Schooling and the Promise of Prosperity

By Elizabeth Tandy Shermer

The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy by Jon Shelton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023.

In The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy, historian Jon Shelton rejects the still pervasive idea that more and better education is the key to individual and national prosperity—what he calls the education myth. That credo privileged those with college degrees as it shaped late twentieth-century policymaking in the United States. Shelton links Democratic and Republican efforts to expand access to education to the country’s increasing economic inequality and political polarization.

In this slim book, Shelton insists that a more inclusive, more progressive America was possible. In the first three chapters, he emphasizes that, from the nation’s founding through the late 1960s, leaders and ordinary Americans thought citizens needed more than education to thrive. Shelton particularly stresses that some politicians wanted to guarantee Americans the right to a job in the 1930s and 1960s, two well-known periods of reform. Delivering on that promise, Shelton insists, would have ensured basic economic security for everyone.

Since the 1970s, the decades covered in the final two-thirds of the book, politicians have increasingly focused on schooling. They have insisted that learning skills empowers Americans to find good jobs, the basic premise of the education myth. Shelton points to the assumption of 1960s neoclassical economists that people reap long-term rewards for investing in their education—that is, building human capital. That economic construct, Shelton insists, captivated a growing number of Democrats in the 1970s and even attracted Republicans in the 1980s. By the turn of the millennium, there was bipartisan agreement that schooling was the answer to generating wealth and opportunity. But high school diplomas and college degrees have never guaranteed well-paying work, a factor in contemporary attacks on the education myth by right-wing populists like Donald Trump and social democrats like Bernie Sanders.

Shelton’s focus on how the abstract concept of human capital vanquished social democracy gets in the way of a far more profound argument about the changing place of education in American life. At times, he is at pains to make links between historical developments and human capital, an idea dating back to the mid-twentieth century that was and is rarely used outside economics departments. For example, the potential of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act to “benefit an individual’s human capital” distracts from the larger point Shelton wishes to make about federal investment in higher education. He generally asserts, rather than identifies, direct connections between mid-twentieth-century human capital theorists, like Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker, and the policy makers, who thought that expanding education and enabling Americans to borrow for it was enough to provide everyone with equal opportunities.

Shelton is on far less anachronistic ground when he highlights the deep roots of the education myth that seems more likely a part of a longer-term American faith in hard work and self-help. He notes, for example, that Thomas Jefferson considered education vital to democracy. But land was what the federal government provided to white farmers and their families to make something of themselves in the republic’s early years. Education reformer Horace Mann did not start explaining to Massachusetts lawmakers the economic benefits of education until the 1840s, when New England had already begun industrializing. Shelton’s odd description of Mann’s ideas as not “quite an argument for human capital” is less compelling than Shelton’s actually showing them to be “one of the earliest versions of what would become the education myth.” The “seeds of the education myth were planted” more decisively in the early decades of the twentieth century when Americans had more opportunities to work in factories than farms. Some Progressive Era reformers looked to regulatory legislation, social policies, and unions to better the lives of working people. Others wanted schools to Americanize immigrant populations and to teach the skills that employers wanted. Many working people also sought the training that could lead to better economic opportunities.

The long-standing premium on hard work and self-help also limited the potential for social democracy during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. Shelton portrays the New Deal as more progressive than it was. He correctly emphasizes that the Roosevelt administration experimented with a range of ways to provide ordinary Americans with economic security. Shelton also notes the power of southern segregationists in Congress who forced New Dealers to omit agricultural and domestic workers from major reforms, like the 1935 Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act.

Shelton notes that those laws and their fine print effectively excluded people of color from the New Deal but does not consider how that legislation also made work central to Americans’ access to what other countries consider basic rights. The New Deal made jobs in specific industries a precondition for social welfare benefits. Eligible employers and employees were taxed to pay for the pensions and unemployment insurance reserved for this overwhelmingly white, male workforce. Employers also had been providing, and continued to provide, a lot of supplemental benefits, like health insurance, that New Dealers never secured as a universal right or as a part of their public-private social welfare plan. Executives and managers retained that power because they were a part of the fierce opposition to New Dealers’ efforts to save capitalism. Shelton gives short shrift to those and other opponents who also managed to exclude public employees from landmark New Deal protections. That exclusion mattered to Shelton’s presumption that guaranteeing Americans the right to a job would have been enough to make the country equal and social democratic. Even if liberal Democrats had secured the right to a job, those working directly for the federal government would not have had the workplace rights that had transformed the quality of manufacturing jobs. Politics, after all, made expanding New Deal legislation’s protections to the excluded workers a slow, halting, uneven process after World War II.

The Roosevelt administration’s education experiments were also rooted in the long-standing idealization of hard work and self-help underlying the education myth that Shelton considers a late-twentieth-century phenomenon. He does not discuss the work-study program, whose goals were anathema to Shelton’s definition of social democracy. White House insiders had wanted to do something for young people in the mid-1930s but doubted they had the votes in Congress after the battles to pass the Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts. Roosevelt instead used a 1935 executive order to create the National Youth Administration to offer young people relief. One of the most popular offerings was work-study, a tuition-assistance program that paid six hundred thousand high school and college students for part-time work so that they could afford to stay in school. This idea appealed to New Dealers for reasons that Shelton might have considered akin to human capital and the education myth. Reformers insisted that work must be a condition of eligibility for relief. They also wanted to keep young people off welfare rolls and prevent them from competing for jobs when the unemployment rate remained high. Officials particularly liked giving young people the chance to learn new skills so they could have better individual opportunities in the future, which made work-study seem crucial to improving the overall quality of the US workforce. Students, faculty, lawmakers, and employers embraced a program that was unceremoniously defunded during 1943 budget battles. Work-study’s focus on tuition assistance and concern for the labor market nonetheless shaped the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to guarantee tuition assistance to veterans as a part of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, celebrated legislation that Shelton considers reflective of “FDR’s social democratic vision during World War II.”

The broad political opposition to the Roosevelt coalition’s limited vision for social democracy is important to understanding why schooling became a preferred policy solution by the late twentieth century. In his careful look at more recent presidential administrations, Shelton mentions the party realignment that contributed to the inability of Congress to pass major reforms. A deeply divided Washington made promising to do something about education more politically palatable than the major overhauls that Shelton hopes will make America more progressive than it has ever been.

Indeed, Shelton powerfully concludes, “No longer can we privilege those with college degrees.” US politics must center “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone through an empowering vision of economic and social rights,” which includes, but does not focus on, education. “Whoever can do that,” he tantalizingly predicts, “can realign American politics for a long time, and for the better.”

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author of Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt. Her email address is [email protected].