Jon Shelton

UW-Green Bay Prof. Jon Shelton awarded National Academy of Education fellowship to study how the connection between education and economic opportunity affects political divisions today

Shelton one of 30 selected from more than 200 applicants

If your vision of “living history” is an aging professor prattling on about his early years, you have yet to meet UW-Green Bay Associate Professor, Jon Shelton (Democracy and Justice Studies).

Shelton’s approach to understanding history is to research the thread of an event or concept from its origins, follow the significant developments over time and engage students in discussion about the way it is being lived or applied now. Students learn how lessons from the past might inform decisions today.

His research focuses on the intersection of history and education, an area on which he has built a reputation as a national scholar. He is regularly contacted by reporters (New York Times, TIME, Washington Post, etc.) who are looking for context behind national stories about education and labor relations.

To further his research, Shelton has been awarded a prestigious postdoctoral grant from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Fellowship Program, which supports “early career scholars working in critical areas of education research,” according to the NAEd website.

“One of the best features of the fellowship,” said Shelton, “is the opportunity to network with other research fellows and members of the National Academy. It gives me the opportunity to think outside of my own discipline, which is also consistent with the interdisciplinary, problem-focused nature of UW-Green Bay.”

Shelton will use the research fellowship to explore the historical connections between education, economic opportunity, and political divisions in America.

“I was trained as a labor historian, but now I also do work in the history of education,” said Shelton. In fact, his dissertation[1] won an award from the Labor and Working-Class History Association and his book[2] won the First Book Award from the International Standing Conference on the History of Education.

“The main reason I became interested in my current topic has to do with my students in Democracy and Justice Studies,” Shelton continued. “It was clear these students believed in the value of education, but a lot of them talked about family members who had college degrees and still could not find jobs. They voiced lower expectations about what a college education would actually do for them. This got me curious about what Americans thought about education and economic opportunity or economic security over time.”

Shelton said the Democratic Party in the ‘60s had bipartisan support for the idea that education was just one part of a host of social democratic policies necessary to alleviate poverty and give all Americans economic security. By the ‘90s, however, many national Democrats increasingly called for investing public funds in education and job re-training as their major policy for increasing economic inequality.

In the decades afterward, Shelton believes, as investments in education failed to provide good jobs to everyone and jobs moved to other countries, a real resentment bubbled up from the grassroots. Successful politicians, he said, have been able to mobilize disaffected, blue-collar groups, especially in the upper Midwest, who express a desire to “discipline these educators who are spending our tax dollars needlessly.”

As a consequence, Shelton posited, in the past few years, there has been both an assault on the political center from the right, and an existential discussion among the Democrats about where they’re going to go, as a few Democratic presidential candidates challenge some Democratic norms.

“What I’m going to do is look at how various people have made the economic argument for education, going back as far as the 19th century, and how that’s changed over time,” said Shelton. “I’m a proponent of public investment in education, obviously, but I think the narrative that education can solve all problems has come at the expense of other things policy-makers should have considered in order to provide full economic citizenship for all Americans. If that had happened, I don’t think we’d be seeing the big levels of resentment we see right now in both parties.

Shelton’s research will take him away from teaching for a full academic year, starting now, spring term 2020. Losing a faculty member from an eight-person department can have a significant impact on remaining faculty, but Shelton said he’s received tremendous support from his peers and from university administration.

“My department chair, Alison Staudinger, and our dean, Chuck Rybak, have been ‘150% supporters’ of this fellowship,” said Shelton. “And my colleagues’ only question has been, “How do we make this work?””

Although Shelton’s research will take him away from UW-Green Bay, he won’t be too far.

“The nature of historical research involves visiting archives,” said Shelton. “I’ll be visiting the National Education Association archives in Washington, D.C., and I’ll visit other sites across the upper Midwest. I’m planning to visit UW-Madison, the state archives of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the Reuther Library in Detroit to see the American Federation of Teachers archives, the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock and the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. I’m still scoping out some of the study plan, so there will probably be more visits like that.”

Shelton is already integrating some of his research findings into his classroom.

“I’m fortunate to work in an academic unit that engages all of us on the faculty in pursuit of a similar question about democracy and social justice, so I don’t see any way that this would not inform our classwork. In fact, a lot of the questions I’m exploring came from classroom discussions.”

The collaborative campus environment is what drew Shelton to Green Bay.

“I came to UW-Green Bay in 2013 because I was attracted by the interdisciplinary, problem-focused nature of the campus,” Shelton said. “It sounds corny, but I am lucky to be in arguably the best academic unit that exists anywhere in the country. We’re small, but we’re devoted to a common project that transcends our disciplines: What makes societies equitable, what makes them change, how they can become more equitable?

“Students come to study with us because they are excited about that question,” he said. “Many go on to grad school or law school or become labor organizers across the country.”

Shelton is also preparing a second book, which will explore what his research has revealed about history’s influence on contemporary politics. He hopes it will resonate with the general reader and national policy makers.

“One of my goals is to explain how we got to this point,” said Shelton. “The other goal is to look at the arguments people have made to connect education, economics and politics, and to learn where those arguments were helpful and where they were not.

“I hope people will read the book and talk about how we have come to think about politics today,” he concluded. “I also hope this will inform political debates about education and economic policy for the future.”

And that brings history to life.

[1] “Against the Public: Teacher Strikes and the Decline of Liberalism, 1968-1981,” University of Maryland, 2013. Advisor: Julie Greene

[2] “Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order,” University of Illinois Press/Working Class in American History series, 2017.