The other day a friend was gossiping about a party his daughter threw for a few friends after their final year of college. Much of the conversation was about how to pay off their student loans. One young woman volunteered she had no debt. Her grandparents had provided for her education. A few eyeballs rolled back into the heads of her companions, as if they’d resented what she’d said. What might have been a faux pas on her part is a lesson to us all. Inequality starts at the cradle and increases exponentially over time. More than race, the economic status of the family is a key factor in a child’s future success.
George Scialabba makes this point in his review of a new book by William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. (“Class and the Classroom,” by George Scialabba, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015 pgs. 167- 172.) Summarizing the author’s thesis, Scialabba writes that “by regarding already-privileged young people and then adding to the advantages they enjoy as adults, higher education has become the primary mechanism of class stratification in the United States.” (Ibid pg 171.) Universities perpetuate the growing gap between haves and have-nots by “cultivating and massaging donors” so that the children of those donors “enjoy an enormous advantage in the admissions process.” (Ibid pg. 171.) The result is an inner circle of political and financial influence abetted by higher education policies. What’s more, rather than dedicate themselves to forming educated minds, these universities have become complicit in turning centers of academia into employment training grounds for commerce. That a college education is an “investment” is no innocent turn of phrase. “Americans who have a four-year degree now earn 98 percent more per hour than those who do not. (Ibid pg. 168)
Higher education’s constant pursuit of funding results in a corrupted democracy where the notion of equal opportunity rings hollow. (Blogs 3/10/14, 7/19/13, 10/ 17/ 13, 3/10/14 .) Sadly, the story of education and inequality begins earlier than at the university. It begins in the public schools where funding is based upon property taxes. The ability to provide a good education becomes dependent upon the value of homes in each town or city. As Derestiewicz notes, “Class stratification begins in kindergarten…” (Ibid pg 172).
In my community years ago, a woman named Julie Sterling dedicated her life to quality education for all and put forward an innovative idea. Rather than busing to achieve equal opportunity, she proposed to democratize neighborhoods. Her plan called for mixed housing which would equalize property taxes in every neighborhood, leaving no schools starved for funding. The idea never got off the ground. Perhaps it was too logical and too compassionate. Certainly, those who lived in gated communities failed to warm to the idea. In the end, underprivileged children everywhere were subjected to busing programs — a band aid approach to salving our nations’ moral conscience. Eventually, busing became too burdensome for everyone and re-segregation, like crab grass, took root in our public schools, perpetuating the same inequality as before.
Nelson Mandela, father of South Africa’s democracy said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Unfortunately, some at the top of the pecking order aren’t listening.
(First published 4/2/15)