Reducing Economic Inequality with Words

In the City Journal, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, writes about the correlation between economic inequality and the breadth of vocabulary knowledge learned in school:

There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT — at least on the verbal SAT — is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities — not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

This, of course, means more than giving students lists of words to memorize just so they can score well on tests, but introducing words through different contexts in the curriculum so that they unconsciously retain the information (“The fastest way to learn words is to learn about things — and to do it systematically”). Having a good vocabulary strengthens reading comprehension, which is an important skill to have in any subject that requires a textbook. I don’t think anyone doubts that, or the idea that, as Horace Mann put it more than 150 years ago, education is a great equalizer.

Of course, none of this is easy in practice. Education cannot be an equalizer when the quality of education varies so drastically in different schools, in different communities, and among the haves and have-nots. For an example, see this really great Reuters package:

“We’re very fortunate that we’re rather affluent,” she said. “We have more opportunities, more technology, more classes and more teachers.”

Photo: kubosh