Educating the “Inferior Classes”

The more Crabby deals with college access issues, the more he finds himself reading and learning about current American educational policies and other issues affecting how our children are taught and expected to “perform.” One of his primary sources is Diane Ravitch’s blog, which not only contains her trenchant observations about education, but also links to other blogs and education “reform” news. (Check out Curmudgucation in particular; a blog after Crabby’s own heart.)

It’s startling and extremely troubling to learn how Bill Gates and other plutocrats are the primary forces behind education “reform.” Whether it’s the Common Core, privatization, attacks on teachers’ unions, or increased standardized testing, even for third graders, education is being treated less as a common good than as a way to create a compliant population. And this situation makes it tougher for those without access to good educational resources to meet the intellectual challenges that will greet them in any college worthy of the name.

Crabby and others have noted before that classrooms for the less-privileged seem geared primarily to foster obedience and “performance,” not thinking or curiosity. The increased emphasis on testing and other repetitive and non-imaginative tasks puts students without privilege more and more behind their peers when it comes time for college. (Crabby believes that nine times out of ten it is policy, not teachers, that are the problem here…)

Overwhelmingly, college access programs talk about helping these students become “college and career ready,” not so much about being “educated.” A really good education might cause them to question the status quo, imagine political or economic realities different from those that prevail, or to truly take their places as genuine leaders, not simply worker bees without the ability to be self-defining or self-advocating.

In the world of billionaires, the rest of us need merely to be adequate to our tasks and know our places. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens summarizes this outlook succinctly. Paul Dombey, the head of a prosperous company, sees everything, even his personal relationships, in the context of his business affairs. Interviewing a woman (whose married name is Toots but whom he arbitrarily renames Richards) to be a nanny for his newborn son, Paul, he says,”

“I am far from being friendly,…to what is called by persons of leveling sentiments, general education. But it is necessary that the inferior classes should continue to be taught to know their position, and to conduct themselves properly. So far I approve of schools.”

For Dombey, it’s sufficient for schools to educate the “inferior classes” just enough for them to know their place, which would be primarily to serve the likes of him. Crabby can’t imagine a better summary of the current “reform” movement or even the programs that provide college access primarily for the sake of career development.

Those of us with “leveling sentiments” challenge the hierarchy by advocating for “general education,” instead of training or simply educating the few who can afford it. We prefer to believe that the American experiment is best served by adhering to Thomas Jefferson’s view of education:

…experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes; And whereas it is generally true that that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked:…

For Jefferson, it was essential to find and educate the best minds “at the common expence of all” and from whatever circumstances, in order to guard against tyranny and create a just society. (Citation taken from Ravitch’s blog.) If we are simply training students for “careers,” and if we are letting plutocrats and well-connected bureaucrats with no educational backgrounds dictate the boundaries of that education, simply providing access to college for the “inferior classes” is not nearly enough to provide “wise and honest” leadership now and in the future. We are all “called to that charge” to see that education on both sides of the high school-to-college path enables us to develop individuals who “become useful instruments for the public,” i.e., active citizens, not compliant drones for mega-corporations and faceless bureaucracies or mindless consumers for whom shopping is the highest calling.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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