Our future as a democracy depends a lot on whether we can answer this question: How can our democracy provide increasing economic opportunities for all of our citizens?
Education, education, education is usually the answer. But this answer deserves a closer look. A nation has only so many resources. As it is, we already spend tons of money on education, yet, regardless, many people who have gone through our educational system are still disenfranchised from enjoying significant opportunity. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that, if we spend even more money on education, somehow this opportunity gap will be significantly closed. It seems clear that however hard we try to educate or however much money is spent on educational programs, inevitably, a huge block of citizens will not realize much economic benefit from the investment.
Charles Murray, makes these observation: “Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them. It’s a simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.
“Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.
“We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.”
Charles Murray is notorious for disputed ideas in his “Bell Curve,” and is accused of racism. But, his point needs to be answered. He writes,
“There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college–enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.”
Murray speaks too much in absolutes. My experience as a teacher showed me over and over again how effort and attitude were more powerful than IQ, but, regardless, we need to consider this: If the purpose of our huge investment of expenditures on education is to provide economic opportunity for our citizens, then the evidence is overwhelming that this investment strategy, overall, has failed, and that however it is refigured and refinanced, it will continue to fail. Other strategies designed to increase economic opportunities, in addition to education, should be advanced. And, more importantly, the purpose of public education in our democracy, the rationale for huge public expenditures, must be a purpose that transcends a focus on creating personal prosperity, one that, instead, focuses on understanding and advancing the common good.
I’ve heard the argument that says that, in this country, wealth is apportioned according to a system of meritocracy. Those who advance that argument point to success stories like those of Barack Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s to show how, through education, individuals from humble beginnings can rise to positions of economic prosperity and social prominence. But we need to look at the total picture of how our system works. Everyone likes to think their personal prosperity is deserved — justified by educational accomplishments, by hard work, by the level of contribution to society. But, if we look at the foundation of economic success in this country, honestly, like I tried in, “Why Are We Rich?,” we know we are fooling ourselves. It is absurd for anyone to think he or she “deserves” $ BIG MONEY per hour, while a Walmart clerk “deserves” $ PITTANCE per hour.
One big unspoken purpose of our educational system, that it accomplishes brillantly, is to provide a rationale and a structure for economic injustice, to give a societal justification for economic injustice. Our educational system delivers the message: If you did crummy in school, you “deserve” a crummy life. If you failed algebra, our society says, you “deserve” to be stuck in your lousy Walmart job.
It is interesting to consider what it is that one “deserves.” If, virtually all citizens had a college degree, then, would everyone “deserve” to be prosperous? Where would the wealth come from? Who would be making out the checks?
I was disappointed in Barack Obama’s recent speech about education, because, in that speech, he seemed to find only one purpose for education: economic opportunity. Obama said, “My plan calls for giving every child a world-class education from the day they’re born until the day they graduate from college.” Wow. Obama made clear that his motivation is to provide every child with economic opportunity, and, that he believes education is the surest way to economic success. Yes, it is — but for many individuals it is not. Education is not a strategy that can work to give economic success to everyone. And, more importantly, it doesn’t realistically give even the opportunity for economic success to most people. For many people, the idea that education is the way to personal prosperity simply is a false hope.
America should seek to achieve an ownership society in which all citizens participate. Acquiring an education is one route to economic success for many individuals. But, to suppose that education is the path to ownership for most individuals defies the evidence accumulated for many years.
The world-class education, from birth through college (or advanced technical training) that Obama’s plan calls for could easily have a price tag of $200,000 per person. Obama is recommending a big investment, and, I’m all in favor of that idea that our democracy should make a big investment in every citizen. The question, however, that needs to be debated is: How should this $200,000 per person best be spent to give each person authentic opportunity? Pouring money into the educational system seems not the best way. The question is: How should a democracy best spend money to most effectively invest in and empower all of its citizens?