The Limits of Schooling
Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America.
by Christopher Jencks, with Marshall Smith, Henry Acland, Mary Jo Bane, David Cohen, Herbert Gintis, Barbara Heyns, Stephan Michelson.
Basic Books. 399 pp. $12.50.
Christopher Jencks's Inequality is a good case study of what happens when a serious and complex piece of research is promoted like the Love Story of social science. After a pre-publication press conference, after numerous newspaper accounts and editorials, after all the reviews and excerpts from the book had appeared, everyone who cared seemed to have a firm opinion of whether Jencks was right or wrong without having read the book itself. Consequently, there are two versions of Jencks to consider: Pop-Jencks and Jencks vero. In the distorted interpretation that is Pop-Jencks,. Jencks is believed to have “proved” that schools do not make a difference, that they have no impact on the outcome of children's lives. Many people who will not have the patience to wade through the book believe that it shows that putting additional resources into schools is a waste of money and that educational reform is a waste of time. The laissez-faire implications of this interpretation can be expected to influence legislators, policymakers, and voters, many of whom will be relieved to find “scientific” justification for reducing education budgets.
It is ironic that a book which advocates radical egalitarianism should lend itself to the use of those who oppose any immediate or long-range relief of inequality. For Jencks does not “prove” that schools do not make a difference, nor does he disparage educational reform. He describes the limits of schooling, which were forgotten by zealous school reformers in the last decade. What Jencks attempts to demonstrate is that equality of opportunity will not produce equality of condition—i.e., income—among adults, because the schools are not able to overcome genetic and environmental inequalities among children. This does not mean that schools have no effect on individual destinies or on society generally. It does mean, in Jencks's view, that school reform is not the best way to eliminate poverty; the best way to do that is to raise the income of poor people.
Inequality is not really a book about education, it is a book about Christopher Jencks's social philosophy. He is an egalitarian who believes that while men may never be made equal in their genetic endowment and in their life circumstances, society does have the means to equalize rewards. Jencks is not interested in equal opportunity but in equal results. Equal opportunity presumes a competition in which all runners start at the same point and have an equal chance to win. But, writes Jencks, “since a competitive system means that some people ‘succeed’ while others ‘fail,’ it also means that people will end up unequal.” Thus, men with identical IQ's, identical family background, and identical levels of education will not necessarily have the same income; one might be a salesman, while another is a football star. Jencks would like to see a society in which everyone ends up with approximately the same rewards, no winners or losers. The key assumption of his study is that there should be approximate equality of income throughout society. He recognizes that most Americans do not share his egalitarianism: “They have no commitment to ensuring that everyone's job is equally desirable, that everyone exercise the same amount of political power, or that everyone receives the same income.” But Jencks does have that commitment, and it is the standard against which he judges the effects of schooling and family background.
In Jencks's view, the fact that men with the same cognitive skills, family background, and educational attainment end up with differing incomes shows that economic success is not caused by any of these factors. Since none of the easily measured variables determines income, he attributes the variation in men's incomes to skills which are incidental (“the ability to hit a ball thrown at high speed, the ability to persuade a customer that he wants a larger car than he thought he wanted, the ability to look a man in the eye without seeming to stare. . . .”) and to luck (“chance acquaintances who steer you to one line of work rather than another, the range of jobs that happen to be available in a particular community when you are job hunting, the amount of overtime work in your particular plant . . .”). He does not show much interest in such noncognitive traits as character, ambition, and motivation, which have a lot to do with whether people are able to transform “luck” into success. (Because Jencks and his team worked only with existing data, doing no original research, they were limited to the variables that other researchers were interested in.)
Jencks believes that since success is determined by chance, there is no rational justification for the grossly unequal spread of economic rewards that now obtains. Of course, Jencks would also argue that even if success went only to the able this too would constitute an argument for equalizing income, since laggards would never have a chance to succeed. The point that Jencks wants to make is that the major institution which Americans have relied on to produce equality, the schools, do not have that effect.
