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Including abstract, bibl. While the research, theory and policy literature on race, class and gender discrimination in education is extensive, the problem of education-based discrimination itself has been widely overlooked. Indeed, the dominant ideologies of meritocracy and human capital (into which we are inculcated throughout our lives by schools, media and the state) proclaim that higher levels of education are and should be linked with greater reward. In a world where education is regularly invoked to legitimate inequality, it can appear nonsensical even to raise concern about education-based discrimination as a matter of social injustice. We need, however, to challenge those who have taught us not to see what has essentially become an elephant in our living room. Otherwise, we will find ourselves unable ever to use our public systems of education for universal emancipation and empowerment.
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The problem of education-based discrimination
Stuart Tannock
Online Publication Date: 01 September 2008
To cite this Article Tannock, Stuart(2008)'The problem of education-based discrimination',British Journal of Sociology of
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The problem of education-based discrimination
Stuart Tannock*
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Taylor and Francis LtdCBSE_A_332851.sgm
(Received 23 October 2007; final version received 4 December 2007)
10.1080/01425690802326846British Journal of Sociology of Education0142-5692 (print)/1465-3346 (online)Original Article2008Taylor & Francis295000000September 2008StuartTannockstannock@gmail.com
While the research, theory and policy literature on race, class and gender discrimination
in education is extensive, the problem of education-based discrimination itself has been
widely overlooked. Indeed, the dominant ideologies of meritocracy and human capital
(into which we are inculcated throughout our lives by schools, media and the state)
proclaim that higher levels of education are and should be linked with greater reward. In
a world where education is regularly invoked to legitimate inequality, it can appear
nonsensical even to raise concern about education-based discrimination as a matter of
social injustice. We need, however, to challenge those who have taught us not to see
what has essentially become an elephant in our living room. Otherwise, we will find
ourselves unable ever to use our public systems of education for universal emancipation
and empowerment.
Keywords: credentialism; discrimination; education-based discrimination; meritocracy
Introduction
Run a keyword search through Sociological Abstracts, ERIC or any similar online academic
database for ‘education’ and ‘discrimination’ and you will come up with a list of thousands.
Run the same search on Google and you will generate a list of over 50 million. But try
searching on any of these sites for ‘education-based discrimination’ (or some variant) and
you will find next to nothing. Among the few hits you do get will be legal experts and
human resource advisors telling disappointed job-seekers that education-based discrimina-
tion is not considered discrimination in the eyes of the law, along with one anonymous
letter-writer to the Washington Post who complains that ‘I couldn’t find anything online that
says education-based discrimination is illegal, but it seems pretty awful to me that this is
allowed’ (Garcia 2006). Education-based discrimination, at least in the world of cyber-
space, simply does not exist. In the rest of the world, too, it regularly disappears from view.
We talk endlessly of class, race and gender discrimination that occur within and through
education. But, too often, we forget to talk about discrimination that occurs on the basis of
education itself: that is to say, on the basis of differences in individual educational status,
achievement, ability, credential and/or opportunity.
How can this be? On a common-sense level, at least, most of us have a pretty good
suspicion that discrimination based on education does exist, and indeed, exists on a massive
and everyday scale. We may think of the prejudice, false and unjust beliefs widely
harboured about the uneducated and illiterate – that ‘mistaken association of literacy
difficulties with ignorance, mental backwardness and social incapacity’, as Brian Street
*Email: stannock@gmail.com
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440 S. Tannock
(1995, 23) puts it. Indeed, such manifestations of elitism and condescension occur all the
way up the educational hierarchy, so that ‘failed academics’ may be scorned, disregarded
and excluded in much the same way as are high school dropouts and the unschooled. We
may think of the ways in which the uneducated are unjustly blamed for unfavourable polit-
ical, social and economic outcomes – as, for example, in the wake of the 2004 presidential
election in the United States, when supporters of defeated Democratic candidate John Kerry
quickly and erroneously pointed the finger at those without intelligence, diploma or degree
for helping re-elect George W. Bush (About.com 2004; Feder 2004; New York Times 2004).
