The Problem of Education Based Discrimination

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					The Problem of Education-Based Discrimination
Stuart Tannock
June 2007


While the research, theory and policy literature on race, class and gender discrimination in and through
education is extensive, the problem of education-based discrimination itself – defined as the promiscuous,
arbitrary and unjust denial of rights, privileges, freedoms, voice or respect to those lacking in educational
achievement, credentials, ability or opportunity – has been widely overlooked. This article argues that we need
to pay a lot more attention than we do now to the problem of education-based discrimination, and challenge
those who have taught us not to see what has effectively become an elephant in our living room. It is not just the
case that education-based discrimination has been obscured by the overlapping shadows of other forms of
discrimination. Rather, the dominant ideologies of meritocracy and human capital (into which we are
inculcated throughout our lives by schools, media and the government) actively proclaim that higher levels of
education are and should be linked with greater reward. In a world where education is regularly and explicitly
invoked in order to legitimate inequality, it can appear nonsensical even to raise concern about education-
based discrimination as a matter of social injustice in the first place. If we fail to raise such concern, however,
we will find ourselves unable ever to use our public system of education for universal emancipation and


        Run a keyword search through Sociological Abstracts, ERIC or any similar on-line
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 discrimination
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.”1 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 we lack
any well-developed concept, or scholarly or policy tradition for talking about discrimination
that occurs on the basis of education itself: that is, 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 harbored
about the uneducated and illiterate – that “mistaken association of literacy difficulties with
ignorance, mental backwardness and social incapacity,” as Brian Street puts it.2 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 unfavorable political, 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.3
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 don‟t have university
degrees at all, irrespective of relative individual merits or actual job requirements.4 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
phenomenon of education-based discrimination in our society than we do now. By education-
based discrimination, I mean the promiscous, arbitrary and unjust denial of rights, privileges,
freedoms, voice or respect to those lacking in education, where education may variously or
simultaneously refer to an individual‟s intellectual achievement, formal credentials, schooling
opportunity or native academic ability. 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 differentiation is made may turn out to be
discriminatory and unjust as well. But if we fail to address the overall problem of general,
education-based discrimination, 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 notion of discrimination
itself is often defined as constituting the failure to consider 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.”5 Differentiation on the basis of education, in
other words, is presented as that which occurs when discrimination has been successfully
eliminated. Similarly, in both popular and academic discussions of the distinction between
unjust and just forms of discrimination, 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 discrimination.6 David Wasserman, in his essay
on the topic for the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, likewise writes: “Merit and qualification
surely play a role in our understanding of discrimination: we generally do not regard it as
discrimination to deny a benefit to someone because he is unqualified for it.”7

        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. 8 At a minimum, there are
certain types of rights (for example, human rights) 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 discrimination 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 argues, in fact, that in the post-

civil rights era in the United States, the most virulent ideology serving to maintain racial
privilege is what he calls “color-blind racism.”9 “In order to get beyond racism,” as US
Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once declared, “we must first take account of race.”10
For any given category of identity – race, gender, age, religion, sexuality, etc. – 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 removing our ability to determine that other forms of differentiation on the
basis of this category are nonetheless “morally outrageous, and very obviously so.”11

       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 in the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics:

      “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.12

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.”13 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.

The Problem of Overlapping & Proxy Discrimination

       The second factor that has prevented widespread recognition of education-based
discrimination 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 uncertainly 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 US. 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.14

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 complicated.

        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.”15 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 unconstitutional 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.16

        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, though 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.”17
Likewise, in her 1975 statement in favor 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 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 issue as he or she wishes. The illiterate, like the blind
      person, may be well informed concerning public affairs through the broadcast media,
      public meetings, and conversation with family, friends, and coworkers…. 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

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 is no 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 not 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 education. The critique of credentialism focuses
on discrimination based on education, where education is understood to refer 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 postwar 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.19

        Credentialism is the ideology and practice of promoting formal educational
qualifications 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
credentialism 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 other elites as a way
to unfairly and arbitrarily screen out some individuals and social 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 curiousity and imagination; in short, anti-educational.”20

         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 widespread use of standardized,
“pencil-and-paper tests” for determining access to college positions and jobs. Challenging
what they call the prevailing “testocracy,” Sturm and Guinier argue that such tests regularly
fail to accurately predict future academic or employment success and screen out “applicants
who could nevertheless do the job.” Today‟s testocracy, Sturm and 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 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.” 21

        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 procedures
that aren‟t clearly job-related and directly justified by business necessity. The problem,
however, with seeking to put Sturm and Guinier‟s broad-based critical analysis 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, color,

sex, religion or national origin.22 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
(understood as formal credential and qualification) is unjust because educational
qualifications are often arbitrary and do not map reliably onto actual 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 still
unjust and arbitrary to discriminate broadly on the basis of education (understood as the
combination of credential, achievement and ability), to the degree that such discrimination
leads to the creation of a second-class of citizen, determined by citizens‟ relative educational
failures and shortcomings. The term “meritocracy,” which was coined by Michael Young in
his 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, refers to a society that is governed and
led by the best and the 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
ideology in our society, formalized in social science through conceptual models such as
human capital theory. In a meritocracy, discrimination based on race, gender, socioeconomic
class, nepotism and bribery have all been swept away: all that is left is differential treatment
and consideration based entirely on each individual‟s educational merits.23

