Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Capital Imperative

Karl Marx (1882)
America, it seems, is waking up to the reality of human and social capital.  As attitudes have shifted, racism has largely been removed as a prime obstacle to social equality.  Even as its pernicious effects are all-too real, we are starting to realize that there are larger, more systemic pressures at work in the perpetuation of disadvantage and underclass permanency.

As I wrote about in my last post, although this awakening has lead to a renewed interest in the primacy of public education as an equalizing force, it has had the unfortunate consequence of confusing cause with effect; education is seen as a solution to poverty, and yet as students continue to fail, it is seen as a driver of poverty.  The reality is that poverty is driven by the larger forces at work in capitalism, and the fact that the public education system as we know it is entirely incapable of remediating the resultantly profound deficiencies in social and human capital.

One of the ideas that has been tried in the past is the concept of bussing. Originally designed to enforce racial equality in a society that treated minorities as second-class citizens, it came to be seen as somewhat anachronistic as the old racism faded away.  The costly and inefficient program was ended, and students no longer spent hours commuting across town before and after school.  However, what became increasingly clear was that while the problem of racial prejudice had largely ceased to exist as a barrier for minority success, something deeper and more troubling lay just beneath the surface.

Poor neighborhoods are disproportionately populated by historically disadvantaged groups, namely Hispanics and African Americans.  But this is no longer explained by skin color or ethnicity, as much as inheritance of human and social capital.  In fact, when you look at these communities (which by the way have plenty of Whites), the common denominator is access to capital.  Whether Black, Hispanic, White or Asian, the commonalities are consistently lower levels of family education, family cohesion, income, as well as other indicators of socioeconomic status.  All of this is borne out in the data on the performance of students at poor schools.  (Interestingly, this is something that NCLB testing has been showing for over a decade, but that anyone involved in education could have told you for decades.  A profoundly cheaper, less disruptive and simpler indicator could have been something as simple as looking at graduation rates, and population sampling).

So, how then to best deliver equality of opportunity to children growing up in these neighborhoods?  One innovative concept has been the concept of school integration not by race, but by class.  Similar to the bussing model, students would be bussed from poor to more affluent neighborhoods. While I admire the sentiment, ultimately I don't see it as practical.  My biggest worry is that these students would, while benefiting from higher-capital kids around them, still not be getting their needs met.  Plus, bussing can often add hours to a kid's day - precious time!

It would seem to me to make much more sense to keep kids where they are, in their communities, and target them for intervention with excellent social  and educational services.  Often, it isn't just the kid who needs help, but extended families.  We could have well-funded clinics, community centers, job-training , counseling, treatment facilities, etc. that create enormous social capital in a community.

Poor neighborhoods are going to essentially be collecting pools for the most disenfranchised, exploited and lost in society.  They will be where the low wage service workers live, where the drop-outs, the ex-cons, the single moms, the mentally ill, and anyone else who's suffered tragic struggles in life.  I don't see them going away anytime soon.  But I think we can do great good by optimistically thinking of them as places of great opportunity, as long as we don't forget about them, pretend their problems aren't as bad as they are, and instead make the appropriate social investments.  Hopefully, instead of quicksand, they will be springboards back to real human and social capital that are the real foundations of opportunity.

I'm increasingly feeling disappointed by the deficiencies in our contemporary discussion of education and class in America.  We are constrained in language and thought by a political philosophy that is generally right of center (witness the debate's capture by the neo-liberal and conservative thinkers), and thus incapable of offering the kind of radical, transformative analysis and subsequent policy prescription that real solutions require.

We Need to Be Bullish on Marx
Regular readers of this blog by now are used to my abundant usage of the concept of human and social capital as a framework for understanding society, education and human development.  Their resemblance to financial capital is no accident, and as such, they cannot but be put to use as part of a Marxist critique of social dynamics.  While Marx was primarily concerned with the distribution of power according to financial capital, so too must we be concerned with the distribution of power according to human and social capital.

Much research has been done in the century since his ideas were born, and I think in many ways an updated sociological application better represents a coherent vision of human relations and power dynamics.  Our egalitarian ideals are built on an assumption not merely of external opportunity, but more immediately and fundamentally on an assumption of internal opportunity, in the form of self-efficacy and agency.  True freedom can only come from this development in consciousness and leverage, which does not appear out of nowhere, but instead is the product of social design.  Thus, our design must be towards an egalitarianism not merely of social, but of individual, human potential.

Marx's idea of a state-run economy has been more or less abandoned in favor of a mixed economy, for a variety of reasons.  Equal economic results are an outcome few would champion in the modern economy.  Yet public education is still a concept as strong as it ever was - possibly stronger, in principal.  As a political reality, however, it is as weak as ever, in the face of recognition of the task at hand - the responsibility for imparting in every adolescent citizen an equity of result.

Fortunately, while equal outcomes in the economy are unrealistic, they aren't so in education.  What they do require though, is a thinking much more in line with communism: massive state intervention responsible for assessing inputs and outputs, differentiating and intervening as appropriate, and generally managing the system as a whole.  While the national economy is infinitely complex, as much so as human interaction itself, education is relatively simple.  We already do a relatively sophisticated job of delivering a basic skill set to the majority of American children.  All that needs to be done is to become more nuanced and agile in our delivery, starting with an acknowledgement that certain demographics have different educational needs, and schools need to be designed accordingly if they are to meet those needs adequately.

Differentials in human and social capital establish this framework, and everything flows from there: community need assessment, design and implementation.  This hasn't been tried before in any systematic way, for reasons philosophical as much as political.  And it may end up costing two, three or five times as much.  But when you consider the payoff - utter transformation of the lower classes and poverty as we know it, it doesn't seem to me to be too big a price to pay.  And when considering that those paying it will be doing so because of their own fortuitous inheritance of human and social capital, it will only be fair.

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