Dig a little and we can find stories of employers disregarding job applicants simply because
candidates happen to have degrees from the wrong universities or do not have university
degrees at all, irrespective of relative individual merits or actual job requirements (Brown
and Hesketh 2004). Turn to social science statistics and we learn quickly that education, or
rather the lack thereof, is today a marker of enormous social, cultural, political and
economic disadvantage. Indeed, this is precisely why we are always telling the young to
‘stay in school’.
In this paper, I argue that we need to start paying a lot more attention to the phenome-
non of education-based discrimination in our society than we do now. To do so, we need
to return to the various traditions in social and educational theory and research that have
broached the issue of education-based discrimination (albeit often under different names)
in the past: the critiques of credentialism, educational assessment and intelligence testing;
the critiques of inequalities in educational opportunity and the failures of public educa-
tion; and, most importantly, the critique of meritocracy. By education-based discrimina-
tion, I mean the promiscuous, arbitrary and unjust denial of rights, privileges, freedoms,
voice or respect to those lacking in education, where education may variously or simulta-
neously refer to an individual’s intellectual achievements, formal credentials, schooling
opportunity or native academic ability. I use the term here as a way to link together the
related yet distinct streams of educational theory that are directly relevant to understand-
ing the broader issue at hand; and to connect this theory to the conceptual framework of
discrimination, with which we are all so familiar today, not just in scholarly circles but in
the realm of educational policy and practice as well. As with most if not all other forms
of discrimination, there are undeniably arenas of practice (such as job hires or college
admissions) in which differentiating among individuals on the basis of education is
legitimate or necessary although, even here, the precise ways in which such differentia-
tion is made may turn out to be discriminatory and unjust as well. If we fail to address
the overall problem of general, education-based discrimination, however, I suggest that
we will never be able to use our public system of education for universal emancipation
and empowerment, and we will find our schools and universities bloated and distorted
by interests and functions to which they should never have been harnessed in the first
place.
The problem of how discrimination is commonly defined
Two key factors have prevented easy recognition of education-based discrimination as a
phenomenon and problem in its own right. The first is that the basic concept of discrimina-
tion itself is often defined as constituting the failure to base rewards and benefits upon
an individual’s educational (and other) accomplishments. The Free Online Dictionary, for
example, defines discrimination as ‘treatment or consideration based on class or category
rather than individual merit’, and merit as ‘demonstrated ability or achievement’. Differen-
tiation on the basis of education, in other words, is presented as that which occurs when
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British Journal of Sociology of Education 441
discrimination has been successfully eliminated. Similarly, in both popular and academic
discussions of the distinction between unjust and just forms of differentiation, education is
one of the most widely used examples to illustrate the latter. ‘Distinctions between people
which are based on individual merit (such as personal achievement, skill or ability) are
generally not considered socially discriminatory’, says the Wikipedia entry on discrimina-
tion. David Wasserman, in his essay on the topic for the Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,
likewise writes: ‘Merit and qualification surely play a role in our understanding of discrim-
ination: we generally do not regard it as discrimination to deny a benefit to someone because
he is unqualified for it’ (1998, 807).
The assumption that there are certain characteristics (race, gender, etc.) on the basis of
which it is always and inherently unjust to differentiate, and others (education) for which
differentiation is always acceptable, however, is unsustainable (Alexander 1992). At a mini-
mum, there are certain types of rights (human rights, for example) that are considered to be
inviolable and that may not be denied anyone on the basis of any category of identity.
Conversely, even for those categories, such as race, for which differentiation is considered
most objectionable, there are still going to be instances in which differential treatment and
consideration may be deemed legitimate and even necessary. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003)
argues, in fact, that in the post-civil rights era in the United States, the most virulent ideol-
ogy serving to maintain racial privilege is what he calls ‘colour-blind racism’. As US
Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once declared, ‘in order to get beyond racism, we
must first take account of race’ (quoted in Wasserman 1998, 806). For any given category
of identity – race, gender, age, religion, sexuality, and so on – there will be arenas in which
differential treatment and consideration are variously objectionable and non-objectionable,
even desirable. The boundaries between these two arenas may often be controversial and ill-
defined; they may also shift with time. But the fact that some acts of differential treatment
for a given category of identity may be considered just, or that the precise boundary between
the just and the unjust may not be perfectly agreed upon, should in no way be seen as remov-
ing our ability to determine that other forms of differentiation on the basis of this category
are nonetheless ‘morally outrageous, and very obviously so’ (Lippert-Rasmussen 2006,
167).
