When More Is Not Merrier: How Education Helps Overcome Social Inequality
‘The Tragedy of Inequality: Dehumanizing the “Total Human”’ was the dramatic title of a recent seminar held by the HSE Institute of Education. Inequality leads to marginalization of specific individuals and groups. The availability of high-quality education may help decrease the problem.
Isak Froumin, Head of the HSE Institute of Education, opened the seminar and noted the importance of studying processes in education as processes in culture; he also recalled the unique longitudinal study conducted by the Laboratory for Cultural Sociology and Anthropology of Education, which followed children’s educational trajectories after PISA and TIMSS tests. Now, the impact of cultural reality on humans will be studied at the new HSE Centre of Sociology of Culture; its head, Dmitry Kurakin, spoke about the impact of social and territorial inequality on educational trajectories.
Dmitry believes that the impact of inequality exceeds that of other factors. He said that initiators, participants, and victims of school bullying mostly come from socially underprivileged demographic groups. Digitalization of education before and during the pandemic demonstrated that not everyone has full access to the necessary technology, and it is again the underprivileged demographics that suffer.
While inequality has become a common theme outside of sociology education, it nevertheless often remains in the shadow of popular debates among professionals of education and social policy. A few years ago, the Institute of Education carried out a study of Moscow school students’ educational trajectories and presented the results to the schools’ headmasters. At the time, the researchers had the impression that headmasters didn’t worry much about it, but experience shows that ignoring the problem leads to systemic risk.
When different countries build policies to support career navigation, the following problem is a cornerstone: underprivileged demographics do not have enough ambition and knowledge to overcome inequality.
The essence of inequality is that it is impossible to turn underprivileged people into privileged through a simple influx of money. Inequality penetrates human nature and behaviour, and it works even on corporal level. This is why problems related to inequality can’t be solved by redistribution. Inequality has a powerful emotional element, leading to marginalization of big groups of people and their demotivation. This, in turn, leads to failure in social institutions and creates systemic risks that can’t be managed by economic methods.
People who are less educated and less privileged often live much shorter lives than more successful ones: the gap is 10 years in Russia. Inequality also leads to an anthropological gap: there are evolving groups who have a hard time understanding each other and living by the same laws
Kurakin says that the saying ‘the more the merrier’ probably needs to be reinvented: it turns out that crowdedness is not good.
Social phenomena impact humans not only from the outside, but also from the inside via neuroprocesses. Inequality is related to emotions. It is based on envy. In today’s society, anxiety and envy are an integral part of social life and institutions. Privileged demographics who are afraid to lose their advantages experience it as well. The inequality landscape can be changed by education, which helps people become different and leave their underprivileged situation; this makes education particularly important.
It is important to reveal the correlation of economic and non-economic factors in order to understand why it is so hard to overcome inequality. In existing underprivileged urban areas, social institutes work poorly; a simple influx of money and infrastructure improvement can’t change the situation immediately, but they can deprive people of motivation. Education, on the other hand, can become an essential tool to decrease inequality.
The social side of inequality is a reflection of the attitude to life’s justice or injustice. If people’s chances when starting out are more or less equal, then inequality has no negative impact on economic growth. The effects of inequality, such as humiliation and despair, hamper development and create different subtypes of people within a country. It becomes difficult for these different subtypes to share the same interests, speak the same language, and follow the same laws.
Dmitry Kurakin believes that while it’s impossible to attain the ideal and eliminate inequality entirely, its worst effects can be overcome. Today, researchers know better how inequality works in Russia, including the inequality that exists in education, and this knowledge may be an advantage. Dmitry believes that there are no serious obstacles in Russia to a good public debate about inequality, ways to overcome it, and the role that elites can play in this process. Russian society’s cultural code implies a negative attitude to unfair inequality: it remains something that shocks people. In terms of incomes, inequality is relatively low, although it is quite high in terms of wealth distribution. One percent of the population owns 50% of the country’s assets.
Envy for the rich is an important and natural feeling that helps people consciously build their trajectory. In western countries, there are not many obstacles in education and career access, and it’s important to create a similar environment in Russia.
While inequalities are necessary for the evolution of social connections, inequality based on gender, race and other factors needs to be smoothed and access to wealth equalized, similarly to what has been done in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Kurakin believes.
It is hardly possible to eliminate inequality by means of education only, but it is able to help with motivating people’s choices and with further career navigation. In some European countries, career navigation is part of the system of education and is aimed at overcoming inequality, with the latter being the main goal of social policy.
Very early work on career consulting in junior school and motivation to learn a profession will help: it is harder to tackle this problem when people are older when tastes and interests have already been formed
Underprivileged people should be shown the attractiveness and accessibility of a wide range of professions. Kurakin believes that there is still a problem of the educational system’s openness to those who feel hostile to unknown cultural practices; that said, it makes sense to continue developing an educational system that aims to alleviate inequality.
In the Russian context, it is essential to hold interdisciplinary discussions. HSE University has conducted many good studies on inequality. The university is developing a multifaceted research field on inequality, including a series of events for researchers who are working on various types of inequality, Kurakin said. International researchers have accumulated vast knowledge about how inequality hampers social success and mobility. Experts know which key processes cause inequality in education, and this knowledge should be part of the active discussion.