“The Reader Lights the Candle”

Institute For The Future
Urgent Futures
Published in
8 min readApr 25


Worker Education that Safeguards Democracy

By IFTF Executive Director, Marina Gorbis

A hired reader reads to cigar makers hard at work in a Cuban cigar factory, ca. 1900–1910. (https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/factory-lectors-1910/)

At the turn of the 20th century, in the old cigar factories in Florida, literature and political thought accompanied the strong smell of tobacco in the air. As workers engaged in the monotonous task of rolling tobacco leaves, El Lector sat on a podium, reading aloud a diverse repertoire — classics by Dickens and Tolstoy, plays, poems, and the latest news from around the world. This practice was imported to Florida by the Cuban immigrants who populated the factories. Being a lector was a sought-after and highly competitive position. Aspiring lectors, often factory workers themselves, had to possess excellent reading and performance skills as well as good voices that projected throughout the large factory floor. In most cases, they were paid by the workers, who contributed a portion of their wages to cover the lectors’ reading time. In turn, workers — not the lector — selected the reading materials democratically.

Not surprisingly, many factory owners viewed lectors with suspicion — as subversives who introduced workers to radical ideas and fomented worker unrest and rebellion. Historian George Pozetta writes:

“The readers in the role of the educator, disseminated ideas to the cigar workers. The lector became a lightning rod for an increasingly militant labor movement…in other words, the reader lights the candle.” (1)

Indeed, lectors became a focal point in two major cigar factory worker strikes — one in 1920 and one in 1931. After the latter, most lectors were removed from cigar factories altogether, thus denying workers easy access to a source of varied and valuable knowledge.

This desire for knowledge of literature, political thought, and current events was not relegated to members of the Cuban diaspora. San Francisco’s California Labor School (CLS), provided this type of intellectual engagement to workers from 1942 through 1957. Founded by a local union chapter, the school taught workers about the workings of the union itself and offered courses in history, economics, literature, theater, and the arts. One of the school’s core aims was to educate workers for democratic participation and to immunize them from fascism and totalitarianism. However, in the context of the Cold War, as McCarthyism gained steam, the U.S. Attorney General designated the CLS as a Subversive Organization, eroding the school’s union support, barring CLS associates from holding federal employment, effectively ending the CLS’s G.I. Bill funding, and revoking its tax-exempt status.

Today, dismissing the value of knowledge in literature, philosophy, and political economy (i.e. “liberal arts’’) for workers continues as a strategy pursued by both liberals and conservatives, albeit with different motivations and under different guises. This is in part because both sides have bought into the notion that there is a vast skills gap in the United States and that the lack or misalignment of education and skills in the labor force is a primary cause of a growing wealth inequality and low levels of economic mobility. The obvious solution is to educate and train people for easily marketable skills so they are ready to compete in an economy awash with good, high-paying jobs.

Today, we have the greatest number of people with postsecondary degrees in history — close to 35% of Americans have Bachelors’ degrees, compared to only 4% in the 1960s — yet average wages have not increased as would be expected if more years of education resulted in significantly higher wages. In California alone, nearly 20% of people with college degrees work for less than $15 an hour.

The problem is that this is a prime example of what Paul Krugman has called a “zombie idea,” an idea that should have been killed by evidence but refuses to die. The firmly entrenched belief in the skills gap should have long been dead, as there is a plethora of data to disprove it. Today, we have the greatest number of people with postsecondary degrees in history — close to 35% of Americans have Bachelors’ degrees, compared to only 4% in the 1960s — yet average wages have not increased as would be expected if more years of education resulted in significantly higher wages. In California alone, nearly 20% of people with college degrees work for less than $15 an hour.Furthermore, historical data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (2) shows a decline in college premiums, a measure that shows the differences in income and wealth between those who do not have degrees and those who do, for every generation since the 1930’s. For African American graduates in the 1930’s college wealth premiums amounted to 600%, meaning your wealth was expected to be 6 times higher if you graduated from college than if you did not. Today, this premium is close to zero!

Looking at differences in wealth premiums is important because wealth, which economists calculate as the sum of one’s assets minus debts, is an indicator of longer-term economic security. Wealth includes such assets as one’s home, savings, pensions, and equity holdings, and largely determines what neighborhood someone lives in, what schools their children attend, the types of social connections they have, and much more. Wealth is what people rely on to weather sudden upheavals: losing a job, coping with an illness, or dealing with some other unexpected financial crises.

