In an essay in the Wall Street Journal plugging his new book “Coming Apart” (which I haven’t read yet), Charles Murray writes about a new American divide: “We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”
Conservatives like Richard Vedder see this as the inevitable result, not of a system rigged to favor the elite, but of bad government policies, particularly in education: because of government-sponsored grants and students loans, too many people are in college who shouldn’t be there; decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other legislative actions have virtually eliminated employment testing, which paved the way for certification inflation and the need for a college degree; laws protecting labor unions have virtually allowed them to put a choke-hold on the K-12 public school system.
These points have merit. But will less (or no) government support and more “vouchers and other pro-competitive measures” at all levels of education reverse the decline of real opportunities that Professor Vedder finds so disheartening? Should the free market determine who has access to higher education and can advance economically, culturally, even socially?
Adam Smith wouldn’t have thought so. He understood that the kind of cultural divide that Murray writes about is artificial. “The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of,” he writes in The Wealth of Nations; “and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour.” It’s not “nature” that separates those of rank and fortune from common workers, but “habit, custom, and education.”
This can also be said of Murray’s super elite–“the new upper class” that “runs the country” and is “even more detached from the lives of the great majority of Americans . . . not just socially but spatially.” It’s not nature that has “engendered a cultural separation;” it’s their habits, their customs, and their education that have determined the kind of food they eat, “their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, their work environments and their child-raising practices.”
Like Paul Fussell in “Class” and Lewis Lapham in “The American Ruling Class,” his clever “mocumentary,” Murray exposes that real opportunity isn’t just about money; it’s about one’s social, cultural, and intellectual milieu–which is why a graduate of Yale Law School will always have a better chance of becoming Attorney General or a Supreme Court Justice than a graduate of Wyoming Law School.
Smith also understood that public–i.e. government–support of education could reduce such disparities. “The education of the common people requires, perhaps, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the publick more than that of people of some rank and fortune.” Unless “government takes some pains to prevent it,” the “great body of the people” will fall into a state into in which they “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” at the expense of their “intellectual, social, and marital virtues.”
Granted, Smith was talking about “the most essential parts of education”–reading, writing, and arithmetic–which he argued were essential for making the common people both employable and good citizens. But one could similarly argue–and many have–that higher education is essential to be employable and a good citizen in the twenty-first century. As Stuart Butler recently put it in “The Coming Higher-Ed Revolution,” the “high-school diploma has been supplanted by the college degree; making it through four years of college is now virtually a prerequisite for economic advancement.”
One could also argue that the disrupters of the current educational system–e.g. Udacity (founded by former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun), Straighter Line (which offers college classes for $99 a month), and Apple (which is challenging the textbook racket)–do a better job than their traditional counterparts making higher education more accessible and affordable to traditionally under-served populations.
Some elite schools like the MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, Tufts University, and the University of Michigan are even making a total of 15,000 courses online available to the public through an open-courseware movement. MIT has gone one step further and will start offering a credential to those who take its courses through its MITx initiative.
But far from bridging the educational divide, this will only perpetuate it. In the first place, no one is suggesting that the elite schools give up their mission or relinquish their role as the purveyors of core cultural, social, and intellectual vales. In the second place, an MITx credential (or anything like it) will always be branded inferior quality. As Kevin Carey writes, “MIT undergraduates have to complete a rigorous academic curriculum to earn a degree. This means there should be little confusion between credentials issued by MIT and MITx. The latter won’t dilute the value of the former.” At least MITx is honest. It doesn’t inflate a work certificate to the status of a college degree.
The way to bridge the educational divide is to provide all students with experiences and opportunities comparable to those which students at the elite schools get and have, especially traditional liberal education and exposure to America’s core cultural heritage and institutions. That means imbuing them with the habits of thought and mind appropriate to the educated person, and teaching them the intellectual skills that will enable them to compete with elite students.
I’m no idealist who thinks that everyone should go to college or that higher education is a natural right. But I do believe, like Smith, that government can and should invest in education so that more, not fewer, students will have a genuine opportunity to advance in society, economically, culturally, even socially. As things now stand, we’re drifting back to the days when access to that kind of opportunity was a privilege available to what Peter Sacks has called a “self-perpetuating aristocracy.” If Murray’s right, we may already there.
J. M. Anderson is dean of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social Sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, and author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don’t Learn in Graduate School.