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In his new book, The Education Myth: How Human Capital Exploited Social Democracy (Cornell University Press) John Shelton, professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, traces how the mainstream American view of education evolved from a tool for democratic education to the essential path to a job well done. Chilton spoke with within higher education via Zoom. Excerpts from the conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You call your book “The Political History of an Idea”. What is this idea and why do we need to know its political history?

a: The idea really is how Americans think about education – what we want it to do. When the American education system was created in the nineteenth century—and this includes public higher education in places like Wisconsin, where I teach—the purpose was not to train future students for jobs. It was about training citizens in democracy. And so when massive inequality emerged from industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the primary way working people dealt with it was not by arguing for more education; This was by forming labor unions, and pressing for reforms that would do everything from limiting child labor to fixing workers’ compensation.

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To the extent that universities were really involved in it, the idea of ​​Wisconsin, which was developed in the late 19th century, revolved around usingCover Of The Education Myth By John Shelton Building evidence-based knowledge at the University of Wisconsin to help inform public policies that can do something about the massive inequalities that exist. The book traces how this idea changed. And what I would argue is that at a very specific moment in the 1950s and 1960s, policymakers were influenced by economists who invested in this idea of ​​human capital — starting with the Johnson administration, very much centered in the Democratic Party, but continuing through most of the 20th century and early 2000s. XXI – He pushed the idea that education should do something different, and that it should provide job skills for future workers to be successful. And if you can do that, you won’t have to worry about all these other social reforms — doing things about minimum wages, workers’ rights, progressive taxes. In fact, you can get rid of these things, because simply providing people with a proper education would help mitigate existing inequalities.

Q: So, did this higher view emerge from the self-interest of the politicians, or are their motives purer than that?

a: It is difficult as a historian to know people’s motives. But if you go back to the 1960s, the huge inequalities between class and race were clearly on the nation’s political radar. And there was a bit of a debate in the Johnson administration about how to deal with these things. They’ve made some really important fixes. I mean, Medicare and Medicaid came from the Johnson administration. But I think at the end of the day, they see that the political headwinds of more far-reaching reforms will be more difficult. And so the path of least resistance was to focus on education and job training, and say, “Well, maybe the reason people are poor is because they don’t have the right skills in a changing economy,” instead of thinking about all the other things that need to be done, like ensuring there are Inner city jobs.

Many Democrats in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond came out of a system they believed was based on merit and education that opened doors for them. Johnson is a really good example of this; Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – They didn’t start out as elites, but it was the education of the elite that got them into leadership positions. And so I think they believed in part intellectually in these kinds of arguments about education. I just think it was misleading.

Q: Your book is more about the policy failures of the US government than the higher failures per se. But are there things that higher education institutions have done to spread what they call the education myth, and is there a role they can play in dispelling it?

a: One of the things that happened, beginning in the 1970s, was a decline in public investment in public higher education, when adjusted for inflation. This means that institutions have had to provide a more targeted discussion of why higher education is important. And I think for strategic reasons, it really made sense to say, “Well, we’re the ones training people for future jobs — you can’t cut higher education.” When those larger investments in public education were not forthcoming, they then had to make this argument to the students, because the other source of income was tuition fees. So they basically had to be able to say to the students, “Come on and get a college degree; this will open doors for you – this will create new jobs.”

However, the problem is that it has led to this kind of scenario where if a college degree is someone’s only way to get a good job, and lawmakers are saying, implicitly at least, that they won’t do much to help you if you don’t have a college degree, it has led To much displeasure. I think to some extent this resentment has been picked up by reactionary politicians interested in pushing for culture wars.

What I think colleges and universities should do now is stop selling this myth that education will be the great equalizer. This does not mean that I am against education, of course; I am a university professor. I believe in the traditional mission of the public university system. But I think what we need to do is focus on being the institutions that are going to help society solve these bigger problems, and be the place where people can confront controversial ideas on campus, where we can have far-reaching conversations about what needs to change. In our economy, and how we’re going to create the kind of world where climate change doesn’t completely destroy our way of life. And yes, we will continue to open new doors for students, but higher education does not control the labor market. We need to stop selling this idea.

