In his new book, The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy (Cornell University Press), Jon Shelton, a professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, traces how the predominant American view of education evolved from an instrument of democratic instruction to the primary path to a good job. Shelton spoke with Inside Higher Ed via Zoom. Excerpts of the conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
Q: You call your book “the political history of an idea.” What is that idea and why do we need to know its political history?
A: The idea really, is how Americans think about education—what we want it to do. When the American education system was constructed in the 19th century—and that includes public higher education in places like Wisconsin, where I teach—the purpose was not to train future students for jobs; it was about training citizens for democracy. And so when massive inequality emerged from industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the primary way that working people dealt with that wasn’t through arguing for more education; it was through forming labor unions, pushing for reforms that would do everything from reduce child labor to establish workers’ compensation.
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To the extent that universities were really involved in that, the Wisconsin Idea, developed in the late 19th century, was about using evidence-based construction of knowledge at the University of Wisconsin to help inform public policies that could do something about the massive inequalities that existed. The book traces how that idea changed. And what I argue is that at a very specific moment in the 1950s and ’60s, policy makers, influenced by economists who were invested in this idea of human capital—starting with the Johnson administration, and it was very much centered in the Democratic Party, but then continuing for much of the 20th and early 21st centuries—pushed the idea that education should do something different, that it should provide the job skills for future working people to be successful. And if you could do that, you wouldn’t have to worry about all these other social reforms—doing things about the minimum wage, labor rights, progressive taxation. In fact, you could chip away at those things, because simply providing people the right education would help to alleviate the inequalities that existed.
Q: So did that view of higher ed grow out of politicians’ self-interest or were their motives purer than that?
A: It’s hard as a historian to know what people’s motivations are. But if you go back to the 1960s, massive inequalities along class and race lines were clearly on the nation’s political radar. And there was kind of an argument in the Johnson administration about how they should approach these things. They did some really important reforms; I mean, Medicare and Medicaid come from the Johnson administration. But I think at the end of the day, they saw that the political headwinds for more far-reaching reforms were going to be more difficult. And so the path of least resistance was to focus on education and job training, and to say, “Well, the reason people are poor maybe is because they don’t have the right skills in a changing economy,” instead of thinking about all the other things that needed to be done, like ensuring there were jobs in the inner cities.
A lot of Democrats in the 1960s and ’70s and beyond came out of a system that they believed was a meritocracy and education did open doors for them. Johnson’s a really good example of that; Barack Obama and Bill Clinton—they didn’t start off as elites, but it was elite educations that brought them into positions of leadership. And so I think partly they believed intellectually in these sorts of arguments about education; I just think it was misguided.
Q: Your book is more about the failures of U.S. government policy than of higher ed per se. But are there things that higher ed institutions did to propagate what you call the education myth, and is there a role they can play in dispelling it?
A: One of the things that happened is, starting in the 1970s, public investment in public higher education decreased, when adjusted for inflation. And so that meant that institutions had to make a more targeted argument about why higher education was important. And I think for strategic reasons, it really made a lot of sense to say, “Well, we’re the ones training people for future jobs—you can’t cut higher education.” When those bigger investments in public education were not forthcoming, they then had to make that argument to students, because the other revenue source was tuition dollars. So they had to basically be able to say to students, “Come get a college degree; this is going to open doors for you—this is going to create new jobs.”
The problem, though, is that it’s led to this kind of scenario where if a college degree is the only path for somebody to get a good job, and legislators are saying, at least implicitly, that they’re not going to do very much to help you if you don’t have a college degree, that’s led to a lot of resentment. And I think to a certain extent, this resentment has been picked up by reactionary politicians who are interested in pushing for culture wars.
What I think colleges and universities should do right now is to stop selling this myth that education is going to be the great equalizer. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-education, of course; I’m a university professor. I believe in the traditional mission of the public university system. But I think what we need to do is focus on being the institutions that are going to help society solve these bigger problems, to be the place where people can encounter controversial ideas on campus, where we can have far-reaching conversations about what needs to change in our economy, and how we’re going to create the kind of world in which climate change doesn’t destroy our entire way of life. And yes, we are going to continue to open new doors for students, but higher education does not control the job market. And we need to stop selling that idea.
