too numerous to mention). Nor, as other critics have begun to argue, do I believe that a college degree has ceased to offer a good return on a young person’s investment of time and money. As nearly every economist and journalist who has studied this manufactured controversy has shown, college continues to pay off. Even those like me foolish enough to major in English or some other supposedly irrelevant humanities or fine-arts discipline still earn, on average, more than those with only a high-school degree, and more than enough to offset the costs of tuition and forgone earnings needed to earn a degree. Indeed, today the starting salary for someone with a degree in English ($37,800) is higher than the average income of all those, including older and experienced workers, with only a high-school degree ($32,000).
Yet we find ourselves in an unusual position. The advice we would offer every halfway intelligent young person with a pulse—go to college—is not, I argue, counsel we can offer a whole generation of young people, let alone adults like those who might have enrolled in the Odyssey Project. An is (“Education pays”) is not an ought (“Everyone ought to get an education). Some people may escape poverty and low incomes through education, but a problem arises when education becomes the only escape route from those conditions—because that road will very quickly become bottlenecked. As the political scientist Gordon Lafer has written, “It is appropriate for every parent to hope that their child becomes a professional; but it is not appropriate for federal policy makers to hope that every American becomes one.” As Bryan Caplan has also put it, “Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.”
Unlike others who argue this point, however, my concern is not with the inefficiencies that come from everyone standing up to see better but, rather, with the injustices that result. That is, my concern is with those who cannot stand up, those who, because of lack of ability, lack of interest, or other barriers to entry, do not or cannot earn a college degree. Insisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a particularly humane solution to the problem those workers will encounter in the labor market.
Nor is it a particularly feasible one. The U.S. economy, despite claims to the contrary, will continue to produce more jobs that do not require a college degree than jobs that do. A college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they currently do. As some of my colleagues from graduate school could confirm, a Ph.D. working as a bartender earns bartender wages, not a professor’s salary. What will make those bartending and other jobs outside the professions pay something closer to a living wage—if not a living wage itself—constitutes, to my mind, one of the major public-policy challenges of the 21st century. Education, however, is not the answer.
In terms of educational and economic policy, we may have even put the cart in front of the horse. As it stands, we seek to decrease inequality and poverty by improving educational enrollment, performance, and attainment. A good deal of evidence, however, suggests that we should do just the opposite. Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve educational outcomes.
And how, I challenge Professor Marsh, do we decrease inequality and poverty? The unrelenting growth of poverty and inequality in the United States over the last 30-plus years are the product of federal legislation, executive branch policies, and judicial decisions all purportedly intended to accomplish other goals, but which have in fact contributed to the trickling-up of prosperity to the top fraction of a percent of the population at the expense of the overwhelming majority. I could name many of the most harmful of these legislative, executive, and legal policies with ease: The inch-by-inch gutting of the National Labor Relations Board until unions have been all but neutered, no longer able to protect America’s workers from unrestricted corporate greed. The push for financial industry deregulation that not only allows but encourages modern robber barons to destabilize our economy for their own massive profit, with any costs redirected to the rest of us. The continued corruption of the political system by money, which has degenerated to the point where the position that money is speech and corporations are speakers on par with individual citizens is enshrined in law by Supreme Court precedent. And so on and on, indefinitely and appallingly.
The point of such a list is not simply to bewail how we got here from there, but to emphasize the fact that inequality and poverty are the direct (and indirect) consequence of public policy decisions, not some inevitable consequence of natural laws that public policy is helpless to prevent. And those policies are originated and enforced with the assent, or at least the acquiescence, of the American citizenry: We elected the legislators who passed these laws; we elected the presidents who enacted these policies; we elected the presidents who appointed and legislators who confirmed the judges who warped the Constitution beyond all recognition to protect those policies.
And why do citizens consistently elect those who betray them? Why do citizens again and again embrace the most outrageous lies of right wing demagogues who blatantly mislead them about what our most pressing problems are (stopping gay marriages and legislating mandatory pregnancy won’t help our floundering economy) and how they might be solved (spending cuts in a recession only worsens the recession and do nothing to create jobs; tax cuts for the rich have demonstrably and repeatedly failed to trickle down any benefits to the poor and middle class)? Why do citizens believe the implausible, unsupported, feel-good lies of purportedly left wing demagogues who talk about change but actually engage in more business-as-usual (illegal detention, torture programs carried out in secret bases in third world countries, unconstitutional invasions of privacy, and more of the same economic policies that have created the current crises)? Why, in other words, does the citizenry of the United States of America as a whole continue to be complicit in and supportive of their own destruction?
