Episode 166: The Convenient Conventional Wisdom of "Education as Great Equalizer" Appeals


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"Education... is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery," stated school reformer Horace Mann in 1848. "Math is the great equalizer," preached Jaime Escalante, Edward James Olmos’ character, in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. "The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education," announced Barack Obama during his 2010 State of the Union address. This message is everywhere, pervading political speeches, Oscar-bait films, think-tank papers, and everything in between. The key to economic upward mobility—we’re endlessly told, is education—a societal building block that is, or at least should be, accessible to every child, no matter their race, gender, or income level. It's a seductive, seemingly unassailable conceit, suggesting that we live in a meritocracy where second chances and generational wealth-building are possible, even probable, with a few simple tools. But is there any truth to this idea? There’s a growing body of evidence showing that education level does not, in fact, necessarily translate to higher wages. Which raises the questions: Why has the idea that education is the ultimate anti-poverty tool persisted? Whose interests are served in its continuation? And who, in turn, pays the price? On this episode, the Season Six premiere of Citations Needed, we detail and debunk the widespread conventional wisdom that education is the rising tide that lifts all boats, looking at the ways it reinforces themes of individualism and personal responsibility; obscures systemic issues like racism and worker exploitation in the labor market; and ultimately keeps people entrenched in, rather than liberating them from, poverty and low-wage work. Our guest is Lake Forest professor Cristina Viviana Groeger.

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