Tuesday, March 3, 2015

American Inequality: A Tale of Two Nations and a School House Divided

Recently, a number of conservatives have been trying to explain away America's income inequality problem. One of them is Niall Ferguson, professor of History at Harvard University. In short, Ferguson believes that incomes are distributed among two kinds of people: those of superior intelligence, whom he refers to as the "cognitive elites," and those of  inferior intelligence found among the lower class. For him, the growing  financial differences between these two groups is, to put it simply, a byproduct of good breeding. 

To support his claim that the biggest bank accounts belong to people with the biggest brains, Ferguson relies on a recent book by Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute. You may remember Murray from his previous book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Published in 1994, it was highly controversial for its assertions about racial differences in intelligence and its broader implications. In short, Murray and his psychologist coauthor Richard J. Herrnstein, argued that our IQ is determined and limited by our genes. Hence, they claim that people are born with all the intellectual ability they will ever possess, and wealth distribution is simply evidence of this evolutionary process.

Naturally, dozens of studies, books, and papers, were produced in response to such claims. Some supported the claim that IQ was directly tied to both genetics and racial differences, while others demonstrated how such studies were not only racially motivated, but were based on scholarship that was “shockingly incomplete and biased.” Additionally, while some research has supported the idea that our IQ is affixed, other evidence showed that it wasn’t ( More can be found on such ideas here and here ).

Nevertheless, Ferguson claims that Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, offers “by far the best available analysis of modern American Inequality.” And he explains why:

Like Disraeli, Murray sees two nations where there used to be just one: a new upper class or “cognitive elite”—to be precise, the top 5 percent of people in managerial occupations and the professions—and a new “lower class,” which he is too polite to give a name. The upper class has gotten rich mainly because the financial returns on brainpower have risen steeply since the 1960s. At the same time, elite universities like Harvard (where I teach and where Murray studied) have gotten better at attracting the smartest students. The fact that these students are very often the offspring of better-off families reflects the fact that (as Murray puts it) “the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.” They do this because smart people tend to marry other smart people and produce smart children.[i] 

As Ferguson puts it, Murray believes America needs "a kind of civic Great Awakening - a return to the republic's original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith." Aside from the unfortunate fact that such claims sound eerily similar to the book, My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding, by former Ku Klux Klansman, David Duke, what Murray fails to explain is  how "a return to ... family, vocation, community, and faith" will grant 90% of Americans admission to "elite universities like Harvard."  

What's more, Murray simply switches the effect of an education system that is designed to turn the majority of people into Prussian style worker bees, as John Taylor Gatto has pointed out, and turned it into the "cause" of income inequality. In truth, despite attempts by Ferguson and Murray to hoodwink people with their bait-and-switch style reasoning, such racist attempts to blame the victims of income inequality are simply their attempt to hide from people the fact that the real "cause" of what Murray points out, is a system "intelligently designed" to create and maximize such inequality in the first place.   

Instead, like creationism repacked as "intelligent design," Murray repackages income inequality in the intellectual Darwinism of “cognitive elites.” But new bottles can hardly sweeten the taste of the same old sour grapes, be they pseudo-religious or potentially racist. Although Ferguson and Murray don their ideas in the white lab coats of science, their claims are about as inconspicuous as a burning cross. Indeed, it is to explain income inequality in terms of a cognitive phrenology.  

One need not look far to find evidence that undermines such claims, however. For example, anyone who read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis - the non-fiction book about the build-up of the housing and credit bubble during the 2000s, which spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list - knows that many of the people making the most money in America today hardly qualify as "cognitive elites." Nor would anyone confuse Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton for the likes of Socrates and Plato. 

What's more, Daniel Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence, directly challenges many of Murray's assumptions about the relationship between intelligence and financial success. As Goleman details extensively, researchers have discovered that the most important factor in determining a persons success is not their cognitive intelligence, contrary to what Ferguson and Murray claim, but rather their emotional intelligence.  

Murray likewise claims that "cognitive elites" tend to be people who have more religious "faith." Yet a number of research studies show that atheists tend to have IQ's that are at least 6 points higher than the that of "beleivers." Additionally, data collected for the Global Index of Religiosity & Atheism showed that, as they put it, "the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself."

Hence, “cognitive elites” are not necessarily the result of “smart people” being more religious or having children with superior intelligence, but are more likely the result of an America that suffers from at least as much inequality in its education system as it does in its distribution of wealth.  And if America is ever going to tackle the one, it must first deal with the other.


