April 9, 2024

Nora De La Cour: Blaming Low Wages on Bad Schooling Is a Neoliberal Myth

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One of the premises of neo-liberal education reform is the notion that if everyone gets a better education, everyone will make more money. If that sounds like dubious reasoning to you, Nora De la Cour at Jacobin explains what is really going on.

Bachelor’s degree holders generally earn 75% more than those with just a high school diploma,” asserts a stats-packed CNBC article with the beleaguered-sounding headline “College is still worth it, research finds.”

“The future is STEM,” scolds an op-ed on the education website the 74, cautioning that American students are lagging behind Chinese students in their acquisition of data science — and it’s jeopardizing national security.

“The U.S. does not have enough high-skilled workers to meet demand for computer-related jobs, and employers are seeking immigrant talent to help fill that gap,” warns yet another data-heavy CNBC piece.

These sorts of pronouncements have attained a mind-numbing ubiquity, particularly in the field of education. We’re all familiar with those charts that grimly affirm what’s been drummed into American students for decades now: without college or an advanced degree, you’re toast. If you’re applying for a job in K-12, it’s usually a given that you’ll need to brag about your ability “to equip learners with the tools they’ll need to stay innovative and agile in today’s high-skills global economy,” or some similar arrangement of buzzwords.

On the other hand, my fellow highly educated millennials can point to numerous examples in our own lives or the lives of our peers that cast doubt on this hegemonic narrative of education as the guarantor of prosperity. How many bachelor’s or advanced degree holders do you know who have struggled to earn a living in their fields of study? That barista with a stats major, or that PhD holder stuck in adjunct hell. Even for those who eventually land stable employment commensurate with their credentials, the path is often a long and rocky one — certainly not reflective of the image of American firms so desperate for skilled graduates that they’re forced to hire H-1B visa holders.

This gulf, between the actual labor market and the sexy high-education market we’re taught to expect, is the topic of Neil Kraus’s book, The Fantasy Economy: Neoliberalism, Inequality, and the Education Reform Movement. In the book, Kraus, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, provides a deeply researched account of the stunning extent to which we’ve been deceived by privately-funded think tanks, billionaire philanthropists, and lawmakers invested in promulgating illusions that justify the neoliberal order — while wreaking havoc on real students, educators, and schools.

Numerous authors, including Jon Shelton and Daniel Moak, have recently explored the entrenchment of human capital theory in our political discourse and the attendant efforts to blame widespread poverty on a flawed education system. Kraus takes aim at this same line of faulty reasoning, focusing on the counterfactual economic claims underpinning some of the most damaging aspects of K-12 and higher-education reform. He begins with the incredibly simple premise that employment opportunities and wage levels are determined by business interests and policy makers — not schools. So how did we get to this point where we nod and yawn when we hear that Americans are missing out on good jobs because we weren’t taught enough STEM?

Read the full article here. 

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