Public Education Is Vital for Democracy. But It’s Not the Solution to Poverty or Inequality.

The bipartisan obsession with schooling as an investment in “human capital” in the US since the 1970s has fostered a highly unequal society. We need wide-ranging redistribution to tackle inequality — and to defend public education against right-wing backlash.

A New York City schoolroom, circa 1886. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

“I love the poorly educated,” Donald Trump told supporters in Nevada after they helped him notch a decisive win in the state’s 2016 Republican caucuses. The line was typical: dashed off, casually cruel, instantly divisive. And it instantly distinguished Trump from his competitors in both parties. He wasn’t promising his supporters a brighter future, but only if they got more education or retrained for a better job. There was no talk here of “access,” “opportunity,” or “human capital.” Instead, Trump was trashing yet another political norm: the bipartisan consensus, stretching back a half century, that the solution to economic inequality is more and better education.

In his important and timely new book, The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy, Jon Shelton chronicles the evolution of that belief, long elevated to the status of common sense. It’s the story of how political elites fell in love with an idea, abandoning a redistributive agenda in favor of education. The result, argues Shelton, has been ever-widening economic inequality and a stark political divide.


It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when Americans did not hear the words “public education” and automatically think about individual economic opportunity. As Shelton chronicles in his brisk history, public education was understood as the essential tool for helping citizens participate in a new democracy up through the nineteenth century. And when working people confronted massive inequality in the era of industrialization, they responded, not by demanding more education, but by organizing unions and by supporting stricter curbs on capitalism’s excesses.

By the 1930s, education was one plank in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights, his ambitious social contract that included the right to a “useful and remunerative job” that paid enough to provide adequate food, clothing, and fun, alongside the rights to a decent home, to adequate medical care, and to live free of economic want or worry. Education made the list as part of Roosevelt’s broader vision for expanding social democracy, Shelton argues, rather than as a means of helping Americans achieve economic success.

But within a matter of decades, that vision would begin to shrink as the “education myth” took hold. Shelton’s real — and infuriating — contribution here is to document the extraordinary coalescing of political elites around the idea that education is the best, even the only way, for Americans to realize economic security. By the 1960s, this view would all but choke off more radical plans for political and economic equality. The “Freedom Budget” — the massive spending plan proposed by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in 1966 to provide all Americans with access to a job, living wage, housing, and health care — was never taken up by Congress or President Lyndon Baines Johnson. An effort by Senator Hubert Humphrey and Representative Augustus Hawkins to enshrine guaranteed employment into law a few years later wouldn’t fare much better.

As Humphrey reminded his colleagues, the Constitution made no mention of “market forces.” But with neoliberalism ascendent, Humphrey was an outlier. These “New Democrats” sought to turn the page on Rooseveltian social democracy, notes Shelton, and that would require new “human capital.” Roosevelt himself had used the phrase in a speech to the National Education Association in 1938, extolling teachers as “the ultimate guardians of the human capital of America.” But whereas Roosevelt saw investment in human assets as key to the survival of democracy, the neoliberals would shear from it any larger sense of democratic purpose. Yes, the government should invest in education, but only if the investment was subject to market forces. Here too are the roots of the party’s turn against teachers, far too many of whom “are simply incompetent,” as neoliberal thinker Charles Peters would argue in an influential 1983 essay.

By the time a young Arkansan named Bill Clinton emerged as the Democrats’ bright new light, the party’s rejection of a redistributive agenda in favor of “ladders of opportunity” was all but complete. Clinton’s vision was “a more palatable version of Reagan conservatism,” argues Shelton, both men offering “the dreamy promise of economic prosperity for all without any tough choices.” While Reagan would offer up limited government as his cure-all, Clinton had his own panacea: education. All Americans could prosper in the globalizing economy, went the refrain, if we invested in human capital. And from the individual, who now had no choice but to commit to a lifetime of training and retraining, the Clinton Democrats neatly pivoted to the collective: every American, all ascending the ladder together.

Same Story

As the new millennium dawned, the belief in these assumptions only grew more fervent. By the time George W. Bush affixed his signature to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, ushering in a new era of school reform, the “education myth” had attained the status of common sense — a belief so foundational that it went unquestioned by the mainstream of either political party. Barack Obama appears in this story, not as a change agent, but as the myth’s most ardent pitchman, doubling down on the same story Democrats had been telling for decades. For all of the United States’ ills — poverty, inequality, global competition — education, more and better, was the solution.

That this more recent history is familiar makes Shelton’s chronicle no less infuriating. Indeed, one of the central questions raised by his account is how the Democrats managed to ignore so many warning signs about the dangers of this political strategy, and for so long. Robert Reich foresaw doom for Democrats in the 1994 election, when men without college degrees — downwardly mobile workers whose wages had been dropping for a decade and a half — began to flock to the GOP, a trend that would only accelerate. “Telling them to get a college degree or retrain for jobs that were no longer secure was a recipe for political disaster,” writes Shelton.

But that’s exactly what the Democrats would do for the next quarter century. Hillary Clinton would run on an education-myth message little changed from Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s. While she chose New York City’s Roosevelt Island as her campaign launch site in order to invoke the legacy of the New Deal president, her vision for change was no Economic Bill of Rights. Instead, she focused on the need to help more Americans acquire education in order to move up the ladder of opportunity.

Shelton argues convincingly that the education myth has been the major point of contention in American politics over the past decade, a battle between “those who doubled down on this myth and those who are revolting against it.” Hillary belonged to the first camp, while Donald Trump spoke to the latter. Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong showing in 2016, meanwhile, reflected his appeal to voters who’d been shut out of the meritocracy, including debt-burdened college graduates and blue-collar workers in Midwestern states that had been battered by NAFTA. The Democratic Party’s desperate effort to blunt the Sanders insurgency was also, then, a last-ditch effort to keep the myth alive.

Better Days

Shelton is hopeful that, after a half century, the education myth is finally loosening its grip. Fewer politicians in either party, he notes, now seem to expect that education can remedy our gaping economic inequality or deliver broad economic prosperity for the majority of Americans. President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, including his nominal embrace of labor unions and his debt forgiveness plan, is an acknowledgement that education alone can’t deliver decent jobs and good wages. And a growing number of Democrats clearly recognize that defeating Trumpism will require a deeper commitment to social democracy.

Shelton’s vision isn’t that different from the one spelled out by Roosevelt: the right to a job, health care and housing, a livable environment, and education. Whoever can articulate that promise, he argues, “can realign American politics for a long time and for the better.”

But is Shelton overly optimistic about the Democrats’ shifting orientation?

In his last months in office, Donald Trump seized on education as an issue. But his was not the familiar tale of endless uplift and rungs of opportunity on the meritocratic ladder. In Trump’s telling, schools were centers of indoctrination, training the next generation of leftist radicals. His solution — providing students with a patriotic education, heavy on the virtues of free-market capitalism — is rapidly being translated into red-state policy.

But the Democrats’ dawning understanding that they must move beyond the education myth doesn’t seem to have left them any better equipped to articulate why we have public education in the first place. Even as the GOP launches a stunning assault on what teachers can teach and kids can learn and enacts sweeping school privatization measures in one state after another, the Democrats have struggled to move beyond a narrow economic justification for education. “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce,” Miguel Cardona, Biden’s secretary of education, proclaimed on Twitter last year. The idea that schooling is fundamentally about preparing students for the market seems to be a hard one to shake.

Four decades of selling education as the solution to poverty and economic dislocation has left the Democrats seemingly struggling to find the words to make any case for public education beyond human capital development. Shelton’s invaluable critique of that view would be a good place for them to start.