National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council Vol. 10, No.1 (Spring/Summer 2009). ISSN 1559-0151 Copyright © 2009 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


Since the l980s a steady stream of scholarly works has examined stratification along class lines in American education. A recent work on this subject is Tearing Down the Gates, by Peter Sacks, which won the Frederic W. Ness Book Award in January 2009. It draws a detailed portrait of changes in demographics over the past thirty years or so. His time line allows him to pinpoint a growing polarization that shows a severely reduced college population of students from low-income families, displaced by an enormous increase in students from affluent families on our college campuses. As his subtitle indicates, this shift in economic status is a challenge to “Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.”

Several aspects of this profile give pause. Although everyone is admitted to school in K–12, what Sacks and others he cites call “tracking” begins in pre-school. The kind of teaching offered to children from middle- and upper-income homes is radically different from that given to the poor. Books (too few); equipment (too little); class size (too large): all of these exacerbate the already weak position of children whose homes have no books, whose families have a minimal education, who live in spaces too small or too cramped to read or study.