In the case of education, a primary consideration for determining whether differential
treatment is to be judged discriminatory or justifiable hinges on our understanding of the
exact meaning and nature of ‘merit’ and ‘demonstrated ability or achievement’. As David
Wasserman writes:
‘Merit’ and ‘qualification’ are notoriously vague, elastic terms: many qualities are desirable to
an employer or a school, and there are many ways of assessing those qualities, so ‘merit’ and
‘qualification’ often fail to provide clear benchmarks against which to measure discrimination.
(1998, 807)
Issues of merit, credentials, achievement and ability, along with their proper relationship to
privileges, rights and rewards, are often considered in our society to be transparent and
unproblematic matters. They are not. ‘To say that considerations of merit should drive the
[university] admissions process’, William Bowen and Derek Bok write in their study of
affirmative action in higher education in America, ‘is to pose questions, not to answer them’
(Bowen and Bok 1998, 276). In the same vein, we can say that if an individual has been
judged and rewarded (or punished) on the basis of his or her educational qualification,
achievement or ability, this does not resolve but rather continues to raise the question of
whether justice has actually been served or discrimination has occurred.
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442 S. Tannock
The problem of overlapping and proxy discrimination
The second factor that has prevented widespread recognition of education-based discrimi-
nation is that this is a type of discrimination that regularly co-occurs with other types of
discrimination, notably race, class and gender: education-based discrimination has long
been obscured by the overlapping shadows of these more readily acknowledged patterns of
discriminatory injustice. Moreover, since differential treatment and consideration on the
grounds of education is generally deemed to be just and acceptable, education-based
discrimination has commonly been used as a proxy for these other types of discrimination.
The resulting ambivalence and uncertainty that have been created by this phenomenon of
overlapping and proxy discrimination may be illustrated clearly by the history of the 1965
Voting Rights Act in the United States. Voting is one of the only – perhaps the only – arenas
in which it is clearly illegal to discriminate on the basis of education in the United States.
The Voting Rights Act states that:
No citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of
his failure to comply with any test or device The phrase ‘test or device’ shall mean any
requirement that a person as a prerequisite for voting or registration for voting (1) demonstrate
the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrate any educational
achievement or his knowledge of any particular subject, (3) possess good moral character, or
(4) prove his qualifications by the voucher of registered voters or members of any other class.
(Voting Rights Act, 1965, Sections 4(a)(1) and 4(c))
Today in the United States, this prohibition against education-based discrimination in
voting rights is universal and unconditional. The full story, however, is a little more compli-
cated.
The reason that education was addressed in the Voting Rights Act in the first place was
because many southern US states had been deliberately using literacy tests as a way to deny
suffrage to African-American citizens. ‘The inescapable conclusion’, the United States
House of Representatives Judiciary Committee wrote in 1965, ‘is that these tests were not
conceived as and not designed to be bona fide qualifications in any sense, but are intended
to deprive Negroes of the right to register to vote. The only real function they serve is to
foster racial discrimination’ (quoted in Goldman 2004, 624). In the original language of the
Act, educational ‘tests and devices’ were banned only in regions in which there was
evidence of their racially discriminatory impact. Even when this ban was made uncondi-
tional and universal in later amendments to the Act, this was due to the government’s belief
that racist intent and effect in the use of literacy or other similar tests was endemic, and too
great a possibility to be risked (Davidson 1992).
On the other hand, throughout the legal and legislative history surrounding the
Voting Rights Act, there was regular acknowledgement that the use of literacy tests in
voting was unjust for reasons that went beyond race. In its 1959 Lassiter decision on the
subject, for example, the US Supreme Court, although upholding the constitutionality of
literacy tests in voter registration, nonetheless questioned the ‘wisdom’ of these tests,
arguing that ‘literacy and intelligence are obviously not synonymous. Illiterate people
may be intelligent voters’ (US Supreme Court 1959, 51–52). Likewise, in her 1975 state-
ment in favour of extending permanently the temporary provisions of the original Voting
Rights Act regarding literacy tests, US Civil Rights Commissioner Frankie Freeman wrote
that:
Literacy tests cannot guarantee intelligent and informed voting … While I personally believe
that all Americans should be literate in English, it is obvious to me that inability to read and
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British Journal of Sociology of Education 443
write English does not necessarily prevent a citizen from casting an informed and intelligent
ballot. Every citizen has ample opportunity to receive as much or as little information on public
issues as he or she wishes. The illiterate, like the blind person, may be well informed concern-
ing public affairs through the broadcast media, public meetings, and conversation with family,
friends, and co-workers … Lack of facility in written English does not absolve a person of the
responsibilities of citizenship. There is no reason why it should deprive a person of the rights
of citizenship. (Freeman 1975, 357–358)
So which is it then? Is it unjust to use educational tests to deny the vote on the grounds of
education-based discrimination or race discrimination? The letter of the law and much
supporting argument – sometimes appear to say one thing. The history and principal intent
of the law clearly say another.
