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Historian of education Christina Groeger writes that Americans have long believed that education is the key to equality, but she thinks that this faith is misplaced.
“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.
After briefly reviewing the importance of education in opening up new opportunities for clerical and sales workers and for white collar workers, she maintains that education does not produce equality.
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.
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.
Thus, we can understand the ongoing barrage of attacks on teachers’ unions and the growth of nonunion charter schools as efforts by elites to prevent workers from having any power and from building the egalitarian society that is part of our national creed.