'Class Dismissed'

Author of new book argues that education's potential as the great equalizer has been vastly overstated.

July 26, 2011

It's no secret that this country has an education problem. Whether pre-K or post-grad, the consensus is clear: we need more and better education. Too few students make it through high school, fewer still make it through college, and in any case they are not learning enough, or they are not learning the right things in the right way. The child left behind in school will never make it to college, and the child who doesn't make it to college becomes the adult who will never attain a reasonably well-paying job. Education, then, is the key to prosperity -- for individual workers and for the nation that comprises them.

But wait.

Is it possible that this ubiquitous narrative results from a sort of tunnel vision? That education isn't the best solution to poverty or economic inequality -- that it may not even be a solution at all?

Those are the questions that John Marsh asks -- and answers -- in his new book, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality (Monthly Review Press). Marsh, an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, makes the case that Americans have come to imbue education with a level of significance that the facts do not and cannot support.

Poverty and inequality, Marsh argues, are dire problems for all of us -- even those who've never known financial hardship and probably never will. But education cannot make them go away: it is simply not possible for all Americans to earn college degrees, and "[i]nsisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a particularly humane solution." And if all Americans did graduate from college, then college would no longer be any guarantee of a good job and a decent living (or rather, it would be even less of one than it is now).

In Marsh's view, then, if we actually want to improve the standard of living for all Americans, and perhaps decrease a little the tremendous and ever-growing disparity between those with the least and those with the most, we must turn our focus away from education and toward more effective solutions, such as, in his opinion, stronger labor unions and a more progressive tax structure. Such a strategy shift, however, is unlikely ever to take place, Marsh says -- Americans are too invested in the idea of a meritocracy in which those who work hard and get a good education will always be able to make it in life.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Marsh by e-mail to discuss the themes of his book.

Q: What is the Odyssey Project, and how did it serve as the inspiration for this book?

A: The Odyssey Project is a free, college-accredited course in the humanities offered to low-income adults. Programs like it have existed for awhile, including a long-running, inspiring class run by the Illinois Humanities Council on the south side of Chicago. In the fall of 2005, I began to organize a course in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Humanities faculty from nearby universities — in our case, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — offer night classes in their areas of expertise (literature, philosophy, art history, U.S. history, and writing) for anyone between the ages of 18 and 45 and living at 150 percent of the poverty level of income or less. Students who complete the nine-month course receive six hours of college credit, which they can then transfer to other institutions of higher learning. Thanks to grants from the Illinois Humanities Council and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, everything is free: tuition, books, even child care. The goal, beyond introducing students to the study of the humanities, is to build a bridge to higher education for those who have never gone to college or who dropped out.

It is an admirable program. By the second year of the course, though, I began to have some doubts. Not about whether the program should exist or not — on balance, it does considerably more good than harm — but about the gap between what the course could accomplish and the occasionally unchecked faith people had in it. In any given year, for example, more students would drop out of the class than finish it. I would never hear from them again, and I could not stop thinking about them. If education failed them, or they failed in their educations, that was it. Besides education, economic life in the United States in the 21st century offers few viable ways to get ahead. I also began to worry that the program rested on a comforting but dangerous half-truth about the educational causes of and cure for poverty. At the time, too, economists were rediscovering just how unequal, whether in terms of income or wealth, the United States had grown over the last few decades. (By a considerable margin, the United States is the most unequal of all developed countries and growing more unequal more quickly than most other countries.)

In the beginning, then, I simply needed to learn more about what I was doing as the director of this program, about the relationship between education and economics. What I learned — and what I wanted to convey in the book — is the unsettling truth that if people truly care about lessening poverty and economic inequality, they should forget about education.

Q: “Many people,” you write, “mostly but not all conservatives, argue that as a nation we worry too much about poverty and inequality….” Leaving aside questions of social justice and empathy (which might take us into some rather tall philosophical weeds), why should we, collectively and individually, care about poverty and inequality?

A: Social justice and empathy — those are two pretty powerful motivations to leave aside! But so be it. How about a motivation to care about poverty and inequality that people may not expect, say, self-interest? According to the sociologist Mark Rank, by the time they reach age 75, a majority of Americans — 58.5 percent — will have been officially poor at least once. So Americans should care about poverty because in all likelihood they — or someone close to them — will someday be poor. It would benefit them to adopt policies now that would lessen their likelihood of falling into poverty or make their stay in it less perilous.