The curious aspect of Jencks's book is that if read closely it seems to prove that success is not entirely random, and that schooling is not irrelevant to success. Jencks shows that educational attainment (the number of years of schooling) is the prime determinant of occupational status; without enough years of education, access to high-status occupations is closed. Not surprisingly, Jencks finds a correlation between children's economic origins and their educational aspirations and attainment. Upper-middle-class families know that education will help their children succeed; Jencks points out that about twice as much is spent on the education of rich children as on that of poor children. He estimates that “upper-middle-class sons can expect to make about 75 per cent more money than lower-class sons.” About 40-50 per cent of this difference in income is attributed by Jencks to the upper-middle class's educational advantages, which shows that “the theory that the upper-middle class maintains its privileged economic position by ensuring that its children get more education than other people is closer to the mark than the theory that the upper-middle class is biologically superior. . . .” Still, despite the considerable advantages of the upper-middle class, Jencks does not believe that there is “any mechanism available to most upper-middle-class parents for maintaining their children's privileged economic position.” Fewer than half of those born into the most affluent fifth of the population, he estimates, will be part of this elite segment when they grow up. While social class is important, there is still significant mobility.
Schooling, then, does make an important difference in children's lives. To those radicals who advocate shutting down all schools and allowing children to learn “on the streets,” Jencks issues a rebuke: “. . . white middle-class children might still learn much of what they now learn. . . . Some of them read a great deal at home, developing their skills without any help from school. But most poor black children would probably not learn to read without schools. The cognitive gap between rich and poor and between black and white would thus be far greater than it is now. Those who propose to abolish schools ought to ponder this possibility.”
Even white middle-class children benefit from exposure to school, Jencks concedes grudgingly: “Despite our reservations, we tentatively conclude that if students leave school early in adolescence, their verbal and numerical skills do not develop as much as if they remain in school. . . . We also infer that equalizing the amount of schooling people get might do quite a lot to equalize cognitive skills. This reflects the fact that although each extra year of schooling has only a modest effect on test scores, the benefits are now largely concentrated on those who are already advantaged. If everyone received the same schooling, the ‘double advantage’ phenomenon in this area could be eliminated.”
What emerges from Jencks's study is a picture of the school as an institution which tries to reward intelligence and industry, but not dullness and laziness. This way of operating may encourage excellence and leadership, but it does not produce equality of results. Thus, Jencks would disagree with those social critics of American education who have argued that the “system,” with its reliance on test scores and credentials, is weighted against the poor and serves as a hindrance to social mobility. Jencks believes that “maximizing social mobility is the wrong objective. We would like to see a society in which everyone could enter the occupation of his choice and perform competently in it. America is not such a society today. But if it were, there is no reason to suppose that the rate of social mobility would be higher than it is now. . . . We can see no great virtue in such a policy. We do not want to randomize inequality; we want to reduce it.”
So, says Jencks, the trouble with equal opportunity is that people are not equal. Social science has not discovered ways to make those who are dumb, lazy, and unambitious win equal rewards in a fair competition with people who are smart, ambitious, and talented. Jencks's egalitarianism, therefore, cannot be achieved without resort to governmental compulsion.
Since genetic and environmental disadvantage cause so much inequality, one strategy to lessen inequality might be “to allocate the most favorable environments to those individuals who start life with the fewest genetic advantages. By implication, of course, it also means allocating the least favorable environments to those who start with genetic advantages.” Of course. Jencks predicts that this policy would imply not only remedial reading for slow students, but that “anyone who was reading above the norm for his age should be sent home, and the entire resources of the schools devoted to the laggards.”
The society that wanted to eliminate cognitive inequality totally might be required not only to exclude the genetically advantaged from school, but to deny them access to books and television. Jencks recognizes that the “social cost” of such a policy might be “intolerable,” but he is more concerned with the difficulties in implementing the strategy than with its ultimate desirability or its effect on civil liberties.
