Why Do You Work in Education?

This Gregory Clark piece on social mobility is well worth a read.

Clark’s argument:

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.

Before you dismiss his argument, note that Clark is a thoughtful and thorough researcher. His book A Farewell to Alms made my list of greatest personal intellectual influences.

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?

3 thoughts on “Why Do You Work in Education?

  1. badgehs

    That seems a weird, eggheaded, and likely backwards way to look at social mobility. (I’ve seen much better, not the least Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’.) Why look at the downfall of the elite as a measure of mobility? Our goal is to uplift everyone, isn’t it?

    Nearly every American lives better than a knight or duke of olde. No, she can’t order a peasant beheaded or de-landed. And a few still struggle with hunger.

    In general, though, being low-income is more likely to be associated with obesity over a lifetime than starvation or early death by communicable disease.

    Most live well out of the elements if not in splendid surroundings. Nearly all have more than enough clothing, at least for the basic needs.

    Too, very American today has some access to the great books and works of art of the world. Many can see great performances at one time or another. Libraries of amazing resources are near almost everyone.

    The middle class is far above where it was thirty years ago. By any measure. Rare is the middle class home without a multi-line cell plan, a couple 30″+ hdtv’s, monthly cable bringing 300 channels, a game console, dishwasher, and a/c. Only the latter two would have been found in upper-middle class homes a generation and a half ago, the others didn’t exist.

    Some pundits judge mobility as making everyone above average. I’ll stick with vastly improving the state of average.

    Still, fair enough that mobility is not where we want it. Or is it?

    When we break it down there remain three rules to mobility. These have been known for ages, though they are less observed today than even a generation ago:
    1) Get what education you can. Today, at least a HS diploma.
    2) Stay childless until you achieve 1 and 3.
    3) Focus on a job before love or lust.

    Others may phrase these differently. However, for those who follow them, mobility is quite high. For those who don’t,…not so much.



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