The credentialism critique
While there has not been a fully developed theoretical, research or policy body of work
addressing the issue of education-based discrimination as such certainly nothing
approaching the work that has been done on race, class and gender discrimination in and
through education – this social problem has by no means been entirely ignored either. The
literature on educational theory has generated at least three essential and directly relevant
critiques: the critiques of credentialism and meritocracy, and the defence of public educa-
tion. The critique of credentialism focuses on that part of education-based discrimination in
which education refers to formal schooling credentials, qualifications or test results. With
roots in the work of Max Weber, this critique is most closely associated with a series of
books published in the 1970s, in the wake of the post-war rise of mass higher education:
Ivar Berg’s (1970) Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery; Ivan Illich’s (1971)
Deschooling Society; Ronald Dore’s (1976) The Diploma Disease; and Randall Collins’
(1979) The Credential Society. It is also linked more generally with the sociological litera-
ture on educational assessment (for example, Broadfoot 1996), as well as critical theories of
education and social reproduction (for example, Giroux 1983).
Credentialism is the ideology and practice of promoting formal educational qualifica-
tions as the means for getting ahead in society and for acquiring access to positions of power
and influence, high-level jobs and further learning opportunities. The critique of credential-
ism is that, contrary to claims of technocratic, meritocratic and human capital theories of
society, formal credentials often have limited correlation with real or significant differences
in individual ability, worth or potential, or with actual job requirements or performance
needs. Rather, credentials tend to be used by employers and elite groups as a way to unfairly
and arbitrarily screen out some individuals and subordinate groups from privileged jobs
and social positions. Credentialism, it is argued, not only discriminates unfairly against
those lacking credentials, but also fundamentally changes the nature of education itself,
alienating learners and commodifying the entire schooling process. In the words of Ronald
Dore, education becomes mere qualification-earning – ritualistic, tedious, suffused with
anxiety and boredom, destructive of curiosity and imagination; in short, anti-educational’
(1976, ix).
In recent years, the critique of credentialism has been picked up by scholars such
as Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, who question the fairness of the widespread use of stan-
dardized, ‘pencil-and-paper tests’ for determining access to college positions and jobs.
Challenging what they call the prevailing ‘testocracy’, Sturm and Guinier (2000) argue that
such tests regularly fail to predict accurately future academic or employment success and
screen out ‘applicants who could nevertheless do the job’. Today’s testocracy, Sturm and
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444 S. Tannock
Guinier argue, does not just discriminate on the basis of race, class and gender, as supporters
of affirmative action have claimed. It discriminates, rather, against anyone and everyone
who lacks the ability (for whatever reason) to perform highly on standardized tests and
should, therefore, be challenged and changed on these broad grounds as well. ‘We think it
is time to shift the terrain of debate’, Sturm and Guinier write: ‘We need to situate the
conversation about race, gender, and affirmative action in a wider account of democratic
opportunity by refocusing attention from the contested periphery of the system of selection
to its settled core’ (2000).
Ironically, there are actually laws on the books in the United States already that forbid
employers from using formal educational credentials or test results in their hiring proce-
dures that are not clearly job-related and directly justified by business necessity. The prob-
lem, however, with seeking to put Sturm and Guinier’s broad-based critical argument into
action is that these laws can only be invoked if and when an employer’s hiring procedures
have first been shown to have had a disparate impact on groups that are protected
under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – in other words, they have discriminated on
the basis of race, colour, sex, religion or national origin (Working for America Institute
2005). Lacking any overall concept of education-based discrimination, we thus remain
unable to challenge legally employers’ use of arbitrary, unnecessary and irrelevant hiring
requirements, unless we can demonstrate also that these are guilty of causing other forms of
discrimination to occur as well, indirectly and by proxy.
