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Learned Behavior

A new book argues that it's a mistake to assume education alone can fix our society

Photo: Ben Claassen III, License: N/A

Ben Claassen III

Photo: Adam Haley, License: N/A

Adam Haley

John Marsh

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Class Dismissed

by John Marsh

Monthly Review Press, paperback

As Baltimore schoolteachers and students return to their classrooms later this month, the enduring tale of America as a land of opportunity will resound again with great fervor. All good teachers will weave into their lesson plans a narrative of hope: If you do this drill on the board, keep your uniform neat, complete your homework, follow the curriculum, make the grade—above all, matriculate upward—you can change your condition, overcome economic insecurity, and procure a spot in America’s bounteous middle class or beyond.

School and civic leaders will broadcast this story with even greater urgency this fall, pointing out that we are in the time of the Great Recession, jobless recoveries, and colossal debt, and we are beset by the Chinese and the whirlwind of global competition. Education may be our only hope.

For Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso, educational attainment has even morphed into something beyond mere hoping. Writing on the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s blog, Alonso offered a more portentous vision of the land of opportunity: “In the hyper-competitive global economy of the 21st century,” he wrote, “education is fate.”

John Marsh, in his important and accessible new book Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality (Monthy Review Press), challenges this widely held, almost mystical American belief in the powers of education. “The faith in the power of education to make or break lives traverses the political spectrum,” writes Marsh, an assistant professor of English at Penn State University. “[N]othing dominates our thinking about poverty and social inequality so much as the belief that education (or lack of it) causes these problems and thus that education (and more of it) will fix them.”

Marsh begins his argument by reviewing the massive amount of data showing America to be a grossly unequal society and one tending toward greater gaps between haves and have-nots. He concludes with many others that “poverty and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is the worst it has been since the 1920s and the worst among developed countries.” Impressively for a professor of English, Marsh offers a reader-friendly appendix explaining the “Gini coefficient,” one of the most common methods of measuring income inequality internationally.

Beyond the absolute measures of social inequality, Marsh also looks at the data on social mobility in America: “[T]he most common intergenerational experience,” he observes of the data, “is to be born poor and remain poor. The next most common experience is to be born rich and remain rich.”

Yet Americans—particularly education reformers—Marsh says, believe that to overcome this inequality we can educate our students for the many well-paying jobs that America’s post-industrial economy will eventually produce. However, Marsh points to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections that seven out of 10 occupations that will produce the most new jobs by 2018—home health aides, customer service reps, and food preparers and servers, for example—require only on-the-job training and will pay little.

Marsh goes on to provide an impressive historical genealogy of how Americans came to believe that education was the country’s exclusive remedy to social inequities. He ranges over the Puritans, to Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth,” to the G.I. Bill and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that shape-shifted into “No Child Left Behind” and a “Race to the Top.”

“Education, you might say, is what allows people to sleep at night,” Marsh writes wryly. “Because Americans have built schools and funded loans and scholarships, anyone who wants to get ahead can. If people cannot or do not get ahead, however, that is on them.” The increasingly common understanding in America, Marsh observes, is that those “who have succeeded must have worked hard in school, those who failed must not have taken school seriously.”

So what is to be done? Marsh says that if we in America really want a more equal society with less poverty and more genuine equality of opportunity, then we should not rely on education, but do the things that actually have reduced the gaps between us. Class Dismissed is no manifesto in calling for social change; rather, Marsh is quite practical: We could expand things like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and we could give more power to workers to bargain collectively with their employers by passing something like the Employee Free Choice Act introduced in 2009. We should protect things like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We need to get away from what he calls the “winner-take-all” economy. But Marsh is not a partisan of a political party or specific program of reform—nor is he an optimist: “If I were a betting man, I would wager that the radical economic inequality of the last 30 to 40 years is here to stay. If it does change, it is likely to grow worse rather than better.”

Marsh, though, does ask the reader to imagine a different kind of education-reform movement in America. A growing body of work, he points out, says that the single most powerful education-reform program would be to reduce or eliminate poverty and economic inequality in America. Right now reformers get it exactly backward, trying to make society more equal largely through education alone. More, if we didn’t load up school with all the expectations to redress our social inequities, he says, we could have a broader, more humanistic view of teaching and learning—we wouldn’t need to obsess with tests and narrow definitions of achievement. A more economically just society could free up what education and school could mean. Learning could be fun and authentic and genuinely creative. In challenging much conventional wisdom, Class Dismissed is a well-prepared lesson to consider at the beginning of the school year.

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