The Broken Promise of America

John Raines with Charles Brian McAdams

When I walk into the room where I work, I know it is a class-room. I know by how it looks. There are individual chairs for the students, lined up facing the front, where there is a desk with a different kind of chair and a blackboard. What I am looking at is competition, hierarchy and an award system where only a few get the best (grades now, jobs later). What I am looking at is America, and the place where America reproduces class and class relations from one generation to the next. It is the room where I work, and the work that I do is called class.

I do not like that idea. I have progressive values. I like to think that I am teaching my students to seek and work for a fairer America, one more equal and effectively democratic. But my words, my sentiments and values, my book assignments—all these in the end are trumped by the structural function of education in our society, a function so clearly displayed but so seldom seen when we teachers walk into the room where we do our work with its hierarchy, competition, and winners and losers.

Education, we are told, is about opportunity. It is about young people gaining the skills needed to get ahead in the new post-industrial economy. Whether Republican or Democrat, our political leaders tell us that schools are the way into a brighter future. But what if that future is determined, in fact, by how jobs get constructed and distributed in the new global economy. And if that means that more and more good jobs are fleeing the older industrial countries, then schools in those countries are not about opportunity but instead function as gate-keepers to a shrinking pool of rewards.

Even worse, what if the geography of success in school, and using schools for personal success, almost perfectly mirrors previously established patterns of relative class privilege? Then the function of education becomes not discovering new and deserving talent, but instead assigning desired future places in our society to the already privileged, and getting the losers to blame themselves rather than the injustices of social class.

What a terrible conclusion to reach for those of us motivated by progressive values. But I shall argue that statistics present us with precisely that grim picture, indeed a picture that has grown even more dim in recent years.

Let me use Pierre Bourdieu's famous word-play on "the said," "the unsaid" and "the unsayable." The said of education is that it is what makes America fair. At public expense (at least up to college) children are given a chance to discover and refine their innate talents. Individual merit overcomes the arbitrariness of birth and class position. The said of education can say even more. It can admit that we are not doing this very well right now, but that as a nation we are on a course of improvement. That is the said of education. It is what supposedly justifies my pay check.

The unsaid of education is that in terms of fairness and access, we are not doing better as a nation but worse. In the past thirty years the costs, especially of higher education, have persistently outpaced the rate of inflation; while state and federal support for college students has covered less and less of that cost. Individual students and their families are forced to pick up the difference, or drop out, or never try in the first place. At the same time, well paying jobs with decent benefits require more and more years of education—a college degree today has become what a high school degree used to be in terms of leveraging future social position. Is this because the new jobs demand "more knowledge," or is it a way of pruning the pool of "deserving" applicants, and keeping that pool of the deserving proportional to the shrinking supply of decent jobs?

More years of education at greater personal expense inside a nation which since the 1970s has become steadily more unequal in terms of income and wealth—this is the grim picture that statistics paint. The unsaid of education is that the arbitrariness of birth and of class origin is today more and more important in terms of how life chances work out in our society. A promise America made is being broken and we educators administer that fact, even as we disguise it.

The unsayable of education-what Bourdieu calls "the heretical discourse"—is that education is a side show, or worse a pantomime of the global class struggle, which has been and is being won by a ruling class that is more and more international in character, and everywhere remains a tiny minority. Talk of educational reform becomes, in that case, an ideological obfuscation that distracts attention from a worldwide class struggle where wealth and power have become steadily more concentrated. But this reality resides beyond the bounds of legitimate political discourse in our society, a dominant and dominating social reality that remains politically unacknowledged and unaddressed, a broken promise wrapped in silence.

I have claimed that statistics are the basis for the argument outlined here. What are some of those statistics?

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2006, Vol. 56,  No 1.