The meritocracy critique
The critique of credentialism argues that discrimination on the basis of education (under-
stood as formal credential and qualification) is unjust because educational qualifications are
often arbitrary and do not map reliably onto actual or significant differences in ability or
achievement – they are in some sense ‘untrue’. A more sweeping and fundamental claim is
made by the critique of meritocracy. Here the argument is that even if formal credentials are
‘true’ and do reflect genuine differences in ability or achievement, it is nevertheless unjust
and arbitrary to discriminate broadly on the basis of education (understood as the combina-
tion of credential, achievement and ability) – to the degree that such discrimination leads to
the creation of a second-class of citizen, determined by these citizens’ relative educational
failures and shortcomings. The term ‘meritocracy’, coined by Michael Young in his 1958
novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, refers to a society that is governed and led by the best
and brightest, and in which opportunities in education, employment, civil society, political
office, and so on, are made available purely on the basis of talent and achievement. The
ideal of meritocracy has since become a core part of common-sense belief in our society,
formalized in social science through conceptual models such as human capital theory. In a
meritocracy, discrimination based on race, gender, class, family and influence has all been
swept away: all that is left is differential treatment and consideration based entirely on each
individual’s educational merits.
Despite the obvious attraction of such a (hypothetical) social order in eliminating other
forms of discrimination, Young, along with other social and educational theorists who
followed, was deeply critical of the education-based differentiation that remains at the heart
of meritocracy as a political and social ideal. For a meritocracy is, or tends to be, a radically
unequal society, in which the ‘best and brightest’ are enabled to rise to the top while the rest
can be legitimately left to fall off behind. As many have by now pointed out, the equality of
opportunity that is promoted by meritocratic ideology is a poor substitute in progressive
politics for previous commitments to equality of social and economic outcome (Dench
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British Journal of Sociology of Education 445
2006). A meritocracy, furthermore, is also a fundamentally anti-democratic society. As
Young wrote in his 1958 novel:
Today we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not
so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy
of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent. (Young 1958, 21)
The ramifications of what such anti-democratic leanings look like in practice may be illus-
trated by the discussion of the Voting Rights Act in the United States earlier. Imagine a
country in which only those who had passed a literacy test or some other kind of educational
test – the ‘best and the brightest’ – were permitted to cast their votes in elections, while the
rest of the population saw their voting rights stripped entirely away.
If the critique of meritocracy argues that meritocratic society is unjust to the degree that
it treats some as second-class citizens, it also argues that the creation of an educationally
defined second class of citizenship is unjust because it is based upon what are inevitably
arbitrary foundations – in other words, it is discriminatory. Such arbitrariness stems from
two sources. First, when we differentiate between individuals in the general allocation of
social, economic and political rewards on the basis of their relative educational achieve-
ment, we are actually differentiating between them on the basis of their relative abilities
and/or opportunity to develop those abilities. Inequality in educational opportunity (which
I discuss further below) is widely recognized today for its fundamental unfairness. But even
if equal educational opportunity is provided to all, it is not clear why individual variation in
abilities and proclivities should provide grounds for the determination of social and
economic rewards that would be any more just than would be the allocation of reward on
the basis of differences in ascribed race, class or gender identity – for none of these factors
can an individual be said to be in control of or responsible for. This is the argument that
John Rawls puts forward for rejecting meritocracy as being morally unjust and arbitrary:
‘No one deserves [one’s] place in the distribution of native endowments any more than one
deserves one’s initial starting place in society’ (1971, 104). It is also the argument of Karl
Marx, who warned of the injustice of any moral or political philosophy that ‘tacitly recog-
nizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges’
(2000, 88).
