Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
The Education Trap

The Education Trap

Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston

Cristina Viviana Groeger

ISBN 9780674249110

Publication date: 03/09/2021

Request exam copy

Why—contrary to much expert and popular opinion—more education may not be the answer to skyrocketing inequality.

For generations, Americans have looked to education as the solution to economic disadvantage. Yet, although more people are earning degrees, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Cristina Groeger delves into the history of this seeming contradiction, explaining how education came to be seen as a panacea even as it paved the way for deepening inequality.

The Education Trap returns to the first decades of the twentieth century, when Americans were grappling with the unprecedented inequities of the Gilded Age. Groeger’s test case is the city of Boston, which spent heavily on public schools. She examines how workplaces came to depend on an army of white-collar staff, largely women and second-generation immigrants, trained in secondary schools. But Groeger finds that the shift to more educated labor had negative consequences—both intended and unintended—for many workers. Employers supported training in schools in order to undermine the influence of craft unions, and so shift workplace power toward management. And advanced educational credentials became a means of controlling access to high-paying professional and business jobs, concentrating power and wealth. Formal education thus became a central force in maintaining inequality.

The idea that more education should be the primary means of reducing inequality may be appealing to politicians and voters, but Groeger warns that it may be a dangerous policy trap. If we want a more equitable society, we should not just prescribe more time in the classroom, but fight for justice in the workplace.


  • Does education always bring more equality? Not necessarily: sometimes education is used to legitimize unfair inequality in pay and power and to promote a pseudomeritocratic and deeply inegalitarian ideology. By looking at early-twentieth-century Boston, this fascinating book teaches a lesson about today: a more equitable society requires a fight for justice, not only in education, but in the workplace and in the tax system.

    —Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century


  • 2020, Joint winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Prize
  • 2022, Winner of the IPUMS Research Award


  • Cristina Viviana Groeger is Assistant Professor of History at Lake Forest College. Her research has been funded by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press