Regarding inequality, I would point to the findings of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who have shown that people who live in more equal countries live demonstrably better lives than those who live in less equal countries. In more equal countries, people — rich and poor alike — live longer, trust each other more, discriminate against women less, devote more resources to foreign aid, have fewer bouts of mental illness, use fewer drugs, murder each other less, have lower rates of infant mortality, suffer less from obesity, are more literate and numerate, complete more years of schooling, imprison fewer people, and enjoy greater social mobility. People in more equal countries even have fewer fistfights than people in less equal countries. As an English professor, I enjoy a good fistfight as much as the next person, but I think we could safely get by with fewer of them.

Very quickly, too — some economists believe that if inequality rises too much, or if the wages of ordinary workers stall for too long, this may jeopardize the overall economy. As the Great Recession has mercilessly demonstrated, when the economy melts down, ordinary people suffer the most.

Q: Why do you believe that “increasing the number of college graduates” — as the president and many other significant people and organizations aim to do — is unlikely to “have much of an impact on the number of people living in poverty or on … economic inequality?” Are there reasons to increase the number of college graduates anyway?

A: Education can help some people escape poverty and low incomes, but that road will very quickly get bottlenecked. Although economists and scholars debate it, it is not clear that the United States needs or will need many more college graduates than it already generates. Of course, other countries have higher college graduation rates than the United States, and those countries find something for their college graduates to do. So there could be some unmet demand for college graduates, but not enough for all or even a substantial number of the poor to move into the professions. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. economy will continue to produce many jobs — a majority, in fact — that do not require college degrees. In general, those jobs pay low wages, and an education will not make them pay any more than they do. Moreover, if you sit down and do the math, the U.S. economy has never produced anywhere close to the number of jobs — let alone decent-paying jobs — it would take to move the non-working poor into the ranks of the gainfully employed. Poverty and economic inequality are about the distribution of resources — jobs and income. Education plays a role in where people end up on the ladder of incomes, but it cannot much change the distance between rungs on the ladder.

That said, there are more compelling versions of the argument for education and how it might reduce economic inequality. I am thinking in particular of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz’s The Race between Education and Technology, which holds that inequality has increased because the supply of college graduates has leveled off while the demand for college graduates has, as it always does, steadily increased. Even this thesis, though, has its problems. For example, economic inequality has increased in the United States because more income now flows to the top 1 percent of earners than it has since the period before the Great Depression. That has little or nothing to do with the number of workers with or without college degrees.

As for whether there are other reasons to increase the number of college graduates, there are many. To take only the most romantic and impractical, I started the Odyssey Project at least in part because I love literature, and I believe that in some intangible but nevertheless crucial way, the study of literature can enrich people’s lives. To the extent that college makes that possible, so much the better. But when I think about the problems the country faces today, the number of college graduates does not rise very far toward the top of the list.

Q: You argue that “decreasing inequality and poverty” may be the best way to improve educational outcomes, given the present, yawning socioeconomic achievement gap; you mention, too, that the economically disadvantaged (among the student population as well as more broadly) are disproportionately likely to be people of color. What your book doesn’t touch is the racial and ethnic achievement gap that exists independently of economic disparities. How do you think that gap should be addressed — and were your views on it affected by your research for the book?

A: As you note, a good deal of the racial and ethnic achievement gap disappears when you factor out class, but not all of it. And I confess to having no more insight into why that should be the case than many scholars who study the question, who have plausible theories but little by way of definite conclusions. It remains a mystery and a challenge to our ideals.

Still, I think my research for the book led me to view this gap as perhaps part of a much larger, more pressing problem. Assume for a moment that you could erase the racial and ethnic achievement gap. Presumably, more racial and ethnic minorities would then earn college degrees. Still, without changing the underlying economy, nothing guarantees that there would be any fewer poor people than before, or that incomes would be any differently distributed than before. To be sure, it would be nice if African Americans, for example, made up the same percentage of poor people as they do of the general population. (As it stands now, they are very much overrepresented among the ranks of the poor.) But social justice should mean more than just making sure that economic insecurity is distributed without regard to race. I would rather we just reduce economic insecurity across the board. Ultimately, I think that approach would save more people on the losing end of the achievement gap from lives of poverty and low incomes than a more narrow focus on reducing those educational disparities.

Q: How did Americans come to see educational attainment as the key to prosperity? And why — particularly given the research your book presents — do they continue to do so?

