wombat_socho (wombat_socho) wrote,

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Education, morality and social mobility

On my way back from the post office, I saw this flyer encouraging people to come out and protest the closing of UMn's General College, and by extension the oppression of poor and minority youth. Personally, I think the U is doing its part to end the oppression of the poor and minorities by getting rid of GC, whose sole purpose is to get students up to speed in various academic areas so they can actually do college-level work, but then I'm just an elitist Tio Taco according to these people...more philosophizing after the cut.

The poster reminded me of this David Brooks column, and this Peter Berkowitz book review/essay, as well as the posts on social mobility I've written over the last few weeks. The fundamental premise of the protesters' argument is sound - without an education, how are the poor going to stop being poor? However, perhaps due to their politics, they don't see that keeping GC isn't the answer. GC is like putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound - it makes you feel better for having done something, but it doesn't really take care of the underlying problem.

The sucking chest wound, of course, is the public education system in urban America. Anyone who pays any attention at all to the news knows what the problems there are, and also knows that the traditional (i.e. Democratic Party/NEA/AFT) solution of throwing money at the problems doesn't help, because those problems are the result of a legal system that will not hold people accountable for their actions, "educators" who will not admit that fads and crackpot theories are no substitute for time-tested methods of teaching, and politicians who are interested mainly in using the schools as a springboard to power, when they're not treating them as sources of pork.

Brooks' article, although intended as satire, does reflect to a certain extent how things have come to be. While it's still possible to make a few million by being in the right business at the right time, most people are going to make the big money by getting a college education and getting into the upper management of a corporation, from which they can leverage their connections to start successful companies of their own, or revive a down-at-heels company. You can do that without an MBA, of course, but it's a lot tougher, and that's exactly the point of Brooks' jeremiad placed in the mouth of Karl Marx.

A college education won't do you much good if it's pointed the wrong way, though. If you majored in the humanities, or in a field like computer science where you're competing not only with your American classmates but with Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Koreans, you can find yourself stuck in the ranks of the "underemployed", scuffling along with the rest of the folks who made poor choices somewhere along the line or who never acquired the educational and moral underpinnings needed to make it over the long haul. Alcoholism, drug abuse, sticky fingers, and a lot of other moral failings will trip you up as surely as a lack of education, and unfortunately a lot of kids in the cities never get either one. You can look around you at the people who don't seem to have done as well as they should have, given how successful their parents were, and you'll probably find some moral failing in there somewhere, even if it's just sloth. The American Dream has always involved a buttload of hard work, and the corollary to that is that if you don't do the work, you may not even be able to keep your head above water, much less succeeed.

Which brings us to the downside of social mobility. One of the arguments for the estate tax is that it's needed to prevent the formation of a class of super-rich aristocrats; the measure of how successful this has been can clearly be seen by examining the recent histories of the Kennedys, Hiltons, Fords, Daytons...need I really go on? The rich can always hire lawyers and accountants to protect their wealth. They can also afford to send their children to the most expensive schools, and to a certain extent bring them into the family business. What they can't do is force the kids to learn anything useful, work competently, or pick up a moral sense that will keep them from doing stupid, self-destructive things. We often misuse the term Social Darwinism, I think, to refer to a philosophy that justified the kind of capitalistic behavior that made Marxism look attractive to unworldly Fabians; a more accurate use of the term would be in reference to the way people succeed or fail in the context of society, raised high by a successful combination of educational and moral traits and brought low by a lack of the same.
You can see it at work in the suburbs: parents do well enough to buy a house in a city with good schools, but the children slack off and one day find themselves trying to cope with college work that their indulgent high schools haven't prepared them for...and so someone moves out of the upper middle class into the working class. If they can stay there. You can also see it happen when couples divorce.

I'd dearly love to see a study of downward social mobility. My gut tells me I'm right about why people drop down the rungs of the socio-economic ladder, but it's a subject that doesn't get a lot of play in the press or the punditry except when a particularly notable example of downward mobility comes to light. There's this book, which I'm going to have to take a look at.
Tags: culture & politics
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