Reflections on the working poor

(Text of the talk given by me to the first year class at the Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH on Friday, August 24, 2007 at 1:00 pm. The common reading for the incoming class was David Shipler’s book The Working Poor: Invisible in America.)

Welcome to Case Western Reserve University! The people you will encounter here are very different from the people described in David Shipler’s book The Working Poor: Invisible in America and I would like to address the question: what makes that difference?

Two answers are usually given. One is that we live in a meritocracy, and that we got where we are because of our own virtues, that we are smarter or worked harder or had a better attitude and work ethic than those who didn’t make the cut. I am sure that everyone in this auditorium has been repeatedly told by their family and friends and teachers that they are good and smart, and it is tempting to believe it. What can be more gratifying than to be told that one’s success is due to one’s own ability and efforts? It makes it all seem so well deserved, that there is justice in the world.

Another answer is that luck plays an important role in educational success. I suspect that most of us were fortunate enough to be born into families that had most, if not all, of the following attributes: stable homes and families, good schools and teachers, safe environments, good health, and sufficient food and clothing. Others are not so fortunate and this negatively affects their performance in school.

But there is a third possibility that is not often discussed and that is that the educational system has been deliberately designed so that large numbers of people end up like the people in the book, people who not only have failed but more importantly have learned to think of themselves as failures.

This idea initially seems shocking. How can we want people to fail? Aren’t our leaders always exhorting everyone to aim high and succeed in education? But let’s travel back in time to the beginnings of widespread schooling in the US. In those early days, schooling was unplanned and focused more on meeting the needs of the learner and less on meeting the needs of the economy.

Recall that this was the time when the so-called robber barons were amassing huge personal wealth while the workers were having appalling working conditions. There was increasing concern that as the general public got more educated, more and more would realize and resent this unequal distribution of wealth.

This fear can be seen in an 1872 Bureau of Education document which speaks about the “problem of educational schooling”, according to which, “inculcating knowledge” teaches workers to be able to “perceive and calculate their grievances,” thus making them “more redoubtable foes” in labor struggles. (John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of US Education (2003) p. 153, now available online.)

This was followed by the report in 1888 that said, “We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.” (Gatto, p. 153)

The rising expectations of the general public had to be dampened and this was done by creating an education system that would shift the focus away from learning and more towards meeting the needs of the economy. And the economy then, like now, does not need or want everyone to be well educated.

After all, think what would happen if everyone got a good education and college degrees? Where would we get enough people like those in the book, willing to work for low wages, often with little or no benefits, at places like Wal-Mart so that we can buy cheap goods? Or at McDonalds so that we get cheap hamburgers? Or as cleaning staff at restaurants and hotels so that we can eat out often? Or in the fields and sweatshops so that we can get cheap food and clothes? As the French philosopher Voltaire pointed out long ago: “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.”

One of the most influential figures in shifting education to meet the needs of the work force was Ellwood P. Cubberley, who wrote in 1905 that schools were to be factories “in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products… manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.” (Gatto, footnote on page 39 in the online edition of the book.)

He also wrote: “We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes.”

The natural conclusion of this line of reasoning was spelled out in a speech that Woodrow Wilson gave in 1909, three years before he was elected President of the United States. He said: “[W]e want to do two things in modern society. We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” (The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 18, 1908-1909, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1974, p. 597.)

So a third possible answer to why all of us are different from the people described in Shipler’s book is that the educational system is designed to make sure that only a small percentage (us) will succeed and a much larger percentage (like the people in the book) will fail.

But it is not enough to simply exclude people from success as they will resent it and rebel. After all, all people have had dreams of a good life. As Shipler writes on page 231: “Virtually all the youngsters I spoke with in poverty-ridden middle schools wanted to go on to college. . .Their ambitions spilled over the brims of their young lives.” They dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers, nurses, archeologists, and policemen. But those dreams have to be crushed to meet the needs of the economy. But crushing people’s dreams carries risks.

The poet Langston Hughes warned what might happen in his poem A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up 

like a raisin in the sun? 

Or fester like a sore– 

And then run? 

Does it stink like rotten meat? 

Or crust and sugar over– 

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In order to prevent people with crushed dreams from exploding, you have to make them resigned to their fate, to think it is their own fault, to consider themselves failures and unworthy. How do you do that? By making them repeatedly experience failure and discouragement so that by the time they reach high school or even middle school, their love for learning has been destroyed, they have been beaten down, their hopes and dreams crushed by being told repeatedly that they are lazy and no good, so that should not aim high and instead should they think of themselves as so worthless and invisible that it does not even matter if they show up for work or not.

And we have done that. Currently we have an educational system in which people do primarily blame themselves for failure. As Shipler writes in his preface: “Rarely are they infuriated by their conditions, and when their anger surfaces, it is often misdirected against their spouses, their children, or their co-workers. They do not usually blame their bosses, their government, their country, or the hierarchy of wealth, as they reasonably could. They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right.”

So does this mean that everything that our proud parents and teachers have told us about how smart we are is false? No, that is still true. What is false is the widespread belief that all the other people are poor because they are intrinsically stupid or lazy or incompetent.

You are now in a place that values knowledge and inquiry and has the resources to satisfy your curiosity about almost anything. And all this knowledge is freely shared with you, limited only by your own desire to learn. But all that knowledge that you can gain should not to be used to distance yourself even further from those who have not been as fortunate as you, or to think of yourself as superior to them.

All this knowledge is given to you so that you can become a better steward of the planet, so that you will try and create the kind of world where more people, in fact all people, can live the same kind of life that you will lead.

POST SCRIPT: Bye, Bye, Fredo

Alberto Gonzales surely must rank as a front-runner for the worst Attorney General ever, despite strong competition from people like President Nixon’s John Mitchell. In fact, the administration of George W. Bush has strong candidates for the worst ever nods in all the major categories: President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor.

Truly this is an administration that can only be described in superlatives.


  1. Katie says

    What a fascinating speech Mano. I’m curious about the reaction of the freshmen who heard it. Have you gotten any feedback from them?

  2. says


    Right afterwards I had a lively discussion with about 100 students on this topic, so at least it provoked some thought, which was my goal.

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