Coming Apart and the Role of Education and Investing in Pulling Us Back Together

Like most, over the past decade, I have been troubled by how our differences as Americans are impacting our ability to improve as a country. The evidence of these divisions can be seen almost daily, the result of a populist president playing to a small, but engaged, base and political leaders who, through their unwillingness to speak up for what is right, only normalize an administration hell-bent on division.

In trying to make sense of our differences over the past few months, I am reminded of a book that was released a few years ago by the controversial author Charles Murray, aptly called Coming Apart.

In the book, Murray provides compelling evidence about how socioeconomic divisions in our country not only keep people apart physically, but that those at one end of the socioeconomic spectrum view the basic facets of life very differently from those on the other end of the spectrum.

I am no fan of Murray’s generally, and I think he gets much wrong in his books. However, in Coming Apart, his review of literature is compelling, and his premise about how divided our country has become appears to be on target. Moreover, it would appear that these socioeconomic divisions that have divided us as a country explain, to a great degree, why we are so divided politically.

Among the more compelling sections of the book is a quiz in which he asks such questions as “Have you ever walked on a factory floor?” “Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?” “During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?” Finally, “Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?”

The point of the quiz is to show just how far apart we, as a people, have become, not only in terms of economics, but also in how we view work, what we do for fun, how we spend our money, and how we define individual and collective success.

The fact that Murray’s book examines only white Americans, an effort to isolate the influence of socioeconomics rather than race, shows the depths to which we have, in fact, come apart. To be sure, adding race to our sociological, economic, and political differences makes our challenges even greater.

When I read Coming Apart upon its release, it was a scary foretelling of the politics in which we are now engaged.

While Murray was and is right about our differences, his antidote for coming back together makes little, if any, real sense and should be roundly ignored. My recommendation for the book only applies to the first two-thirds.

Ultimately, however, after reading Murray’s book, we are left with a difficult question: So, how do we come together?

In seeking to discern the role of K-12 education in these times of great economic, political, and sociological differences, let’s go back in time to 1837. That was the year when Horace Mann became the secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts, when common school-reform began. In the history of public education, the Common School Movement was novel then, asserting that free, universal, non-sectarian, and public school was the single best way of achieving moral and socioeconomic development for all Americans — the best way to ensure an educated workforce and a disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities in the decades before the Civil War.

Mann’s movement was problematic, however. He made no provisions for students of color or the disabled, and his efforts were closely tied to Protestantism to the exclusion of other faiths, among several significant issues. However, the seeds of a high-quality public education for all-–regardless of race, color, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or ancestry — were planted by Mann.

For generations, public schools were the only places where, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, we could realistically expect students from various backgrounds to come together. Again, while not perfect by any stretch, the public school was, for many communities, the closest thing to a true melting pot, creating shared experiences and commonality that brought together students from diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds.

So, what roles do schools today have in bringing us together?

Keep the “public” in public schools: First and foremost, keeping public schools public is critical. In recent years, privatization of public schools through voucher programs and independent charter schools has created a situation in which children are educated separately. While voucher schools, including in my home state of Wisconsin, often advertise the ability to serve all students, they generally offer few services for students with special needs and do little to provide accommodations for those students. As I have noted frequently, I believe that the opportunities for investing in companies that serve K-12 education are not to be found in vouchers and independent charter schools, but in efforts that serve all students. We must ensure that when it comes to public education, all truly means all.

Foster thoughtful debate at the local level: There is a common belief by those who are considering investing in companies that serve the K-12 market that education is political. I believe education is no more political than most other markets. It’s just that the politics of education are more out in the open, rather than hidden.

The fact is that public debates on education are often debates about larger issues in society. Education is, after all, where the ideological rubber meets the road. Debates about race, gender, and sexual orientation are good and healthy for communities, and despite the pain often caused by such conversations, the public-school arena seems to be a good forum. After all, competing educational philosophies, as well as political and social divisions in society, have made the issue of what should be “common” about common schooling one that is continually under review.

If, as historian Carl Kaestle noted, “the American public school is a gigantic standardized compromise most of us have learned to live with,” it is a compromise that has been, and must continue to be, constantly renegotiated.

These conversations should be embraced by community members and are part of doing business in the K-12 sector.

Respond to the education market: Among the most difficult aspects of the last presidential election was the dishonesty about economic opportunities in some parts of the country. The simple fact is that while the president suggested there is a renaissance underway in the coal industry, even though some mines have reopened, coal still is expected to continue its current decline.

At the time of this writing, it is virtually impossible to imagine what kind of federal educational policies we may see in the next two years. The same is true for tax packages and workforce-development efforts. While we may not see the kind of GI Bill-type policies that most of us would like to see, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we may see significant workforce-development initiatives arise in the next few years, especially if there is a new administration, in response to changing workforce needs.

These efforts will not be traditional higher education policies directed at traditional four-year colleges, but flexible, study-from-home-type efforts. Many of these businesses currently exist and will take advantage of this opportunity. I believe that smart money will follow investments into post-secondary and non-traditional workforce training, including efforts to reshape educational credentialing at all levels.

We exist at a unique time in our country’s history, but despite this time of unrest, there is good reason to believe that our country will do as we have done before: come together around shared values and ideals. Education will be critical to that healing.


Joe Donovan is the principal of Forward Advisors, a national private equity consulting firm that specializes in the K-12 educational marketplace. Joe can be reached at joe.donovan@forward-advisors.com or at (800) 393–5283.

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