For the last 40 years, we find all over the world exponentially ever-expanding inequality. It is so pervasive, so out of control that we can only call it an evolutionary phenomenon—it is built into the system as a self-perpetuating, seemingly inexorable force. In coldhearted systemic thinking, for a moment at least, we won’t even dwell on its social injustice.
Epidemiologists Wilkinson and Pickett (2019) developed an “Index of Health and Social Problems” that combines measures of life expectancy, trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), obesity, infant mortality, children’s math and literacy scores, imprisonment rates, homicide rates, teenage births, and social mobility” (p. 3). Wilkinson and Pickett found that all major “health and social problems are more common in unequal societies” (p. 3). In the so-called developed countries, the United States and the United Kingdom lead the world in “worse” health and social problems and in inequality.
As it turns out, conditions are worsening, not due to lack of overall money but rather to extreme, one could say perverse, distribution of resources. The Economic Policy Institute (2018) provided a recent update on the so-called bottom 1% phenomenon. In the past 30 years the wealth of the top 1% (or whatever percent you want to take) has grown in leaps and bounds (the following figures are from the EPI report). The top 1% has seen its wealth grow by 157% compared to 22% for the bottom 90%. In the same period the bottom 90% saw an annual wage growth of 5% compared to 30 % for the top 1% The top 1% accounts for over 13% of total wages; the top 10% over 39% (obviously leaving 61% for the remaining 90%).
Even when the system appears to work, it doesn’t. The culprit? Hidden systemic factors. Linda Nathan (2017) was the principal of the Boston Arts Academy, a secondary school designed and committed to the academic success of poor and minority students. More students did indeed graduate with higher grades. Nathan describes how many graduates failed after they left the school and attended postsecondary institutions because of the absence of “surrounding support.” Poor students found themselves confronted with hidden costs or missed deadlines that led to inability to continue. While race was less an issue at the secondary school (which was designed to support these very students), students had different experiences once they got to college. Some direct racism was encountered, but most of all what took its toll was being left on your own as an individual where there was no social support, and where being a minority student was too difficult for individuals to navigate through an impersonal bureaucracy (indeed, an impersonal society).
We also find increasingly that young people at all socioeconomic levels (SES) are suffering. The poor suffer for reasons that we have just seen; it turns out, however, that better-off students are also not faring well. Increasing numbers of them find that present-day schooling holds little purpose and meaning for them. Some do get the grades, and others are helped by influential rich parents who buy their way into best universities, but it is clear that this phenomenon is wearing thin. Many of these so-called privileged students end up doing worse in their lives than their parents.
The problem of lack of purpose among youth is documented in detail by Heather Malin, who is director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence. In several studies, the best that youth could do in response to the question “What is your purpose at school?” was “to get good grades, go to university and get a good job.” Malin (2018) “found no difference in purpose between low-income students and their more affluent peers” (pp. 65–66). In fact, we hypothesize that students who have had some difficulty in life and have overcome it (with or without help) end up having greater drive. In the meantime, the unfortunate conclusion overall is that only about 24% of senior high school students “have identified and are pursuing a purpose for their life” (Malin, p. 1).
No matter what the measure, we can say that the majority of students—some two-thirds or more—find that present schooling is not meaningful. Stress is high and increasing at a rapid pace for students from all SES levels. For students these days the modal response to schooling is either alienation (if you live in destitute circumstances) or stress/anxiety (if you are swept up into the academic rat race). In an odd way these findings indicate a new potential for change because so many young people at all SES levels are deeply dissatisfied and have withdrawn. Our rhetorical question is “Could young people be attracted to a better agenda?”
On a societal scale there is even greater trouble. Growing inequity, frozen social mobility, desperate lives of indignity, hopelessness, and eventually resentment toward just about everyone destroy trust and social cohesion. Democracies fail; societies crumble. There is nothing about this scenario that can end well.
Our question—call it a last-ditch effort—is “Is there another pathway?” Can growing equity, along with excellence, be the solution that benefits everyone? Can we help evolution become smarter than us once more? This other pathway to a better future is more fundamental, more related to evolution’s hidden tendencies, and more speculative. But it can be tested! If we make equity a “first cause”—alongside meaningful learning, purpose and excellence, and in relation to everyone learning—we have a chance of getting an outcome that is a “win for all.”
In short, pay attention and make reversing the deadly path of galloping inequity in favor of excellence for all as priority one. It may be the only chance we have. And it is something that education could become good at.
Economic Policy Institute. (2019). State of working America wages, 2018. Washington, DC: Author.
Nathan, L. (2017). When grit isn’t enough. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Malin, H. (2018). Teaching for purpose: Preparing students for lives of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2019). The inner level: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity, and improve everyone’s well-being. London, UK: Penguin Press.