Murray is correct to notice the “two nations” emerging within America today, only the difference in “brainpower” between those nations is not necessarily a reflection of differences in genetic intelligence but in education. The “two nations” Murray refers to, in other words, are the product of what Lou Harris described as “a two-tiered public school system: one for the more affluent, who enjoy the privileges of a relatively healthy educational environment, and the other for the least privileged, who suffer an educational environment that virtually forecloses their chance of learning.”

In their book, Urban Schools: Crisis and Revolution, James Deneen and Carmen Catanese explained how such a system contributes to creating a new slave system in America:

During a recent education conference at Princeton University, one speaker referred to America’s urban schools as “a new form of slavery.” The great majority of Black and Latino students are trapped in schools that don’t provide the learning they need to lead dignified and productive lives. They are being equipped to perform society’s least desirable work at minimal wages, and condemned to lives of depending that can readily turn to bitterness and despair. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to term this reality an enslavement of the majority of children in our impoverished major cities.[iii]

Such findings are not new. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, 2001-2002, for example, found that the U.S ranked “dead last among developed countries when it comes to the difference in the quality of schools available to rich vs. poor children.”

This fact has been long understood, and was illustrated in a study prepared for by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF), Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education: A Two-Tiered Education System. Among other things, that reported stated:

 The President’s Commission on Education Resource Equity declared in 2001, (that) long-standing gaps in access to educational resources exist, including disparities based on race and ethnicity. These economic reports are new, but the news is not. Thirty years ago, the Presidential Commission on School Finance found that disparities in educational resource distribution among public school districts resulted from a reliance on local district financing for educational revenues. Since that time, there have been lawsuits in forty-five states targeted at remedies for unequal and inadequate funding of public schools.[iv]

As the director of the Education Trust, Kati Haycock, put it, “The fact is, we have organized our education system in this country so that we take children who have less to begin with and then turn around and give them less in school, too. Indeed, we give these children less of all the things that both research and experience tell us make a difference.[v]

It is these differences, and not racial or genetic differences in intelligence, that have caused “two nations” to emerge within America. Indeed, such a conclusion had already been reached in 2002 by Harris, a nationally recognized pollster, after he had conducted a series of surveys “in California, New York, and Wisconsin on working conditions – the physical environment, resources, and professional atmosphere – that shape the quality of teaching and learning opportunities available in American schools.”[vi] In some ways, his conclusions, while stark in their own right, seem to be the bases from which Murray draws many of his own ideas. As Harris states:

It is perfectly obvious that the highest-at-risk students have the poorest, most rundown physical environments, the greatest instability of teachers coming and going, the fewest fully qualified teachers, a shortage of textbooks and instructional materials, far less availability of technology in the classroom, overcrowded classes, poor working conditions for the teachers, and fewer resources to teach students to pass tests that they have little chance of being properly prepared to take. To compare these schools with those serving the most affluent majority of students is akin to comparing a backward, emerging nation with a highly industrial nation. It is no contest.[vii] (Emphasis added)

Nor are these profound inequalities limited to grade schools and high schools around the country. We see such inequality in higher education as well.  


The April 2012 Center for Higher Education report reveals another level of education inequality.  In it, the author and Researcher Dr. Gary Rhodes observed a "complicated cascade effect." As explained on BeThink.org  by Betsy L. Angert, in her article, How America's 2-tiered Education System and Perceptions Perpetuate  Inequality:

Community colleges which serve 44 percent of current college enrollees, are chronically underfunded, just as their students before and after enrollment are under-served. Most of the money that supports higher education flows to elite research universities, not to the community colleges or the state schools that educate large numbers of Americans.  The divide might be most evident in the value diverential.   The direct and indirect help Princeton receives, including tax breaks, is near $54,000 a year per student in federal subsidies. "The College of New Jersey, a public institution a mere 12 miles away, receives a total of about $1,600 a year per student in federal and state subsidies."[viii]

Even Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate of Economics and darling of Conservatives everywhere, pointed out 20 years ago that America’s failing education system was creating “two nations” by directly contributing this country’s growing economic divide. As he put it:
If the widening of the wage differential is allowed to proceed unchecked, it threatens to create within our own country a social problem of major proportions. We shall not be willing to see a group of our population move into Third World conditions at the same time that another group of our population becomes increasingly well off. Such stratification is a recipe for social disaster.[ix]