        Despite the obvious attraction of such a social order in eliminating other forms of
discrimination, Young was deeply critical of the education-based discrimination that remains
at the heart of meritocracy as a political and social ideal. A meritocracy is, or tends to be, a
radically unequal society: for if the best and brightest are to rise to the top, then the rest of us
– the dumb, untalented and not-so-clever – are doomed to be left behind to dwell on our own
shortcomings and personal misfortune. The equality of opportunity promoted by meritocracy,
Young feared, was a poor substitute in progressive politics for previous commitments to
equality of social and economic outcome. Young was concerned, too, by the ugly and unjust
sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness that meritocracy instills in the educated in
their view toward the less academically gifted and accomplished:

      Some members of the meritocracy … have become so impressed with their own
      importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern, and so tactless that
      even people of low calibre have been quite unnecessarily offended.24

Young was concerned by the injustice of singling out education and intellectual achievement
over other characteristics in the allocation of rewards, rights and status in a meritocracy.
“Were we to evaluate people not only according to their intelligence and their education, their
occupation, and their power,” a manifesto on egalitarianism in Young‟s novel states, “but
according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their
sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes.”25 Young was further concerned by the
fundamentally anti-democratic nature of meritocracy:

      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.26

Indeed, the concrete ramifications of what such a society might look like are at least hinted at
in the discussion of the Voting Rights Act in the United States earlier. Imagine a country in
which only those who had passed a literacy 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 education-based discrimination is unjust to
the degree it leads to treating 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 two respects. First, when we discriminate against
people on the grounds of their lack of educational achievement, we are discriminating against
them because of their lack of innate talent and/or opportunity to develop that talent.
Inequality in educational opportunity is widely recognized today for its fundamental
unfairness. But even if equal opportunity in education were to have been provided to all, it is
not clear why differences in innate talent should provide grounds for determining social and
economic reward 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.”27 It is also the argument of Karl Marx, who warned of
the injustice of any moral or political philosophy that “tacitly recognizes unequal individual
endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges.”28

         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. Though
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 value in our society; but which particular outcomes we value will
depend on our political ideologies, moral beliefs, cultural aesthetics and social structure. As
Amartya Sen notes, there is simply no “‟natural order‟ of „merit‟ that is independent of our
value system.”29 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. This unstable and contestable nature of merit
brings up a further consideration. Merit, as Sandra Harding observes, also has a conservative
bias. To treat those who lack the achievements and abilities currently valued by society as
second-class citizens is not only unjust but short-sighted. “There may well be some capacities
and talents which are not highly valued in society but which the society would, in fact,
benefit from having developed,” writes Harding. Rigid adherence to the discriminatory
rankings of a meritocracy, and excluding and marginalizing the “non-meritorious” can all too
easily prevent a “society from benefiting from the development of these under-valued talents
and capacities” in the future.30

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.31 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. 32 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
allocating 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.33
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

      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.34

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 the United
States, or the rising rates of youth suicide and depression in China, as over 9 million high
school students compete each year to get into less than 3 million university places 35 – 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.”36 Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson talk similarly of the rise of the “education
gospel.”37 The ideology of skills and training, says Gordon Lafer, “has taken root as national
common sense.”38 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.”39 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 free 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 legitimately 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 education 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 haven‟t
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 arbitrary ceilings
and barriers that are difficult, expensive and time-consuming for individuals to have to return
to formal schooling in order to navigate around.40 Though 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 Clarke saw fit to introduce legislation
that demanded automobile insurance companies end their discriminatory practice of basing
“rates and eligibility solely upon someone‟s education level achieved and their occupation.”41
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. 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 discrimination 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 don‟t 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 educational systems and society
at large in the process.

  Lily Garcia, “No Degree, No Chance?,” Washington Post, June 22, 2006.
  Brian Street, Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education
(London: Longman, 1995), 23.
   Don Feder, “The Left Assaults the Heartland,” November 12 2004, available on-line at:
Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=15923;, “IQ and Voter Preference in 2004 Presidential Election,”
available on-line at; New York Times, “The Electorate: A
Political Portrait,” November 6 2004, available on-line at
   See, for example, Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh, The Mismanagement of Talent (London: Oxford
University Press, 2004).
  Available on-line at, and
  Available on-line at
   David Wasserman, “Disrimination, Concept of,” in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Volume 1, ed. Ruth
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in the United States (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
   Quoted in David Wasserman, “Disrimination, Concept of,” in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Volume 1, ed.
Ruth Chadwick (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998), 806.
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Chadwick (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998), 807.
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   United States Voting Rights Act (1965), Sections 4(a)(1) and 4(c).
    Quoted in Daniel Goldman, “The Modern-Day Literacy Test?: Felon Disenfranchisement and Race
Discrimination,” Stanford Law Review 57, no.2 (2004): 624.

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Available on-line at
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   Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), 169.
   Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), 21; see also Sandra Harding,
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   Sandra Harding, “Is the Equality of Opportunity Principle Democratic?,” Philosophical Forum X, no.2-4
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(Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1978).
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    Phillip Brown, “The Opportunity Trap: Education and Employment in a Global Economy,” European
Educational Research Journal 2, no.1 (2003), 156-7.
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Perspective,” Journal of Educational Enquiry 2 (2001): 58-71.
   Joan Fitzgerald, Moving Up in the New Economy: Career Ladders for US Workers (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2006).
     Senator Hansen Clarke, “Senator Hansen Clarke to Introduce Legislation to End Auto Insurance
Discrimination Based on Education and Occupation,” press release issued on April 24, 2006, available on-line at


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