Academic Social Science and Inequality

William H. Young

American academic social science sees economic inequality through Marxist eyes, viewed as the difference in unjust outcomes between the rich and successful and the lower classes in a fundamentally unfair capitalist economic system. Social science’s longstanding answer to inequality is government redistribution of income or wealth by group to produce social justice and equality. But it is the transmogrification of public and higher education by social science since about 1970 that is the fountainhead for increased inequality in America. Those high school and college graduates who have learned knowledge-based skills have prospered, while the most whom have not have suffered falling incomes in our global technological age.

In The Race Between Education and Technology (2008), Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz show that between about 1870 and 1970, American education kept pace with the advancing technological economy that made the United States the world’s richest nation with the highest average standard of living.[1] Then progressive education and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, absorbed by academic social science, re-oriented our public school system to educating for social change and social justice rather than knowledge. According to Goldin and Katz, American education in the 1970’s no longer produced enough graduates of either high school or college with the learning and the thinking skills needed to keep up with technological change.

By 1983, A Nation at Risk warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in American public education. Since then, educational performance has continued to worsen in many ways rather than improve, which America’s Skills Challenge, a 2015 study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), confirms. ETS also finds that, today, our most recently educated generation—the millennials—ranks last or next to last in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to other industrialized nations, areas where we once led the world.[2]

Goldin and Katz emphasize that economic inequality declined in America between 1870 and 1970, but has increased since the 1970s because of educational shortcomings. The first action needed to remedy such inequality is a return to knowledge-based education. But academic social science reflexively scorns that solution because of its embedded ideological dogmas: social justice to produce equality for oppressed groups and repudiation of our technologically-based capitalist economy. Both beliefs are now embodied in the latest messianic academic ideology, sustainability.


On January 10, 2012, the White House released, A Crucible Moment, a report which identified a new mission that the Obama administration and the Association of American Colleges and Universities assigned to higher education: “to eliminate persistent inequalities, especially those in the United States determined by income and race.”[3]

Charlotte Allen argues that since 2009, “the sharp political focus on inequality, driven into the public mind by the Occupy movement and endorsed by President Obama…was born, not on the street, but on the campus.” She describes numerous university programs and courses that offer:

Marxist and quasi-Marxist critiques of capitalism, [with] the core presumption…that there is something inherently wrong with all inequality [and that] inequality is somehow the fault of those who do better in society.[4]

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that most recent college graduates learned everything they know about capitalism from Barbara…Ehrenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimed….Ehrenreich, a self-proclaimed socialist, makes the Marxist zero-sum argument that “people are poor because the rich systematically steal from them.”[5]

Embracing that idea, academic social science wrongheadedly focuses almost exclusively on the redistribution of material resources as higher education’s solution to inequality, and ignores the historic basis of American prosperity.

The Rise of American Prosperity

“I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). “They willed to their descendants,” he explained, “the habits, ideas, and mores best fitted to make a republic flourish.”[6] From the founding, the Protestant (Puritan) ethic of Western civilization—esteeming literacy, self-reliance, and diligent personal effort—was the foundation of the individual’s path to economic mobility. The Protestant ethic venerated knowledge and the dignity of human labor, giving life meaningful structure.

That ethic undergirded what economists call the period between 1860 and 1890 in America—the Second Industrial Revolution—reflecting the frenetic pace of technology-driven change. Inventors and entrepreneurs rather than soldiers and politicians playing musical chairs became the nation’s heroes. Within one generation, they developed a new civilization based on machines and more mass production, the world’s greatest industrial economy. They put reservoirs of risk capital to use; organized arsenals of new machinery; mobilized armies of workers for new jobs; created hitherto undreamed of products; and made them widely available. They generated mountains of new wealth, quadrupling national income. Rising economic growth produced a markedly better average and middle-class standard of living, along with natural economic inequality.[7]

