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Education and Social Mobility

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Ellen Cohn

Play in the City


In Zadie Smith’s novel, NW, the reader follows many characters through their lives, and the random events that take place. We follow some characters, like Natalie and Frank, to success. We also see some characters, like Rodney, who are not quite as successful. This leads me to question how education, and differences in education, might lead to different outcomes in terms of socioeconomic status and “success”.

John Goldthorpe used the term “education-based meritocracy” to explain how a higher education system (colleges and universities) that is based on merits rather than socioeconomic background can lead to more social mobility between the classes (Goldthorpe 234). In Natalie and Rodney’s cases, they were able to win scholarships to attend a good school, where they could study hard and network to meet people like Frank De Angelis who, in Natalie’s case, would open a door to a higher class and more opportunities.

Unfortunately, although Rodney worked harder that Frank, Frank was born into a richer class. Because of this, Frank became more successful with much less exerted effort. This shows that, although merit-based education is supposed to increase social mobility, the majority of the time, it only works to reproduce already existing social structures.

Rodney’s fate wasn’t randomized. Throughout his academic career, the odds were against him. This is clearly shown on page 254 of NW, where Frank says “Poor old Rodney. He’s not still trying to become a lawyer, is he?”  This is also seen all throughout Rodney’s story, as he and Natalie share textbooks and cherish their study time, sitting at either end of Keisha’s desk, and carrying out the same studying techniques that they used in Sunday school (Smith, 235-236). This is an exact opposite to what we see later in Natalie’s life, as she and Frank studied for the bar exam.

During this section, we see Frank’s study method: watching television, relying on “ingenuity” to pass the exam, and failing spectacularly (Smith, 263-266). If Rodney had lived and studied with the care free acceptance and impulsiveness that Frank grew up with, he would never have gotten as far as he did—although Rodney did not become a successful lawyer, he ended up owning a dry cleaners, which, coming from Brayton, made him much more successful than the majority of his classmates (Smith, 366).

In his article “The myth of education-based meritocracy: Why the theory isn’t working”, John Goldthorpe describes the phenomenon between Frank and Rodney by explaining that children who are from a more advantaged socioeconomic class do not feel the same pressure to do well academically because they have other resources that can protect them from any downward mobility. These resources result from their social background, not their individual achievements, and thus, are not available to students who are not from the higher socioeconomic classes (Goldthorpe 239).

In another article, titled “The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility”, the co-authors Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding point out that lower class families usually are less educated about how college applications and decisions work, so it is harder for students from lower income households to get into good schools. They point out how “in the top-tier colleges and universities, almost three-quarters of the entering class is from the highest socioeconomic quartile” (Haveman and Smeeding, 125). This means that the majority of students entering into the more prestigious institutions are decently affluent, which shows a transparent lack of social mobility.

Even though the two characters Rodney and Frank received the same academic opportunity, because of their different socioeconomic classes, there is an obvious divide in how they were treated. Although Rodney worked and studied very hard in order to become a lawyer, he ended up owning a dry cleaners. Comparing this with Frank, who made a point of failing the bar exam spectacularly, but who still became a successful lawyer, one can see an obvious inequality. According to John Goldthorpe, this is because of the social aspect of being in a higher class. He claims that people from higher classes don’t have to worry about downward social mobility, because they have other resources, resources that are born in their social lives, to protect them. Because Rodney did not have this security, he had to work exponentially harder than Frank just to rise to Frank’s level. Once he got to that level (the University that they both attended), he continued hard work, but still found it impossible to stay afloat in Frank’s socioeconomic class.


Works Cited:

1.)   Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

2.)   Haveman, Robert, and Smeeding, Timothy. "The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility." The Future of Children: Opportunity in America 16.2 (2006): 125-50. JSTOR. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

3.)   Goldthorpe, John. "The Myth of Education-based Meritocracy: Why the Theory Isn't Working." New Economy 10.4 (2003): 234-39. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.