My last entry comparing the McCain and Obama education plans centered on educational opportunity, and this entry, my first since the election, deals with opportunity as well.
I found myself again dwelling on the word when Barack Obama used it in his acceptance speech. Maybe now is a good time, in light of his election, to reflect on this core American notion. It is a complicated one, worthy of examination.
Opportunity has a deceptively simple dictionary definition:
Op•por•tu•nity 1 a combination of circumstances favorable for the purpose; fit time 2 a good chance or occasion, as to advance oneself
A favorable combination of circumstances. A good chance to advance oneself. These definitions seem disembodied to me, devoid of the particulars that compose an opportunity. Except for the rare event – a winning lottery ticket, the surprise departure of someone in a coveted position – circumstances typically don’t just combine, don’t randomly fall our way. We often work hard to create opportunity, as conservatives are fond of saying, but also – as those on the left underscore – a whole sweep of physical and social characteristics (gender and race, for example, or the markings of social class, or disability), economic policies, and social programs open up or close down opportunity. That opportunity emerges from this web of individual and structural factors seems self-evident, but at different times in our cultural history more simplified notions of opportunity dominate political discourse.
Since the Reagan years, the country has been in the grip of the individual responsibility view of opportunity. Conservative writers and politicians have been skillful in encouraging an ideology of self-reliance and individual effort and in discrediting and dismantling the protections of the welfare state, social programs, and other means of intervening in the social order. Think of Reagan’s famous quip that the eleven most feared words in the English language are “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” (Sadly, there can be a bitter, self-fulfilling truth to this statement if you strip resources and authority from government agencies and fill them with partisan incompetents – as we saw with FEMA in 2005.)
There is a lot of confusion in our society about the role of individual effort in achievement. As anyone in the helping professions and human services – not to mention any parent – knows, a person’s motivation, perseverance, gritting of the teeth are hugely important in achieving a goal. No question.
Where the confusion sets in is when we generalize from this fact to an overall model of human development and achievement. This is the individualistic, self-reliant, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps way of viewing the world. According to this model, it is you alone (though a family’s values are sometimes invoked) who are responsible for your success. As a model of development (versus an acknowledgement of a necessary element of achievement), this is nonsense.
No one, no one, develops free of local and broader-scale institutions (from a sports clinic to the military), social networks, government projects and programs (from transportation infrastructure to school loans), and so on. And, the social class of one’s parents – widely acknowledged as a critical predictor of one’s own prospects – is, in turn, affected by a whole range of factors (from local economic conditions to tax policy) that are well beyond individual control. Again, it does not diminish the importance of individual commitment and effort to also acknowledge the tremendous role played in achievement by the kind, distribution, and accessibility of institutions, programs, and other resources. And these resources, as everybody knows, are not equally available. Particularly now.
Despite the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the country’s slide into economic recession, the United States remains the global economic giant and for some time has posted strong productivity numbers. The rich have profited immensely in this economy, favored by a whole range of policies and practices, from lax regulation on corporations to tax cuts. And the very rich have been making a killing; their income rose 136% during the Bush presidency.
In contrast, the income of much of the sprawling middle class has stagnated. As well, their employment security has been buffeted by corporate restructuring, the influx of new technologies, outsourcing, and more. These people work longer and harder – thus the nation’s impressive productivity numbers – but don’t see their income increase accordingly.
Those in the working class have made some modest gains in income during the Bush years – a point that the President makes often – but their income is still paltry. Many live a tenuous existence, vulnerable to lay-offs, working in non-union settings with fragile rights, holding down more than one job. They have no, or minimal, health insurance. They’re locked into a working life of low wages, a paycheck or two away from big trouble. All this has intensified over the last few months. In October alone, the U.S. lost 240,000 more jobs.
Among the poorest, the threats to sustenance, shelter, and health are continuous and brutal – and increasing. The poverty that Katrina in her fury revealed to the nation exists across the republic, concentrated in cities, spread throughout rural landscapes.
We have been living in a time of flattened mobility. There are astronomical gains in income and wealth at the top, and chicken-feed increases in income among some in the working class, but for the majority of Americans, the basic driving principle that hard work will yield movement up the ladder of prosperity is not realized. And for a sizable number of people at the lower end of the economy, an already hard life has gotten harder. Over the last eight years, at least five million more Americans have fallen into poverty. “Income inequality is growing,” notes a special report in The Economist, “to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.”
The shredding of the social safety net both contributes to this widening inequality and intensifies its damage on those most affected by it. In such an economic and social structure, “a good chance to advance oneself,” “a favorable combination of circumstances,” is available to fewer and fewer people, particularly those at the bottom.
Americans have long looked to education as a way to advance themselves. They also see it as the primary means to overcome social class inequalities; Horace Mann called education “the great equalizer” for those born of humble origins. These powerful beliefs lead us to another cultural tangle. Education is a means to enhance one’s economic prospects. (And it provides a whole lot more in terms of one’s own intellectual development.) But education alone is not enough to trump some social barriers like racist hiring practices or inequality in pay based on gender. Furthermore, for disadvantaged populations – particularly the most impoverished – education must be one of a number of programs that would include health care, housing, family assistance, and so on.
So we should create educational opportunity for the poor, but we should also be mindful that for some, educational programs must be part of a broader network of assistance.
One more thing to say about the creation of educational opportunity, especially in the current climate of suspicion about interventions for the poor. The creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and, as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient. The creating of social programs, compensatory interventions, and the like are not, as some conservative writers claim, a giveaway, a soft entry into the meritocracy. If done well, the creation of opportunity in education (and this applies to other domains as well) also requires great effort, even courage. What that special program or compensatory intervention assures is that one’s effort is not just sound and fury, but is directed and assisted toward achievement.
In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are so often abstract (as in ideological debate) or conducted at a broad structural level – as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope, but it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do, pathways to a goal. And all this takes place someplace with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your emerging sense of what might be, of who you might become. Nothing is more powerful.
I can’t think of anyone who had a better feel for opportunity – and for a lot else in American life – than Studs Terkel, who died on October 31st at the age of 96. Terkel’s genius over many years was to interview a wide range of Americans and convert their words into one wonderful book after another on the Great Depression, on WWII, on working, on race, on hope, on the American Dream itself.
I had the good fortune of meeting him in 1996. He interviewed me on his long-running radio show on Chicago’s WFMT. The paperback edition of Possible Lives has just come out, and I was on tour. The guide who was taking me around to the interviews told me while we were waiting that Studs had been ill and recently underwent heart bypass surgery. She hoped he was okay, feared that he might be frail and failing.
Just then, this small man with a bright red sweater under his jacket rounds the corner at a good clip. He’s waving a copy of Possible Lives and talking away, talking as though we already were in mid-conversation. When he sat down, I could see that the book was marked up and dog-eared. Most interviewers never open your book; they work from their producer’s notes. This man had actually looked at the thing, and the interview demonstrated that as he moved from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, following the sharp associations of his own mind, a jazz riff. The music of ideas.
This was what it was like to be interviewed by Studs Terkel, someone who spoke with so many people in his long, rich life.
As I write this, I am imagining him moving among the crowd at Grant Park in his hometown Chicago, tape recorder in hand, talking to people about what’s on their minds on this historic day, November 4, 2008, talking and talking and turning what they say into one last memorable book about life in America.