Education Week: Review of The Education Trap
an informative and convincing book that I had a hard time getting through
This is the fourth and final post in (the first annual?) Education Week at freddiedeboer.substack.com. I acknowledge that most any week could be called an education week on this blog.
I learned a lot from The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, by Dr. Cristina Viviana Groeger of Lake Forest College, and enjoyed it a great deal. I can’t, however, necessarily recommend it to most readers for informative or pleasure reading, as it is at heart an academic history book that fulfills the purpose of that genre first and foremost, sometimes in frustrating ways.
The Education Trap is an ambitious text. (It’s Groeger’s tenure book, I’m sure.) The book makes a persuasive case about how the relationship between education and professionalization actually function, in practice, in a way that throws some cold water on the assumption that schooling can be a great social leveler or engine of mobility. Those who have read my own book can probably guess that I’m very sympathetic to Groeger’s argument. To make her case, she takes a deep dive into the birth of what we might call the modern education system, in Boston, from the last 30 or so years of the 19th century to about the midpoint of the 20th. Groeger examines how different kinds of schools fought for control and influence in this period, with the prize being the ability to dictate who could enter into which professions - and this, Groeger suggests, continues to complicate the question of who education serves.
Why Boston, and why this period? First, because Boston has always been a national leader in educational development; our oldest university is found in the Boston metro area, as well as an unusual number of other acclaimed schools, and Boston was an early leader in public K-12 education. (And, intriguingly, site of some of public school’s early victories against what we would now refer to as local private elementary schools, many of which were summarily dispatched less because their competition was free and more because their quality of schooling was so low they were essentially a con job.) Early 20th-century Boston was also unusually fertile for different types of vocational training schools, as well as the unions that were sometimes associated with them and sometimes in competition with them. The city was also a site of important battles for consistent training and licensure in influential fields like law and medicine. These developments were concentrated in a period of about a century, with universal compulsory free K-12 education rising and a great number of independent schools closing between the Civil War and World War II. There also seems to simply be a great deal of available historical data and records available from this time. The upshot is that this is unusually fertile ground for historical inquiry that informs current policy.
What is the titular education trap? Well, this question gets at my basic frustration with the text: Groeger does not really discuss it directly until the final 15 pages or so of the ~250 page book. When she does, she’s persuasive. Her basic case is that in the grubby real world, outside of the idealized vision of politicians and those who wax poetic about the wonders of higher ed, education becomes an expression of cartel behavior in the same way that unions have often been accused of. Rather than being a means for mass economic advancement, educational licensure inevitably becomes a way of constraining the supply of skilled labor for the purpose of driving up wages. Groeger is not directly critical of the wage-increasing aspect in-and-of-itself, as I would not be - supply constraints are one of the few reliable ways of strengthening the hand of labor against that of capital. But as she makes clear, the notion of education as the mover of economic improvement for people in mass is directly undermined when we consider the cartel effects that have always been a big part of the advantage of educated labor. You simply can’t expand these benefits past a certain point because that expansion eliminates the very economic advantage we’re chasing. It’s self-defeating.
Legal education is an interesting case study discussed in the book. In the early 20th century there was a pitched battle in Massachusetts over who gets to practice law. At that time law was practice by the fancy law school graduates of schools like Harvard, who unsurprisingly commanded the greatest respect and highest wages. But there were also scrappy law schools (“evening” schools) that provided legal education too, especially to those groups that were typically excluded from the halls of elite colleges - yes, women and Black people, but more often the Irish and Russian Jews. The fancier lawyers recognized that these interlopers were driving down the price of legal work, and so went to work in the political system to institute policies that would require onerous standards to practice law - and drive out the riff raff. This was not a small feat. For perspective, in 1910 only 3% of American lawyers were members of the American Bar Association. But sustained political pressure on the part of the (well-moneyed and connected, and thus disproportionately influential) high-profile colleges, against the evening schools and their graduates, gradually brought more and more members of the profession into line with educational and licensure norms that would eventually become law. The Great Depression ended up playing a big part in this evolution: the economic downturn caused such significant downward pressure on lawyer salaries that the demand for the evening law schools collapsed, causing most of them to close their doors and removing the countervailing pressures against additional licensure requirements. The consequences came swiftly. In 1932 seventeen states had formal years-of-education requirements for practicing law. By 1938 forty did.