Developing American education played a strong role in that success story, which continued over the twentieth century. In 1840, the population of the Northern states had the highest literacy rates (over 90 percent) in the world. That achievement stemmed from the importance that the Puritans had attached to education for its families to read the Bible, and from township elementary schools. Massachusetts led in the establishment of a high-quality public school system. As the century progressed, the emphasis on knowledge and education, both as vehicles for fostering individual mobility and as the key to exploiting new technology for the benefit of society as a whole, became ever more widespread.[8]

In 1893, the Committee of Ten, the nation’s first blue-ribbon commission to study the schools, chaired by Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, endorsed the democratic idea that public high schools should provide a rigorous academic education for all students who sought it, not just for the elite going on to college. The report of the Ten endorsed the democratic idea that all students should receive a liberal education. The report represented a melding of the objectives of liberal education (i.e., a curriculum of rich content) and mental discipline (i.e., training of the mind).[9]

The commission concluded that high school graduates with well-trained minds, well furnished with knowledge, would best be prepared for many potential paths in life. The expected role of the public schools was to make social equality a reality, to give each individual an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream by developing his mental powers to the full extent of his ability and interest.[10]

In 1900, about 10 percent of youngsters aged fourteen to seventeen attended high school and about 6 percent graduated.[11] By the early twentieth century, 90 percent of the American populace would be literate, and the country would have more high school students than any other on earth.[12]

Throughout the 1800s, America also became a “land of colleges,” as private institutions were formed across the nation. Later in the century, the many state universities began to be added. By 1900, engineering, the sciences, education, business management, and a variety of other occupations were absorbing the great majority of college graduates.[13]

Education, Technology, and Inequality

In The Race Between Education and Technology, Goldin and Katz show that between the 1870s and 1970s, public and college education made steady progress that gave American workers the skills needed to take advantage of rapid change in technological developments. This produced the world’s most productive economy, richest nation, fastest economic growth, and highest average personal standard of living. But since the 1970s, they conclude, American educational attainment (primary and secondary school and college) has declined and no longer produces a workforce with the skills required to keep up with technological advance, decreasing labor productivity and increasing economic inequality.

During the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the rising supply of educated workers outstripped the increased demand caused by technological advances. Higher real incomes were accompanied by lower inequality. But during the last two decades of the century the reverse was the case and there was sharply rising inequality. Put another way, in the first half of the century, education raced ahead of technology, but later in the century, technology raced ahead of education. The skill bias of technology did not change much across the century, nor did its rate of change. Rather, the sharp rise in inequality was largely due to an educational slowdown….

By the 1950s, the United States had achieved preeminence in education at all levels and its triumphant lead would remain undisturbed for several decades. But sometime in the early 1970s indicators of educational attainment in the United States began to change. Secondary school graduates reached a plateau; college graduation rates slid backwards; educational attainment by cohort reached a standstill. After the mid-1980s educational attainment for young Americans did begin to rise again, largely driven by college-going, especially for young women. But this has not been enough to brighten the overall picture….

The slowdown in the growth of educational attainment…is the single most important factor increasing educational wage differentials since 1980 and is a major contributor to increased family income inequality. If technology continues to race ahead (and history suggests it will) and educational attainment does not begin to increase rapidly, we are likely to see continued increases in inequality….

We see great demand today for the highly analytical individual who can think abstractly…. No longer does having a high school or college degree make you indispensable, especially if your skills can be imported or emulated by a computer program.[14]

The above findings are validated by other analyses presented in my previous articles Academic Social Science and the Family and Academic Social Science and Men.

The Turn in Public Education

In The Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959), the late management consultant Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers” and identified the kind of education they required:

Those possessing actionable knowledge far beyond that of industrial workers, obtained through continuous high-level education and training and the ability to acquire and apply theoretical and analytical knowledge.[15]

But progressive education, which began to take hold in primary schooling in the 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s led American public education in just the opposite direction.

