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Despite its centrality in public life and scholarly debate, education, surprisingly, has not been a chief focus of political or economic histories of the modern United States. The role of schools, however, has been fundamental to American historical development in several key ways. Politically, education was a key driver of American state-building from the local level up. Nineteenth-century public school enrollment rates in the northern United States surpassed those of France and Great Britain, and schools made up the largest share of municipal expenditures during the early twentieth century. The United States relied on schools as the basis of its decentralized welfare state, as opposed to robust social insurance or job protections characteristic of leading European welfare states, and school systems became vehicles for the provision of many social services.

Economically, schools played a central role in the making of American capitalism, structuring access to employment and serving as the training grounds for the new staff of the American corporate economy. By providing exclusive credentials, educational institutions gave economic elites a tool for controlling entry into the most well-paid positions. The Education Trap shows how the Progressive Era—popularly named for efforts to rein in the excesses of capitalism—in fact deepened and legitimized long-standing forms of inequality. Indeed, it was during this period, rather than in the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, that income inequality reached its height. This book also bridges common divisions within labor history to examine the working lives of domestic workers, pink-collar staff, and highly paid professionals alike, contextualizing work within families and communities and highlighting the relation between groups of workers that shaped the development of each.

Culturally, schools also helped consolidate an ideology of individual advancement. This ideology is often characterized as a belief in equality of opportunity in contrast to equality of outcome. While rooted in a long American tradition of favoring reward for individual talent over hereditary privilege, this ideology was not static, nor should we imagine it operating autonomously. Rather, it was grounded in, fortified, and validated by experiences of schooling in the early twentieth century. As schools were imagined as a social panacea, they became a new foundation for individualized policy solutions to structural inequalities. “Educationalizing” social problems reduced pressure for more direct measures of reducing poverty and inequality. A growing body of scholarship has highlighted the ways in which American policymakers have persistently turned to solutions that place the blame, and the burden of re form, on individuals rather than society. The triumph of schooling in this era can help us understand why. 

The ideology of education as a path toward social advancement was premised on the belief that one’s economic success reflected one’s skill level, or educational “merit.” Recent critics of meritocracy have pointed to the role of elite professionals in exacerbating social inequality, but many still cling to a faith in meritocracy in theory and point to educational solutions to address the problem. This book challenges us to reinterpret “merit” as a culturally constructed set of knowledges, behaviors, and values that reflect historically specific personal preferences and prejudices, often used by elites to maintain their power. Moreover, this book shows how the reconstruction of economic opportunity on the basis of education created a new institutional and ideological infrastructure for upholding socioeconomic inequality. As schools remade path ways into work across the employment structure, educational achievement (or lack thereof) became a new way of explaining and justifying the wealth of some and the poverty of others.

While education has many dif­ferent meanings, this book focuses specifically on the role of education in shaping paths to work. The “vocationalization” of education, or the use of schools for economic reward, has long been criticized by educational reformers, from the early twentieth century through to the twenty-first Many nonvocational roles of education—such as education for democratic citizenship, intellectual and artistic creativity, and emancipation—are under threat, and are absolutely worth fighting for. But it is important to acknowledge that schools’ vocational role was enormously meaningful to those able to use schools, including “nonvocational” academic and liberal arts programs, to access better employment. Indeed, we can only explain the dramatic expansion of schools in this period if we acknowledge the role of parents and students who, by voting with their feet, pushed the educational system to expand its offerings and provide instruction that they believed would benefit them in the workplace. 

To understand changes in training for work, we also need a wide lens that contextualizes schools as just one institutional form within an ecology of many sites of learning. By examining the full landscape of job-training institutions (including schools, universities, workplaces, the family) and the contested processes through which they forged links to distinct economic sectors, this book challenges long-standing silos in the field of educational history: between public and private, secondary and higher, formal and informal, “vocational” and “liberal” education. Public high schools and private universities a century ago were substantially shaped by competition with a flourishing ecology of proprietary and parochial schools, and the emerging public-private educational “system” was a distinctive feature of the American welfare state. While vocational education has often been interpreted and studied predominantly with reference to men’s industrial training, this book broadens the focus to encompass women’s occupational trajectories, as well as service-sector, white-collar, and professional jobs. In doing so, this book challenges the dichotomy between vocational and liberal (or academic) education by showing how forms of liberal education served as key paths to specific future employment opportunities. Liberal arts education, imagined in opposition to vocational concerns, was held up as an ideal across the political spectrum toward a variety of ends. In practice, however, this idealization became an important tool used by leading educational institutions to secure their status and prestige, as well as a means of legitimating the economic benefits attained by those with a supposedly nonvocational degree. 

