Every time I hear a candidate tout "college for all" as an economic and social panacea, something inside me balks, even as huge cheers come up from the audiences gathered for Democratic primary debates. But I hadn't been able to put my finger on my unease until I read "Educated Fools," Thomas Geoghegan's provocative and illuminating essay in The New Republic.
I can't count the number of times I've heard progressives puzzling over a question they find baffling: why did so many working-class people vote against their own economic interests, supporting #IMPOTUS, a plutocrat whose clearly evident agenda is to enrich the members of his own class at their expense?
Geoghegan pulls back on the curtain on the obliviousness and self-regard behind that question, explaining what ought to be obvious. Having abandoned even a pretense of the attitudes that animated progressive politics in years gone by—proclaiming the dignity of labor, fighting for decent compensation and working conditions, aligning not with some vast and amorphous middle class but with the working class—partyline Democrats have hit on access to higher education as the solution to inequality. For people who work in factories, service jobs, in construction—in wage-based fields where folks who are part of the 70 percent of the population without a four-year college degree are supervised by degree-holders unlikely to have themselves performed the tasks their credentials supposedly qualify them to oversee—being told that college for all is the solution equals being told you are deficient, your work is unworthy, and sadly, it is too late for you to do anything about it.
Geoghegan describes the message as "imitate us." As a tactic for retaining or recruiting voters, it's hard to know how the Democrats could do worse.
Geoghegan makes many points worth reading and considering in full. If you are running for office as a Democrat or working with or for anyone who is, please stop whatever you are doing and read it now.
I've been thinking and writing about related questions for some time. The puzzle pieces are all there, from the instructive example of Hollywood celebrity Felicity Huffman and her ilk, for whom being educated means being guaranteed a place among the elite, something the privileged are so desperate to have that in Hollywood, she and others got caught paying bribes to get their kids into elite schools, earning the scheme’s mastermind more than $25 million.
It's not as if this is an aberration. To the contrary, it’s one facet of a culling system disguising privilege as altruism. Jared Kushner’s father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard right before his underachieving son applied; David E. Shaw has donated one million dollars a year to six elite schools since his oldest child was a high school sophomore. Up to 30% of elite college admissions are legacies, getting a leg up because their ancestors are alumni. To them, education means entitlement to cut in line for the rest of their lives.
I have nothing but good to say about the quest for knowledge, whether undertaken in elite institutions, community colleges, or the privacy of one's own home. But the cultural meaning, the taint of elitism attaching ever more strongly to higher education, are not incidental. They are are clear and core and key to the obstacles to a democratic future. And they are reflected in the fact while 70 percent of high school graduates enter college, a large number of first-generation college students drop out—many after the first year, others along the way—arguably because their appallingly underfunded and inadequately imagined K-12 educations have not prepared them to succeed in that system, particularly facing the embedded racism and class prejudice rampant at many such institutions.
One of Geoghegan's most important points is that there is indeed a type of education to which access ought to be easy and universal, and it is education for democratic citizenship, full cultural participation, for a say in a collective future in which all work is valued, not just what has come to be called the knowledge economy. He offers a fascinating analysis of the types of obedience and subservience encouraged by the authoritarian style of employment and workplace powerlessness so widely accepted in this country. He has a ton of great examples of alternative approaches that have a foothold in other countries, but not here.
Countries with democratic workplaces are more likely to have higher class mobility; and those, like our own, with more authoritarian workplaces trap generation after generation with no way out, even as we push education as the answer. Yet education is only the answer if we start with changing the narrow roles of people in the workplace, and give them more responsibility....[D]emocracy in education requires democracy in the workplace, and vice versa. It’s a simple continuous loop.
Geoghegan makes it clear that without drastically changing that culture, without radically rethinking dominant working relationships, offering working people college as the antidote to economic insecurity has little meaning. In fact, he states correctly that the economic value of a college education depends on its scarcity:
As we force more people into college, the class that has a stake in pumping up the college premium, or the increment over what working-class people get, becomes correspondingly more powerful. That is, the more the members of this class have to invest in themselves by going to college, the more they will want to see a college premium, a return on their investment, at least for the time they and their children have spent out of the workforce. That’s the class we’re building up. That class—the one even the hard left itself is trying to build up—has no stake in letting the high school graduates do anything to decrease that premium. The more Obama and you and I tout college, the more we are committed to the project of pushing up that premium to justify a college education—and to make the life prospects of working people even worse.
College for all also justifies a top-down corporate structure where college graduates supervise those without four-year degrees. It makes sense for the Knowledge Economy’s management caste to ensure that the workplace is even less democratic, with even less agency for those whom the college graduates supervise.
You and I can say #IMPOTUS was lying in his many declarations of love and caring for working people. But when you look at political campaigning through Geoghegan's lens, you see that the Liar-in-Chief is careful not to talk down to working-class voters, while the same cannot be said for the candidates I've seen on the primary debate stage.
The story of how this intersects with race and immigration is more complex than Geoghegan's treatment. I might disagree here and there with his emphasis, with his certainty that few educated liberals intersect with high school graduates as peers and intimates, for example. But that in no way contradicts his critically important point: Democrats have become "the party that makes working people feel bad about themselves....In this ever-mushrooming economy that is replacing the old one, in which knowledge is power, and data governs all, working people are told they are merely superfluous."
There's time for candidates to take this seriously and make clear a powerful new commitment to the dignity of labor, to an inclusive and equitable economy, to remaking the institutions that devalue lived knowledge and valorize credentialed expertise. It's been a long time since I've seen anything else that makes this as clear as "Educated Fools."
So come on people
This is our mission
Open up your eyes and see
We know they do not know what they do
But they lie every day to me and you
These educated fools