What Are We Defending When We Defend Public Higher Education?: Or, How Frances Fox Piven Blew My Mind a Little Bit

This was a question that came up frequently during the Defending Public Higher Ed Conference at the Graduate Center earlier this month. Let’s linger on it a bit. What does higher education do that is worth defending?

There were many thoughtful answers at the conference, including from scholars like Michelle Fine who advised us to reclaim the idea of education as a public good, something that doesn’t just empower a few individuals to succeed in the new economy, but is part of a collective, democratic endeavor to create a more equitable society.

Sounds great to me. Where do I sign up?

A different kind of answer (though it is really more of a question, which is why it is so brilliant) came from GC Professor Frances Fox Piven who, I have to say, blew my mind a little bit. In remarks that seemed to come off the top of her head, Piven explained how the global economy, which has spawned a new kind of predatory capitalism, has changed her thinking about the role of education in society. “We used to think,” she explained, “the ruling class wanted to use education to reproduce the class structure. Now I’m not sure they’re interested in reproducing anything.”

I almost fell of my chair when she said that. It was just an off-hand remark, but I think it has enormous implications.

Reproduction Theory in Education

Piven’s use of the word ‘reproduce’ is key because it refers to a branch of social theory with a long history. The theorist who popped into my head immediately was Louis Althusser who, in the 1970′s, described schooling as the central mechanism in a system of “ideological-state apparatuses” that shapes perception and identity. We might say that Althusser was interested in the role of ideology – how people imagine their relationship to the material world – in class reproduction. He was describing, in short, how education inculcates ideologies which help ensure that the sons of firefighters usually grow up to be firefighters and the sons of investment bankers grow up to be investment bankers.

The threads of Althusserian thought are everywhere. Many scholars have used his theory as a lens to examine the relationship between schools and the economy.

A famous example is Samuel Bowles’ and Herbert Gintis’s widely-read Schooling in Capitalist America, also from the 1970′s. These economists were definitely channeling Althusser when they came up with the “correspondence principle,” which posits that schools are organized like and reflect the values of the capitalist labor structure. Thus, when children go to school, they are learning how to behave in their eventual jobs. Other theorists built on this model, including Michael Apple whose Curriculum and Ideology describes how “everyday school practices are linked to economic social and ideological structures outside of school buildings.”

For educators, one of the most important tests of the Althusser/Bowles and Gintis/Apple hypotheses about the role of education in class reproduction is Jean Anyon’s influential essay, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.”

In this article from 1980, Anyon reports on a study of five elementary schools representing different social classes ranging from working class schools (where most of the kids’ parents were manual laborers and service workers) to elite academies (where most kids’ fathers were top executives). Anyon found that working-class schools prepared children to obey rules and follow step-by-step procedures, for example. By contrast, students in the wealthy schools were taught to think for themselves, to lead others, and to eventually take up positions of power and authority in society. Anyon’s findings prompted her to propose the thesis of the “hidden curriculum” wherein “children encounter curricula in school that orients them towards assuming their parents’ social class positions when they grow up.”

Of course, there are plenty of very good critiques of reproduction theory in education and policy circles. Basically, thinking about schools in an Althusserian fashion leaves little room for an account of human agency, resistance, or just plain creativity on the part of individuals within limiting circumstances. That’s why some scholars inspired by Althusser et al have gone on to write accounts of non-elites masterfully subverting the roles imposed on them. James C Scott’s research on “hidden transcripts” and Mary Louise Pratt’s work on “autoethnography” are two examples.

Reproduction theories are complex and nuanced. They are not unassailable, nor have they gone unchallenged. I discuss them here to show why I think Piven’s remark that the ruling class “no longer wants to reproduce anything” was so incredible: it challenges a whole body of research. Would it be accurate to say that she dismissed decades of scholarly literature in a single sentence? If so, where does that leave us? Have the Althusserians been wrong all along?

To answer that question, we must go deeper into what Piven’s comment really means. If the ruling class doesn’t want to reproduce anything, what do they want? Before we can ask what they want, we have to ask, who are they? To figure that out, I turn to a fantastic book by Shamus Rahman Khan called Privilege.

Who is the New Ruling Class?

Khan, a Sociology professor at Columbia University, went to high school at the elite boarding school, St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire. Later, he went back there to teach and to write a book about how the school grooms its elite students to become wealthy power brokers in society.

In a recent video, Khan discusses many of the ideas in his book, including how the culture of St. Paul’s contributes to the development of elite identity.

First of all, Khan explains, students have to work extraordinarily hard to get into St. Paul’s. The school has an acceptance rate of 14%. Parents devote tremendous resources in the form of tutoring and summer camps, etc, to get their kids in.

