Two new signs of educational inequality

How does growing income inequality impact American education and culture? To what extent does our education system mitigate or construct that economic divide? I’ve been tracking this for several years, and wanted to share two recent stories. Both are about politics, but in very different ways.

First, Matt Reed, a college dean, points out that the ongoing safe spaces controversy doesn’t apply to the largest number of American campuses: community colleges.

For many [CC] students, college is the relatively safe space in their lives. It functions the way that Arlie Hochschild described work functioning for adults in The Time Bind: it’s the island of relative stability and sanity in otherwise chaotic lives. It’s where they can find some peace, and raise their sights above the day-to-day.

Recall that nearly half of students take classes at community colleges. Think of this when commentators within and beyond the academy describe a safe space story as emblematic of all of higher education. And be sure to read the whole piece, from “[a]t most community colleges, student diversity is a visible fact of life” to Reed’s final, crucial concern about politics.

Second, a new paper develops a point about the socialization of war that some of us have been making since 2001: that military service is largely restricted to poorer people, and that this represents a major historical change for the United States. In “Invisible Inequality: The Two Americas of Military Sacrifice” Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen conclude that “[t]oday, unlike in World War II, the Americans who die or are wounded in war are disproportionately coming from poorer parts of the country.” In other words, “even more than previous wars, Iraq and Afghanistan have been working class wars.”

What does this have to do with education? For one thing, scholars are generally not paying attention to it:

We argue that these Two Americas of military sacrifice constitute invisible inequality because the issue is routinely overlooked by scholars, policymakers, and the public… Ignoring inequality in military sacrifice is both morally comforting and politically beneficial…
[O]ur review of many related contemporary literatures finds very little discussion of the systemic economic inequality undergirding the experiences of returning veterans… [emphasis added]

I’ve seen this myself in working with a variety of educational institutions. Generally speaking the war on terror has played little role on wealthier campuses. It’s fascinating to observe war memorials with plenty of alumni visible for WWI and WWII, then fewer for Korea, fewer for Vietnam, and perhaps no sign afterwards.

Moreover, to the extent that academia sees itself as engaged in community life, we play a role in veterans’ experiences. Here inequality kicks in strongly, as “soldiers returning home to socioeconomically disadvantaged communities may enjoy fewer and weaker support structures, which can exacerbate their reintegration into civilian life.”

To the extent that educators are committed to strengthening American democracy (for example), surely we have a responsibility for addressing this widening gap between poorer people serving in the military and the wealthier who do not. This might influence American attitudes towards foreign policy, as the paper’s authors claim that public awareness of economic inequality on warfighting reduces public support for foreign wars (see 580ff).

Recall how many legislators are lawyers, the products of graduate law programs and undergrad pre-law degrees, when considering this criticism: “policymakers have strong incentives to [downplay discussions of inequality] because it reduces criticism of their deploying and keeping combat forces abroad.” To what extent does American academia foster this cynical yet practical attitude?

Consider as well the role academia plays in training graduates to work in medical support for veterans, ranging from direct VA care for disability to even less visible mental health care. Do our medical and premed programs encourage students to work with vets?

Once more I have to ask: does American higher education help construct growing income inequality, or do we mitigate that divide? I think we need to ask this of ourselves, and seriously.

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