What We Should Be Talking About When We Talk About Education

There are many metaphors we use to capture our ideas of education’s purpose in society: a ticket, a key, a vehicle, a road. To describe education’s uneven realities we may hear of a struggle, a fight, competition, a race. Whatever metaphor we employ, mobility is often implied: forward, upward, ahead. In the popular imagination, the educated are typically going places.

This is a book you should read.

How we talk about education matters. It becomes the soil in which our assumptions are rooted. We speak our beliefs in the descriptors and metaphors we select. I grew up in a household where education was central to how we identified as a black family. College attendance was a non-negotiable for me and my two siblings. My parents grew up during the depression. My father served in World War II and my mother migrated north from Tennessee around that time. When they met and married in Cleveland of the 1950’s they built the gateway for us to enter the middle class and stay there. If my siblings and I heard it once, we heard it a thousand times, education was the ticket, the treasure, the pathway to a good life we were free to make even better.

In effect, I was raised on the education gospel. In the introduction to her book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom describes this belief system as one which views education as a moral good which benefits the individual and society and is always considered a worthwhile use of time and money. My parents opened the door for me to attend the college of my choice and to study whatever I found interesting. They never made demands on me to pursue a certain course or pick a particular school according to their notions of what might yield the best outcome. Although my college choice was certainly a financial stretch for them (as my private secondary schooling had also been), they made it happen and I finished with my BA with under $8,000 in student loans to pay back.

That’s me, May 1987 — Thanks, Mom and Dad!

That seems like a fairy tale sum nowadays. Reading Lower Ed helped me truly grasp to what degree (!) the times have changed. It’s not just that the cost of higher education has exploded in the 30 years since I graduated, but it’s that the whole education sector is in the midst of a shift towards increased financialization, corporatization and privatization. The idea of education as a public good is steadily being eroded through public policy supported by billionaire interests from Wall Street to Silicon Valley which proclaim the neoliberal gospel of markets as the answer to every ill.

Tressie McMillan Cottom pulls back the curtain on how this shift is happening in the area of for-profit colleges and in the process she draws our attention to the social and economic context which makes it possible. She tells us point blank that the essential ingredient for the growth and viability of the for-profit education sector is socioeconomic inequality:

“Lower Ed is first and foremost, a set of institutions organized to commodify social inequalities and make no social contributions beyond the assumed indirect effect of greater individual human capital.” (p.12)

Further she asserts:

“When education researchers talk about the unmet consumer demand that for-profit colleges serve, they’re talking about inequality… When investors and politicians say that for-profit colleges offer a flexible solution to retrain our workforce, they are talking about inequality…
Flexible solutions, on-demand educations, open access career training, reskilling,and upskilling — these are terms that talk about inequality without taking inequality seriously.” (p37–38)

If you’ve grown up with the education gospel as an essential article of faith as I have, it is still a mighty stretch to fathom any such thing as a bad education. Dr. McMillan Cottom sets us straight on this account, too:

“As it turns out, there is such a thing as a bad education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students’ odds of beating the circumstances of their birth.” (p.67)

In this case, education becomes the ticket that expires mid-trip; the path that is cut off by a mudslide, the race you enter that is indefinitely postponed. The most unsettling part of that concept is “by design.” Who would actively design options which curtail and constrain the education options of the most vulnerable?

As we are learning from daily reports from DC, plenty of people. In a recent NYT article about the significant reductions in state funding for public colleges and universities across the country, David Leonhardt wonders aloud about the implications:

“The United States is investing less in colleges at the same time that the globalized, digital economy has made that education more important than ever. Gaps between college graduates and everyone else are growing in one realm of society after another — including unemployment, wealth and health.
Given these trends, the declines in state funding are stunning. It’s almost as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.” (emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, the stratification of messages about the purpose of higher education reinforces the choice inequality detailed in Lower Ed. Anthropologist Donna Lanclos challenged this tendency in a thread on Twitter. She asks:

“So who’s privileged enough for us to say to them, “just go to college, learn how to think, it doesn’t matter what you major in”?
Because that’s what employability rhetoric does, it suggests that some students should get degrees for jobs and others get degrees for life”

You needn’t go far or ask too many people to realize that we are in a world of trouble. When we talk about education as a motor but cut off access to affordable gas, we are failing as a society. When we hear tell of social and economic ladders to climb but they are only located on the firm ground of upper middle class zip codes, we are failing as a society.

Tressie McMillan Cottom dedicates her book: “For everyone trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, but especially for the sisters.” Based on current poverty statistics, the number of people trying to ‘make a dollar out of 15 cents’ is not shrinking. Breakaway inequality is a feature of our society, not a bug. Our systems of education increasingly mirror that feature while the current political administration seems bent on solidifying it.

How we talk about education often seeks to smooth over this reality. Market choice is not going to suddenly create equitable school systems in urban, rural or suburban areas. More for-profit education options after high school are not going to miraculously bridge the gap between high aspirations and limited resources of time and money for people who are already working hard yet gaining so little ground. Having read Lower Ed I feel grateful for Tressie McMillan Cottom’s gift of truth: We cannot talk about education without talking about inequality and the impact it has. And when we talk we have to do more than describe, we need to “get up on politics.”: Vote, protest, read, inform, discuss, engage. If we have an education gospel worth saving, then ‘get up on politics’ must be our rallying cry.