Political commentators on the left, in which group I include myself, are generally rather contemptuous of Republican politicians who pander to their base by pretending, by winks and nods and code words, to share the off-the-wall nuttiness of the birthers and their fellow crazies. Just this past week brought us the spectacle of Mike Huckabee, first spinning a weird narrative about the effect of the Mau Mau movement on young Barack Obama, growing up in Kenya, and then attacking Natalie Portman, on the occasion of her Oscar success, for bearing an "out of child wedlock." [He really did say that, honest.]
Well, in my own small way, I am, I fear, prone to a bit of pandering to my small base. Some of my blog posts spark a spirited and lengthy comment thread, and that does, I admit, prompt me to post similar materials in hopes of evoking more comments. Other posts, even ones of which I am rather enamored, stimulate little or no response. One of my most favorite all time students, who is now embarked on a wonderfully successful career, publishing book after book, keeps urging me to post recipes from my Paris apartment and details of my private life, so I do my best to satisfy her taste in blog posts. The occasional "tutorials" I have attempted, on how to study society or the thought of Karl Marx, seem to draw an interested audience, so I cast about for another topic on which I might hold forth for multiple posts.
At the moment, my mind is focused on the subject of higher education. I have already put up on this blog my draft proposal for a center or project devoted to the study of the fate of the Humanities in higher education. I am going to carry on with that topic for a bit, sorting out thoughts that are not yet fully formed. I hope this will spark some interest, even though it will contain no recipes and very little personal information.
Meanwhile, for those following events in the Middle East, as I am, let me strongly recommend two sites as worth regular visits: Al Jazeera English, and Juan Cole's Informed Comment [Google both to get their urls.] In a remarkable recent speech, no less a personage than the United States Secretary of State criticized American network and cable news for the vacuity of its coverage of the Middle East upheavals and actually commended Al Jazeera in English.
So, to higher education. Let me begin with some statistical measures of the exposure of Americans to higher education. These figures come from a rather well written and quite informative Wikipedia article on "Educational attainment in the United States." The lengthy article is full of useful information, but I am going to devote this post to the first and simplest set of data -- the percentage of adult Americans who have completed high school and the percentage who have earned a first or Bachelor's Degree. Here are the numbers: In 1950, roughly 32 % of Americans 25 or over had completed high school. A bit more than 50% of Americans 25 to 29 had completed high school. In that same year, only about 6% of either group had earned a bachelor's degree. Over the next half century, both of these figures rose pretty steadily, so that in 2000, close to 85% of both groups had completed high school, and just under 30% of both groups had earned a first or Bachelor's Degree. In the following years, the proportion of the population over 35 who had finished high school crept up a bit, and the proportion earning a Bachelor's Degree continued to rise slowly.
Now, there are all sorts of interesting data in the article breaking these figures down by race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as details about average weekly earnings, average household income, and so forth. There is even a fascinating final section that introduces the usually taboo subject of class and ties it to the data in the article. But I want to pause at these initial data and reflect on what they tell us about the real America, not the America portrayed on television or talked about in political speeches.
Even now, after fifty years of steadily increasing exposure to higher education, SEVEN IN TEN ADULT AMERICANS DO NOT HAVE A BACHELOR'S DEGREE. And this is as true of young Americans in their later twenties as it is of the entire population, including senior citizens who went through their young adulthood at a time when a college education was much less common. That means that almost the entire array of good jobs is closed forever to that seventy percent. They cannot hope to be doctors, lawyers, architects, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, or dentists, and their chances of being considered for a wide range of other jobs is small to nil. Wall Street, advertising, medical technicians, insurance company executives? Not likely.
These are not a ragtag group of left-behind sad sacks who somehow goofed off and so never got that BA. These ARE America. There are a bit more than two hundred million Americans 25 or over, and roughly 140 million of them do NOT have Bachelor's Degrees. In short, the norm in America is not to have a college degree.
I would imagine, judging from the comments, that everyone who reads this blog either has a first college degree or is on track to acquire one. Indeed, a rather large fraction of my readers have doctorates, I would guess. And yet nationwide [leaving aside the visitors from abroad], fewer than 3% of Americans 25 and older have earned doctorates.
In short, working class America is America, by any reasonable interpretation of the data. That puts the protests in Wisconsin in a somewhat different light, I think.
I shall continue with this line of thought tomorrow.