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What if More Education ISN’T the Answer?

August 28, 2017

In the early 1960s, Abraham Maslow coned the aphorism “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail.” As a blogger who writes about education policy and one who worked in public schools for nearly four decades, I’ve long believed that the answer to social mobility is better schools. But of late, I’m beginning to question that proposition and started thinking about a different paradigm, one that begins with the premise that more education might not be the answer…. especially more formal education.

Two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, have caused this shift in thinking. The fiction book is John Grisham’s Gray’s Mountain, which I am halfway through. The non-fiction book is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which I just finished last week. Both books deal with what I call “the Appalachian conundrum”, which, I believe, is applicable to all rural areas. It’s this: people tend to settle into a place and stay there… and people who live in rural areas are not willing to trade “country comforts” for the hectic urban and suburban lifestyle beloved of those like me who grew up in a household that relocated regularly.

This conclusion is supported by article in magazines and  newspapers, and the US Census, which showed that 59% of Americans live in the State they were born in. But many college educated individuals move away from their home states and many individuals who do move away from their home towns do so to seek higher paying jobs, jobs that invariably require more education. And many rural communities bemoan the fact that their best and brightest are “forced to leave” because there is “no work in town anymore” because the factory closed, or the mines no longer have any value, or mechanization has eliminated the need for employees.

The solution offered by both political parties is the same: more people should get more education and leave towns that are decimated by the flight of employers. But, as Gray’s Mountain and Hillbilly Elegy explain in different ways, the life in the country has a pull on the people who live there that is far stronger than the pull to go elsewhere and due to family dysfunction and a failed economic system there is nothing productive for them to do in their hometowns. So the fictional and real characters in those two books escape into drugs, religious fundamentalism, and, for a fortunate few, employment in highly mechanized and environmentally destructive jobs. The result is a vicious circle that clutches them tightly, a circle that mobile, well educated, and well intentioned “liberal elites” view as easy to escape through more education combined with bootstrap tenacity and grit.

I do not believe that the empty storefronts in rural and the poor urban neighborhoods in urban America cannot be filled with small businesses operated by people with more education. They are the product of an economy based on the premise that efficiency and the low prices that result from it are more valuable than the well-being of the citizens who buy the goods for low prices. When we premise our economy and our political priorities on the notion that bigger is better, we should expect our small rural towns to be hollowed out and the populous in those towns to escape into drugs and religious fundamentalism to find peace of some kind in their lives…. and we should also expect those living in the small rural towns without economic opportunity to be resentful of anyone who suggests that they need to get more education and move away from their roots in order to share in the benefits of our “new economy”.

And this is leading me to be less certain that more education is the answer… We might need a different tool than “more education” of we hope to achieve a different outcome in the future.


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