The new age of inequality and what it means for education: my January talk

What does increasing inequality mean for American higher education?  This was the theme for a talk I gave last week, where I put several years of research together for the first time.  I reproduce and expand on my materials here.

The first part of the presentation surveyed the state of inequality through macroeconomics and a touch of sociology.  If you’re new to the topic, or curious, read these slides, which are much more accessible than the preceding sentence suggests.  If not, skip to the next part. (Sorry about the title page; text glitch won’t go away)

Next I took the audience through the impacts of inequality on education, including K-12 and higher education.  This took 20 slides, touching on two-tier pedagogy, the rise of adjunctification, student poverty, etc:

To drive the point home I offered a very slight, very basic futures exercise. How would academia change if these trends continued into the medium-term future? I asked the audience to imagine a college or university where the faculty was now 80% adjunct (what some call the “neofeudal” campus), and where the balance of institutional attention was directed at rich students. The total amount of student debt exceeds the total amount held in mortgages.

When it came to technology, a tripartite division had opened up. Face-to-face instruction was the privilege of the 1%, while the middle class made do with distance learning, and everyone else had versions of MOOCs. Elite schools offer liberal arts education in this medium-term future, and people studying and teaching there know well that a lack of visible technology is a mark of status. The bachelor’s degree has become a sign of service workers’ quality. Leading majors in these campuses include finance, human resources (to manage the growing complexity of many part-time workers), and poli sci (to handle resulting political challenges).

To wrap up that futures digression, I offered a parody of Beloit’s Mindset List, imagining an 18-year-old who grew up in this hypothetical world and their mental landscape:

A hypothetical Beloit Mindset list for the medium-term future.

Having not depressed and/or horrified my audience enough, I offered this discussion prompt: “Does libel education contribute to, or mitigate, economic inequality?”  I encouraged them to break their answers down by scales: on a single campus; locally/regionally; nationally, as a sub sector within higher education.  Discussion was excellent, and I recommend using this prompt or variations of it.

For comic relief, I displayed “alternative and rejected titles for this talk”, which included:

  • “When ‘Middle class’ is as historical a term as the Warsaw Pact”
  • “Neofeudalism, and how you are making it happen!”
  • “Downton Abbey, and you’re not the lords (but maybe some of your students are)”

So what is to be done? I asked.  Rather than recommend a solution, I presented a summary of options currently being discussed, or at least implied.

1. Get used to it: the mid-20th-century’s reduction of inequality was a historical anomaly.  What we see now is a reversion to the mean.  Or, as Thomas Piketty put it, “Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.” (571)  That’s a prose form of his famous, pithy equation,


Where r is capital’s return on investment, and g the rate of growth for the entire economy. In other words, capital is simply going to out-earn everyone else.

Extending this into the future a little but, I imagined that we could see a resigned polity coming to terms with the new (old) order through some mitigation by public services. Political unrest will be a possibility, stirred and/or sapped by media.  Possibly populism and oligarchy will become new political poles.


2. Piketty et al turn out to be wrong: perhaps class mobility starts returning to its old dynamism.  Maybe the data and analyses reveal previously hidden flaws, and things just aren’t as bad as we thought.  Globalization’s downward pressure on American wages could slow down through a boom in 3d printing and/or problems in the Chinese economy.  Socially and politically, Americans might decide that family dynamics are the key driver of inequality, and focus attention on that (through divorce laws, etc).  The upper 1% might commit to a massive philanthropy increase, which mitigates income inequality’s worst attributes.

Not too likely, but a possibility.  As is…

3. International and national actions: nations follow Piketty’s prescription for a global tax on wealth (new national taxes would just drive the richest to other, less demanding countries).  Alternatively, the world’s nations could transform globalization through a new round of treaties, perhaps strengthening labor protections.

Meanwhile, Americans take steps domestically.  We commit to increased government support for public institutions, including schools.  States increase funding to public campuses who offer liberal education, like those in the COPLAC group.  We revise K-12 funding, leveling differences between districts.  We could even try a second round of busing.

At the campus level American academics take energetic steps. Higher education partners with K-12 schools to help under resourced institutions and students from poor families.  Colleges and universities increase student aid based on economic criteria.  Faculty organize on adjuncts.  Campuses nurture public intellectuals who speak out on these issues.  Faculty research and teach the inequality problem across the curriculum, from sociology and economics to first-year seminars.

