Part 1 of 2. The Class System and Education

The value referred to as the American Dream is indicative of the American social class system. The American Dream reflects what we see as the kind of equality of opportunity that can exist only in a class system. Americans believe that all people, regardless of the conditions into which they were born, have an equal chance to achieve success. Part of the American Dream is the belief that every child can grow up to be president of the United States. A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Ever since the insecurity created by the economic debacle of 2008, many see opportunities slipping away.

The Enlightenment writers were concerned about a system based on birth privileges, inequality and exploitation. E.P. Thompson described Rousseauian socialism that evolved during the Enlightenment. He described 18th century radicalism’s “… profound distrust of the ‘reasons’ of the genteel and comfortable, and of ecclesiastical and academic institutions, not so much because they produced false knowledge but because they offered specious apologetics for a rotten social order based, in the last resort, on violence and material self-interest …. And to this we must add a …cultural or intellectual definition of ‘class’. Everything in the age of ‘reason’ and ‘elegance’ served to emphasize the sharp distinctions between a polite and a demotic culture. Dress, style, gesture, proprieties of speech, grammar and even punctuation were resonant with the signs of class; the polite culture was an elaborated code of social inclusion and exclusion. Classical learning and an accomplishment in the law stood as difficult gates-of-entry into this culture.”1

For Rousseau the main idea was equality and a government that exists in such a way it protects the equality and character of its citizens. The delicate balance between the authority of the state and the rights of the individual citizens is based on a social compact that protects society against factions and gross differences in wealth and gross differences in wealth and privilege among its members. The gap in society comes from class divisions.

Rousseau believes we must have one power that motivates and binds us all to common goals and ideals. Rousseau’s social contract identified the problem of individualism and consent as sole component of producing government. Humans give up their freedom and consent to be governed. In such a system everyone is treated equally, with no one person having more influence than another (compared to Locke’s liberal individualism that protects the interest of a proprietorial minority). In a class system, an individual’s place in the social system is based on achieved statuses, which are statuses that we either earn or choose and that are not subject to where or to whom we were born. Those born within a class system can choose their educational level, careers, and spouses. Social mobility, or movement up or down the social hierarchy, is a major characteristic of the class system.

The Age of Enlightenment dominated advanced thought in Europe from about the 1650s to the 1780s. It developed from a number of sources of “new” ideas, such as challenges to the dogma and authority of the Catholic Church and by increasing interest in the ideas of science, in scientific methods. In philosophy, it called into question traditional ways of thinking. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted the educational system to be modernized and play a more central role in the transmission of those ideas and ideals. The improvements in the educational systems produced a larger reading public which resulted in increased demand for printed material from readers across a broader span of social classes with a wider range of interests.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his theory on evolution, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. He used natural selection as the process to explain how evolution works. Others used Darwin’s work to support their own causes, in particular, on social issues. Herbert Spencer became a vocal supporter of Darwin’s theory, because he felt Darwin’s natural selection could be used to support his own theory of sociology and ethics. Spencer proposed that society was the product of change from lower to higher forms, just as in the Theory of Biological Evolution, the lowest forms of life are said to be evolving into higher forms. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” – which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die – and became the Englishman most associated with Social Darwinism. The concept of adaptation allowed him to claim that the rich were better adapted to the social and economic climate of the times, and it was only natural for the rich to survive at the expense of the weak. These ideas appeared at a time when there was a need to rationalize inequalities of laissez-faire capitalism – Social Darwinism emerged as a justification. Industrialists used his theory to justify paying low wages for long hours of hard work to laborers.

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), an explorer and anthropologist with an interest in mathematics and techniques of measurement, used Darwin’s theories to support his own cause and, in particular, applied it to social issues. From Darwin’s description of the selection of physical characteristics, Galton set about developing the idea of the ideal man. He became known for his precise quantitative measurements that led him to develop statistical measurement of hereditary predisposition as a way of predicting and improving the population. His work led to the ‘bell curve’ being the starting point for modeling many natural processes.

Galton applied the theory to many measurements of physical traits. He found an approximate normal distribution in the measurements, but there was not a perfect fit. In order to get a better fit he converted the data to a standard score, and averaged the standard score together. Galton’s work on intelligence measurement was based on reaction time – associated with the speed of information processing. In the 1890s, the French government charged Albert Binet with developing a system to screen children who would benefit from public education. Binet’s system measured practical, real-life problems arranged in varying degrees of difficulty. Binet’s tradition gave rise to modern intelligence testing. At the turn of the 20th century, part of the eugenic movement used the bell curve to divide the dominant Anglo-Saxons from immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. In the first two decades of the 20th century, IQ measures backed up the assertions of eugenic promotions.

