Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Log 326: Rigorous examination of US inequality comes to pessimistic conclusion: the nation seems set in its blindness

English: Yale University logo There is minimal...
English: Yale University logo There is minimal innovation upon the pre-1923 design . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes it seems to me that for the last half century I have been called upon every ten years or so to read and study a massive report on education, its inequalities and injustices. Although this has not made me an expert on higher education, it has made me an interested observer who wonders why the story has remained unchanged in spite of the best efforts of the governing authorities to improve things.
         The first of these reports I ran across as a reporter in Winnipeg in the 1950s. It was written by Dean Lazerte, of the University of Alberta, for the Canadian School Trustees’ Association, and it made an impact on me because it revealed the (to me) shocking disparity between the funding of schooling for children in the wealthier urban districts and those who were unfortunate enough to live in poverty-stricken rural areas. I seem to remember that at that time some school districts in Quebec actually were not able to pay their teachers, while in a suburb like Tuxedo in Winnipeg, countless thousands of dollars were spent on the education of every child in their schools.
         I say I was shocked by this because I wasn’t at that time long out of New Zealand where I had always assumed that in any well-governed democratic society everyone who went to school got a fair shake (meaning, an equal opportunity to develop his or her skills and potentials). New Zealand was nothing if not an egalitarian society at that time, and the experience of the woman I had married, who was a schoolteacher, had helped persuade me that equality of opportunity was the desideratum, as indeed most countries I had been in, claimed it to be. Having studied to be a teacher, she was directed into a remote country district to take charge of a one-roomed rural school for two years as the quid quo pro for having had her way through training college paid for by the government.  In fact, so remote was the school, she had to ford a river on a pony every day just to reach it.
         On to England in the 1960s, when I ploughed laboriously through a fascinating and huge study of postsecondary education that led to a major restructuring of British education following the election of the Labour government in 1964. British education had been ---and still is apparently, athough I have been out of touch with developments in the last few decades --- hugely class-conscious, with its system of well-endowed private schools at the apex (to confuse things, they were called public schools), while in the public (or State) system, students were streamed through grammar schools if they were bright enough, and into so-called Secondary Modern schools if they were among those of somewhat lower intellectual attainment. Of course, this decision was, ludicrously and inequitably, made from the age of eight. The objection to this system was that the Secondary Modern schools had become dumping grounds for the children of the working class. So Labour introduced a system of comprehensive high schools into which students of all backgrounds and capacities were directed. In typically British fashion, the elite private schools continue to this day, as do the grammar schools, and within comprehensive schools, apparently, the old habits of streaming by ability have been too often adopted. My memory of this study is that it revealed that whereas some 25 per cent of the student age-group enrolled in post-secondary education in the United States (with a high dropout rate), only some six per cent of the age-group got that chance in Britain. (My memory could be faulty on these figures, but they were close to those I have quoted.)
         All this is by way of introduction to the latest tome on educational equality that has passed my way. This one is written by an acquaintance of mine, Professor Ann Mullen, of the University of Toronto, and it is called Degrees of Inequality, Culture, Class and Gender in American Higher Education, is published by Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, and sells for some extravagant price close to $50, according to Amazon (which has run out of copies, so much in demand has it been).
         Ms. Mullen is a graduate of Yale university (founded in 1701, a University that has produced 49 Nobel laureates, five US presidents, 19 Supreme Court justices and “several” foreign heads of state),  situated  in New Haven, Conn, a smallish US city of 129,000 people. Her study consists of in-depth interviews with a randomly selected, but carefully balanced 50 students from Yale, and an equal number of students from the other university in town, Southern Connecticut, one  of the four units of the State university system. Each of these universities has about 11,000 students, but their intake differs enormously, and Ms. Mullen has set out to find what are the differences, and whether these amount to crippling degrees of inequality.
         The question as to whether inequality exists is answered almost on the first page, where Ms. Mullen writes:
“Every September, somewhere around 1300 young men and women from all across the country arrive in New Haven to begin their college education at Yale. They are the children of some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the United States. Most of them cannot remember a time when going to college was not part of their  future. Many of them attended exclusive college preparatory schools…. They come to study archaeology, political science, literature, chemistry and history; to play tennis and row; to sing in Yale’s renowned a capella groups; to volunteer in soup kitchens; and to be involved with a host of student organizations. Most of them plan to be doctors, lawyers, writers, filmmakers, poets and professors. They consider holding public office in the future. The men intend to make enough money to live in upscale neighbourhoods, to send their children to private schools, and to take their families on ski vacations. The women plan to follow their intellectual passions into gratifying and meaningful careers. For most of them, these dreams will become reality when they graduate after four years with a degree that will be taken as proof not only of their intelligence, but of their intrinsic worthiness….
“Just two miles away, at Southern Connecticut State University, a similar-sized class of first-year students begins their university education.  Most of these students grew up in Connecticut. Their parents are shopkeepers, secretaries, teachers and construction workers. About half of these students will be the first in these families to  graduate from college…. They come to college because they do not want to work in factories; because they want better jobs than their parents have; because they want to become social workers, teachers and computer programmers. They choose Southern because it is relatively inexpensive, is convenient and offers programs in the career fields of their choice. Most will live with their parents and commute to cut down on expenses. Rather than singing and rowing, these students will spend their time outside of the classroom working twenty to thirty hours a week to help pay for their education. College will be less about intellectual exploration and finding oneself and more about doing the work to pass courses and accumulate enough credits to graduate….”
