Tag Archives: Inequality

The New Gilded Age

A recent article in Salon neatly describes how the current era of U.S. history mirrors the Robber Baron era of the late 1800s-early 1900s, also known as the Gilded Age. The familiar bugaboos for progressives are there: wealth inequality, political corruption and corporations run amok.

There is another similarity I see between the two time periods, which is the increasing tendency today to ascribe one’s station in life to inborn characteristics. During the Gilded Age, this tendency manifested itself in Social Darwinism and, more ominously, Eugenics. Today, we see it in the celebration of the 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, co-authored by Charles Murray. Turgidly. the point of the book is to prove how innate intelligence largely accounts for one’s socioeconomic class.

In the well-worn debate between nature and nurture, it seems nature wins out in static and conservative eras. It is a convenient way to justify gross inequality.

During the Gilded Age, Social Darwinism and even Eugenics were fundamental beliefs. Both conservatives and progressives subscribed to these ideas in some form or another. Even Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive’s progressive, believed in Eugenics. Then, by the end of World War II, Eugenics fell into disrepute because of its association with Hitler. The Great Depression damaged the entire nature side of the nature/nurture debate. It was proof positive that destiny was shaped by forces well beyond one’s natural gifts, like volatile business cycles. Post-war conservatives still clung to some form of “nature”, but it was persona non grata in liberal intellectual circles, and liberal intellectuals would be in the saddle for most of that era.

Today, it is not only conservatives like Murray who are reviving Eugenics. Liberal education reformers, like the one who wrote this essay, seem to be hung up on it as well. The article’s title asks the question, Can Schools Spur Social Mobility?

Before he answers that question, however, he delves into the world of Charles Murray. He explains that Murray answers that question in the negative. It is negative because we have already done a bang-up job of moving all of the cream of society to the top. There is simply nothing left for schools to do to increase mobility. Society is as mobile as it is going to get.

For the author, this creates a crisis of sorts. Agreeing with Murray “gives cover to educators who look at a classroom of low-income children and diminish their expectations—thinking that ‘these kids’ aren’t capable of much, educators who don’t buy the mantra that ‘all children can learn’”. It is tough to image which educators the author, Michael Petrilli, has in mind. Why would educators even choose the profession if they believe kids cannot learn? In Petrilli’s mind, it must be because of those fat paychecks and summer vacations.

Yet, in the very next breath, Petrilli pretty much concedes Murray’s point by asking “would we be shocked to find that the average intelligence level of such a classroom is lower than a classroom in an elite, affluent suburb?” But then he backtracks by stating:

“Yes, intelligence is malleable, not innate. Yes, an exceptional school/teacher/curriculum may boost that average intelligence level. But can those factors boost it enough to overcome the disparities Murray describes? If not, what can educators do?”

He then dedicates the rest of his essay to describe what educators can do. This means his recommendations aim not at boosting intelligence per se, but at boosting them within the very limited range of improvement allowed by Murray. So, he believes poor minority children can get smarter with a better education system, but not much smarter. For him, more gifted classes and online learning can help. Why he thinks these things can help he never really explains.

Petrilli ends by saying we will not move poor kids from the projects into Harvard overnight, but we can move them from the projects into police work, firefighting, nursing and plumbing.

For Petrilli, sky is not the limit. It seems to be about 90% genetic and 10% education system, especially the teacher.

What is absent from the ideas of both Murray and Petrilli is socioeconomic circumstance. Petrilli cites Murray by explaining elite universities overwhelmingly serve the children of the intellectual elite because their parents were of the intellectual elite. They both assume that the students at these schools are in fact the best and brightest the country has to offer. This means that George W. Bush, who went to Yale, got there on his merits and not because of his family legacy.