Second, the concept of merit that lies at the heart of the meritocratic ideal, as David
Wasserman suggested earlier, is itself a ‘notoriously vague’ and ‘elastic’ concept. Although
merit is typically defined in terms of ‘demonstrated ability or achievement’, there are many
different kinds of ability and achievement in the world, not all of which are deemed to be
equally meritorious. Rather, we judge individuals and actions to have merit when they
produce outcomes that we favour in our society; and which particular outcomes we favour
will depend on our political ideologies, moral beliefs, cultural aesthetics and social values
(Harding 1979). As Amartya Sen notes, there is simply no ‘“natural order” of “merit” that
is independent of our value system’ (2000, 10). Far from providing an objective, neutral or
foundational basis for ranking individuals in society, the invocation of merit, educational
qualification, achievement or ability is a deeply politicized and contested act. In the real
world, invocation of meritocratic principle, privilege and prerogative inevitably tends to
favour those who either come from and/or are working to further the ideologies, interests
and agendas of dominant social groups (Gould 1981; Kamin 1974). To put it another way,
in the real world the education-based discrimination that is promoted by meritocratic ideol-
ogy tends both to overlap with and serve as proxy for other (race, class, gender, etc.) forms
of socially and politically-based discrimination.
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446 S. Tannock
The defence of public education critique
The critique of credentialism addresses the problem of education-based discrimination
where education is understood as credential or qualification. The critique of meritocracy
addresses education-based discrimination where education is understood primarily as ability
or achievement. The defence of public education, on the other hand, addresses education-
based discrimination where education is understood as opportunity: it is concerned with
questions of fairness and justice in the overall distribution of educational opportunities
throughout society. From this vantage point, education-based discrimination can be seen to
be unjust for the additional reason that it undermines the social contract on which the very
concept of public education rests.
One of the core social functions of public education is, inevitably, to sort and select
individuals for different jobs and types and levels of educational achievement. Our society
– and any society – would not work if everybody became an MBA, LLB, PhD or MD and
nothing else. Individual opportunity in education and society in general thus always
‘depends on the opportunities of others’, and educational achievement has an inescapably
relational or positional as well as absolute dimension (Brown 2003, 150). It is not just
what we do with our schooling that matters in determining its consequence, but what
everybody around us is doing as well. The selection function in public education has been
the source of some confusion in educational theory. Early functionalist accounts (in the
mode of Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons) and more recent human capital theories
often make the mistake of claiming that public education automatically and actually does
do the work of training and sorting in everyone’s collective interest. Critical and Marxist
accounts sometimes make the opposite error of dismissing educational selection as nothing
more than the reproduction of a grossly unjust social order – and in so doing, risk throwing
the baby out with the bathwater (Hurn 1978). In any social order, public education should
train and sort in everyone’s collective interest – but it can only do so under certain social,
political and economic conditions. The key issue is determining what these conditions
must be.
The more you separate out the highly educated from the less educated – in terms of allo-
cating exaggerated rewards and additional rights, privileges and freedoms – the more you
undermine the basis for public education. For public education then becomes not a vehicle
for serving the general public interest (in other words, a public good), but a means (or a
private good) for some individuals to get ahead and, by implication, leave everybody else
behind (Labaree 1997). In a world where we collectively do not want or need everybody to
pursue an MBA or PhD, it is unjust to turn around and discriminate against the bulk of the
population for not having these degrees. Rising inequality, however, in the social positions
to which differential educational opportunities grant access has led to what Phillip Brown
calls the ‘opportunity trap’:
In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes … argued that unless societies can find a cohesive
force to bring people together they confront an unending war of ‘all-against-all’ … At the
beginning of the twenty-first century the Hobbesian problem has returned. Opportunity, rather
than being the glue that bonds the individual to society, has become the focus for intense social
conflict. This is turn presents a serious threat to efficiency, justice and social cohesion … There
are civil knowledge wars, that have incited a scramble for tough-entry schools, universities and
jobs … Rather than offering unprecedented opportunity and prosperity to all, we have entered
a zero-sum game where the winners take most, if not all. (2003, 156–157)
The gross distortions and dysfunctionalities that we witness in the world’s education
systems today – the panicked attempts to get one’s children into top Ivy League colleges in
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British Journal of Sociology of Education 447
the United States, or the rising rates of youth suicide and depression in China, as over nine
million high school students compete each year to get into less than three million university
places (Bodeen 2006) are a reflection of the fundamental fraying and failure of public
education’s core social contract everywhere. Education-based discrimination is by no
means the primary cause of all of this; but our failure to even acknowledge, let alone
redress, such a basic form of social injustice as a primary public policy concern is very
much a contributing factor.