Q: What do you make then of the shrinking numbers of liberal arts students and the huge increase in those pursuing career tracks in fields such as engineering and business?
A: That trend makes perfect sense. If students have been told from the time that they’re early teenagers that the primary purpose of going to college is to get a good job, then why wouldn’t most students go into college and try to major in something where they can see a very direct path to a job?
Humanities and social sciences are really important to help those students have the intellectual resources they need to understand the inequalities around them and be successful and not internalize things that are basically structural. We need to help them understand that a more holistic education is actually going to help them do better in school, in the job market, and in life. If everybody in this country knew they would have a good job, whether they had a college degree or not, then all those first-gen students could go to college and expect something different out of it, instead of thinking about college as this very narrow opportunity toward a direct job path.
Q: Do you think the College Scorecard and other efforts to evaluate academic programs based on their return on investment are helpful or counterproductive?
A: I think it’s deeply counterproductive. For one thing, it doesn’t account for where students are coming from when they come into a university. It doesn’t account for the local economy and the kinds of jobs that are available. Such comparisons are useful in the sense that they might tell you something about predatory for-profits. But I think for the most part, colleges and universities, whether they’re elite or access institutions, if they’re operating in good faith, there’s a wide variance in the kinds of things students are going to be able to do with the kind of degree they get. In spite of the narrative about humanities and social sciences, many of those folks get good jobs and do things that they really like doing moving forward.
Q: How has the education myth led to the social ills—namely racism and economic inequality—that we face today?
A: The Carter administration took this federal department called Housing, Education and Welfare and took education out of there and made education its own department. And that symbolically elevated education above all these other departments, which, by the way, was really controversial; civil rights activists like Shirley Chisholm, who was in Congress, [were] deeply opposed, because she said, “How can you think about education as not being connected to health care and social welfare?”
This moment led the Democratic Party on a path of pushing for education instead of other kinds of reforms. Then in the ’90s, Bill Clinton negotiates NAFTA over the objections of labor, but at the same time pushes for worker retraining and different kinds of education—a tax credit for student tuition. What the education myth did is it gave these politicians an out. Because what they could say is “We don’t necessarily have to have these other reforms, because what we’re going to do, as Clinton said with NAFTA, is retrain workers, and that will allow them to get new opportunities.”
It really led the party on a pretty disastrous path. Even Republicans like George W. Bush picked it up, and that’s how we ended up with No Child Left Behind. And when you get to the 2010s, you have efforts in both parties to kind of blow up this idea, right? So Trump is arguing that he’s going to bring back blue-collar jobs, but you also have Bernie Sanders who’s calling for all of these New Deal–style reforms, like higher education as a right, a tuition-free future. What I think, in particular, Republicans were able to do was to build on the resentment that a lot of workers without college degrees felt because the only thing they’d been told about making their working lives more secure was to go and get job retraining or an education.
Q: So do you advocate for a more European-style social democratic system, where students are identified early on for vocational training or university?
A: No, I don’t. I don’t believe that we should be rationing access to higher education. We have the kind of past in this country that we can draw on to help us build the kind of future that we all want. I look back to the moment of the New Deal, when there were massive reforms—they didn’t go far enough; they excluded African Americans and, at least in the initial stages, were built on a breadwinner model of gender relations that was problematic—but they set into place the basic assumption that if you put the economic security of working people at the center of every political decision you make, you can create the kind of society in which everybody has their needs met, and in which people can be free to be better citizens. That’s the kind of conversation I would argue that we [should] have. We should be thinking about how we can advocate for everyone to have the right to a college degree while we’re also advocating for everybody who works for a living, whether they have a college degree or not, to have a good job, to have health care, to have rights at work. And if we can do those things, we’re going to make sure higher education is relevant for a really long time.