Last December I read a disturbing New York Times article about “China’s army of [college] graduates,” but it wasn’t disturbing in the way you might think. For years, Americans have been concerned, understandably, about the increasing economic clout of the world’s most populous nation. And, in today’s high-tech world, economic competition means educational competition as well, with China’s aforementioned “army” of new graduates now numbering more than six million a year.
But the unsettling point of the story wasn’t that young, highly educated Chinese were taking away jobs from Americans; it was that, in growing numbers, they couldn’t find jobs at all. So much for the universal, transformative value of the college degree.
In the months since then, we’ve seen the same thing happen – on a smaller, but no less traumatic, scale – for thousands of disappointed U.S. graduates as well. Now comes Christopher Beha asserting in Harper’s magazine that “educating a workforce doesn’t change what jobs are available to society as a whole,” according to Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education blog. “Our treatment of education as a social panacea … allows us to ignore entrenched class differences and the root causes of inequality in America.”
Read Beha’s entire essay on the Harper’s website. Also read John Marsh, author of Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality,” who is interviewed in Urbanite. Concerning the debate over whether schools can “do it all” in terms of raising up the disadvantaged or must be well supported by strong anti-poverty programs (the Richard Rothstein view) Marsh sides with the Rothstein camp, yet takes the argument a step further.
“If we do want to reduce poverty and inequality,” he tells Urbanite, “we need to stop talking about classrooms and start talking about class — about economics, about who gets what and why, and how this might be different.”
But, of course, education is important, especially public education. And no one makes that point better than Peggy Zugibe, a guest columnist in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post Answer Sheet blog and a member of the Haverstraw-Stony Point (N.Y.) Board of Education. Quoting academic Benjamin Barber, she writes that “public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness; institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity.”