Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is education the key to a middle class life?

It is repeated so often in the media, you would think it is true: education is the key to social a good job with decent pay and benefits, and all that goes with it.

If only it were so.

Education has never been a guarantee of social mobility. Yes, there have been periods of time when large numbers of workers were needed in new industries, some requiring new education and training. But it is the jobs that come first, and the education systems plays catch up. Mass industrialization and the move from the farm into industry, services and office jobs necessitated high levels of literacy to provide a viable workforce. Hence the "compulsory" nature of common schools in the latter 19th and early 20th century. When the US and other western nations sought to win the space race and scientific advancement in the post-war period,  the education system was expanded to include mandatory, free secondary level schooling along with highly subsidized university programs.

To suggest that more education, in and of itself, leads to better employment is just a logical falsity. Today's deeply indebted graduates are tragically the living proof. The cliche of the PHD grad serving coffee rings true for a reason - it is. Statistics Canada has confirmed this - more than a quarter of all newly created jobs in 2011 and 2012 were in accommodations and food.

That education systems actually reinforce class stratification has been extensively studied. Bowles & Gintis (link) produced a landmark analysis in the 1970's of the US education system confirming this.

So why is this myth perpetuated, and what should we do about it?

Belief in social mobility is one of the key tenets of capitalist liberal democracy. If an individual has the opportunity to work hard, become educated, and thereby improve their lot in life, then the system treats people fairly, so the argument goes. If a particular person doesn't, it is their own fault, not the fault of the system. This reasoning creates an "escape valve" for the anger and frustration of those living in poverty. Just pull up your boots, work harder and get more educated, and life will get better. It also acts to create a scapegoat for others to rationalize why inequality is ok - those people at the bottom don't work hard enough or don't have the skills/knowledge to be valuable contributors.

On a more day to day level, for-profit education service providers benefit from more clients. This includes for-profit post-secondary institutions, but also the legion of private sector services like tutoring companies. Banks benefit from the interest paid from massive student loans. Governments can justify the redirection of education resources to those areas of the education system deemed "necessary" for certain jobs (think: skills training), and away from others. Think about all the humanities departments disappearing from universities.

Those of us working in an underfunded, increasingly privatized education system can often fall into repeating this myth. It is all too easy and I know I'm guilty myself. But as the necessity of questioning the mass inequality in society increases, we need to be careful that we promote education for the right reasons, rather than perpetuate myths that serve other interests.

Education is of tremendous value and everyone who wants to study and learn should be able to. But not because it gets you a good job, but because it enriches us as individuals and as a society.