Another extension of egalitarianism into social policy would be a reordering of the financing of higher education. As Jencks sees it, some people get more than their “share” of higher education (each person's share is the national median for number of years in school). This means that society as a whole is unfairly underwriting the education of people who will have a significantly improved chance of entering a high-status occupation. The way to redress this unequal consumption of education would be to impose an income-tax surcharge on those who receive more than their share of education; conversely, those who drop out before receiving their share would be reimbursed with “subsidized job training, subsidized housing, or perhaps only a lower tax rate.” Such a policy would in fact create an incentive to drop out before graduating from high school, but maybe the logic behind it is that anyone dumb enough to fall for it isn't college material anyway. Policies like this one reinforce the suspicion that an element of unconscious elitism lurks in the dim recesses of egalitarianism.
Jencks also would like the government to see that all jobs are equally desirable. This would mean governmental regulation of wages and working conditions, and some sort of national, or even international, machinery to prevent unusually valuable workers from finding a way “to gain special privileges.” To insure job equality within each organization, the government might require rotation among the competent and the less competent. The egalitarian society which Jencks projects would have minimum and maximum wage scales “for all sorts of jobs,” like a national civil-service system.
The greatest weakness of Inequality lies in the superficial treatment it accords to its major proposal, income equality. Though Jencks devotes many pages to showing the ramifications of education, family background, and cognitive skills, he does not devote much attention to the social and political consequences of the income equality he advocates. What, for instance, would be the impact of income equalization on economic growth and productivity? Two sentences, about the Israeli kibbutz and Japan, dismiss the subject out-of-hand. What has been the fate of income equalization in Communist countries where it has been doctrine? Not a word. Have there been studies comparing efficiency within the private sector to that within the public sector? Evidently not.
Sometimes income differentials are justified and useful. Daniel Bell wrote recently in the Public Interest that “there may be good market reasons for insisting that the wages of a physician and dentist be greater than those of a nurse or dental technician, for if each cost the patient roughly the same (if one could for the same price have the services of a better qualified person), no one would want to use a nurse or dental technician, even in small matters. The price system, in this case, is a mechanism for the efficient rationing of time.” Jencks brushes off this objection by suggesting that the hiring of a secretary to save a $300,000-a-year executive one hour per week might be considered efficient rationing in the present scheme of things. Writes Jencks to his own loaded example: “. . . it is not always obvious that such ‘inefficiencies’ are real. Nor is it clear that they should be encouraged, even if they are real.”
Common sense alone should have told us that equal education does not produce equal income. Most Americans know, but don't care, that brothers do not have equal incomes or that singing stars earn more than college presidents. Nor is it necessarily unfair that a high-school graduate should earn $18,000 a year as a construction worker while a Ph.D. earns substantially less as a teacher. Yet, on the other hand, most Americans like to think of America as a classless society, a place where their child might become a famous athlete or the president of General Motors. Out of this desire for classlessness has come political support for efforts to eliminate poverty and to raise the general level of social welfare. Social progress has occurred through ingenious appeals to the self-interest of various groups. But Christopher Jencks is not interested in the orchestration of self-interest. Instead, he wants a new world, a world where people “feel ashamed” of selfishness or of using competitive advantage for personal gain. What he seems finally to want is not just income redistribution, which might ultimately have political support in this country, but a reordering of human nature through the persistent intervention of government.
Jencks has twisted the American ideal of political equality—every citizen equal before the law—into a radical egalitarianism which abrogates respect for individualism. The problem is not Jencks's desire to narrow the gap between rich and poor, but a philosophy of equal results which requires not only efforts to upgrade those who are unequal below the median, but also active steps to level down those who are unequal above the median. In a society built to correspond to this philosophy, anyone who displayed talent or brilliance would be sent to the end of the line, penalized for overachieving. In contrast to equality of opportunity, which encourages competition to excel, equality of results ends the competition, penalizes excellence, and guarantees mediocrity. As one begins to ponder the absurdities implicit in medianocracy, equality of results appears to be at least as irrational as the inequality it is intended to replace.