The national myth of equal opportunity in the United States


Joseph Stiglitz’ book on the topic

President Obama’s second Inaugural Address used soaring language to reaffirm America’s commitment to the dream of equality of opportunity: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country…

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia…

How do we explain this? Some of it has to do with persistent discrimination. Latinos and African-Americans still get paid less than whites, and women still get paid less than men, even though they recently surpassed men in the number of advanced degrees they obtain. Though gender disparities in the workplace are less than they once were, there is still a glass ceiling: women are sorely underrepresented in top corporate positions and constitute a minuscule fraction of C.E.O.’s.

Discrimination, however, is only a small part of the picture. Probably the most important reason for lack of equality of opportunity is education: both its quantity and quality. After World War II, Europe made a major effort to democratize its education systems. We did, too, with the G.I. Bill, which extended higher education to Americans across the economic spectrum…

Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job…

Finally, it is unconscionable that a rich country like the United States has made access to higher education so difficult for those at the bottom and middle. There are many alternative ways of providing universal access to higher education, from Australia’s income-contingent loan program to the near-free system of universities in Europe. A more educated population yields greater innovation, a robust economy and higher incomes — which mean a higher tax base. Those benefits are, of course, why we’ve long been committed to free public education through 12th grade. But while a 12th-grade education might have sufficed a century ago, it doesn’t today. Yet we haven’t adjusted our system to contemporary realities.

In the Eisenhower years, when I graduated high school in the top 1% of my class my advisor simply said “your father is a civil servant and the nearest state college is 100 miles away. He cannot afford to send you to college.” That was the end of it. Eight years of night school followed while I worked first in one then another of the few industries which dominated economic life in our factory town – and the specific engineering degree I worked for was ended one semester before I finished the program. The factory I worked in had been sold. The subsidy they provided the school I attended at night was withdrawn.

That’s the sort of education system Republicans would return to the United States.

On the other side of the coin, educational theory in the United States has wandered through the throes of a psychologist’s wet dream – inventing curricula that let students decide if courses are enjoyable or not, if they feel they need to be able to read or write or comprehend mathematics or not. Providing direction became a sin. Requiring standards anathema.

Education has devolved so much that the biggest debate in our state politics this year, once again, is over something called social promotion. At the 3rd and 6th grade levels, if teachers and the school system find a student unable to function at course level they cannot be held back from promotion into the next grade. Parents have the right to overrule the school because their child’s self-image might suffer if they have to repeat a course they failed.

Hogwash. And what passes for political leadership from either of the TweedleDeeDumb parties continues to be exactly what you’d expect. Which answer will get me re-elected?

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