In this way, a cartel was formed; more stringent standards were enacted at the behest of institutional players within an educated labor force, for the purpose of restricting supply of that form of labor and in doing so artificially raising wages. There’s no doubt that there were people within the legal world who genuinely believed that lawyers needed more training and more stringent licensing requirements to effectively do their jobs. (Intriguingly, Groeger presents data that shows that it was significantly easier to bring the medical community into the American Medical Association cartel than it was with lawyers, perhaps due to organic belief that higher standards were necessary for patient safety.) But there’s also no doubt that those within the profession who were the most established and well-moneyed had the greatest ability to influence the political process to maintain their advantage. What Groeger suggests is that this is true of much of educated labor, and indeed that the barriers to becoming credentialed are as directly and meaningfully a source of wage advantage as the education itself.
What’s more, distorting advantages assert themselves even when they don’t take the form of the racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism that were so rampant in the workplace of the period. For example, Boston was then as now an extremely expensive place to live. New employees fresh out of college were paid terribly, even in fields that were overall well-remunerative. This meant that many recent graduates simply could not afford to join the professions that (eventually) provided the best wages, which the author points out is analogous to the contemporary world of unpaid internships. This is how the economic value of education plays out in practice: Groeger suggests that, as education becomes more prominent and more valued, it also becomes more subject to interest group capture, and also that education alone cannot address many of the factors that make economic opportunity unequally distributed. So education works too well as a source of earnings potential for some and too poorly for others. What Groeger suggests is that while we can lament the particulars and work for reform in some domains, the ways in which the benefits of education are used against those who don’t have access to it and restricted against some of the unlucky who do are ultimately intrinsic parts of these systems. In other words, cartels and systematic inequality of opportunity stemming from education are not accidents. They are inevitable. All of this is convincing and well-expressed.
But boy, it takes a long time to get there.
I’m someone with a lot of love for history in general and the history of education in particular, but I have zero qualifications as far as assessing academic history texts. And my experience with this book is a combination of admiration for the depth of Groeger’s research, respect for the insights that she gleans from that research, and general agreement with her broader point about how educational credentials actually function in the real world - with consistent frustration about some of what I take to be the conventions of scholarly history monographs. Groeger’s book is a very long walk to the argument implied by its title. Along the way, we’re learning a lot about Boston’s economy and schools… a lot. By the fifth chart that visualizes information like how the Irish filled less and less seats in Boston public schools over time, I’m pretty burnt out. This is all important information for academic inquiry, and I’m glad that it exists somewhere, but it makes the book a slog to get through. While I’m happy that, for example, historians know how much one could expect to earn from selling flannel shirts in turn-of-the-century Boston, it’s not particularly thrilling reading material.
In a sense, there’s something refreshing about a book this staid and slow-building; in today’s publishing industry most books titled The Education Trap would explain the core argument to you on the back cover and then reiterate that same explanation to you for 200 pages. I’m glad that this isn’t a one-weird-trick style of nonfiction. But the title, cover, and front matter all imply a book that is more directly argumentative than what we get. (Perhaps a more accurate title for the book would have been The Cartelization Process as a Function of Expansion of Educational Opportunity in Boston from the Late 19th to Mid 20th Centuries, but I concede that it doesn’t really have the same ring.) I can imagine a version of this book that fronts its basic argument more forcefully in the text, and which more consistently relates the impressive amounts of research assembled in it to that argument. I don’t think it would take sacrificing any rigor to make the book more appealing to patient readers of persuasive historical writing, who should be a major audience for this book.
Still, this disappointment of mine may simply be a function of the requirements of producing an academic book for a university press in a field I am not very familiar with. And there are a lot of sharp observations here, though I confess that I would have liked to spend a little more time exploring them. For example, Groeger convincingly argues that it’s wrongheaded to contrast liberal arts education with vocational education, as arguably no type of education has been more effective at pairing recent graduates with jobs as liberal arts programs at 4-year universities have been at sending their grads out into the white collar world. But that argument takes up perhaps a page or a page and a half in the text, and I would trade more of that for less on the minutiae of how white women were trained to become secretaries and stenographers in Boston in the 1920s. Then again, I’m not the one going up for tenure, so it’s easy for me to complain.
I’ll give the final word to Groeger and a good summary of her themes.
it is necessary to stress the limits of mass educational expansion as a self-sufficient policy solution to the problem of inequality. In the early twentieth century, the restructuring of paths to work made school vastly more important across the occupational structure, especially at the top. Particularly striking are the ways that schools were used as tools not to empower workers but to undermine that power. Industrial employers used private trade schools to undermine craft unions and used the graduates of commercial schools and public high schools to increase the proportion of their nonunionized staff. Professional elites used universities to control access to the most coveted positions. Schooling on its own is not inherently equalizing, and the history recounted in this book demonstrates the many different ways that schools have been used to entrench and magnify inequality.
Note: Harvard UP sent me a free copy of The Education Trap to review.