         Well, I hope Ms. Mullen will forgive me if I say, having read that at the beginning, that it is already game, set and match: she has proven her case, and the rest of her 223 pages are given to a meticulous examination of the various parameters of the inequality she has discovered.
         I am no great fan of the academic tome, but this one is clearly written, refreshingly free of jargon, and contains much interesting stuff.  There is a refreshing candour about her use of the concept of class to describe the various strata of US society. To judge by their politicians and media, the working class has disappeared from the United States, and there are almost no politicians whose purpose is to defend it, as there have always been in other English-speaking countries like Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Barack Obama has never heard of the working class, but is deeply in love with what he calls the middle-class. But Ms. Mullen’s data establishes very clearly that there is a huge gap between the upper class and the rest, whether they be called working or middle class. Her second chapter begins with a mind-blowing fact: the students she interviewed from Yale, most of them, had never heard of Southern University, and had no idea where it was, although it was only two miles away. On one occasion on which Southern had arranged for the Guatemalan  Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu to speak, Yale, when they heard about it, tried to incorporate part of her appearance at Yale, so surprised were they that such a notable person should have chosen to lecture elsewhere. Her schedule was full, so Yalies had to settle for attending her talk at Southern. But no one at Yale knew where the other university was, and Southern finally had to fa   x them a map to show them the way.
         I have for many years believed that one of the primary functions of the University is to brainwash people into the habits of behaviour and thought of the ruling class. Of course this is not language that is acceptable to university-trained people, but Ms. Mullen more or less admits it on page 87 when she writes of the exclusive preparatory schools that the wealthy send their children to: “These schools..,,,supply an important form of socialization that helps prepare their students to assume positions of power in society, beginning with their education at a top-tier university,” and she goes on to describe in detail the close intermeshing of the purposes of these preparatory colleges and the university…. She reemphasizes this on page 211 when she writes: “One of the roles of colleges and universities is to symbolically redefine people to make them eligible for membership  in various social categories. To do this, institutions create and then dramatize legitimating myths about the quality of their students’ education…. Elite colleges and universities work to sustain their legitimating myths by publicizing their selectivity….and requiring students to live in campus residence halls (thus proving the in-depth socialization their students receive).”  This is the brainwashing function I mentioned, I would say.
         Early in the book she refers to the tendency of researchers to look at other factors than wealth that lead to the differentiation of experience in such disparate universities as these two. But if wealth is not the determinant of all the distinctions she writes about in her 220 pages, when what is? In other words, from beginning to end of this book, I had the feeling that democratic socialism was the elephant in the room, something that couldn’t be spoken about, but that one might hope would contain measures that could ameliorate the disparities between the classes. Of course one knew while feeilng this, that the very word socialism was designed to give conniptions to your average American even to those of the working class, who would most benefit from a modest degree of socialism, to replace this  immodest degree of inequality. To judge by the political climate in the US, unless the American mind can be cleared of the sort of prejudices that led them to utter such absurd lies about the Canadian medical system during the argument about Obamacare, then the situation will remain without hope of amelioration.
And I have to give her credit,  she comes through in the last chapter. There she gives it to us, the inequality of life in the US because of unequal  distribution of wealth, with all guns blazing, as it were  She seems to feel that the use of greater access to higher education as a route to more equality has been exploded by the U.S. experience, because the economic and social elite have ways to consolidate their status that, if anything, make inequality worse. She quotes the unequal distribution of wealth, which is worse in the US now than at any time since 1928…. and says that in the equality stakes, the United States ranks  twenty-eighth out of 30 OECD countries, just ahead of Russia and Mexico.. She rejects the idea that inequalities can be overcome by further expanding access to higher education, but suggests the United States should work on  income inequality directly. She quotes a writer, Christopher Jencks, who in 1972 proposed equalizing adult incomes through progressive taxation, direct government regulation of wages, or tax incentives for employers to equalize wages. She pronounces herself pessimistic about the possibility that any of this will be possible, which seems reasonable given that the wealth-owners have a strangehold on all information distribution, almost all the media, and have the politicians in their pockets. It is almost as if the nation has been brainwashed. Like I said.
         There is one other aspect of the book that particularly interested me. Although Ms. Mullen does not say aloud that the Yale education is better and does form a better-rounded individual than the institution catering to lower socioeconomic groups, it does seem to be implicit in her argumentation. I kept thinking back to my own schooling (although it was only four years in high school) and I remembered that I belonged to the group that did the minimum possible to get me through, that I spent most of my time playing games, and never for a second considered it possible that I might go to university (although I did pass the University Entrance requirements). I had a lively argument in my household this week about whether it might not be a more rewarding career path for a person to go to university and  have to work so that he could pay his way through, than to go to a college where everything was paid for, and spare time was used in the full range of extracurricular activities. I’ve never really believed there is anything wrong with paying one’s own way in life, or that such an experience does not make you, in the end, just as well-rounded and informed an individual as those often snobby, precious products of an Ivy League education.

No comments:

Post a Comment