Sorry Liberals, Education is not the Solution To Everything

I am one of those progressives who is adamant about the necessity of free public college. In a recent column, I warned that Hillary Clinton’s opposition to such a policy would end up “only hurting [her] own precious credibility on economic matters as well as the economic wellbeing of Americans.”

The evidence bears out this claim. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “in 2013 median earnings for young adults with a bachelor’s degree were $48,500, compared with $23,900 for those without a high school credential, $30,000 for those with a high school credential, and $37,500 for those with an associate’s degree.” Clearly, some form of postsecondary education helps increase the earnings of Americans. That would suggest it is a necessary step in an economy where wages are frustratingly stagnant.

My clear-eyed solution to this matter was giving a dose of reality while reading Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal. In this fantastic book, Frank (a big liberal himself) argues that, “to the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future.”listen-liberal

He cites a bevy of influential liberal thinkers who attest to these privileged beliefs, including Thomas Friedman — a thinker who has greatly influenced me on educational policy. In this instance, Friedman is quoted as saying, “improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality.”

Frank highlights how education is the source of economic prosperity for liberals. It “is a fixed idea,” he argues, “as open to evidence-based refutation as creationism is to fundamentalists: if poor people want to stop being poor, poor people must go to college.” What’s peculiar about this position is that it’s not “really an answer at all; it’s a moral judgment, handed down by the successful from the vantage of their own success.”

I must say that while reading this, I found myself broadly agreeing with him. While I have gone out of my way to make clear that “free college is not a magic wand” for our society’s ills, I sometimes do find myself pushing the policy as a sort of socio-economic deux ex machina. Moreover, relying too heavily on free college as an economic solution “dismisses as though a moral impossibility the well-known fact that there have been and are places in the modern world where people with high school diplomas can earn a good living.”

Frank’s questioning of my fixed idea and upper-class privilege certainly got me thinking about the subject in a different light. So when I saw that the author was speaking at Elliott Bay Book Company, I knew I had to go. After his fantastic talk, I was able to ask him about his position on free college, noting that while I agreed with his criticism towards liberals’ blind reliance on education, did that mean free college was not worth pursuing?

Frank, an unabashed supporter of Bernie Sanders, quickly reassured me and the audience that free college was absolutely a necessity for our nation. He stressed that all Americans should at least have the choice to enter postsecondary education without worrying about excessive levels of cost. He threw in a personal anecdote of what college meant to him — claiming that he wasn’t a particularly bright or inquisitive high school student, but that college significantly opened up his mind to other ways of thinking. He was forever grateful for having the access to another level of education, which ultimately spurred him onto become a writer and humanitarian scholar.

Frank indicated that his disapproval towards liberals and their view of education is less policy-based and more ideological. Frank finds it absurd that liberals urge “everyone else to do exactly as they themselves did to make their way to the top.” It is as if “some mutual-fund manager were to suggest that the solution to inequality was for everyone to put their savings in the stock market.” Their positions reek of class bias and an “I-know-best” attitude that repulses many Americans outside of the cities.

To a great extent, I agree with him. And I praise him for examining the ideological bubbles of his own party, when it could have been easier for him to continue to point out the ridiculousness of the modern Republican Party. After all, the most difficult thinking requires you to break free from the hypnotic appeal of consensus — especially when in regard to something you want to be true.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.