The answer, I think, is ultimately simple: Because they don’t know any better. For the most part, they don’t even know that it is possible to know any better, or how one might come to know any better. And the citizenry’s ignorance is not simply a matter of failing to grasp basic economics (although that is certainly the case) or lacking any real understanding of how government works (although that’s also true). The real problem is that it’s exceedingly rare for anyone to leave our education system — primary, secondary, and higher education, public or private — with any genuine skill in or even real exposure to critical thinking. Even those who do learn the basic tools of critical thinking — scientists, for example — are encouraged to apply those tools only in narrow and increasingly specialized contexts. By and large, anyone who manages to acquire the skills and the habit of critical thinking in a broad way does so more in spite of their education than because of it. To put it bluntly: We are, as a nation, an ignorant and gullible lot.
If bad public policies created the current situation, only better public policies can get us out of it — and those better public policies are not in the narrow, short-sighted self-interest of the plutocrats who currently hold the reins of power in this country. Those better public policies, therefore, only have a shot at being enacted if the citizenry actually recognizes and uses their ability to take the reins of power away from those who currently wield them for their own exclusive benefit — and our citizenry is, as a collective, clearly too ignorant and deluded to elect better leaders and hold those elected leaders accountable. (If you don’t believe me, check out the statistics on how overwhelmingly likely incumbents are to be re-elected no matter how unpopular Congress as a whole is during a given election cycle.) If we want better governance, we need a better citizenry — and a citizenry that is better in a very particular way: a citizenry that is capable of seeing through bullshit, capable of grasping and advancing their own best (individual and collective) interests. A citizenry, in other words,with the capacity and the will to think critically. We need a nation of doubters, not a nation of believers.
Of course, critical thinking is not a cure-all for ideological and emotional blinders of various sorts — but the lack of it guarantees the inability to see beyond those blinders. People without the skills and habits of critical thinking are ill-equipped to recognize emotional manipulation, rhetorical misdirection, and outright lies for what they are. As Thomas Jefferson would and did tell anyone who would listen, a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a successful democracy — and he was right. We can only save our nation by fundamentally transforming public education into a process which not only teaches critical thinking skills in some narrow sense, but which inculcates an entire generation with the habits of asking tough questions and not settling for easy answers,
Unfortunately, our education system is also a product of public policy — and it has suffered immense damage in the past three-to-five decades, both as an indirect consequence of the growth of poverty and inequality and as a direct consequence of attacks deliberately intended to undermine it (like the misleadingly named No Child Left Behind act). From kindergarten through graduate school, the American education system has become increasingly structured in ways that enforce habitual conformity and acquiescence to authority rather than encouraging habitual doubt and questioning authority. (I’m not saying American education didn’t always have some tendencies towards enforced conformity and authoritarianism — it surely did. I merely contend that the tendency has been greatly exacerbated by education policy.) The corollary to Jefferson’s stance on education is that a mis-educated citizenry — in our case, a citizenry that has been willfully and deliberately mis-educated to a significant degree — is the foundation for a democracy on the road to disastrous failure and collapse.
Depressingly, I don’t have any answers. I don’t think widespread education reform is possible in the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy, and I don’t think significant improvements to the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy are possible without widespread education reform. Nevertheless, I think Marsh is wrong in a broader sense. He may be right that education is not the panacea for economic problems in the particular context that he addresses. But education IS the panacea for economic and other social problems in a broader sense. A genuinely educated citizenry — not just citizens who know more stuff, or who are better trained in specific job skills, but citizens who can truly think for themselves — would never put up with the self-serving, short-sighted, socially destructive policies that our elected officials (Republicans AND Democrats) have been inflicting on us for decades.
Eventually, when they are oppressed and humiliated for long enough, even the most ignorant and deluded populace will revolt against a sufficiently onerous burden of poverty and inequality. But those revolutions rarely result in a better society, as history amply demonstrates: Robespierre’s French Republic, Lenin’s (and later Stalin’s) Soviet Union, Iran’s current theocracy. As physicist and thoughtful political cynic Mano Singham commented earlier this very day, I cannot pretend to predict when or how this country will collapse in an ugly fashion — but I have little hope for any other outcome.
And on that cheery note, I will conclude today’s somewhat rambling thoughts.