For most of its history the United States has far surpassed other nations in offering its citizens genuine social mobility. That is the essential meaning of the “American dream.” Now, though, many nations surpass the United States in giving their people opportunities for bettering themselves in the sense of moving up the socio-economic ladder.
This is a truly astonishing change in America’s relative standing in the world. If it persists it will play havoc with our unwritten social contract, which condones gross inequalities only as long as everyone has a reasonable chance to compete and to win. An America in which income inequality grows inexorably while the opportunities to win through hard work and strong motivation shrink, is a nation on a sure path to trouble.
The cause of the threat to equality of opportunity in the United States is not subtle or hidden. It lies open for all to see. It is the failure of the American education system. Americans almost universally hold the belief that education is the royal road to social mobility. Faith in education is a major feature of our unwritten social contact. But the reality is that the schools are failing a huge swathe of Americans —the entire bottom half of the income scale.Tens of millions of young Americans are educationally unprepared to compete in today’s economy and society.
More than three decades ago, a national commission wrote a report on the state of the American education system called “Nation At Risk.” The report famously stated that if a foreign government had done to our education system what we ourselves had done, it would be regarded as an act of war. This is unusually vivid language for a bureaucratic report. It expressed horror and amazement at our neglect of our own education system. In the intervening three decades since this wakeup call, and despite lots of costly reforms, the state of our education system is arguably worse today than it was at the time the Nation At Risk report was issued.
That the problem is a wicked one to solve goes without saying. Teachers and their unions who get the brunt of criticism for the failure of our schools in low-income areas are justifiably resentful. They feel they are being blamed for the poverty and family instability that burden their students, and that there are limits to the abilities of teachers to counteract these fundamental obstacles.
This argument would carry more weight if the teachers’ unions who represent the teachers had clean hands. But they do not. For all too long the teachers’ unions have been part of the problem, not part of the solution. They have relentlessly put the interest of teachers (even poorly qualified ones) ahead of student well being.
Realistically, even if the teachers’ unions magically began to represent the interests of students as well as teachers, they alone cannot do what needs to be done. Nor can government by itself do what needs to be done.
The responsibility for recreating social mobility in America cannot be delegated to any one segment of society. But no segment of our society has a greater stake in finding a solution than our economic system. If democratic capitalism is to endure and maintain its vitality, our economic institutions must play a leadership role in seizing the initiative. They will do so only if and when they realize that citizen acceptance of a capitalist economy depends utterly on restoring America’s great tradition of social mobility through education. tj
This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.
To order Issue 270, click here.