By stubbornly buying into and perpetuating the zombie idea that a lack of proper skills is a primary cause of economic inequity and that more education and training is consequently the solution, many US policymakers, philanthropies, and educational leaders have avoided investigating other deep systemic causes of economic inequalities, including highly inequitable corporate structures that prioritize returns to investors rather than to workers; the lack of a solid social safety net enabling access to affordable healthcare, childcare, housing, eldercare, education, and many other public services; and a tax structure that promotes generational wealth transfers and preferences capital holders at the expense of wage earners.

It is understandable that conservatives, whose policy approaches revolve around a belief in personal responsibility and rest on a distaste for investments in public goods, would tout education, upskilling, and retraining as the path to economic mobility. After all, these fit neatly within the narrative of personal responsibility and individual initiative. What is distressing, however, is the degree to which this zombie idea has been taken up on the other side of the political spectrum. In his book, The Education Myth, Jon Shelton, professor at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, documents a 50-year history of Democrats perpetuating the erroneous narrative that access to education by itself will ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to secure a good life. As Shelton writes:

…much like the ancient study of alchemy which sought to turn base metals into gold, this education myth promises to magically help the acquirer overcome any structural impediments — economic downturn, a geographic lack of jobs, and racial inequality…

This is not to downplay the central role of education, and colleges and universities in particular. Education provides numerous benefits to both individuals and society — it helps people better understand themselves and the world around them, provides them with important workplace skills, improves individual and family health outcomes, increases civic participation and tolerance, etc. But try as we might, education and upskilling by themselves simply cannot increase economic mobility or decrease levels of inequality in our society. Shelton argues that fixation on education and upskilling as the number one solution to economic ills not only distracts us from pursuing many other much needed economic and social policy reforms, but it also generates insidious outcomes for individual workers who assign themselves responsibility for their lack of economic security, without an understanding the larger dynamics at work to impoverish them.

There are other insidious consequences when so many across the political spectrum cling to a zombie idea of the skills gap. By narrowing the value of schools, colleges, and universities to the utilitarian needs of employers, we are denying a generation of workers many opportunities for richer, more meaningful, dignified lives, and fuller participation in a democratic society.

One has to wonder if the reframing of liberal arts education as unnecessary — or as propaganda in the case of some conservative politicians and pundits — is a strategy akin to that of the cigar factory owners who prohibited lectors from reading to workers. After all, many employers may not want workers who think critically, who understand history, who can decipher truth from lies, and who advocate for greater democracy at work. Just like factory owners who viewed lectors as subversives sowing dangerous ideas in workers’ minds, some policymakers today are using the myth of skills gap to weaken the ability of our educational institutions to serve as guardians of our democratic systems and values, a vision of education eloquently articulated by FDR decades ago, when he pronounced, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Promoting ignorance is a political strategy practiced by authoritarians throughout the world since time immemorial.

Promoting ignorance is a political strategy practiced by authoritarians throughout the world since time immemorial. Today, what we need is for all those who truly want to make the United States a more perfect union — a more equitable, democratic, multiracial society — to stop perpetuating the myth of the skills gap and to resist the narrow focus on upskilling and retraining as the panacea for curing economic and social inequities in our society.

Some may think that this argument smacks of privilege, and that to make a living people should focus on skills-based training in areas like plumbing or IT, rather than wasting time reading history or philosophy. Indeed, vocational training is important both for individual career paths and for society as a whole — we need plumbers and IT professionals and a score of other skilled workers. But I would also argue that it is equally important for plumbers, electricians, and nurses to be full participants in a democratic society. Why shouldn’t a future plumber or technician be afforded the time and opportunity to study history or literature? This is exactly the kind of education many labor schools, such as the California Labor School (CLS), provided decades ago. The political and liberal arts education workers at CLS got was similar to the kind of education workers in old cigar factories were eagerly getting from their lectors. This is the kind of education many leaders of equitable enterprises — cooperatives, non-profits, community and housing trusts — we interviewed as a part of the Equitable Enterprise Initiative (EEI) are providing to their members today. It is subversive because it opens minds, teaches people to think, question, and participate. It uplifts and liberates rather than dumbs down. It “lights the candle” for positive social change.

For more on this topic tune into our Future Now podcast episode featuring Jon Shelton, author of The Education Myth and look for our next episode with Bill Shields, Chair Emeritus of City College of San Francisco’s labor and community studies program, who discusses the CLS as well as contemporary efforts to include arts and liberal arts education alongside vocational training. Visiting San Francisco? The Tenderloin Museum has an excellent CLS exhibit, Education for Action: California Labor School, 1942–1957.

(1) Labor’s Heritage: A Quarterly of the George Meany Memorial Archives, Spring 1993, Vol. 5, №1

(2) Emmons, W.R., Kent, A.H., Ricketts, L.R. Is College Still Worth It? The New Calculus of Falling Returns, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Fourth Quarter 2019, 101(4), pp. 297–329



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