Jencks on inequality

Writings of scholars engaged in (mostly) political or (less commonly) social advocacy provide a fascinating opportunity to examine the usage of rhetorical techniques – techniques that, to a large extent, rely on fallacies.  It so happens that many of such writings provide a convenient scholarly fig leaf for lawmakers trying to introduce or block various policies. Inequality – a Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America by Christopher Jencks is just one such example. I have lasted all of the first chapter there.

Jencks starts with a strikingly arbitrary definition of wealth and poverty – to him, wealth is not measured by luxuries (such as ownership of a yacht), but by the ability to buy other people’s time. If one follows this line of reasoning, an up and coming hip hop star living in hotels and hiring a large entourage would be considered richer than a solitary majority shareholder satisfied with one housekeeper – the latter’s wealth is tied up in equity not directly translatable into work-hours under his direct custody and control.

In a broad swipe, Jencks generalizes from thus relativized wealth and poverty to cognitive skills taught at schools, and ties them together only to ‘prove’ that inequality or poverty cannot be eliminated by improved education. What a relief for county officials looking for ways to cut public school funding.

In arguing his point of view, Jencks conveniently ignores any fact that would falsify his claims. To him, inequality of income is an outcome of some predetermined Calvinist combination of luck and competence, and those earning more are more lucky and competent (not to mention more productive) than those earning less. He even goes as far as calling lower-income earners “unlucky and incompetent.” Sounds like bad news to academics and to public servants thus compared with investment bankers, not to mention to notoriously underpaid ER doctors and engineers when compared to oil fields workers and even to New Jersey cops.

Additionally, for Jencks “There is no evidence that school reform can substantially reduce the extent of cognitive inequality…” measured by standardized tests or even by educational attainment. (8) It begs the question whether Jencks has ever bothered verifying where U.S. students are placed in worldwide rankings of their reading, science and mathematics skills (according to the PISA test, U.S. 15-year olds scored 25th among the 34 OECD countries in math, and 17th in science and reading). Perhaps it might be time to look at what other countries are doing right. But even in Jencks’ purely domestic scope of analysis, the over-performing schools whose results might serve as examples and be emulated by others are conveniently excluded as outliers. Only large public schools are considered by Jencks, and his findings, unsurprisingly, show no significant differences in their students’ achievement. Apparently, elite private or public high schools sending their alumni to Ivy League universities and whose graduates then become high earners in society do not deserve much comment: “We cannot blame economic inequality on differences between schools, since differences between schools seem to have very little effect on any measurable attribute of those who attend them.” (8). Take that, Bronx Science.

Jencks then goes on to muse about such revolutionary ideas as services to be provided by the state and reduction of inequality of earnings through regulation (for example, the unthinkable concept of a minimum wage law that would actually result in a living wage). Of course, as he points out, such legislation could not possibly be passed by Congress. Too bad – it appears that Europe invented these things way before Jencks, and actually managed to introduce them without the popular revolt he seems to fear. In fact, inequality has been significantly reduced there by comparison. Fortunately for Jencks, neither the U.S. public nor politicians nor even overly many scholars care about the world beyond the water’s edge.

After deciding that nonmonetary incentives encouraging contribution to the common good, such as social and moral incentives, are “inflexible and very coercive,” Jencks goes on to argue that equality of education is not just and equitable either, because “the natural demand for both cognitive skills and schooling is very unequal.” (11) Of course – why try to force classes on a seven-year-old who would rather ride a bike, or demand completing homework from a teenager so much more interested in Facebook. Even worse – encouraging people to get an education is outright unjust: “This puts egalitarians in the awkward position of trying to impose equality on people…,” especially given that, as Jencks does not tire to repeat, “we have found rather modest relationship between cognitive skill and schooling on the one hand and status and income on the other.” (11) Um, just to be sure, could we check again how exactly Jencks and his colleagues ended up at Harvard?

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