There is something to be said for the idea of moving students from the projects into professions like plumbing. Rather than call for more online classes, what Petrilli should be calling for is vocational education. Unlike endless batteries of standardized exams, vocational learning might actually bear some fruit in the future. Unfortunately, so-called progressive reformers like Petrilli, the prescription is the same no matter what you want the outcome to be: more education reform. There is no room for vocational education in that program. Online learning, testing and charters are where the money is at for deformers.

Both Murray and Petrilli are out of touch. While Petrilli starts off the essay as if he is going to disagree with Charles Murray, he essentially concedes Murray’s salient points. Yes, kids already in elite schools are smarter, as are by and large the social classes those kids represent. Petrilli disagrees with Murray only peripherally. For Murray, nothing can be done to make America more equal. For Petrilli, we must expend a lot of effort to get the few gems from the poorer classes into Harvard. The vast majority are destined for the life of working for a living.

This is the type of stale discourse we would have found in the Gilded Age. While one guy is supposedly conservative and the other guy is supposedly progressive, their ideas demonstrate a consensus in elite circles. They both believe that richer people are just plain smarter. This also helps explain the unquestioning, thoughtless and mechanical manner in which Common Core, online learning and charters have been foisted upon us. Since these are reforms conjured up by the rich and brilliant, then of course us stupid teachers and hopeless inner city students should accept it.

The creation of compulsory schooling during the Gilded Age was an invention of elites who knew what was best for poor people. The recreation of compulsory schooling in the form of education reform during this second Gilded Age is the exact same thing. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy

Click to play your quality education.

(ATTENTION SALMAN KHAN SYCOPHANTS: PLEASE READ MY LATEST POST ON THE KHAN ACADEMY “60 MINUTES WORSHIPS SALMAN KHAN AND SO DO YOU“. IT IS EVEN MORE WORTHY OF YOUR VITRIOL.”

Let me just lay it on the line for all of the proponents of the Khan Academy.

First, I believe Salman Khan is a good man. He believes in what he does and certainly has a grand vision. Moreover, anybody who can attain several degrees from MIT and build a non-profit empire is nobody’s fool. There is a reason why so many people admire him.

And this is precisely the reason why his academy needs its critics. The fact that it is so difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan makes criticism that much more urgent. The popularity of an idea or a person to me is a tremendous argument against it. I do not fall in line so easily.

But that is just the start.

People have taken issue with the sarcastic tone in my previous posts (here and here) about the Khan Academy. What they do not seem to grasp is that my sarcasm is a reaction to the insufferable arrogance of many of Khan’s proponents. There is a tremendous haughtiness in claiming that something is the “future”.  Not only is it impossible to foresee all of the variables that might shape the future, it is an abdication of your individual responsibility in making conscious choices about the future. Just because something looks like it might bring a paradigm shift does not mean it has to be unquestionably embraced. I am still of the quaint school of thought that the future is what we make of it.

As an educator, I am used to people swooping in with their magic bullets, making all types of wild claims about this or that being the savior of education in America. All of them, every single one, now lie on the trash heap where they belong. I am not saying this will necessarily be Khan’s fate, only that I have good reason to be skeptical.

The arrogance goes even further than that.

The assumption that many of Khan’s supporters make is that brick and mortar schools are failing. Having spent 25 of my 33 years on this planet in brick and mortar classrooms, I beg to differ. Schools are an outgrowth of society. Children in the inner cities who drop out of school do so because of conditions in that society, not because their schools have failed them. There are children who are born to parents in gangs. There are neighborhoods where the only strong male role models are drug dealers and criminals. There are households where the television is on 24 hours a day. In short, there are children, millions of them, who are born into a world where there are no expectations for them outside of the streets, jail and an early grave. If schools are failing, it is because society is failing. If there is an academic “achievement gap”, it is because children are born into a world where a socioeconomic achievement gap is already well entrenched.

This is not excuse-making or scapegoating. This is reality. The actual scapegoaters are the people who blame schools for this inequality. Doing so allows them to continue to put their fingers in their ears so they can go on pretending poverty and horrid inequalities are not real problems in need of solutions, let alone discussion.

