Monday, August 25, 2014

Education is at the root of civil society and socioeconomic mobility in America

In each generation American thinkers, artists and leaders struggle with the tension between an idealized version of what America is "meant to be" and what it really is. From the Puritan vision of a "City on the Hill" to contemporary ideas about US responsibilities in the spheres of economic, moral and military leadership on the global stage, the space between our highest ideals and what we achieve, both at home and abroad, has long been fertile ground for the exploration and expression of American identity.

The actors and perspectives may change over time, but one piece of the conversation has remained constant, and that is the idea of upward socioeconomic mobility as tool not only for the individual to his or her particular lot in life, but a foundational idea upon which the country was built. In theory, anyone who works hard in this country can improve their own circumstances, through grit and hard work.

This is a notion which contains an important kernel of truth - people can improve their lives through effort and determination. Education is vital to this kind of advancement, and with free public education, public libraries  and limitless resources online, moving up the socioeconomic ladder should be easier than ever.

But it isn't.

In fact, as Brookings Institution Fellow Richard Reeves writes in an excellent new piece, it may now be harder than ever to bridge the ever-widening gulf between not just the rich and poor in America, but between the very rich and everyone else. In his piece, entitled "Saving Horatio Alger," Mr. Reeves offers an erudite meditation on other salient elements beyond simply the possession (or lack thereof) of material resources, when it comes to class and mobility in America.

He correctly brings in not only the factors of race and racism as they relate to economic opportunity, but the way that demographics and centers of economic activity changed during the early years of the republic, sometimes setting up a stark sense of disjunction between what Americans believed anyone could do and the realities of daily life. It is a contrast which we continue to see today. Mr. Reeves points to the 1970's as a period during which this process began to accelerate, citing the influences of American tax policy and global economic growth as contributing factors in setting us on this present course. He also delves into ideas around meritocracy and how they influence the ways in which we see both ourselves and others around us.

While there will always be those who will say our darkest days are just upon us, and others who say they are long past, I think that we should be very concerned about the gap, both economic and social, widening every day in this country. It is not only a matter of who has how much in their bank account - such calculations are simply the arithmetic of wages and fortune - but the social impact, the increasingly deleterious effect on civil society of a population where the upper half feels (and acts) as though it cannot be bothered by such pedestrian things as civic engagement, and the lower half feels entirely shut out of the political process and the opportunity to play a meaningful role in civil society.

I am not making the argument here for the importance of a Middle Class (others can, and have, done so much more eloquently) but for bolstering the connections across and between every element of society. It is not a ladder to economic success that will guarantee a stronger, healthier, more equal society, but a vast web in which everyone feels they have real opportunity, and no one - rich, poor or in between - can escape a sense of obligation to their fellow citizen or the society we share.

One place to start improving the strength and quality of civil society is in the public schools. I am not an expert on education, but I can state with certainty that in my experience as an adjunct professor teaching English literature that I encountered far too many high school graduates who were ill-prepared to continue their education.  I am not talking here about the technical skills of how to organize a five-paragraph essay or mastering the minutiae of MLA citation, but of more essential skills: how to recognize the different parts of speech, the ability to compare and contrast two separate pieces of writing on a similar topic, the difference between a short story and an essay.

The myth of meritocracy and a relatively easy climb up the socioeconomic ladder was never completely true, but nor was it made out of whole cloth and for those who have found success, material or otherwise, education has always played a key role. Sometimes the seeds of success are sewn in a classroom, other times the autodidact plants and plows his or her own field amidst the library stacks, but either way education has proven time and again a crucial resource in strengthening civil society and enabling socioeconomic mobility.

We can, and should, have conversations about tax policy, racism, and shifts in the global economy. These have been, and continue to be, important factors in the big picture. But increasing access to educational opportunities at every level, from free programs at public libraries to vocational training for adults and advocating for affordable college tuition and graduate programs are things that we can work on today. Over time this investment in education will pay significant dividends, strengthening the web of civil society and over time helping to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, not to mention the gulf that separates our highest ideals from the realities that Mr. Reeves and those of us who care about the future of this country, are considering every day.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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