This book begins in the late nineteenth century, at a time when American pathways into employment looked haphazard. As detailed in Chapter 1, for nearly all wage earners in Boston, paths to work were based on family and social networks, and learning took place in the workplace rather than in school. Despite its lack of formal channels, the occupational structure was defined by many overt gender, ethnic, and racial inequalities. The rest of the book moves through each economic sector to illustrate the two interrelated patterns of transformation that restructured the labor market in the next decades: the failure of education intended to train students for low-wage and industrial work, and the success (and hence proliferation) of schools that trained students for white-collar and professional jobs. These two dynamics together reveal how education offered advantages for some, while simultaneously undercutting the power of organized workers and strengthening the power of elites. Faith in education as a way of mitigating a growing class divide was solidified just as the educational system provided a new institutional basis for reproducing class advantage. As a means of addressing social inequality, education became a dangerous trap. 

Chapter 2 examines the failure of reformers’ efforts to improve the precarious employment of recent immigrants and African Americans in the lowest-paying service and manual-labor jobs. Based on the common diagnosis that low-wage work was due to a lack of skills, many progressive reformers pushed for the expansion of vocational training schools, such as “schools of housekeeping,” in order to elevate the status of household work. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. More popular services for low-wage workers included nurseries, kindergartens, English-language instruction, and citizenship classes, yet these services proved equally ineffective in reducing patterns of exploitation at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy. 

For jobs in manufacturing and the trades, the subject of Chapter 3, conflicts between unions and employers over control of the training process hindered new industrial schools in both the private and the public sectors. Employers pursued managerial strategies to undercut the power of craft unions, and in place of the small shop with several craftworkers, sprawling assembly-line factories with immigrant operatives would come to define industrial America. Instead of receiving an education in specific industrial schools or industrial tracks within schools, which suffered from declining reputations and low enrollments, these factory workers learned basic literacy and numeracy in public elementary schools. This reorganization of the workplace was made possible by an army of school-educated white-collar workers that firms deployed to staff their corporate bureaucracies. Rather than the “organization man,” it was women who were the chief protagonists in this transformation. 

Chapter 4 traces the changing landscape of training for clerical and sales work. With broad public support and without organized opposition, proprietary “commercial” schools and public high schools multiplied. The success of many women and second-generation immigrants entering positions as clerks, secretaries, and retail workers challenged some labor market inequalities and solidified the link between education and social mobility. Their entry, however, also sparked a reaction among a predominantly male, white, native-born elite. Upper-class Bostonians used professional strategies, relying on advanced educational credentials, to control access to the most remunerative jobs. An expanding white-collar sector became a differentiated hierarchy, with a vast pool of feminized pink-collar clerical and sales workers at the bottom and a new managerial class at the top. Thus, this new landscape of schools, while offering some opportunities, did not empower workers as a whole; rather, schools provided an opportunity for employers to centralize power. Professional strategies of control are traced in the professions of law and education and the “new profession” of business. By forging pathways from elite schools into corporate law, educational administration, and financial and business management, professionals and universities became coarchitects of the top rungs of the managerial ladder that undergirded twentieth-century corporate capitalism. In so doing, they defined the meaning of “merit” on the basis of academic knowledge as well as cultural norms, personal characteristics, and family background. They also shaped steep internal ladders within each profession, differentiating the corporate lawyer from the courtroom advocate, the administrator from the teacher, and the executive from the low-level manager. Rungs on the professional ladder not only corresponded to a hierarchy of schools, but also to hierarchies of gender, ethnicity, and race. 