Karl Pearson (1857-1936) was a mathematician who worked in Galton’s laboratory and developed the Chi squared test. In his various studies, Pearson fell back on mathematical statistics in his desire to find truth. In the 19th century everyone thought that all distributions were normal. After looking at other mathematicians work, he found that distributions reported did not hold up to scrutiny, and the normal error curve could not describe many observations in practice and nature. Pearson found various distributions he studied did not hold up to what had been reported, and the normal error curve cannot describe many observations in practice and nature. Pearson created a new type of statistic, a generalized form of the probability curve, in response to the unshakeable conviction of many of his peers that the normal distribution was the only feasible distribution for the analysis and interpretation of statistical data. Pearson developed a differential equation that was used to model visibly skewed observations. He created a series of equations known as “Pearson’s distribution” when trying to fit known theoretical models to observed data that exhibited skewedness (measuring asymmetrical data) using a differential equation. These formulae have also found use in financial markets

Karl Pearson turned to genetics to support his beliefs around eugenics. Pearson reasoned that if August Weismann’s Theory of Germ Plasma is correct, then acquired characteristics could not be inherited. From this belief one could conclude that training benefits only the trained generation, that is, their children will not exhibit the learned improvements and, in turn, will not be improved, making it impossible to convert poor people into healthy productive members of society by the use of accumulated effect of education, good laws, and sanitary surroundings. In fact, the process would need to be repeated again and again with expenditure of more resources as the population increased, with little improvement. This became the basis of the science that Pearson used to support Social Darwinism. On Galton’s death in 1911, Pearson became the first holder of the Galton Chair of Eugenics at the University of London. It was later renamed the Galton Chair of Genetics in 1963.

There are two main uses of the bell curve in the classroom. One use is called grading on a curve. This process is about assigning grades designed to yield a pre-determined distribution of grades among students in a class. The three requirements are as follows: start with a ordering (ranking) of scores; assign a range of scores to percentiles, and percentile scores are transferred to grades. This allows the test or class to be normalized – meaning grades will be distributed such that the majority of students receive Cs. This system prevents grade inflation and controls for tests harder or easier than the tester intended.

The second use of the bell curve is to develop a modern IQ score. The IQ test evaluates intelligence to a broad range of academic skills – all topics taught and tested in the school system. The items have a right or wrong answer agreed upon by the majority of the people in the culture. Items have a variety of difficulty levels. The answers to many questions depend not only on knowledge of the English language but also on familiarity with certain cultures. There is a strong correlation between an IQ score and how a child performs in school. The IQ test is the industrial world’s measure of ‘bookish academic smarts’ which will measure how well one can do in school, not how well they can do in life. The test lacks questions comforting a sick friend, strategies for appeasing friends and foes, or maximizing enjoyment in life. The tendency to normal distribution (as a result of unavoidable error) should not be used to support pre-conceived ideas that the variable being measured is normally distributed. In social measurements it tends to punish those who fall to the extreme left or right of the bell curve – introducing a concept of abnormal.

In 1994 Richard Herrnstein (1930-1994), a Harvard psychologist whose theory that intelligence was largely inherited, and Charles Murray (1943- ), a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America that used the normal curve of error (based on biological determinism) to justify the inequality in the system. They claimed they had discovered that there was a stable 15-point difference between the IQ of children in poor neighborhoods compared to those in middle class neighbor hoods. Their hypothesis was that the lower IQ (15 points) was evidence that blacks (along with whites of comparable test performance) were disproportionately distributed in poverty, in prison, on welfare rolls, and statistics of illegitimate pregnancies. It was the basis for the argument that a meritocracy had developed in America, according to Herrnstein and Murray. This meritocracy, they claimed, was supported by the IQ distribution.

The weakness of Herrnstein and Murray’s argument appears in several areas: (1) IQ distribution better fits a Pearson distribution for skewed data rather than a bell curve, (2) IQs vary by plus or minus five points making it hard to use to position individuals, (3) IQ doesn’t measure individuals who are smarter in one cognitive area than another (like Einstein), (4) the importance of environment for IQ is established by the 12 to 18 point increase in IQ when young children are adopted from working class to middle class homes in Britain.2 Environmental factors could easily account for the 15-point difference that Herrnstein and Murray observed, but attributed to genetics.

In the past decade, epigenetics – which involves the control of gene expression that is not accompanied by any change in the DNA sequence – has shed new light on how environment has a greater effect on a person’s development than previously thought. It is necessary to replace the ‘science’ of genetics from the late the 19th century with ‘science’ of epigenetics of the 21st century. We each get two copies of every gene – one copy from each of our parents. But what happens when one of these genes has been ‘turned off’, or imprinted, and the remaining gene is defective? This imprinting or turning off of a gene is thought to occur in early life. It is known that maternal nutrition could have a dramatic impact on childhood physical and neural development – not solely attributable to genetics. This fact (epigenetic imprinting) repudiates the conclusion in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America and, in turn, relegates its advice on social planning “to the  dustbin of history”.

Kathleen Geier and Paul Krugman agree that one of Thomas Picketty’s most important findings in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that inherited wealth is rapidly re-assuming its traditional role as the preeminent source of economic power. And Krugman notes this trend is being reflected in conservative economic policy in this US: Bush’s tax cuts were about removing taxes from unearned income. Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” in 2014 called for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all. Social mobility falls as income inequality rises.3

Andrew Carnegie argued that inheritance tax was the only way to prevent a permanent aristocracy of the wealthy, which could have been prevented had the tax been maintained; instead, North America got that aristocracy, the aristocracy of the descendants of robber barons and bloated bankers. The present economic system of minimal government and regulation supports the social class system of Canada and the US. Protecting inheritance is about maintaining privilege and the class system in which inequality between the rich and rest of society continues to grow. When the rich say they have been privileged to have a good education they are not talking about the private school they attended, rather about the fear of losing these inheritances, these advantages that have little to do with useful learning, that keeps people behaving in particular ways.

1 “Telling the Truth About Class.”

2 “No Genes for Intelligence.” (30 Jan 2012)

3 Kilgour, Ed. Against the Meritocratic Theory of Inequality.  (24 March 2014) Washington Monthly


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4 Responses to Part 1 of 2. The Class System and Education

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