Qualified and Poor – the Limits of Education

Education has been perceived as one of the most effective tools to lift people out of poverty, assuring social mobility and giving chances. The premise that knowledge and education are crucial for personal development and the economic performance of a country led to the general assumption in Western countries that there are almost no limits if you simply invest enough time and energy in your education, skills and qualifications.

Public figures like Michelle Obama or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai promote education as a strong weapon against poverty and exploitation and while already basic skills like the ability to write and read can be life-changing in developing countries and are one of the main pillars for professional accomplishments all over the world, the question is, whether the positive correlation between education and success is infinite or can only be applied until a particular level has been reached.

Only recently the 10th report published by the Federal Government about the situation of foreigners in Germany proved, that education is not always enough to be successful. Without opening the debate about the highly complex migration policies and the multidimensional interconnection between cultural and structural determinants regarding the access to education, the report shows that foreigners face a much higher risk to become poor than Germans with the same education level, furthermore the unemployment rates among foreigners are doubled in spite of the positive development in the areas of education in the recent years.

Although it is an unpleasant fact that there still are discrepancies between foreigners and Germans, the results of the report are not surprising at all. The idea that education could be the solution to all problems related to inequality might have been idealized too much.

Bourdieu said it all – human beings are not objective

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the scientific term of the “habitus” like nobody else. Referring to the habitus in general as the symbiosis between behaviour, values and socialization of a person, which is being determined by their socio-economic background and experiences, Bourdieu claimed that economically vertical societal classes have their own particular class habitus. Clothing, use of language and attitudes play an important roles when members of a class recognize each other as being part of the same group and distinguishing between other ones.

This easily leads to an elite reproduction since the members of the highest economic classes who are already in a power position rather recruit somebody who has the informal qualities they value, which are determined by the habitus. Although Bourdieu admitted that there can be a learning process once a person becomes aware of the own habitus, but he as well stated that the most important socialization of a person happens during an early age as a child.

In this regard, it seems that human beings do not naturally favour social mobility and rather keep the save and comfortable social system of being surrounded by others who seem to be alike. Therefore it is not surprising that there are still risks for people with a migration background when entering the labour force. Bourdieu criticized already in the 1980s that the educational system cannot be mobile as long as the teachers belong to the same class. This aspect has been mentioned as well in the report on the situation of foreigners – the diversity of teachers is simply too low.

A matter of institutions?

While a system with strong institutions, rule of law and the societal acceptance for social mobility regardless of the background can in theory support equality, in practise things tend to look differently. It is not only important to be in a social and cultural context, which is not solely determined by kinship and social relations (there is a reason why people still always say that networking was crucial), the institutions of a country have to be able to absorb the capacity of educated people.

Economic breakdowns show how worthless education can become, when the institutions do not provide alternatives. Many former socialist countries have very high rates of university graduates, but these qualified people cannot find a job in their own country – the result is a massive brain drain to other parts of the continent. The southern European countries which suffered the most from the crisis are struggling with the same problem, although they have not been through a political transition period. If mobility was not that accessible in the EU, the value of the education people received would be even lower.

In order to save the value of education, strong economic and social policies from the political institutions are necessary, since the European crisis has shown the disadvantage of neo-classical labour force patterns, which left millions on the edge of poverty, in spite of their high education.

Further reading:

Report about the situation of foreigners in Germany by the Federal Government (in German): http://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/_Anlagen/IB/2014-10-29-lagebericht-presse-kurz-banner.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=2

Picture: Malala Yousafzai – Copyright by United Nations Photo, flickr.com

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