This book ends when these trends were consolidated in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, when youth employment collapsed, school enrollment continued to grow. By this point, employers across sectors had come to prefer school-educated employees, and formal education structured the majority of pathways into jobs. The triumph of school based training had significantly reshaped the employment structure and the balance of worker power. While the expansion of formal education opened up many new pathways into work and limited the overall supply of labor by keeping youth out of the labor market, this transition also undercut earlier forms of worker control by facilitating the transition to a nonunionized workforce and a credentialed elite. The 1930s and 1940s marked the beginning of a new chapter in the American political economy, when workers launched more inclusive organizing strategies for building power through industrial unions and the role of the federal welfare state greatly expanded. 

Additional studies of other places and eras will be necessary to fully piece together the historical relationship between education and in equality in the United States. But the case of Boston challenges deeply rooted assumptions among both scholars and the general public about how education works. In early twentieth-century Boston, education expanded as socioeconomic inequality increased. The contested history of this development suggests that our national faith in education may be obscuring how schooling can in fact deepen economic inequality and conceal the ways in which educational merit has become a new foundation on which this inequality is justified. 

By shifting the contemporary conversation about social inequality from the 1970s to the early twentieth century, the historical narrative presented in this book should also prompt a change in our understanding of the “great compression” between 1940 and 1970, when inequality was substantially reduced. The expansion of public higher education in that period has been heralded as a key contributor to the decline in inequality during those years. This golden age is also the basis upon which economists have rested claims that the best policy solution to address inequality in the present is more education. According to these scholars, we can think about the relationship between education and technology as a race, in which, if education falls behind technology, inequality in creases. From the late nineteenth century to the late 1970s, educational attainment rose faster than “skill-biased” technological change (or technological change that favors highly skilled workers), causing a reduction in social inequality. After the 1970s, however, educational attainment slowed as technological change continued apace, disproportionately benefiting those with the most human capital, and thereby increasing social inequality. 

The evidence presented in this book suggests that many other political and economic factors were necessary preconditions and supplements to education during the midcentury decline of inequality. These include the expansion of social and economic protections by New Deal and Great Society welfare programs, progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, and the broad economic power of industrial labor unions led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which increased the power of workers and ensured that the jobs they entered had living wages and good working conditions. Education has always operated within a broader political and economic context that shapes its impact on social inequality. In addition, rather than imagine “education” monolithically, this book shows the very dif­ferent roles played by distinct institutional types, some of which were much more effective as tools for concentrating wealth than redistributing it. 

Beginning in the 1970s, social welfare protections, labor rights, and workers’ collective power began to be stripped away. Wages stagnated and middle-class jobs were “hollowed out.” Educational enrollment, meanwhile, continued to grow. Between 1963 and 2006, enrollment in public and private four-year colleges and universities nearly doubled, and community college enrollment increased by over 700 percent. To human-capital economists, this educational expansion has not been enough to mitigate the benefits accruing to those with the highest human capital. But the equation of skill and economic reward cannot explain the surging income and wealth of the top 1 percent, nor why the economic payoff of advanced education is so much higher in the United States than in other countries. As observed in the early twentieth century, educational expansion can trigger reactions from distinct organized political interests, in particular those at the top of the economic ladder who seek to preserve their power. Credentialist theories of occupational control seem better equipped to explain why the primary beneficiaries of rising inequality today are concentrated in highly credentialed professions in key positions in the corporate economy. Without a corresponding increase of power for working people, the benefits of additional educational attainment can be captured at the top. 

The historical perspective offered in this book suggests that focusing only on expanding educational opportunities traps us into a narrow policy framework that can exacerbate the very problem it seeks to address. In our new Gilded Age, we can look back to the first Gilded Age over a century ago for insight. The role of education in amplifying unequal opportunity was not a unique product of the neoliberal turn of the 1970s or the corporatization of higher education, but a deeply rooted outgrowth of the historical relation between education and the economy in the United States. In an era of skyrocketing inequality, we need a new historical understanding of the consequences—sometimes for the better but more often for the worse—of the American faith in education as the panacea for social inequality.

Cristina Viviana Groeger is an Assistant Professor of History at Lake Forest College. Her research has been funded by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

Excerpted from THE EDUCATION TRAP: SCHOOLS AND THE REMAKING OF INEQUALITY IN BOSTON by Cristina Viviana Groeger, published by Harvard University Press.

Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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