Higher Education and Rising Inequality

Higher education today embodies individualistic, hypercompetitive achievement norms which contribute to inequality in a number of ways. And it has enormous, if often unacknowledged, power shaping career plans of its students and helping to authorize "what counts" in the intellectual life of the nation.
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In the forthcoming collection, Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press) soon available for advance order on Amazon.com and other sites, David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, uses the evocative phrase "the struggle for the soul of higher education" to describe democratic trends in higher education contending with goals like cost cutting, preparation for today's jobs, and on-line education. The book collection also shows how the future of higher education is linked to the fate of the nation.

One way to look at the linkage is through examining the role which higher education plays in increasing inequality.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty demonstrates rapidly rising inequality, especially in the United States. He shows that "this spectacular increase in inequality largely reflects an unprecedented explosion of very elevated incomes... a veritable separation of the top managers of large firms from the rest of the population."

Piketty argues that it "may be possible to explain [this separation] in terms of the history of social and fiscal norms." This argument was made at length by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, writing in his essay, "For Richer," more than a decade ago in the Times magazine. Krugman contrasted current norms with the democratic norms of the 1930s. "Much more than economists and free-market advocates like to imagine, wages -- particularly at the top -- are determined by social norms," Krugman said. "What happened during the 1930s and 1940s was that new norms of equality were established, largely through the political process. What happened in the 1980s and 1990s was that these norms unraveled, replaced by an ethos of 'anything goes.' And a result was an explosion of income at the top of the scale."

Neither Piketty nor Krugman draws connections between education and norms which legitimize exploding executive salaries but they are not hard to find. Higher education today embodies individualistic, hypercompetitive achievement norms which contribute to inequality in a number of ways. And it has enormous, if often unacknowledged, power shaping career plans of its students, disseminating conceptual frameworks throughout society, and helping to authorize "what counts" in the intellectual life of the nation.

As I noted in my recent blog on "We Need to Change the Narrative," a research report by Nicole Stephens and others, Unseen Disadvantage, shows that individualistic achievement norms common in American colleges and universities generate greater inequality among undergraduates. "Doing your own thing," "paving your own path," and "realizing your individual potential" are familiar values to middle and upper class students.

But such norms are experienced differently by students from poor and working class families. These students' "expectations for college center around interdependent motives such as working together, connecting to others, and giving back," Stephens reports. As first-generation college students from poor and working class backgrounds are exposed to the message of individual success and independence, a strong social class performance gap emerges.

The story of individual achievement as the goal of education is also communicated to the larger society through college recruitment. For years colleges and universities have highlighted higher education as mainly a ticket to individual advance. Today they sometimes advertise simply "return on investment," how much money students will make if they attend. John Dedrick of the Kettering Foundation, who has worked with hundreds of colleges and universities, observes that even Jesuit schools are putting "Return on Investment" calculators on their websites.

This story of education's aim as almost entirely individual success was once contested by a powerful counter-narrative which found expression in land grant colleges, state colleges and universities, religious schools, historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges and others. The democratic narrative also had many community expressions, from settlement houses to the citizenship schools of the civil rights movement.

This narrative, rooted in a diverse ecology of sites, was the democratic genius of American education. It is based on "cooperative excellence," not "meritocratic excellence." Cooperative excellence is the principle that a mix of people from highly varied backgrounds can achieve remarkable intellectual, social, political, and spiritual growth if they have encouragement, resources, challenges, and calls to public purpose.

The narrative once impacted colleges of all kinds. In 1908 Harvard president Charles Eliot argued, "At bottom, most of the American institutions of higher education are filled with the democratic spirit. Teachers and students alike are profoundly moved by the desire to serve the democratic community."

In today's world, the individualist, hyper-achievement narrative has been gaining ground, while the democratic narrative has been submerged. The movie Admission, directed by Paul Weitz, starring Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, shows the relentlessly competitive pressures which shape education today. When Nathan says to high school students, "I know your question is how to get into Princeton," the audience sees panic on their faces.

Yet the movie also has a counter-narrative, an alternative high school which is a working farm. Its students vigorously challenge the idea that going to Princeton should be the ultimate goal. The message of Admission can also be contrasted with The Great Debaters, a recent movie set in 1936, based on a true story. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington who plays the community organizer and English professor, Melvin Tolson, The Great Debaters tells the tale of Wiley, a small black college in East Texas, and its debate team. The team ends up beating Harvard in the national championship on national radio in a debate about the very meaning of America.

Amnesia about democratic narratives is a global pattern. In South Africa, Xolela Mangcu, a leading Black Consciousness intellectual at the University of Cape Town and another contributor to Democracy's Education observes that profound and rich democratic histories of intellectuals and educators, most if not all of them black, have been largely eclipsed in the official government version of the aims of schooling at every level -- individual success and job preparation.

If enormous forces erode the democratic story of higher education around the world, less visibly there are also signs of its revival. The contributors to Democracy's Education bring these to life. In the process they show how educators can shape their own story, not let it be defined by others with more narrow aims. They suggest how the revival of the democratic narrative of education holds profound implications for our future.

Indeed, it is a story crucial for addressing today's public challenges, whether rising inequality or anything else.


Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is editor of Democracy's Education.

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