This morning I spent some time reading Eric Kelderman’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The College Degree is Dividing America.” In his essay he recounts the powerful narrative launched in 2016, by then candidate Trump, that pitted the educated voter (ostensibly democrats) against the uneducated voter (ostensibly republicans). Kelderman does a good job of digging into the nuances of this slant, acknowledging that it really does not reflect the complexity of the relationship between education and politics. The rhetorical strategy was powerful in the moment, but it does not reflect the reality that educational opportunity is important to people from all parties, and that is likely to continue to be true.
Nevertheless, the power of the “liberal bias” trope about education should not be underestimated. It sways opinions all the time. It rings true to many, even as we work to cultivate the diversity of opinions on our campuses. It is an easy summary that helps people feel justified in their distrust of others. But as I think back on that moment when candidate Trump said, “I love the poorly educated” I see a much more important divide to be addressed: segregation.
Harboring hostilities toward groups different from ourselves is deeply supported by the segregation that is the routine practice of our nation. We may have banned outright racial segregation, but economic segregation is clearly encoded in our zoning laws, affordable housing deficits, and income disparities. Unsurprisingly, income segregation also tracks to racial segregation because of the systemic biases that keep some groups in poverty. We also organize ourselves in ways that keep young and old from mingling, religious groups from mingling, and yes, educated and less educated people from mingling. What a perfect way to keep each group comfortable in its assumptions about the other groups.
Education can exacerbate this situation. This happens first in access to pre-K. Those of us lucky enough to have had pre-K opportunities for our children know that this was an important step toward developing the habits necessary for success in Kindergarten. Whether learning to hold a crayon (important for muscle development), pass a crayon (important for social development), or identify the color of the crayon (important for vocabulary development), even the simplest of pre-K experiences have advantages with long lasting effects. One of those effects is to have the less fortunate labeled as “behind” on the first day of kindergarten.
Then it happens in K-12 education as students in districts with lesser means struggle with hunger, supplies, and adequate support for an education that leads to opportunity. Far too many students in under-funded districts cannot go on to college. For those who do, we sort them again in higher education. Those of us in colleges and universities focused on accessible, affordable education know our students are working more than they should, which tends to strain their ability to succeed. Unsurprisingly, fewer of our students make it to the finish line than those attending more elite schools, because there are too many things thrown in their way. Not finishing keeps them from advancing to better economic opportunities and so it begins again with their children.
The thing is these educational differences usually track to neighborhoods and those neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race, politics, and income. In each of our neighborhoods we get comfortable in our assumptions about those who live in other neighborhoods, and the spiral that re-enforces our biases winds unrelentingly into the future. This spiral makes it easy for us to tap into and cultivate distrust between the educated and the less so. I feel despondent just thinking about how deep these divides are, but then I reach for the hope that education can provide.
What I am about to propose is not new. We’ve tried it over and over again, and then people find ways around it, but nevertheless we should try again, because each time we do, we get a little closer to where we should be. So here goes–let’s actually desegregate our schools. This cannot be incremental; we are failing with that approach. No, we need to make one simple rule that applies to everyone. Let’s make it illegal for a school district to serve only high need or low need students. If we start with that simple guideline, so many things fall into place. With an economically integrated school comes better funding, better advocacy, and better opportunities for everyone.
Here’s the thing, education is not the cure for our biased perspectives, it is the mingling of people with different ideas and experiences of the world that makes us more open minded. It is harder to convince people that whole groups are against them if they regularly interact with each other. We will never agree on everything, but regular contact with people who are lawyers, carpenters, teachers, and wait staff can go a long way toward reducing our negative assumptions about each other. At the very least, we will have the opportunity to learn about new perspectives on the issues we hold dear.
It is not fair to ask education to take on the burden of desegregating our society, but I see no other reasonable option. The pervasiveness of public education has made it the best vehicle for building a better, more inclusive world that we have. So, on this election eve, I suggest that we make desegregating education our next national priority (again). Doing so offers a path to a more equitable society. It also provides us with an opportunity to move away from the divisiveness that makes hateful slogans so effective.