And because most of the critics of brick and mortar classrooms are so far removed from those classrooms, they can approach the issue in no other way than to look at standardized test scores. Never mind the fact that the research on the efficacy of judging children and schools by test scores is murky at best. Never mind the fact that countries with the best school systems, like Finland, eschew testing. Never mind that Finland gives their teachers autonomy over the profession so that outsiders cannot just waltz in and offer their half-digested opinions on what teachers should be doing. None of this matters to Khan Academy advocates, because their advocacy is based on supreme arrogance.

Somehow, the Khan supporters who have made their way to this website have accused me of misunderstanding Khan’s vision. Yet, they leave it at that and do not show me where the misunderstanding lies. Again, after years of seeing magic bullets in education, I can spot when the emperor has no clothes.

To assume that Khan is doing anything new outside of making videos is just nonsense. It is just plain insulting to have people assume that Khan does things that teachers in brick and mortar classrooms are not doing. You do not think teachers are building lessons inductively? You do not think teachers are bending over backwards to use technology in their lessons? You do not think teachers provide a wide range of activities, differentiated (as the current jargon goes), for varied learning levels and styles? You do not think teachers monitor what their students do, without the need for fancy graphs to show them which of their students did what in how much time? You do not think teachers give out awards, accolades, praise and encouragement, just like Khan awards badges to students for being experts? I shudder to think what you actually think teachers are actually doing.

Yes, I realize that Sal Khan’s ideal classroom is one where students build robots and solve problems for most of the day. How much robot building do you think will go on in classrooms in Harlem, whether that classroom has a flesh-and-blood teacher or one made of pixels? Are you willing to provide the resources (through your taxes) to shower schools with the materials needed for students to engage in such activities? Do you think Sal Khan is the first person with the bright idea of project-based, hands-on learning?  The arrogance is astounding.

I have an arrogant question of my own: what innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?

But the saving grace of the Khan acolyte is the idea that Khan’s is a worldwide vision. We can put a few Khan videos in our pockets, go to Africa and bring education to the kids over there. I have no doubt that Khan and his supporters are genuine in this belief. I also have no doubt this represents more of the same arrogance.

Sure, we could send an army of educational missionaries to the underdeveloped world. It would be an efficient way to educate masses of people on the cheap. What the heck, right? This is the educational wave of the future.

Instead of asking if we could, maybe we should first ask if we should. Does this really represent the best that we can do at the moment for the schooling of children worldwide, including our own children? After generations of sucking the third world dry of its resources, dropping bombs on their homes and meddling in their politics, are we really so easily duped as to think Khan videos can even begin to uplift the education of their children? It is typical, well-fed western arrogance. It is the same belief that leads us to think that designer jeans, rock music and movies make people in other countries better off. These are signs of what we think “civilization” is. The Khan Academy is the Levi’s of schools.

The greatest gift we can give to the children of the entire world is the gift of providing a quality education to our children first. The greatest way we can be a beacon of hope to everyone else is if the children of America’s inner cities are provided with the same education currently reserved for the children of America’s elite. It is amazing how Bill Gates can tout the Khan Academy as the panacea for everyone else’s children. While the Bloombergs, Broads and Obamas of the world send their children to brick and mortar schools with small class sizes and all the enrichment activities one could ask for, everyone else’s children are given the url to the Khan Academy.

It is the absolute pinnacle of arrogance to assume we can uplift the people of other countries without uplifting our own. We have not learned what a true investment in America’s education would mean, yet we think we can bring that lesson to every corner of the earth. We have a duty to the rest of the world to be honest with ourselves first. Until that time, we are merely being disingenuous.

Educating is about providing role models. America has a duty to be a role model to the rest of the world. While Khan and his admirers are genuine in their vision, it is not a vision that will make us the role models that our children, and the children of the world, need us to be.