USA and Global Educational Class Divide

DC Politics Education
student protests in Chile

Mexico City   World news reports on CNN from Mexico City are featuring huge rallies in Chile once again as students push back over increases in costs and other curtailments.  In Quebec several schools have been closed down now in the 12th week of student strikes over the same issues and the provincial government has also enacted extraordinary measures to require 8-day notice for protests permits and is attempting to not authorize any demonstrations of more than 50 people.  Students have declared these actions by the government an “act of war.”

Perhaps more disturbing was the clear statement in The New Yorker by author and academic (and New Orleans native) Nicholas Lemann that the US in essence is now creating a huge educational divide where there are educational institutions for the elite 1% and then there are whatever is available for the 99%.  The divide is defined by economic access.  Lemann argues in fact that Ivy League-type schools are underpriced even at $60,000 per year where they are currently heading, because many of the 1% would be willing to pay far more if that was the price of admission.  The public institutions and second-tier schools are pushing the price points without entering the elite status despite mimicking the business model that is only accessible and achievable by a few other schools.  The efforts of Stanford and others to create on-line opportunities are nods in the direction of equity without even the pretense of equity, either domestically or globally, though arguably offering access to both.

Nicholas Lemann

Lemann makes this argument under the cover of claiming that, thankfully in his view, there is no substantial disagreement between Obama and Romney on the issue of continuing to offer interest support for student loans.  This is a disingenuous way to make the case, since Lemann never bothers to try to make the argument that this interest matter will remotely address the class divide which he, correctly, claims is already embedded in the current educational system.  He makes the throwaway point that there is 50% more unemployment among non-college graduates currently, but that’s hardly a glancing blow when today’s papers also argue that men are queuing up for traditionally female jobs, underemployment, contingent, informal, and intern “employment” are well documented, and there seems to be more weight to the case that a generation is being lost.

Having read Lemann’s The Big Test when it came out a dozen year ago, I know this is a disturbing retreat for him.  That book argued among other points that standardized testing had at least the opportunity to create a funny kind of equity that lowered the class divide.  Now in a new century to read him on a similar theme, it is hard to ignore his analysis that equity is in full retreat with little hope of victory.   Reading that book allowed me to finally understand that it was the V-2 test in WWII that plucked my father and his test scores as a high school grad from Orange County who had worked as a clerk in Los Angeles and in Boeing aircraft plants in Venice before volunteering for the Navy out of the ranks and into an NROTC program that gave him a college experience at Millsaps in Mississippi and a degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and a solid, secure post-war career and life for our family that previously had been beyond even his most remote dreams.

That story, not unlike the human interest tale in today’s Times of a “wise soul” succeeding in school and egg picking to find a possible future otherwise outside his means, are clearly moving towards a place in the United States where we can simply smile and sigh at these exceptions proving the rule that what once we hoped might be a meritocracy has evolved into a financially unforgiving elite class divide.