When students arrive on campus, they are surrounded by what Khan calls an “intentional community of diversity.” There are lots of rich white kids, of course, but there are students from diverse backgrounds too. (Khan explains that St. Paul’s does a good job of recruiting talented students from non-elite families.) Diversity is good a thing. But an “intentional community of diversity” also perpetuates a narrative that St. Paul’s is a meritocracy, meaning the students there are the best of the best. The experience of being admitted to St. Paul’s, in other words, is the first of many cumulative experiences which inspire privileged students to think, “‘I’ve really made it because I’m smart and I worked hard.”

The result is that “Paulie’s” believe they got where they are because of effort. They do not believe they achieved high status because of class advantages, because they’re white and male, or even because they were born to the right people. They believe they are victors of a meritocratic race to the top. (You can also read about this phenomenon in Walter Benn Michaels’ The Trouble with Diversity.)

Because elites believe they are uniquely deserving of their rank, the cultural markers of elite status are not what they used to be. Becoming an elite is not about learning cognitive skills, developing a love of opera, or any of the other tastes formerly associated with elitedom. Cultivating privilege today, Khan writes, is about learning how to communicate ease. It’s about learning how to naturally be who they were obviously meant to be: rich, influential, deserving. “Here,” Khan explains, “the new elite seem to think much like optimistic Americans of all classes: though hierarchy may be a structure that marks the world, it is not the one that makes it. Rather, inequality is a result of the characteristics of individuals – their hard work, their choices, and even their luck.”

The problem with thinking that all class differences are indications of merit, Khan emphasizes, is that members of the new elite are wrong about how opportunity is distributed in America. People’s positions are a result of their group memberships, not individual merit.

In reality, mobility in America is actually very low. It’s lower than it is in Europe, in fact. An American-born person’s status at birth still largely determines where he or she will end up. Khan explains why this is important: “if you believe in a world of individual merit, people who don’t succeed just didn’t seize the opportunities.” That means, people who are poor or unemployed have no one but themselves to blame. In fact, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain recently said exactly that in an interview: “If you’re unemployed, blame yourself.” The corollary to that statement is, “if you’re rich and powerful, you deserve to be.” Those statements succinctly characterize the perspective of the new ruling class.

Atlantic Magazine’s Profile of the Super Rich

In case Khan’s brilliant research isn’t enough, there is further evidence of the new global elite in a great article about them in the Atlantic. Chrystia Freeland interviewed members of the super-rich who hang out in Davos and Aspen rubbing elbows with other people like themselves.

Freeland confirms Khan’s thesis when she reports that many members of the new elite have high-powered jobs rather than inherited wealth. For them, “a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard – especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers – can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others.”

“What is more relevant to our times, though,” Freeland continues, “is that . . . hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats . . . feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition – and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.”

Of course they are absolutely and totally 100% wrong about this. Freelander quotes two well-known economists, Picketty and Saez, who explain that “between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population.” Workers around the world are producing a lot of wealth, but they are not getting their fair share back.

Now I will get back to the point of this post, which is about how the identity and values of the new elite might inform our thinking about the relationship between education and class reproduction.

Okay So The New Elite Believe They Are Just Smarter and More Hardworking Than Everyone Else: How Does That Help Explain Why They No Longer Want to Reproduce Anything?

I emailed Piven to ask her what she meant when she said what she said because I was so intrigued by it. She replied, “I meant short time horizons and shallow roots so [the ruling class] is much less interested in investing in the education and health of American working people.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! According to Freeland, there are a lot of first- or second -generation folks among the new elite, which means they don’t have deep roots in any kind of aristocracy. They’re not the Kennedys or the Rockefellers. They also mostly think they work harder than everyone else, which is why they are in charge. The culture of the new elite explains why the ruling class is no longer interested in reproducing anything. Why should they be concerned with long-term reproduction of the class structure when individuals get where they’re going on their own merits nowadays and poverty is basically a character defect? One doesn’t need schools to reproduce class if there are no meaningful classes anymore, only individuals who work hard or don’t.

See, it all makes perfect sense!

Piven wasn’t dismissing all reproduction theory in a sentence. The ruling class may not think that class matters, but it does. In that case, then, Piven was suggesting something even more daring. She was challenging us to completely reimagine how reproduction works in relation to education. It’s not that Althusser or Anyon or Bowles and Gintis weren’t right; they just aren’t as right now as they were before. We have to theorize the relationship between education and class reproduction in new ways by taking into account the culture of elites and the ideology of meritocracy and rugged individualism that rules the world.

I began this post by asking a question that came up frequently at the CUNY Defending Public Higher Ed Conference: What does public education do that is worth defending? (We might even remove the word ‘public’ and simply ask what higher ed of any sort does, or might be made to do.)

There are many good answers. But one of them is that higher ed should be working against the grain of the ideology that everybody gets what they deserve in the end and the very wealthy, who orchestrated the largest financial collapse since the Great Depression and then ran off with the spoils, are just smarter and more hardworking than everybody else. Higher ed’s role might include helping us all remember that we are part of something larger than ourselves, and those memberships matter because they still largely determine our fate.

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