The solution offered by conservatives like Friedman, however, is “quite predictably” privatization. The comments above, for example, appeared in an article written by Friedman for the Washington Post on February 19, 1995, entitled “Public Schools: Make Them Private.[x]  This push to privatize education (and pretty much everything else) is what the Executive Director of Better Education for Kids, Derrell Bradford described as the “national debate ... that involves powerful special interests and a struggle for control of public education that spends half a trillion dollars every year.”[xi]  

Yet rather than spending that half a trillion dollars on trying to eradicate education inequality, it has been used to seize control of America's education system overall. Where is all that money coming from in this massive push to privatize public schools? Yep, you guess it: the super-rich. They’re not doing it because they care so much about education. Instead, they’re interested in education because it’s the golden ticket to obtaining everything else.

As has been pointed out: "Much of the vast new wealth of the super-rich is being used for the purpose of educational 'reform.' Rupert Murdoch called K-12 "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed." Forbes added, "The charter school movement [is] quickly becoming a backdoor for corporate profit." Most recently, the Wall Street Journal reported, "As states race to implement the Common Core academic standards, companies are fighting for a slice of the accompanying testing market, expected to be worth billions of dollars in coming years."' [xii]

In addition to the promise of untold billions of dollars that can be made in education, private education allows the “principle architects of policy” to design the kind of education system that will provide them with exactly the kind of worker bees they need. After all, this is what The Trilateral Commission, which was founded by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller in 1973, sought to provide.  As Noam Chomsky out it:

  •  [The Trilateral Commission] was concerned with trying to induce what they called ‘more moderation in democracy’ – turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on – they’re not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better.[xiii]
And of course, there's no better way to "control" people then through education, or as they put it, "indoctrination." But indoctrination is the very opposite of education, as the latter aims to "enlighten" people so they can think for themselves, while the former is specifically designed to prevent such a thing from happening in the first place. In fact, indoctrination not only discourages people from thinking for themselves, it prevents them from questioning the systems they inhabit. On the contrary, it encourages and "teaches" people to think the way the system wants them to think. It does this so people will ultimately come to depend on and defend those systems, no matter how unjust they may be. And by privatizing education, teachers are transformed from educators into indoctrinators, as they become answerable solely to the very corporate powers that benefit the most from the system as it is.

 Today, that system is designed to maximize wealth for the very few at ever growing expense to a great many. And in a privatized education system, any teacher who dares to challenge or disagree with such a system, no matter how slight, could be summarily fired. Anyone who taught people to think for themselves, in other words, could be handled like Socrates, and forced to drink the hemlock of a pink slip.

 In such a system, free speech, which is the very lifeblood of democracy, becomes muted as "the market place of ideas" is subordinated to serve those who control the market place itself, like a child gripping his own mother by the throat and forbidding her from speaking against his every desire.  Indeed, such a person would certainly never be allowed to attend, let alone teach, at "elite Universities like Harvard."

But then again, what do I know. I've never even been to Boston. And I have the income to prove it. 

Niall Ferguson: http://www.newsweek.com/niall-ferguson-conservative-take-americas-economic-divide-64165

On the problems with The Bell Curve:
- http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2005/10/moral_courage.html
- http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/23/magazine/23wwln_idealab.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

[i] http://www.newsweek.com/niall-ferguson-conservative-take-americas-economic-divide-64165
[ii] http://candisbest.com/2/post/2014/02/americas-two-tiered-education-system.html
[iii] Urban Schools: Crisis and Revolution, by James Deneen, Carmen Catanese, page 1.
[iv] Fifty Years After. Brown v. Board of Education: A Two-Tiered Education System. Prepared for the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. Page 29.
[v] Haycock, K. (2004, May 12). A 50-state look at achievement, attainment, and opportunity gaps [press release]. Washington, DC: Education Trust. Available: www2.edtrust.org/EdTrust/Press+Room/2004+reports.htm
[vi] Fifty Years After. Brown v. Board of Education: A Two-Tiered Education System. Prepared for the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
[vii] Harris, New York survey (July 2002), p.20.
[viii] http://www.bethink.org/diary/1314/how-americas-2tiered-education-system-and-perceptions-perpetuate-inequality
[ix] Id.
[x] http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp-023.html
[xi] Urban Schools: Crisis and Revolution, by James Deneen, Carmen Catanese, Preface.
[xii] http://www.alternet.org/education/reality-tale-two-education-systems-one-poor-and-one-rest
[xiii] http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/work_learning_and_freedom

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