Q: What do you think, then, of the shrinking numbers of liberal arts students and the exponential increase of those pursuing career paths in fields like engineering and business?

a: This trend is quite logical. If students are told from as early as their teens that the whole purpose of going to college is to get a good job, why don’t most students go to college and try to major in something where they can see a very direct path to a job?

The humanities and social sciences are really important to help these students get the intellectual resources they need to understand the inequalities around them and to be successful and not to internalize things that are basically structural. We need to help them understand that a more inclusive education will actually help them do better in school, in the job market, and in life. If everyone in this country knew they were going to get a good job, whether they had a college degree or not, then all of these first-generation students could go to college and expect something different from it, instead of thinking of college as a very narrow opportunity toward a direct career path.

Q: Do you think the College Scorecard and other efforts to evaluate academic programs based on their return on investment are helpful or counterproductive?

a: I think it’s very counterproductive. For one thing, it doesn’t take into account where students come from when they come to university. It does not take into account the local economy and the types of jobs available. Such comparisons are useful in the sense that they may tell you something about profit predatory. But I think mostly, colleges and universities, whether they’re elite institutions or access institutions, if they’re operating in good faith, there’s a huge variance in the kinds of things that students can do with the kind of degree that they’re getting. Despite the narrative around the humanities and social sciences, many of these people are getting good jobs and doing things they really love doing moving forward.

Q: How did the myth of education lead to the social ills – specifically racism and economic inequality – that we face today?

a: The Carter administration took this federal department called Housing, Education, and Welfare and took education from there and made education its own department. And this symbolically raised the level of education above all these other departments, which, by the way, were really controversial; Civil rights activists like Shirley Chisholm, who was in Congress, [were] She strongly disagreed, because she said, “How can you think of education as unrelated to health care and welfare?”

This moment led the Democratic Party down a path of pressing for education rather than other kinds of reforms. Then in the 1990s, Bill Clinton negotiated NAFTA over labor objections, but at the same time paid for worker retraining and various types of education—a tax break for paying student tuition. What the education myth has done is give these politicians a chance. Because what they can say is, “We don’t necessarily have to do these other reforms, because what we’re going to do, as Clinton said with NAFTA, is retrain workers, and that’s going to allow them to have new opportunities.”

He really led the party down a very disastrous path. Even Republicans like George W. Bush picked him up, and that’s how we ended up with No Child Left Behind. And when you get into the 2000s, you’ve got efforts at both ends to kind of blow this idea up, right? So Trump argues he’s going to bring back blue collar jobs, but you also have Bernie Sanders who advocates all these New Deal-style reforms, like higher education as a right and a tuition-free future. What I think, in particular, Republicans have been able to do is build on the resentment that a lot of workers without college degrees felt because the only thing they were told about making their working lives safer was to go and get job retraining. or education.

Q: So, are you advocating for a European-style social democracy, where students are identified early for vocational training or university?

a: no i don’t. I don’t think access to higher education should be rationed. We have a kind of past in this country that we can draw on to help us build the kind of future we all want. I think back to the moment of the New Deal, when there were huge reforms – they didn’t get enough; They excluded African-Americans and, at least in the early stages, built on the breadwinner model of problematic gender relations—but they made the basic assumption that if you put the economic security of workers at the center of every policy decision you make, you can create the kind of society that caters to In it everyone has their needs, and in it people can be free to be better citizens. This is the kind of conversation that I would pretend we are having [should] Owns. We must think about how we can stand up for everyone’s right to a college degree while also standing up for everyone who works for a living, whether they have a college degree or not, to have a good job, healthcare, at work. And if we can do those things, we’ll make sure that higher education is relevant for a really long time.