No Single Road

No Single Road

The Illusion of Equality, by Murray Milner, Jr. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 172 pp.

Sociologists frequently challenge the conventional wisdom not because they are perverse but because they must pay heed whenever their data do not square with prevailing ideas. So it is with The Illusion of Equality, a study by a New York University sociologist on the relationship of equality of opportunity to education—higher education in particular. Murray Milner demonstrates convincingly that contrary to what we think or hope, “expansion of the higher education system is not likely to increase either equality or equality of opportunity significantly.” This is an important and sobering conclusion at a time when the school and college are often seen as the “up” escalator of social mobility. So far so good. But the same skeptical temper that results in a valuable revision of a sacred received idea about American society also tempts the sociologist to take a sounding on the whole of American society. So it is, again, with The Illusion of Equality. And here Milner moves from his discussion of education to argue unconvincingly about what went wrong in Marxism to portraits, Riesmanstyle, of national character (“The Excluded,” “The Vulnerable,” “The Chosen”) to a catchall diagnosis of the American illness (“endless striving”) and a cryptic prescription for its resolution (income redistribution). In the process of generalizing his argument, Milner diminishes the value of his closely reasoned contribution to the sociology of education.

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Lima