Modern education is brandished as a victory for modern society and enlightenment ideals, but far from giving us all an equal start in life, our education system compounds existing inequalities, argues historian Cristina Groeger.
“The best way to increase wages and reduce wage inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skills,” wrote economist Thomas Piketty in his landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For nearly 200 years, education has been seen as a central means of reducing the gap between rich and poor. Today, this idea has become something of a national faith, as politicians across the political spectrum tout the power of education to shape a more egalitarian society. However, faith in educational expansion as a means of achieving the American Dream has obscured the ways the same process has in fact deepened economic inequality at different historical moments. If we don’t explore its full consequences, education as a policy tool can become a dangerous trap.
In the U.S., the relationship between education and social inequality points to a paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. has long had among the highest rates of school enrollment and attainment in the world. In 2017, the United States ranked second-highest globally for the average years of schooling for individuals over the age of 25. On the other hand, the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of social inequality and lowest rates of social mobility in the Global North. In sum, even though many Americans are getting educated at unusually high rates, the U.S. economy is extremely polarized between the 1% and the rest. If education were indeed the great equalizer, this could not be true.
This seeming paradox stems from the fact that the American educational system and the modern corporate economy grew up together and mutually shaped one another from the start. Based on the research from my book, The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, I argue we can gain invaluable insights by examining the last time in U.S. history when inequality reached heights similar to today: the turn of the twentieth century. In 1880, across urban centers in the northern United States, few Americans went to school beyond primary school, and most people accessed work through informal social ties and learned on the job. Even for professions like law, it was still more common to do an informal apprenticeship rather than attend a professional school. Between 1880 and 1930, school enrollments rose across all classes and racial and ethnic groups, and school-based training for work became the norm.
If we don’t explore its full consequences, education as a policy tool can become a dangerous trap.
The ideology of education as social advancement was consolidated in this period because it reflected the lived experience and reality of many Americans — especially women and second-generation, working-class immigrants. These individuals used expanding educational opportunities, notably public high schools, to enter the fastest growing sector of the economy in this period: white-collar work as bookkeepers, accountants, secretaries, clerks, and retail workers. These students drove rapid school expansion from the bottom up, motivated by the vocational benefits this training offered. Their success in using schooling to access preferable employment helped consolidate our national faith in education as a means of social mobility.
Their success, however, has obscured other aspects of the broader economic context at the time. The expansion of white-collar work was part of a strategy of manufacturers to help shift their workforce away from unionized craftworkers and toward non-unionized staff. Male craftworkers in the building and metal trades, some of the few jobs in which workers had significant organized power, maintained their power through control of the apprenticeship training process. Employers were eager to find alternative means of training that avoided apprenticeship regulations, but craft unions successfully limited the expansion of private and public trade and industrial education. In the face of these setbacks, US employers tried to reduce their reliance on craftworkers altogether. An effective strategy was to pursue large-scale mass production industries, which relied on a workforce of cheaper, immigrant factory operatives and high school and college-educated white-collar staff, instead of expensive, apprenticeship-trained craftworkers. A formally educated workforce thus became an important factor in creating American-style mass production industrial development. This same process also undercut the power of some of the few occupations with organized unions in this period.
The rapid growth of high-school educated workers and the entry of new demographic groups into white-collar work also provoked a reaction among urban economic elites. Elites forged alliances with degree-granting colleges and universities to promote new credentials for professions like law and medicine as well as financial and business management. Through university placement offices and networks of alumni, class, racial and gender characteristics were incorporated into the meaning of academic merit, and universities sent their preferred graduates into the most lucrative corporate positions. College-educated, white, male managers supervised high school-educated office and sales workers, a sector that quickly became predominantly-female “pink-collar” work. While representing social mobility for those women employees, pink-collar workers were valuable to their employers precisely because they were contingent staff who possessed very little power.
In sum, the employment structure in the early twentieth century shifted away from sectors with the most organized power (craft workers) toward those with the least (clerical and sales work).
This new narrative can help us make sense of the paradox we started with: how high educational access and high social inequality can in fact be quite compatible. In the early twentieth century, schools opened up new employment options for groups that had previously been excluded, consolidating the view that education was a path to the American Dream. At the same time, schools also became a strategy for employers to undercut union power, and elites used schools to control entry into the most lucrative jobs. Rather than an effective means of reducing inequality, the shift to a formally-educated workforce overall helped turn education into a new infrastructure for reproducing and legitimizing this unequal balance of power.
This history also helps us understand why educational solutions to economic problems became so popular, in this era and into the present. The uneasy truth is that educational solutions often were and are politically palatable to those with the most economic power precisely because they do not directly threaten that power. Educational solutions have tended to place the burden of reform onto individuals to improve their skill level, rather than the larger structure of a vastly unequal economy. The notion that we can “upskill” our way out of an unequal economy, however, misdirects our attention away from the role of employers and economic elites in maintaining their immense workplace authority.
If we want to free education up for non-vocational ends, we need to ensure that all people can achieve a livelihood first.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, inequality fell. What role did education play? Many scholars have attributed the decline in social inequality to massive public investment in education. However, the mid-20th century decline had to do with much more than just education. Particularly important was the power of new industrial unions. Unlike exclusive craft unions, industrial unions organized workplaces across lines of skill, race, ethnicity, and gender, reaching a peak of 36% of all private sector workers by 1953. Organized workers became the mass base of support for public policies like a high progressive income tax and social welfare programs. The expansion of public education on its own would not have been able to account for the significant decline in inequality in this period; rather, the growth of worker power, economically and politically, was the primary driver of these changes.
Since the 1970s, workers’ rights have been stripped away, unionization rates have fallen to a mere 6% of private sector workers, budgets for public services have been slashed, and the wealthy pay less in taxes. The economy is increasingly polarized between low-wage service jobs performed disproportionately by women and people of color, on the one hand, and the professional beneficiaries of the “knowledge economy” on the other. The history of the early twentieth century teaches us that there is nothing inherent in educational expansion that means its economic benefits will be equally distributed. In fact, as we are seeing today in the highly-credentialed fields of financial services, corporate law, and specialized medicine, when worker power is at an all-time low, educational expansion without additional protections can simply concentrate the power of existing elites.
The meaning and significance of education is much greater than economic advancement. But until economic subsistence is addressed, education will be tied to these vocational ends, understandably for so many students for whom education is a means of securing a living. If we want to free education up for non-vocational ends, we need to ensure that all people can achieve a livelihood first.
School expansion must be coupled with efforts that build worker power, which historically has been the basis of a more egalitarian society. These include building strong and inclusive unions, raising the minimum wage, expanding social welfare programs, and implementing the progressive taxation necessary to fund them. The collective power of workers, not education level, is ultimately what will matter most for creating a more egalitarian society.
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