John Dewey’s concepts of progressive education turned away from the principles of the Committee of Ten. Dewey “taught that the school, which heretofore had been the locus of intergenerational transmission of received knowledge, learning, and wisdom, needed to become an agent of social betterment and change.”[16] In the February 2013 City Journal, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains that progressive education includes “a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience, which he calls “how-to-ism,” giving students “the skills to assimilate new knowledge.”

These skills typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future. How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball.[17]

Just as importantly, since the 1960s the teaching of social justice has adulterated academic content and politicized pedagogies. Teaching for social justice prioritizes diversity, equality for designated victim groups, and political correctness over intellectual development and academic achievement, which I explained in Academic Social Science and the Group and Social Justice.

Prior to 1967, Hirsch notes, student test scores on the SAT and other tests “had been rising steadily for 50 years.” But around 1967, test scores began to plummet, reaching their nadir around 1980—with the dilution of knowledge accounting for much of the test score drop.[18] In April 1983, A Nation at Risk warned of the deterioration of public schools—of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”:

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.[19]

After decades of national rhetoric and demands to turn public education back to academics and scholarship, the U. S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2009—the “Nation’s Report Card”—found that, for high school students, there was only slight improvement in performance in basic mathematics, but no improvement in reading and literacy levels since the 1970s. Public school performance is no better today than it was before A Nation at Risk—even though spending per pupil has doubled.[20]

In Centering America (2002), I noted that “nearly a generation after” A Nation at Risk, in many cases,

a whopping 60 percent to 70 percent of students are required to take remedial—known these days as “developmental”—English or math classes before enrolling in college-level courses that count towards a degree.[21]

Ironically, a 2011 report for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) aims to reduce— by 2020—the 60 percent of high school graduates still requiring at least one developmental education course to enter college.[22] One of the primary purposes of the Common Core State Standards is to eliminate the enduring need for remedial education.

Academic social science’s turn to “how-to-ism” and “social justice” in public education has failed to provide individuals with the knowledge-based skills required by the modern economy, as Drucker warned and Goldin and Katz found. Income inequality among groups of workers of similar sex, age, and schooling is explained by differences in their learned skills.[23] The abilities or human capital they lack make them unequal and unable to compete for job opportunities that are going begging.

College Education

The mediocre education results of primary and secondary education are not being meliorated in college. A January 2006 report by the American Institutes for Research, The Literacy of America’s College Students, found that most college students getting ready to graduate could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper stories and editorials, or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees. More than half the students at four-year colleges and more than three-quarters at two-year schools experienced such difficulty, and did not “score at the proficient level of literacy,” being weakest in quantitative literacy. [24]

In Academically Adrift (2010), sociologists Richard Arum at New York University and Josipa Roksa at the University of Virginia, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, found that “45 percent of students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.[25] Now, in Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), Arum and Roksa have found, in a sample of more than 2,400 students at 24 colleges and universities, that gains were “exceedingly small or empirically non-existent” for many students.[26]

The AAAC report cited above includes the results of a study that analyzed the need in 18,000 jobs for “three essential skills: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information.” These skills were required for 98 percent of jobs “in occupations paying a wage sufficient to support a family.” But “community college graduates were, on average, adequately skilled for just 57 percent of those desirable occupations.”[27] High school graduates would, of course, be expected to be less skilled.

At the higher end of the college spectrum, the 2010 Census revealed some specific recent trends in degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which were reported by The Wall Street Journal:

The share of American workers in the science and engineering professions fell slightly in the past decade, ending what had been a steady upward trend in the proportion of workers in fields associated with technological innovation and economic growth.

Workers in technical fields…accounted for 4.9% of the labor force in 2010…down from a peak of 5.3% in 2000. Before 2000, the share of these knowledge workers had increased every year since 1950.[28]

The decline in education of workers includes those with needed technical capabilities as well.

Only a limited number of Americans are coming out of college with the high-level abstract-reasoning skills required to master new information technologies and meet the needs of today’s employers. Young Americans are weakest in problem solving and reasoning skills such as the ability to infer knowledge that is not explicitly stated and to assess the validity of evidence or the logic of arguments—just the abilities needed to prosper economically and to be thinking and participating citizens in a technological age.

