From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Divided We Stumble

Working-Class Actions & Educated Screw-Ups

November 9, 2018

David Brooks comments on what we might call a great divide in the American body politic, between the "educated" classes and "high-school-educated, working-class Republicans." Our educated class has been running the country, largely, and that includes politicians who are "conservatives."

52 years ago, 71% of Congress's House Members held bachelor's degrees. 40 years ago, 77% did. 30 years ago, 84%. 9 years ago, 94%. 3 years ago, 96% of House Members held bachelor's degrees.

Has this education helped our country? Brooks writes about Oren Cass's "absolutely brilliant" new book, The Once and Future Worker

The first part of the book is about how we in the educated class have screwed up labor markets in ways that devalued work and made it harder for people in the working class to find a satisfying job.

For the last several decades, American economic policy has been pinioned on one goal: expanding G.D.P. We measure G.D.P. We talk incessantly about economic growth. Between 1975 and 2015, American G.D.P. increased threefold. But what good is that growth if it means that a thick slice of America is discarded for efficiency reasons?

Similarly, for the last several decades American, welfare policy has focused on consumption—giving money to the poor so they can consume more. Yet we have not successfully helped poor people produce more so that they can take control of their own lives.

Productive work is satisfying and something one can be proud of in supporting oneself and a family.

But back to Brooks' divide between the college-educated and the working class. There is a divide also among the college educated. While many of my Touchstone friends—editors, writers, and readers who have college degrees and who may also teach college—are sane, sober, and saved, you would not want to give up your children to a teacher chosen at random from our state-funded universities.

Yet there is another aspect to this business of college education today that suggest it is merely part of the GDP rather than a sustaining force for civilization and culture: student debt. Let me make this inquiry:

1) I would think that any healthy society understands that its children are its future and so invests in their upbringing and education. This society would endeavor to pass on to the next generation the skills, both old and newer ones, that they need to maintain their way of life and keep it strong and vital, economically, culturally, and morally.

2) Our educated elites seem to suggest that everyone should be entitled to a college education, hence assume for the sake of argument that it is very necessary for the sake of our society and the future of our children. So: a college education is necessary training for the great majority of the next generation.

3) Can you name a society in which the children can only acquire the necessary training that they need from their elders by going into massive debt?

Who is benefitting from our current funding system? Will students rebel against it? Will their teachers dare speak against it? Will our political leaders fix it? Is any help on the way? Note Brooks' summary of another Cass position:

Cass suggests that we instead do what nearly every other affluent nation does: Let students, starting in high school, decide whether they want to be on an apprenticeship track or an academic track. Vocational and technical schools are ubiquitous across the developed world, and yet that model is mostly rejected here.

Rejected? Why, because our system of government-subsidized massive student debt is better? I think it's part of a larger problem: Borrowing massive amounts of money with no means in sight for paying it back seems to be a new way of life. Just ask Congress in other areas.

Our current divide runs deeper than Brooks notes. It cannot remain indefinitely. Assuming the permanence of moral capital accumulated at great cost by our forbearers without replenishing it will end badly. Entitlement reigns, so today our leaders borrow, spend, and live for today's votes and privileges.

May godly voices for our children's welfare and humble piety return to save the day, even if in the nick of time. We need not be divisive, but decisive. God is not indifferent, nor should we be.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.