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The Wealthy Need Public Education, Too

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In "The Rich Boy," a story he published in Redbook in 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

Fitzgerald was describing a character named Anson Hunter, a young man born to a wealthy family who would "one day divide a fortune of some fifteen million dollars" (that's almost $200 million in today's dollars, if you're wondering). The story is an attempt to describe the ways Anson and people of his ilk are, in fact, different from the rest of us. It's a story that most rich people would probably reject—not because Fitzgerald says some unflattering things about them, but because they apparently don't think they're all that different from the rest of us.

That's the point of a study published in the journal Psychological Science that explores the attitudes of the wealthy toward redistribution of wealth (they don't like it) and explains why their attitudes matter. In short, the study concludes that wealthy people think that everyone else has life experiences roughly similar to theirs and, as a result, that most people (at least the ones who work as hard as they do) can achieve the same success in life. There's no need to worry about the social or economic system keeping some people in neutral, or even putting them in reverse. Wealth and income acquisition are largely the result of personal characteristics—characteristics, according to the wealthy, that all of us basically share. It's against the "natural order" of things to redistribute what has already been distributed by the wisdom of the market and by the choices we all have made within that framework. Or so we're told.

But the more important upshot of this study is revealed by the fact that it was published in a journal called Psychological Science. This study doesn't offer us much in the way of new insight about the economic problem of closing the widening gap in income inequality and unfair distribution of wealth, but it does suggest that these economic policies have clear psychological effects. F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly recognized this. His description of Anson Hunter could just as well have been written yesterday to describe the people who have ridden a wave of beneficial political choices (some of which they helped engineer) and technological changes to rejigger the economic system for the benefit of a few. Indeed, income and wealth have already been redistributed—away from the so-called "middle class" and working poor and toward the very top of the income distribution.

Is this analysis too overtly political? Maybe. But it underscores an important point: public problems in a democracy are political problems. In a society that values conflict and freedom of expression, the struggle for political power will never be resolved. Independence of thought and action mean too much to us. One of the most dangerous developments of the past forty years is not just the fact that income and wealth have been concentrated in the hands of so few; it's that this is a symptom of a larger disease, a disease that sidelines genuine discussion about political problems while headlining symbolic fights and superficial political friction. We need more of the former and much less of the latter.

The disease, in my mind, is abandonment of public things, or at least open assault on them—especially public schools. One consequence of deregulating public education, of opening it up to market-based "choice" and privatization strategies, is that such strategies make it increasingly difficult to bring people of different races, cultural backgrounds, and social classes together to talk about our shared social problems. The psychological impact of being surrounded by people who think exactly the way you do is that you tend to believe you're always right. The intellectual impact is that you never get stretched, and never develop new ways of thinking. The political impact is that positions harden and calcify, and political problems come to be seen as unsolvable. I'll let you picture, in your mind, what the personification of these qualities might look like.

We need public spaces that offer opportunities for people to come together and discuss their concerns and fears as well as their hopes and aspirations. In those spaces we need to encourage introspection and self-doubt. And we need to provide resources, as a society, to ensure that this happens. Public schools can, and should, provide that public space. This is, in fact, the original dream of advocates for public education: to bring people together for the purpose of educating them so they can become intelligent citizens and voters. The further we stray from that mission, the more frayed our social fabric becomes.

In short, the wealthiest among us should know that they are not like us really at all: they have advantages that most of us could never dream of, and have been advantaged by (and taken advantage of) a system that permits them to be isolated from others whose lives are very different from theirs. Let's make them realize that there are differences between rich and poor, and that these differences are substantial. Let's bring them to school.

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