Politicizing the pursuit of education won’t preserve democracy, working-class jobs, or the dignity of work
Work and Learning

Politicizing the pursuit of education won’t preserve democracy, working-class jobs, or the dignity of work

Asian man at factory, stock photo.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel takes issue with what he calls “meritocratic hubris” and offers a response that would leave many Americans poorly prepared to protect democracy.

I can’t dispute his assertion that Donald Trump has succeeded in fostering resentment against people with a college education. But Sandel takes his argument too far when he claims that attempts to address social and economic inequality by encouraging upward mobility through higher education are all wrong.

I contest his view that there’s a one-way street, as the op-ed’s headline claims, that “makes disdain for the less educated … the last acceptable prejudice.”

Of course there are educated people who look down on people with less education. There are also working people who harbor biases against those with more education. We live in a polarized society, one in which an issue such as the need for more education and training after high school now divides people. This is true even as research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and elsewhere shows that workers who can think critically, reason ethically, and communicate interpersonally—skills typically developed after high school, often in formal learning settings—are in higher demand in hard times.

In 2008 and 2009, more than 5 million jobs for Americans with a high school education or less disappeared, and they never came back. Jobs requiring some college or an associate degree took a hit but have grown steadily since the recession, albeit slowly. Positions requiring a bachelor’s degree actually increased during the last recession. And, as the dust cleared, demand for people with bachelor’s degrees rose rapidly.

We’ve seen this pattern repeat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sectors hardest hit—such as leisure, retail, and hospitality—were filled with many jobs that didn’t require education after high school. Jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher have continued to grow, even during the pandemic.

The answer is not to declare, as Sandel does, that our society’s emphasis on educating more people has a corrosive effect on democratic life because it devalues the contributions of the working class. As I argue in my forthcoming book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” people will need more education—and training—to find meaningful work as automation, AI, and robots become ubiquitous in the workplace. We should not be creating a further divide or stoking anti-intellectual sentiment.

Regardless of whether more working-class citizens choose public service, as Sandel hopes, no one can argue that the choices civic participation requires of them are getting any easier.

Indeed, even the personal consequences of lacking an education after high school have become too dire to ignore. Groundbreaking research by Anne Case and Angus Deaton shows a disturbing rise in “deaths of despair”—from drugs, alcohol, and suicide—among the white working class, especially among high school dropouts or people with no formal education after high school.

It’s true that most Americans lack bachelor’s degrees, but that’s only part of the story. More than 50 percent of working-age adults hold some kind of degree, certificate, or industry-recognized certification with value in the labor market. More people need credentials that represent validated learning that position them to learn more, earn more, and serve others.

Many of those without college degrees are doing human work deemed essential during the pandemic, and there’s no shame in that. Also, many of the credentials they hold offer opportunities to “stack” toward associate degrees, which can lead to jobs paying higher wages than many bachelor’s programs. And associate degrees, in turn, can lead to bachelor’s programs that do pay more.

The American Dream has been fading for increasing numbers of our citizens and recent immigrants, putting them and the country in peril.

But “meritocracy,” as Sandel defines it, isn’t the main culprit. The risk of romanticizing jobs likely to fade or require more education is that it will lead to complacency and a squandering of human potential. We need more people who are prepared for both informed citizenship and success in a global economy.

All of us face lifetimes of learning if we are to stay sharp and ensure that our knowledge and skills remain relevant. Even as multiple crises confront us, the necessity of a better-educated country is as urgent as any.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” which will be published Oct. 6.

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