A: They did so because, in the last few decades anyway, it is true — educational attainment is the key to prosperity. I argue merely that it did not use to be the case, and there is no reason why it should be the case today.

Of course there is a more complicated answer to the question; namely, that other paths to economic prosperity — unions, for example, or tight labor markets — were gradually and, perhaps, deliberately taken away from people over the course of the 20th century. I offer a more detailed history in the book, but in general this is a post-Second World War phenomenon. As educational opportunities increased — think of programs like Head Start or Stafford Loans or Pell Grants — labor market institutions like unions came under attack.

In addition, I think there is something psychologically satisfying about imagining educational attainment as the key to prosperity. According to polls, Americans want a more economically equal country. They do not, however, want the government to directly engineer this greater equality. So that leaves education. By providing equal educational opportunity, good schools — the thinking goes — can combat poverty and economic inequality. People mean well, but they have chosen the wrong tool for the job, like trying to sweep your kitchen floor with a shovel. You will make some progress, but there are other, better tools for what you want to get done.

Q: “Short a socialist revolution in tax policy,” you argue that a resurgence of organized labor would be the most realistic and effective way to combat income inequality. What would be needed to make this happen — and is there any chance that it actually will?

A: I should say that in the book I do not actually call for a socialist revolution in tax policy. The tax structure could doubtless be more just. But my point is that if it really wanted to, the United States could reduce inequality tomorrow, in any number of ways, regardless of how many people did or did not graduate from college. As I say above, we have other income-leveling tools at our disposal. That we choose not to use them does not mean they would not work.

But, yes, unions. Their decline correlates with the increase in economic inequality over the last 40 years, and I would bet my diminished TIAA-CREF portfolio that their resurgence would reverse that trend. I can so blithely risk my retirement account because I am convinced that unions would increase economic equality, but also because in all likelihood I will never get to make that bet. In the book, I discuss the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of federal legislation that would make it easier for workers to join unions and negotiate a first contract. For just that reason, the bill attracted an incredible amount of well-funded hostility from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps if the Democrats could again take the House and achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, EFCA might have a chance. But short of that, employers simply have too many tools at their disposal — and labor law leans too far in their direction — for workers to form unions as easily as they once did and at the rates they would need to in order to reverse their decline.

Q: Given that the “solution to economic inequality” is not to be found in education, you write that “we should seek to make education more of an end in itself and less of a means toward… opportunity, economic security, or national prosperity.” What would doing so entail? How would it change schools and universities?

A: We need schools. They are — or can be — very good at teaching people what they need to know, and very good at training people to do what we need them to do. I am grateful that my veterinarian studied biomedical sciences. I am also grateful that she got the chance to read literature, study history, debate ethics, learn how to write, look at paintings and practice all the other liberal arts. She is probably a better person — and citizen and veterinarian — because of it.

What schools are not very good at, however, is equalizing economic opportunities or outcomes. They can do a little of this, but not as much as we would hope or like. (Christopher Jencks and his co-authors made this point 40 years ago.) So, as a thought experiment, I ask, what if schools did not have the burden of generating economic opportunity or equality? If we found other, more direct ways to accomplish that, what would schools do instead?

Some people will answer this question differently than others. One reviewer of the book seems to think that schools are inherently repressive and we should abolish them altogether. I like schools and learning too much to go along with that. Nevertheless, I think schools could devote themselves to other, more important tasks than they do now. At the primary and secondary levels, we might see less emphasis on testing. Testing has its purposes, but it has taken over curriculums at many schools because reformers want to make sure that schools are leaving no child behind, mostly because the consequences of being left behind are so grave. If they were less grave, or if reformers recognized that schools can only do so much to alter students’ prospects, schools could, for example, return to what they were originally supposed to do: educating young people to be capable citizens in a democracy. Or you could simply value learning for its own sake. And, of course, schools still need to prepare students for their life after school, whether that means college or the work force.

At the college level, I like to imagine that a turn away from the economic consequences of education would counteract the vocationalism that has lately taken over higher learning, though I am sure that professors like me have always complained about vocationalism — and, come to think of it, vocationalism, as training for the professions, is a crucial function of higher education. Even so, the era of greatest economic equality and security in the United States, roughly 1947 to 1973, also saw a resurgence of interest in the liberal arts. Many factors explain that, but in the context of greater economic security, students seem to have cared about money less and ideas more. I would like to see it happen again.

To be honest, though, as I write in the book, for the moment I care less about educational outcomes than I do about economic ones.

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