Addressing Inequality Through Education

Jared Bernstein, writing for the New York Times’ Economix blog, responding to Miles Corak’s recent commentary on inequality, arguing that he doesn’t go far enough in his policy recommendations:

It’s a common default for economists and policy makers to present a trenchant analysis of a problem with many deep roots and then conclude, “That’s why we need better education and skill development.”

The problem is that a central thesis of the inequality/mobility nexus is that skills alone won’t crack it. Again, no question that overcoming the barriers that block lower-income children from achieving their intellectual (and economically productive) potential is an essential part of this, but if you don’t deal with the politics — really, the power — you’ll end up with a bunch more children who fortunately have gone a lot further in their personal development, but remain stuck in or near the income decile of their birth. (my emphasis)

I think that’s true, and I also had another thought.

When you look at the history of adult literacy in the U.S., you’ll find that for most of that history, adult literacy education was mainly focused on increasing the political agency of the individuals being taught. Only over the last 20-25 years or so (as adult education has become somewhat more institutionalized in schools and community colleges) has the focus shifted (at least in the policy arena) to more of an emphasis on employment and training. I realized, reading this commentary, that my discomfort with the pre-K movement stems not just from the fact that proponents often brush aside the fundamental pedagogical role that parents and the home environment play in children’s literacy development. That’s a problem to be sure, but the more fundamental problem with ignoring parents and parents’ education—particularly the parents of the poor—is that it fails to acknowledge or address the political agency of those parents—political agency needed in order to bring about meaningful political change.

Those who argue that education is not enough to solve the inequality problem without additional political change raise some valid points. But education does play a role in developing the critical thinking and self-reflection needed to bring about political changes. Education can do more than just help people reach their economic potential, it can also play a bigger role in bringing about the political changes Bernstein (and others) suggest.

Is the Allegory of the Cave a parenting skill? I suspect some would argue that it is.