08 August 2014

Huck Finn and a New American Aristocracy

Huck Finn, the son of a drunken father, is himself described as idle and lawless. But he tries to flee this fate with Jim, a runaway slave. In these two characters, Twain foreshadows the struggle out of poverty in the 20th century, the both of them attempting to escape their own destiny, whether the consequence of racism or childhood poverty. In the mid-19th century, this was such a big country that such an escape seemed plausible - almost inevitable. The US offered the possibility of freedom from the past.

America was the country that was first to throw off a belief in aristocracy, which had defined Europe for centuries. In its place the founding fathers put in place things like elections and meritocracy, creating a country where a hairdresser's son could grow up to become president. de Tocqueville visited the US about the time the (fictional) Huck Finn was dashing about, and he found a great deal about this country that amazed him. 

Now, visitors from Western Europe would find a different reason to be amazed. Compared to them, the US has become a land of aristocracy more than meritocracy. In the US, the children of the rich are likely to become rich adults and the children of the poor are likely to become poor adults. Americans don't decide how they do in life. Their parents do.

In a paper on inter-generational mobility, Miles Corak includes this graph he has dubbed "The Great Gatsby Curve." 

Finland finishes best on the measure of income mobility and income equality and the US finishes worst. Not only do we have more income inequality but we don't let the children of the poor forget their place (or the children of the rich lose it). It seems to me that one obvious way to remedy this would be policies that support poor mothers. 

It is also possible that Finland's much praised education system could teach us something about how to give each generation the opportunity to rise. Here are a couple of lines describing what they have done in recent decades. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Finland launched reforms to equalize educational opportunity by first eliminating the practice of separating students into very different tracks based on their test scores, and then by eliminating the examinations themselves. This occurred in two stages between 1972 and 1982, and a common curriculum, through the end of high school, was developed throughout the entire system. These changes were intended to equalize educational outcomes and provide more open access to higher education. During this time, social supports for children and families were also enacted, including health and dental care, special education services, and transportation to schools.
There are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland, and most teacher feedback to students is in narrative form, emphasizing descriptions of their learning progress and areas for growth. 
I find it rather charming to think that treating students as individuals - rather than as a percentile - is a step towards letting individuals - rather than families - define a life. Whatever mix of policies they're pursuing, the Finns are now doing what we started - making it possible for each generation to define themselves anew.

Now if Huck wanted to escape the destiny of his past, he'd have better luck heading back to Finland than down the Mississippi. 

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