Sadly, even that discouraging summation does not evince just how bad the education and skills of younger Americans have become relative to their peers in competing nations.

An International Comparison

As noted above, the January 2015 report from ETS, America’s Skills Challenge, provides some shocking revelations about the comparative skills of American millennials—those born after 1980, the most recent products of our educational system—using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) to compare the United States to 21 other member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

One central message that emerges from this report is that despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments [PS-TRE] compared to their international peers….Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U. S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys….

Other educational surveys, including…NAEP have reported similar results for our high school seniors. In 2013, NAEP reported that 74 percent of the nation’s twelfth graders were below proficient in mathematics and 62 percent were below proficient in reading. In addition, organizations such as ACT, which evaluates the college and career readiness of the young adult population in the United States, recently reported that nearly one out of three high school graduates (31%) taking its exam failed to meet any of the four college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science, suggesting they are not well prepared for first-year college coursework. Similarly, the College Board reported in 2013 that 57 percent of SAT takers failed to qualify as “college ready.” The PIAAC data, therefore, is not anomalous; in fact, it forms part of a broader picture of America’s skills challenge….

How bad is the performance of our millennials? The detailed results of the study may be summarized as follows:

  • The average scores of U. S. millennials in literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE were either last or nearly last compared with all other participating countries. The youngest segment of the millennial cohort fared the worst.
  • The top scoring U. S. millennials (those at the 90th percentile) scored higher than only one other participating country. The low-scoring U. S. millennials (those at the 10th percentile) ranked last.
  • U. S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher than their counterparts in only two other countries. Our best-educated millennials—those with a master’s or research degree—scored higher than their peers in only three other countries.

ETS further concludes that:

This report explores the growing importance of education and skills in the context of the larger technological, economic, social, and political forces that have been reshaping America for the past 40 years. To put it bluntly, we no longer share the growth and prosperity of the nation the way we did in the decades between 1940 and 1980. Since around 1975, those who have acquired the highest levels of education and skills have become the big winners, while those with the lowest levels of education and skills have fared the worst….

As a country, we need to confront not only how we can compete in a global economy, but also what kind of future we can construct when a sizable-segment of our future workforce is not equipped with the skills necessary for higher-level employment and meaningful participation in our democratic institutions.[29]

Lack of Response

Why is it that so many alarm bells and dire statistics over more than four decades, documenting the failure of American education to prepare individuals to prosper in our technological age—and providing prima facie evidence that inadequate education is a major cause of rising economic inequality—continue to be ignored by the academy and academic social science?

I explained part of the answer in Academic Social Science and Our Capitalist Economy: the Marxist academy does not understand and refuses to accept our technological economy and its requirements for knowledge-based skills in high school and college graduates. Moreover, academic social science persists in serving its oppressed-group ideology—inculcating in students the tenets of social justice rather than advancing their cognitive development. See Academic Social Science and the Group and Social Justice.

Finally, the Protestant ethic has been a specific target for cultural Marxism since the 1960s. Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School dismissed the “patriarchal compulsion to work” as serving the interests of class society and led the turn to expressive individualism. Epicurean self-regard rather than Emersonian self-reliance became and remains the ethos of academic social science.


NAS’s March 2015 report, Sustainability, shows that the rejection of our modern economy is taken to a new level by the sustainability ideology:

It is a summons for fundamental changes in human life….A great many of them view “capitalism” as the primary enemy. They see as the root problem the economic and social system that brought modern industrial technology into the world and freed much of humanity from the drudgery of subsistence labor….

That worldview is the one that demands restructuring the economic system atop principles of equality rather than individuality; exchanging freedom and market systems for managed economies and bureaucratic oversight…At times, sustainability gives up on technology altogether and shakes from its sandals the dust of modern society, vowing to return to primitive lifestyles at “harmony” with nature.…[30]

Ironically, today’s illiterate and innumerate high school and college graduates would be well suited to such a Middle Ages society, since most would be equal at the lowest common denominator of human life.


