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School inequality as a symptom of a deeply fractured society

By Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3510121
CC BY-NC-SA

In 1896, W.J. Bryan, the Democratic candidate for the American presidential election, presented two conceptions of government : the one that legislates to let the wealthiest prosper, (while waiting for their wealth to spill over the poorest), and the one that legislates to make the masses more prosperous, their prosperity handing up through all the upper classes1 .

   In 1932, W. Rogers denounced the same situation : “The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellows hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flu2».

   Does it make you think of something? The Subprime Crisis ? The « trickle down » theory we’ve been listening to for decades, without any economist having supported this pseudo theory by any study ? The issue of inequalities of all kinds ? Debates on monetary circulation in the eighteenth century ? Many issues that are still in the current debate in reality, right ?

   The origin of inequalities between human beings is a recurring theme of the history of political economy, the most well-known probably being Rousseau’s discourse of 1754, by putting the issue of the inequality and private property, in perspective. The measurement tools have evolved and allow us to better see the polymorphism of the phenomenon. Beveridge in his famous report stated that far from being a single question of numbers, it was about creating democratic institutions able to overcome the « five giants » monstrous that are poverty, insalubrity, illness, ignorance and unemployment to promote solidarity. Since Pareto analyzing the tax data of England, Russia, Prussia, Switzerland, Italy and France and its modern tools for measuring inequalities, up to Polanyi and its « market society », threatening the democracy by letting the market shape the social order rather than the opposite… Since Titmuss3 and his « social state » aiming at the « Dunkirk spirit », up to the Gini coefficient, the question of inequalities has its own story in the political discourse, this story has been highlighted, among others things, by James Galbraith’s work4.

   While strict equality is sometimes singled out as a factor in demobilizing entrepreneurship and any notion of personal merit5, too much inequality breaks society in a profound way, giving rise a sense of social injustice, particularly among the most disadvantaged a latent and dangerous feeling for the social bond, especially when the most precarious do not see any further improvement for their children through the educative system.

   Even if some speeches repeat again and again that the development of inequalities of all kinds is stable and gives rise to false debates, the feeling of social downward of the middle classes since several years, beyond the raw data6, is important to take into consideration, because if the economic data provide some light at a « time t », the crises of confidence, the feeling of abandonment of some territories that are difficult to identify and quantify, remain indispensable foundations for the elaboration of any political economy action structuring a society and establishing a real social contract between political leaders and citizens.

   Today I would like to dwell on the issue of school inequalities. In the 1960s, R.Turner’s theoretical model, avoiding the question of institutional autonomy, highlighted the model of school markets which, in addition, to the two principles of social reproduction (co-optation and open competition), must provide a better understanding of the issue of school inequalities7. Sixty years later, the meritocratic stalemate has never been stronger since the end of the Second World War, despite the fact that public policies regularly seize the issue, denouncing « the failure of the social lift », trying to solve the question through littles measures and reforms. The PISA8 surveys, putting the educational processes and school policies of each country into perspective, have been the key subject for twenty years, while forgetting, sadly, that the question of inequalities can not be reduced to a database concerning social origin, the family cultural background or place of residence of the child attending school at a given age. Conclusion 1 of the PISA surveys : it appears that in all the countries of the world, it is statistically beneficial for a child to be educated in an establishment whose students are rather from privileged backgrounds9. The missing factor in this analysis is undoubtedly the underlying reasons for the new development of inequalities in European and, more broadly, western societies. If one can of course point out the reality of the problem of early specialization by differentiated curricula, the choices of a political system of distributing students in schools (which ultimately produce and reproduce school inequality are superimposed on socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities), it appears that the fundamental cause remains eluded like the tree hiding the forest … The matter of the gradual disappearance of the welfare state, and more precisely the structural changes in tax systems over the previous decades, means that students who are normally equals in law are unequals de facto, at kindergarten, and that, because instead of leveling the social inequalities, the systemic choices superimpose the school inequalities upon the first one, from the youngest age. Why ? Because the social stratification leads to a distorted competition between students, some being from birth better prepared than others to enter the competition, the same ones who later on by social reproduction will benefit from co-optation schemes, as in England in the 1950s where integration into the best schools were determined by the social belonging of individuals.

   Schematically, in Europe, two types of education systems coexist, one strongly differentiating curricula and institutions tending to crystallize social inequalities and educative inequalities, in Hungary, Germany, Belgium or Austria … and those which, on the contrary, have a single, homogenous curriculum in which all pupills are educated in similar structures without distinction of social, economic or academic level, in Poland, Iceland, Norway, Finland10. These countries do not « institutionalize » socio-economic inequalities trough specific courses or different institutions. The marginal case of France is interesting because while having theoretically a system not institutionalizing school inequalities is in fact one of the countries where they are the strongest… What does this mean ? Is it a system failure or discrepancy between theoretical positioning and real practices, between willingness to do and action ?

