The Mobility Dilemma: Have We Lost Faith in the Power of Knowledge?

Mike seems to have touched off a flurry of discussion (or at least landed in the middle of it) about meritocracy with his “Can schools spur social mobility?” essay from last week, which was prompted by a recent appearance at Fordham by Charles Murray, to talk about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Simultaneously, Chris Hayes was getting attention for his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There followed two pieces by David Brooks (“Why Our Elites Stink” and “The Opportunity Gap”), a report from the Pew Foundation (“American Dream”), Jason DeParle’s page-one story in last Sunday’s Times (“Two Classes, Divided by `I Do’”), followed by some good piling on by journalism professor Thomas Edsall, also in the Times, who takes out after Mitt Romney for suggesting we have a “merit-based society.”

I’m sure there was more, but the gist of the current hand-wringing is the news that the nation is no longer the equal opportunity society it once was. The social mobility gap is growing while our faith in boot-strap capitalism, where hard work (i.e., merit) can get you a spot at the table of the elite, is waning. My concern, at least with what I’ve read above, is the failure to include knowledge in the equation; I applaud Fordham for making the connection between social mobility and schooling and the Murray discussion teased out some wonderful insights about it.

Perhaps we can all agree that the obsession with social mobility comes from our innately American caste and class fears, part of the national DNA passed down from our hugely idealistic founding documents and Washington, who refused the aristocratic mantle. As Jason DeParle wrote in the Times’s “Two Classes” story, an epidemic of single motherhood among the poor has created “a tidal surge of inequality” that has raised “questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead.”

Unfortunately, most of the attention seems to be focused on the surface problems, where caste and class meet (or don’t meet, which is what everyone is suggesting). As Brooks writes, summarizing new work by Robert Putnam, “the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.” And, of course, it ends badly for the less affluent. As Charles Murray puts it in Mike’s social mobility post, we have a “New Elite that is ‘a class unto itself,’” where “the credentials for admission are increasingly held by the children of those who are already members.” In other words, the poor need not apply. (Murray’s arguments seem to have shaken even Mike’s faith in the capacity of schools to affect mass social mobility.)

Few of the essays I refer to above (except Mike’s and, in a very different way, Hayes’s) mention our educational system as a possible reason for the decreased mobility. The essays do suggest, fairly often, that education attainment is one of the admission tickets to the table of the New Elite, but they skip over the obvious—to me, at least—question about why our poor kids can’t get to college, much less finish it: Could it be that our schools are not doing their jobs? I was disappointed to see Ta-Nehisi Coates, an Atlantic Monthly editor and gifted writer, not give his Baltimore magnet school credit for some of his talent (“I was saved by the relentless energy of my mother and father”) and then attribute his own son’s schooling opportunity (Manhattan Country School) to “some stroke of luck and… a greater stroke of privilege,” supporting Murray’s suggestion that social class is the new road to the meritocracy.

Murray does suggest, during his Q&A at Fordham (in the video on Mike’s post, minute 3:45, approximately), that the reason the poor aren’t going to, or graduating from, college—and thus not joining the New Elite, much less any elite—is because “the highest tests scores and the other evidences of high academic ability are overwhelmingly coming from the upper middle class.” Could it be that they have better schools? Or that the poor have worse schools?

Jason DeParle walks up to the idea, as Murray does, but slides away from a direct criticism of our K–12 schools:

The reasons [for the growing inequality] are manifold: the growing premium a college education commands, technological change that favors mind over muscle, the growth of the financial sector, the loss of manufacturing jobs to automation and foreign competitors, and the decline of labor unions.

Everyone seems to understand the value of a college education. The Pew Report even suggests, on page twenty-five, that 90 percent of poor kids who graduate from college escape poverty as adults, which would seem to be the obvious place to mention the salient fact that our education system is not getting very many poor kids a college education. What our schools do to educate our children should be THE question for those worried about the growing social mobility gap. But it’s not even a tertiary question in most of these essays, which is alarming.

Mike says “we’ve never really tried” to educate our poor, and so:

Because of low expectations, mediocre teachers, a lack of options, ill-designed curricula—name your poison—poor kids have never had a chance to see their talents flourish. Put them into the right educational environment, surround them with supportive adults, and (if you’re of the broader/bolder persuasion) provide them with all kinds of social supports too, and we’ll see our elite college campuses—gateways to the new Upper Class—democratize before our eyes.”

If you match the “never really tried” part of the bargain with what Mike says is “the ferocious sorting of the meritocratic machine,” guess who loses? You might call the last fifty years of public education the “When Dewey met Darwin” era. The terrible consequences of family breakdown (predicted by Daniel Moynihan many years ago) are certainly upon us, but if this recent spate of teeth-gnashing over the growing social mobility gap is any indication of where the country is, I’d say the country still doesn’t get it. Knowledge does count. Schools do count.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College