Education and Equity

In a New York Times letter to the editor (“Invitation to a Dialogue: Unequal Schooling,” April 22), Heather Gautney – a professor of sociology at Fordham University – expresses understandable dismay at the inequitable distribution of resources in the public school system. After citing the common American belief that “education is the great opportunity equalizer – a silver bullet that can lift kids out of poverty and transform them into productive citizens,” she goes on to note that this is only true for some. The reality is that “race and social class largely determine the quality of one’s educational life, from pre-K to graduate school.”

The de facto racial segregation of the educational system, in terms of the gross inequality of resources devoted to schools in different cities and neighborhoods, is indeed a matter for concern. But there is a sense in which schooling would remain fundamentally unequal even if per pupil funding and quality of teachers were the same everywhere. That reason is that the basic function of the public schools, by their very nature, is to reproduce the unequal structure of power in society at large.

It’s important, in considering these issues, to keep in mind who are the clients and who are the products of the public school system. The public schools, from their very beginning, were factories for processing raw material – children – into human resources. The first organized state public school systems came about in New England to serve mill owners’ needs for a work force trained to show up on time, line up at the sound of a bell to eat and void their bladders, and obey orders from authority figures behind desks. Work discipline and acceptance of the distribution of power in our economic system are the primary form of “learning” in even the richest schools.

This is coupled with another lesson, described by Ivan Illich as confusing process with substance: That is, accepting our status as passive consumers whose needs are all met through the mediation of professional bureaucracies. Health, nutrition and safety are equated to the operation of the bureaucracies officially tasked with providing those goods: “Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety …” The converse is that meeting one’s needs autonomously, or through the kind of horizontal association with one’s peers that anarchists from Pyotr Kropotkin to David Graeber have written about, is impermissible. The student is taught to “view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, [and] learning on one’s own as unreliable.”

So long as the structural distribution of political and economic power in the outside society remains unequal, the belief that educational attainment is a great equalizer reflects a fallacy of composition. Given a society based on centralized institutions with managerial hierarchies, the total need for people in managerial positions will always amount to a small minority of society. There can be only a limited number of pharaohs; giving everyone a first-class education just increases the number of college-educated people treading straw and mud into bricks or dragging granite blocks.

Any genuine proposal for educational reform will have to start with the distribution of power and privilege in society at large. And the idea that the state — whose main function is to serve, maintain and reproduce this distribution of power — would treat students as anything but a product churned out for its real clientele’s use defies credulity.

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