Or maybe things take a darker turn…

4. Social unrest and political instability: Americans do not accept the new order, and act up and out.  A large number agrees with Gilens and Page, that we have changed from being a representative democracy to becoming an oligarchy (“Testing Theories of American Politics”) .  As Robert Putnam warns, “[i]nherited political inequality brings us uncomfortably close to the political regime against which the American Revolution was fought.” (Our Kids, 237)  Imagine new populist currents, bigger than the ones shepherded currently by Sanders and Trump, perhaps at the scale of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Populist movement.  Imagine a broad range of unrest, from demonstrations to violence.

My question here: in this scenario, what is the role of education?

Having presented these four possible responses, I concluded with a quick recommendation about technology usage.  I asked academics to use social media to explore these issues.  I commended them to the open education/access/software/etc movements, which might be able to help get around widening resource differences.  And I asked them to support people’s rights to own their data.  Which felt like a quiet PS to the rest of the talk, and nothing like a conclusion.

I did not offer a more ambitious conclusion.  I’ve been researching inequality and education since 2008 or so, and am coming to the realization that educators have to get very political, very quickly, if we’re seriously concerned about income inequality.

I think this means we need to back Bernie Sanders (here’s why).  If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, we should lobby her continuously to keep her to the anti-oligarchic side.

It also means we need to push on other fronts, like figuring out how to get states to grow, rather than reduce, per-student public institution financing.  Higher ed has to learn from California State Universities and figure out how to collaborate with, rather than simply grouse about, K-12.

We’ll have to expand our international thinking, pursuing the structures underpinning income inequality at the global level.

This is enormously complex and risky stuff.  It means engaging with a Democratic party that’s shown its willingness to act against educators, while accepting our economic and political support.  It means finding new allies, and being willing to call out enemies.

The alternative is to live in Downton Abbey as household staff, smiling at the lovely frocks worn by the 1%, and telling ourselves we’re not making things worse.

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6 Responses to The new age of inequality and what it means for education: my January talk

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I like reading you better than the book, now to check the FB (where your blog feed is syndicated) for attacks of digital vapors

    • You’re very kind. But nobody’s responded on FB. They usually don’t, when I post on .edu matters.

      • VanessaVaile says:

        the silence of the adjuncts… they usually don’t, especially if someplace the movement cohort might think they shouldn’t be or on something not in agreement with organizers top-down messages. My day’s William Blake/Dorothy Parker mashup:

        You can lead the horses of instruction to water but you can’t make them think

        But I can tell they’ve been there and your posts always get good reach, often better than the on-message ones. That’s encouraging.

  2. James Mundie says:

    This is a great read, as usual. I wonder about 2 things:

    1. Global tax on wealth: what would this look like given that even the worst off American is better off than most of the rest of the people on the planet? Would the Oligarchs use it as an opportunity to shift even more of the burden onto the Class Formerly Known As “Middle” (CFKM)? And if so, would the rest of the world, the aforementioned mostly worse-off, see the situation in such relative terms? Or would they direct their financial rage at the wrong targets?

    I think Education’s role here is as a kind of guardian of perspective. The CFKM will need tools to avoid being taken advantage of, the poor of the world will need tools to to bootstrap their situation and make it better. But there will also need to be a way to make useful comparisons so that at the very least we would know where to direct the results of this wealth tax.

    2. I wonder if there is another outcome: The Internet* does its job and decentralizes the scarcities of the world. People learn to leverage its inherent match-making power to self-direct resources in ways that are more fine-grained than we have before. Scarcities still exist, especially in under-developed countries, but it becomes a lot harder to exploit those scarcities in order to exploit people, because with the decentralization of knowledge and production, outputs are a lot harder to make scarce. If someone needs something, she simply prints it. If she can’t print it, someone steps in at the local level to sell it to her, but there are a lot more local someones. A kind of logical side-effect of this outcome could possibly be that not everybody has to be productive in society anymore. Imagine if we had to deal with that problem!

    *By “The Internet” I mean both the internet Internet, and the Internet of Things. Both of these have the potential to be game-changers, in my opinion.

    Education’s role in this paradigm would be to empower people to know how to ask the meaningful questions that finding the answer to has a profound effect on improving life, but is also highly personal. Education would also need to help people become more entrepreneurial.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Really good thoughts, James.
      1. It’s a tricky problem, as inequality soars in the developed countries, while poverty shrinks in the developing world. One could see that the former is the price for the latter, which is almost mind-boggling.
      2. That’s fine optimism. Maybe blockchain can play a role in that?

  3. Pingback: How not to write about grade inflation, or education, for that matter | Bryan Alexander

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