Equity & Diversity Opinion

Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age

By Anthony Cody — October 10, 2013 2 min read
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Over at the Bridging Differences blog, a fascinating dialogue is occurring, where Michael Petrilli has been laying out the philosophical arguments for a two tier educational system. I appreciate Mr. Petrilli, because while some reformers hide their intentions behind mushy rhetoric, he has laid out his argument plainly, where it can be debated.

His latest attempts are to be found in his recent post, The Especially Deserving Poor.

Here he builds on a theme he sounded last January, when he wrote in defense of high expulsion rates for DC charter schools, suggesting that these schools were “serving the strivers,” and thus should be allowed to cast off the less motivated or compliant students. He wrote:

In my view, we should admit--even celebrate--this phenomenon and be proud of the charter schools that are identifying and serving high-potential low-income students--kids who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents.

I wrote then that this was essentially advocating for a two-tier educational system, one that leaves behind the English learners, the disabled, and those most affected by poverty.

Mr. Petrilli now is extending this theme, with his construct of the “especially deserving poor.”

He begins by denying the reality so many of us see before us, and which is supported by mountains of statistical evidence.

I don't buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.

Apparently he is placing his faith in the capacity of education to perform this recovery, though I have no idea how it will do so. The jobs are simply not there.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

Petrilli writes:

Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort--by individuals and by their families. And it often requires help. I'm not arguing for a pure "bootstraps" approach to fighting poverty--poor children need all manner of supports in order to make it--but no one is going to succeed unless they want to go after the prize themselves. A good many of our policies and programs, then, should be designed to help people with the drive, work ethic, tenacity, and motivation to rise. We should clear any obstacles in their path. We should empower them with opportunities. And, at all costs, we should avoid undercutting their efforts. In short, we should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts--the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.

I especially appreciate the fact that he believes that the ethos of meritocracy is working well up there in the top 1%. They must be incredibly fantastic people to deserve the huge accumulation of wealth - they have garnered 95% of the gains from our most recent economic recovery, remember!

So what does this look like in our schools? Mr. Petrilli fondly describes Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, which was an all African American selective “high track” high school. And then he concludes:

Dunbar later became a regular, de-tracked, "comprehensive" high school--and started its long slide. Would anyone argue that Washington, D.C., is better off as a result? Our message to young people, especially those growing up in poverty, should be clear: If you're willing to do the work, we'll clear your path to the middle class.

So the solution to the plight of the poor has been made somewhat clear. Create tracked schools, in which you enact zero tolerance discipline policies and expel anyone unwilling or unable to comply, in terms of behavior and academic performance. Although Mr. Petrilli does not say this explicitly, the implication (and actual practice) is to let the residual public schools deal with the rest, in a sort of academic triage. Call it “choice” to suggest that it is the parents and children who are doing the choosing, when actually it is the schools. The fittest will survive and perhaps have a chance at that ever-shrinking middle class. The rest will flounder, but we have the “ethos of the meritocracy” to rescue us from any pangs of moral conscience.

Providing further evidence of this social theory in action, we have news this morning that in New York City, the Department of Education has beenbusily concentrating the most difficult students at the city’s most struggling schools. They must be “especially undeserving.”

What do you think? Should we focus on serving the “especially deserving” or is this social Darwinism at work?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.