This Gregory Clark piece on social mobility is well worth a read.
Given that social mobility rates are immutable, it is better to reduce the gains people make from having high status, and the penalties from low status. The Swedish model of compressed inequality is a realistic option, the American dream of rapid mobility an illusion.
Furthermore, regardless of what you believe on the possibility of increasing social mobility, it’s at least highly plausible that tax transfers, rather than educational improvement, are the most effective way to reduce inequality.
All this is to say, if you are working in education to increase social mobility or to reduce income inequality, it’s worth being humble about what your efforts might accomplish. There are other forces at play in addition to education, and these forces are strong – social networks, racism, genetics, globalization, nationalism, technology, to name a few.
Personally, my motivations for working in education have evolved over time.
Some of them are personal, and selfish, I suppose (I like the people I work with; I find the problems interesting; I’m compensated well enough).
And some of them are about helping others.
In terms of this set of motivations, I hope that improving educational opportunity can:
1. Reduce injustices in educational opportunity that continue to plague our country, whereby the color of a a people’s skin or the size of their bank account determines the quality of the education they receive.
2. Allow individuals to gain the ways of thinking, information, and income necessary to lead a fulfilling life (as defined by the individual).
3. Curb ills that, at the very least, are correlated to education, such as propensity for violence, unemployment, and fractured families.
4. Provide vehicles for the world changers (in every sense of the world: curing diseases, discovering new energy sources, creating beautiful art), to accelerate their world changing pursuits.
Of these four reasons, only the first is really about where an individual falls along the curve of outcomes. The remaining three are more about shifting the whole curve to the right.
I’m sure my thinking will continue to evolve over time.
But, every once in awhile, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on the question: why do you work in education?