Academic social science needs to acknowledge the critical deficiencies in required knowledge-based skills in high school and college graduates that leave them underprepared for a technology-based workforce and are driving the increase in American economic inequality. But after decades of dogmatic denial, such a response seems unlikely,

It seems imperative, therefore, to terminate the long-time monopoly that university-based schools of education have held in the training and licensing of teachers, as well as to fundamentally restructure  the state-level educational bureaucracies with which they’ve worked to impose the curricular deficiencies I’ve described here.

It will take a sea change in the political will of national and state governance to effect such reform. But only from such a change, freeing schools from social justice and “problem solving,” pedagogy, will rising inequality in America begin to be reversed—by growth from new roots.

Image: BBC/PA/PA


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).




[1] Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008).

[2] Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, January 2015).

[3] National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, Association of American Colleges & Universities,,/crucible, January 2012.

[4] Charlotte Allen, The ‘Inequality’ Movement—A Campus Product, Minding the Campus, March 21, 2012.

[5] Charlotte Allen, “More Adam Smith, Please…and less Barbara Ehrenreich,” The Weekly Standard, 29 November 2010.

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, eds., George Lawrence, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), 257.

[7] Bernard A. Weisberger, ed., Steel and Steam: 1877–1890, vol. 7, in Henry F. Graff, The Life History of the United States, vol. 2 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1963), 29, 38.  Walter Licht, “Industrialization” in Paul S. Boyer, ed., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 383. Bernard A. Weisberger, ed., Reaching for Empire: 1890–1901, in Graff, Life History of the United States, 149.

[8] Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 100–1. Benjamin M. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 58.

[9] Diane Ravitch, Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 47–48.

[10] Ravitch, Left Back, 42–43.

[11] Ibid., 25, 99.

[12] John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004), 281.

[13] William J. Reese, “Education,” in Paul S. Boyer, ed., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 213–14. Fogel, Fourth Great Awakening, 83.

[14] Goldin and Katz, Race Between Education and Technology, 6−8, 324‒25, 352‒53.

[15] Peter F. Drucker, The Landmarks of Tomorrow: On economic and social progress in the twentieth century (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950).

[16] Robert Lerner, Althea K. Nagai, and Stanley Rothman, Molding the Good Citizen: The Politics of High School History Texts (Westport: Praeger, 1995), 22, 15, 19–20.

[17] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “A Wealth of Words,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Winter 2013.

[18] Hirsch, “Wealth of Words.”

[19] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983.

[20] Robert Tomsho, “Few Gains Are Seen in High School Test,” The New York Times, 29 April 2009. Diane Ravitch, “Failing the Wrong Grades,” The New York Times, 15 March 2005. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch, “Basic Instincts,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 February 2006.

[21] William H. Young, Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2002), 331.

[22] Walter G. Bumphus, Augustine P. Gallego, Kay M. McClenney, and Jerry Sue Thornton, Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and America’s Future, A Report from the 21st-Century Commission on The Future of Community Colleges, American Association of Community Colleges,

[23] Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy, Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 32, 44–6, 50. Richard W. Judy and Carol D’Amico, Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century, Hudson Institute, 1997.

[24] Justin D. Baer, Andrea L. Cook, and Stephanie Baldi, The Literacy of America’s College Students, American Institutes for Research, 1 January 2006. Associated Press, “Study: Collegiate literacy lacking,” Asbury Park Press, 20 January 2006.

[25] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[26] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[27] Bumphus , et al., Reclaiming the American Dream.

[28] Conor Dougherty and Rob Barry, “Share of Workers in Scientific Fields Shrinks,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2012.

[29] Goodman, Sands, and Coley, America’s Skills Challenge.

[30] National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, March 2015, 16, 90.

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