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Sunday, March 6, 2011


Let me continue with the reflections I began yesterday. First, some additional facts and figures from the Wikipedia article I referenced. According to the same Census Bureau figures I was citing yesterday [the Wikipedia article is well footnoted, so that one can hunt up the original documents], in 2009 somewhat more than 55% of the adult population 25 or over had had "some college." This figure includes both people who had attended Community Colleges, whether or not they earned Associate's Degrees [a two year degree, for those reading this from overseas], as well as the many people who had enrolled in a four year college or university program but did not completed it in order to earn a Bachelor's Degree. Note that this is almost twice the number who had actually earned a Bachelor's Degree.

Several observations: First, this means that close to half of all adult Americans have no post-secondary educational experience whatsoever [leaving to one side vocational programs and the like.] No clearer and sharper marker of a class divide in American society could be imagined. The more than forty percent of adult Americans [eighty million plus] who have never so much as entered a college classroom are for the most part invisible in the public world of communication and entertainment. Professional basketball and football players, of course, with very rare exceptions, have enrolled in four year colleges. [Recall the practice at the start of professional football games of introducing the players not only by their position but also by the college they attended.]

Second, these facts have profound implications for the role of the Humanities in the public life and discourse of American society. When I was young, it was understood that only a small fraction of the high school population would go on to college. Hence, secondary education was supposed to introduce teenagers to some simulacrum of the life of the mind and the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. Indeed, in the successful campaign to require young people to remain in school at least until their sixteenth birthday, this was one of the principal arguments that was used to justify so revolutionary a social change. Students back in the forties, when I was going to Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York, were required to take a Civics course that made at least a stab at explaining the functioning of the American political system. We were also exposed to Music Appreciation, and although it left something to be desired [I still cringe every time I hear "Night on Bald Mountain"], it was for many in the class the first time they had ever heard "classical" music. Elevated and well-meant discourses on the importance of the Humanities for the life of a citizen of a democracy are unintentionally misleading when they unthinkingly assume that what they are talking about concerns the entire population. At best, they are referring to the potential educational experiences of between a third and a half of that population. Left unsaid is the implication that the half to two-thirds of Americans who will never go to college can never really be citizens in the full sense of the term.

As I continue this discussion about the future of the Humanities, I will have to spend at least some time trying to think about how what is of lasting value in humanistic education can be brought to the entire population of America, not merely to the fortunate upper half or third.

Although the focus of this discussion is not the extreme economic inequality of American society [that is deserving of its own extended discussion], I do wish to introduce into these remarks a few facts and figures on the relation of education to income, before setting aside the Wikipedia article and moving on to other aspects of our topic. As I am sure you all know, there is a very striking correlation between formal educational attainment, as measured by degrees earned, and both weekly median weekly wages and annual household income.

A brief word of explanation about the nature of the Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] data. The Household Survey that the BLS carries out on a regular basis generates information about weekly wages and salaries for a very large number of employment categories. Because of the nature of the survey, these data do not also tell us how many weeks a year the respondents work, although the BLS does also generate data on the numbers of workers employed full-time in a given year. It requires some adroitness to extract from the data a usable snapshot of the American economy.

At any rate, herewith some bits of data that paint a quite stark picture of the difference in life experiences of those who do and those who do not succeed in earning post-secondary degrees. These data are from 2003. I have not taken the trouble to go online and seek out more recent data, but that does not really matter for the points I am trying to make. Nothing has changed very dramatically in the intervening years.

The median annual income of someone with only a high school degree was in 2003 $28,763 for men and $15,962 for women. [Median, recall, means that half of all persons in the category earned more, and half earned less. Averages are always skewed upward because of the existence of a certain number of outliers at the upper end of the scale.] The median household income for persons with only a high school degree was $36,835. [From which we can conclude that on average, more than one person in the household was in the labor market. I assume this means that the highest degree earned in the household was a high school diploma. In the household I grew up in, for example, both my father and mother worked, but only my father, who earned an M.A. in Biology, had a college degree. My mother was forced to drop out of high school and go to work before she graduated. Despite that fact, she spent many years as the secretary to the City Editor of the old Herald Tribune newspaper. My sister and I, both of whom earned doctorates, always thought that she was the one with the brains in that marriage. but I digress.]

The median income for men with a Bachelor's Degree was $50,916 and for women $31,309. The median for men with a doctorate was $73,853 and for women $53,003. Median household income for households with a Bachelor's Degree $68,728. The median for households with doctorate was $96,830.

Think for a moment about the actual life experiences of people living in a household with an annual income of $36,853 as compared with those living in a household with an annual income of $68,728. The first family is going to be living very much from paycheck to paycheck, with virtually no cushion for the hard times when one of the wage earners loses his or her job. medical expenses are going to be a major problem. Two wage earner households will be juggling the use of the single aging car on which both depend. Children will be able to look forward to hedged chances, at best, for a college education even if they are star pupils, and almost certainly they will be forced to take on crippling student loans if they do go on to seek a Bachelor's Degree. Housing costs will gobble up a very large fraction of the monthly income, and it will be almost impossible to save for retirement. The second family's life chances are dramatically better, although they too will think of themselves as constrained by their limited resources. Two cars will certainly be an option, as will college for the children, at least at the local State College campus. What is more, starting with birth, the children are far more likely to be exposed to an array of experiences intended to prepare them for college and acquaint them with that possibility. I can tell you from my experie3nce directing a school-to-college program for minority high school students in Springfield, Massachusetts that one of the biggest obstacles we faced was the fact that the parents of those kids did not even think of college as a possibility. It was simply not on their radar.

The income differentials are not merely the consequences of the differences in educational attainment. They are also a determinant of those differences for the next generation. Hence the class structure and inequality of American society is, as we like to say in Marxist circles, reproduced by the social relations of production. [I love talking that way, even though in this case it doesn't really add much to the discussion.]

Well, enough for one day. Tomorrow, perhaps we can begin to talk about what is happening to the Humanities in American colleges and universities. Later on, if I keep this discourse going, I want to return to the questions raised here about what role, if any, the Humanities can play in the lives of the non-college bound majority.


English Jerk said...

On the issue of contingent academic labor, I'd recommend having a look at the introductory chapter of Marc Bousquet's book How the University Works:

He also maintains a blog that is worth reading:

Murfmensch said...

I would love to see some effort to extend Humanities education back a year or two into High Schools.

So much of philosophy is basic questioning and High Schoolers are ready for that if teachers are.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The surprising thing is that at that age, students are more interested in abstruse questions of metaphyics [what is Reality] than they are in social and political issues.

Mo said...

Prompted by your discussions of educational attainment in the US, I looked up the numbers for Canada. There are some encouraging numbers.

The graph here compares educational attainment in Canada comparing 1990 and 2007.

Less people are without a high school diploma, and more people have college or trade certificates, and university degrees.

Apparently we're doing something right! Although it may be more of a difference between generations than anything.

Marinus said...

Prof Wolff, you might be interested in the latest Krugman column (if you haven't seen it yet) wherein he runs the line you've defended on here and elsewhere that increasing the amount of degree-holders won't increase the average income, because the creation of better paying jobs that require (or reward) more education doesn't happen instantaneously. He also makes the point (which he first made in the late 60s, it seems) that increasingly automation threatens white-collar jobs as well, which just gives the point more bite.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marinus, I read that and was surprised by it, because in the past he has touted education as the be all and end all of economic betterment. The point he makes is right, I believe. Perhaps I should write a little post about it.