Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.
The first time that Lance Fusarelli set foot on a university campus, he felt surrounded by people who seemed to know more than him about society, urbanism and “everything that was different”.
He attributes those differences to his education. He did not grow up in poverty, but in a working-class village in a small rural area of Pennsylvania, United States, but he was the first of his family to go to college.
His mother became pregnant and had to leave school , and his father worked in a coal mine since adolescence. He lived in an environment in which few studied beyond secondary school.
Fusarelli now has a good education and is a professor and director of graduate programs at North Carolina State University.
From time to time, he remembers how he felt in those early days, when a classmate innocently corrected his imperfect grammar: “He did not mean to be offensive, we were good friends, he just grew up in a different environment .”
Although Fusarell ascended in the academic world despite his past, his experiences highlight the social division that exists in education.
Those who have less education due to their social disadvantage suffer a subtle, but profound bias.
A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology called this phenomenon “educationism” and, for the first time, found unequivocal evidence of what Fusarelli and many others had long suspected: the people who receive the most education have implicit biases towards those who receive less.
And that has unfortunate and unintended consequences , which often come from the gap between rich and poor.
“The racism of intelligence”
It is a problem of “social level” that creates a significant division. “It needs to be addressed,” explains Toon Kuppens, of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
The idea that people are prejudiced towards those who received less education is not new.
In the 1980s, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it the “racism of intelligence … of the ruling class “, which would serve to justify his position in society.
Bourdieu said that the education system was invented by the ruling classes.
Education also serves to divide society in many ways. The highest educational levels are linked to better income, health, welfare and employment.
Educational status also reveals political divisions . Those who have lower grades were more favorable when it came to voting for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, for example.
In spite of everything, the subject is rarely confronted , says Kuppens, although there are numerous studies on prejudices by gender, ethnicity and age.
Kuppens and his colleagues did a series of experiments. They asked several people how they felt toward others, but they also asked them indirect questions about the jobs and academic training of several individuals.
The results were clear: people with a higher educational level are better accepted by all, and also are not “inherently more tolerant” towards the less educated, as is usually believed, says Kuppens.
Moreover, according to the specialist, one of the reasons why there is a bias is that the educational level is perceived as something that people can control .
The tyranny of meritocracy
Low educational levels are linked to poverty. Those who come from poor backgrounds, quickly fall behind their schoolmates and very few go to college.
And it is increasingly clear that there are complex reasons behind this phenomenon.
Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, of the London School of Economics, United Kingdom, says that the lack of resources is “psychologically restrictive” .
He also argues that there is a sense of stigma and shame that creates a low self-esteem, a pattern that, he says, is more likely to occur in meritocratic ideologies , where the achievements of individuals are seen based on their intelligence and hard work.
Poverty affects even decision-making.
“The cognitive skills that are needed to make good financial decisions are not readily available when you are faced with the stress of realizing that you are doing worse than others,” says Sheehy-Skeffington.
That does not mean that mental processes are blocked, but that individuals focus more on the threats of the present than on concentrating on that task.
In her analysis of the psychology of poverty , Sheehy-Skeffington found that those with little income have a lesser sense of control over their future: “If you think you can not control your future, it makes sense to invest what little energy or money you have in improve the current situation. “
This type of work reveals a difficult cycle to break .
Good mental performance is affected when we face financial difficulties, and when these difficulties exist, the ability to plan the future and make important decisions is also negatively affected.
And that is reflected in the education system; Those who live focused in the present have fewer incentives to perform well in school or think in higher education.
But a team of researchers went further, arguing that the education system is “motivated to maintain the status quo “ , where the children of highly educated parents go to university, and the children of those who received less education enter courses of professional training and other learning certificates.
This was shown in a 2017 study led by the psychologist Fabrizio Butera, from the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. His team showed that the “examiners” rated individuals less when they were told that the student came from a less privileged environment.
“Perpetuating the status quo is a way to maintain the privilege of those classes,” says Butera.
“Hidden damages” and possible solutions
Even if individuals from a working class reach higher education, they often have to ” discard original parts of their identity in order to move around socially,” explains Erica Southgate of the University of Newcastle in Australia.
The researcher has studied the stigmas faced by individuals who become the first in their family to study higher education, and discovered that in subjects such as medicine the presumption prevails, on the part of the students, that all come from a similar social environment.
“It is not so much the obvious stigma, but the hidden damages of the social class that continue to emerge .”
But then, what could break the educational gap?
The ways to qualify can be decisive . The Butera team demonstrated that giving children the results of the exams reduces motivation.
And without qualified scores, social comparison is also reduced, which often affects performance, according to the work of Sheehy-Skeffington.
If you provide detailed comments on how to improve, instead of giving simple notes, one can “focus on evaluation as an education tool” and not selection, explains Butera.
In other words, children learn to expand their knowledge, instead of learning to pass exams.
“A viable solution is to create an environment where evaluation is part of the learning process,” says Butera. “This seems to reduce the inequalities of gender and social class, and promote a culture of solidarity and cooperation.”
For Fusarelli, the most important thing is that both parents and teachers expect the best from children at an early age to reinforce the idea that “they can do it and be successful.”
But the biases of the education system are not going to disappear from one day to the next . Moreover, most of us will not even realize that they exist.
The meritocratic attitude that hard-working people will succeed remains dominant, despite the evidence that shows that there are many factors beyond the control of people who can hinder their potential.
And, unfortunately, it is those who are better educated – and who should be sensitive to discrimination – who can benefit-often without being aware of it-from the same inequality that they contribute to creating.