Why having a concept of education-based discrimination matters
Education, Alison Wolf writes, has replaced ‘socialism as the great secular faith of our age’
(2002, x). Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson (2004) talk similarly of the rise of the ‘educa-
tion gospel’. The ideology of skills and training, says Gordon Lafer, ‘has taken root as
national common sense’ (2002, 210). For governments around the world, education has
been embraced as a universal panacea, the way forward for individuals and societies alike
to get ahead, prosper and reap rich social, cultural and economic rewards. As the protections
of the welfare state have been progressively dismantled, governments are erecting in their
place what are essentially new ‘education and training states’ (Mizen 1995; Peters 2001).
This positive and promiscuous embrace of education, however, has a flipside: for it is not
just a promise that governments are issuing to themselves and their electorates, but a threat
and, indeed, a license to discriminate. Education has become the most explicit and widely
used ideology worldwide to legitimate and explain away all forms of inequality. Those who
do not have high levels of education no longer have the right to expect equality, full rights
to participation in society, social, political and economic protection and reward, respect and
dignity. In the education state, only those who are educationally accomplished can legiti-
mately claim such things. To take a stand against education-based discrimination is not to
take a stand against education. It is to insist, however, on rights and equality for everyone,
no matter what their level of educational achievement, qualification, opportunity or ability;
and it is to demand an end to the casual and wanton acceptance of differential treatment and
consideration based on education, without any reflection as to whether such differentiation
is just or discriminatory. Given the dramatic rise and rise of government-sponsored educa-
tion dogma, now more than ever do we need a strong understanding of and opposition to
discrimination based on education.
As with all types of discrimination, education-based discrimination takes on different
forms, is engaged in by numerous kinds of actors, and variously impacts different sectors of
society. Education-based discrimination bloats and distorts our schools and universities, as
people are driven to pursue degrees that help them reach goals (e.g. attain jobs) for which
these degrees are not strictly necessary, or to secure a basic standard and security of living
to which they should have access no matter what their level of education. When employers
start demanding college degrees for jobs that never used to require them, and that really have
not changed all that much in the interim, this leads to costly, inefficient and irrational
demands being placed on higher education. This distracts colleges and universities (and high
schools) from focusing on other, important kinds of educational ends. This also cuts off
alternative forms of social mobility through workplace career ladders, by introducing arbi-
trary ceilings and barriers that are difficult, expensive and time-consuming for individuals
to have to return to formal schooling in order to navigate around (Fitzgerald 2006). Although
I have focused in this paper on issues of voting, schooling and employment, education-based
discrimination is endemic to our society, and occurs in virtually any field of social,
economic or political practice. Just in the spring of last year, Michigan State Senator Hansen
Downloaded By: [Tannock, Stuart] At: 07:30 18 September 2008
448 S. Tannock
Clarke (2006) saw fit to introduce legislation that demanded automobile insurance compa-
nies end their discriminatory practice of basing ‘rates and eligibility solely upon someone’s
education level achieved and their occupation’. Start thinking about the phenomenon, and
other such examples will abound.
One final caveat brings this discussion back to where it started. In many – if not most –
instances, education-based discrimination overlaps with, or stands in as proxy for, other
forms of discrimination based on race, class or gender, and so forth. This proxy role of
education is why, as I suggested earlier, when we talk about problems of education and
discrimination, we almost always focus on problems of race, class and gender discrimina-
tion occurring in and through educational practice. The proxy-role of education-based
discrimination in perpetuating racism, sexism and classism should, of course, always be
challenged as such. But equally, we should also recognize that we do not always need to be
digging around in order to unearth some hidden or latent racist or sexist intent or effect in
order to challenge the injustice of economic, social or educational policy. Sometimes, we
need simply to stand up and confront directly the discrimination that is out in the open and
staring us right in the face: education-based discrimination. We need to say that this kind of
discrimination, too, is not in any way legitimate or innocent. It also is fundamentally unjust
– and what is more, it is helping to screw up our schools, universities, the rest of our educa-
tional systems and society at large in the process.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank Phillip Brown, Nicholas Burbules and two anonymous reviewers for
the British Journal of Sociology of Education for comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and the
ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) for providing funding
for the larger research project from which this paper is drawn.
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