  How to rectify this situation, far from new11 ? The question was already asked by Bourdieu and Passeron in the 1960s12… School inequalities require a deep structural work of the current educational schemas : a real introduction to methodology and mechanisms of autonomy learning that are poorly mastered by children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, a real learning of essential fundamentals by testing new methods replacing school repetition deemed ineffective but whose absence, without an alternative mechanism, opens the way to increased illiteracy at the end of compulsory education. It may also be necessary to rethink the relationship to knowledge of students, as proposed by the works of Lahire (1993), and Charlot, Rochex and Bautier (1992). Should we rethink the assignment of teachers according to their experience ? By placing experienced teachers in the most disadvantaged areas to fight pre-existing domestic inequalities encountered by students ? One of the difficulties may also lie in the gap between the social background of teachers and students and their own relation to « invisible learning ». The issue of language for example is interesting. It appears that when teachers, (in most cases from most favored backgrounds) consider language as a reflective element, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, use language as a simple vector of communication and have a non-exclusive but more important relationship to strict orality… The nuance of the unsaid is huge, each using his reference, his invisible learning, to establish a communication and a learning relationship between teacher and learner, imperceptibly opposing a « practical culture » and a « high culture » of knowledge. One can see the gap that needs to be crossed in order to end up at an inclusive school and to a real equality of opportunity, (and no longer a symbolic one).

   Why and how do school inequalities are linked to territorial inequalities ? In reality the « ghettoisation » of schools is the logical consequence of urban planning policies that have grouped populations with the same socio-economic difficulties in the same geographical areas, further reinforcing the difficulties and adding a future precariousness to a daily situation that is already precarious13. Should we rethink the system of endowments of schools, closely linked to local resources and urban territorial phenomena as shown by the study by Marois (2006) highlighting the market regime in six European countries ?

   The latest studies also show that the relationship to books and culture is different depending on the social background, from the total lack of reading to the choice of authors. The privileged classes have a strong preference for authors using irony, a more developed vocabulary, broader themes developing the imagination and allowing to acquire a broader conception of the world14.

   It would probably be time to give places of knowledge, public libraries for example, a social role of primary importance, this role of essential link to culture, accessible to all, and to put an end to this obsession with political transformation of all places of culture in modern landmarks, « fashionable », for privileged classes and tourists. One of the ways would therefore be to allow access to culture for all, to stop making culture the « pré-carré » of the most privileged by developing partnerships between schools and cultural institutions, as we know that the learning of general culture plays an important role in the education of children from the most privileged backgrounds, and in their greater ease in acquiring knowledge both inside and outside of school, but also to their opening up to the world, at a time when all norms, structures and economic models are evolving more rapidly than the school prepares students to enter the world of work. Finally, I conclude here, although the subject is only superficially discussed, noting that true equality of opportunity is not having quota in « schools of excellence » for students from institutions classified as less favored areas but, (let us dream a little), to reach a level of social mobility allowing these students to integrate the « classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles » and « schools of excellence » by a common path without discrimination neither negative nor positive, the latter being only an institutionalization of the deep fracture that exists today in the french « college unique » thought by René Haby in 1975.

3Titmuss, R.M., Income distribution and social change, London, Allen et Unwin, 1962.

4Galbraith, J., Inégalité. Ce que chacun doit savoir, Paris, Seuil, 2019.

5 Citot, V., « Pour en finir avec quelques poncifs sur l’égalité (les dangers de l’égalitarisme en matière culturelle, économique et politique) », Le Philosophoire, 2012/1 (n° 37), p. 133-185. DOI : 10.3917/phoir.037.0133. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-le-philosophoire-2012-1-page-133.htm

7 Turner, 1960.

8 https://www.education.gouv.fr/pid37635/pisa-programme-international-pour-le-suivi-des-acquis-des-eleves.html

Jencks, 1972 / Demeuse, Baye, 2005, Mons, 2005 / Mons, 2007 / Felouzis, Système éducatif et inégalités scolaires, une perspective internationale, 2005 / Felouzis, Perroton, 2007 / Felouzis, 2009/ Godin, M. & Hindriks, J. (2018). An international comparison of school systems based on social mobility. Economie et Statistique / Economics and Statistics, 499, 61-78. https://doi.org/10.24187/ecostat.2018.499s.1940

9 OCDE, 2006.

12 Bourdieu P., Passeron J.C., La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement, Minuit, Paris, 1970.

14 Lahire B., Enfances de classe, Le Seuil, Paris, 2019.