Education Alone Doesn't Bring Social Mobility

Character is more important for success than education.

We've described conservative horror at the disintegration of our public education system.  Our foreign competitors are educating their children far more effectively than we are.  Lack of skilled workers threatens to set us back economically.

Now that Republican-offered ideas about education have been shown to work, conservatives can appeal to lower income voters by promising to improve the educational opportunities offered to inner city children.  Democrats can't do that because improving schools offends their staunch supporters in the teachers' unions.

The Perils of Meritocracy

We observed that our merit-based political system had abandoned former rules of behavior which tried to prevent the worst abuses of power.  The Economist presented another problem of a merit-based society:

"MERITOCRACY" tends to be spoken of approvingly these days. Its ascendancy is seen as a measure of progress.  In the dark ages, the dumb scions of the aristocracy inherited their seats on cabinets and on the boards of great companies.  These days, people succeed through brains and hard work.

Yet the man who invented the word meant it as a pejorative term.  In "The Rise of the Meritocracy," published in 1958, Michael Young, a British sociologist and Labour Party activist, painted a futuristic picture of a dystopian Britain, where the class-based elite had been replaced with a hierarchy of talent.  Democracy was dispensed with.  Clever children were siphoned into special schools and showered with resources.  The demoralized talentless masses eventually revolted.

How could an aristocracy of talent and merit be worse than the old nobility?  In the old days, people inherited wealth and political power.  This tended to keep the upper classes on top and the lower classes on the bottom, but the hereditary system broke down when an heir was dumb enough:

An aristocracy that gambled its money away on "wine, women and song" has been replaced by a business-school-educated elite whose members marry one another and spend their money wisely on Mandarin lessons and Economist subscriptions for their children.

Although our ruling elites often behave badly - Ted Kennedy's and Bill Clinton's many sexual escapades come to mind - they've insulated their money from the consequences of irresponsibility.  They've set up trust funds which lock money away from boneheaded behavior and move money offshore where it can't be taxed away.

Not only that, the majority of wealth in the United States at least was earned by the current owners.  Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos were upper middle class at best and earned billions by their own efforts.

What distinguishes these men, as the Economist points out, is that their parents jointly lavished resources on education.  Bill Gates, for example, went to a cutting-edge private school where he was introduced to computers.  The rest is history.

Partly because so many poor children grow up in single-parent homes where they don't get the intensive coaching richer students get, the gap in test scores between rich and poor has increased 30-40% over the past 25 years.

The Economist argues that more resources ought to be put into education.  Americans are beginning to agree that our schools are broken, but even very good schools can't do what needs to be done.

Character Counts

The Economist reviewed a book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character" which told of a group of low-income black and Hispanic students who graduated from a KIPP-based (Knowledge Is Power Program) high school.  Although the students scored 5th highest in the New York City school system and many won full scholarships, only about a fifth had graduated six years after entering college.

Most dropped out, showing that even intensive college preparation can't make up for missing personality traits like an ability to stay focused and control impulses.  The KIPP students who finished college weren't the smartest, but those who were most focused and best able to overcome failure and keep plugging.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, Mr. Obama recognized the importance of a child's first few years of learning.  Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the vital role of traditional family structure in disciplining kids and instilling what Confucius called virtue, he proposed yet another federal program.  Study after study has shown that the benefits of Head Start, our existing early intervention program, disappear after a year or two.  Why would we expect that yet another government program would do any better?

The Economist seconded our statement of the problem:

American conservatives say the answer lies in boosting marriage; the left focuses on redistribution.

Welfare and crooked Democratic politics are destroying our cities.  How can even more redistribution help?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

How will a hand up help the poor?

Not sure, Mr. Offensicht

Probably in much the same way that more tax cuts for the already-far-too-wealthy will solve their obvious character flaws.

February 19, 2013 2:03 PM

"How will a hand up help the poor?" = "How can even more redistribution help?" Really?

Obviously the reader did not use any objective critical thinking and was unwilling to understand the facts. Apparently the only conclusion was a knee-jerk reaction espousing "poor vs rich" rhetoric.

This proverb might make it easier to understand: "give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, teach a man how to fish..." ughhhhh, I give up, it's a waste of time. Let's just throw money at the problem, decades of failed policies and poverty are all the proof needed that money (from the rich, of course) is the answer.

February 19, 2013 2:39 PM
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