Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality

 

Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality 
Monthly Review Press (2011)
Author: John Marsh

                           

Reviewed by Margaret W. Sidle

As an English professor at a Midwestern Land Grant University, John Marsh brings a different perspective to the subject of economic inequality than if he were an economist. Marsh has a background familiar to this topic of education and poverty—he grew up in a home that experienced divorce, lived on the border of near poor and poor, went away to school, and has done well. His experience made him want to assist others in poverty to realize similar results.

The point of Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality is that Americans need to cultivate a new modesty regarding education, and stop believing that education is a magic potion for the poor or for anyone else. Over and over, Marsh provides evidence that regardless of the amount of education people possess, there are not, and will not be, enough well-paying jobs to support all the people who are looking for work. “Regardless of how much use the poor make of their right to a good education, there are not enough decent and remunerative jobs – there are not even enough indecent and low-paying jobs – to go around” (p. 177).

For readers not familiar with the subjects presented in this book, Class Dismissed offers a bibliography that encompasses wide ranges and types of data and related reports. It is a very good meta-analysis. Most of the evidence Marsh provides is economics- and labor-oriented, and much of the data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). For example, Marsh not only includes research on individual earnings by themselves over time, but also draws from reports that tie parents’ and children’s earnings, health issues, and movement from one earning level to another. He also references research that uses the Gini coefficient (one of the most common measures of income inequality), including an appendix of the definition and computation of this coefficient. The specific education-related figures include NCES data on degrees conferred over time and Census data on educational levels by birth cohort.

“Americans need to cultivate a new modesty regarding education, and stop believing that education is a magic potion for the poor or for anyone else.”

The introduction presents Marsh’s premise of why he examined the connection between education and poverty. It is here that he begins to tie poverty with economic inequality. He addresses two research questions: (1) When did the belief in education as an economic panacea arise, and why? (2) If it is not true that education will solve poverty and inequality, what might? Chapter 1 provides some history and background of poverty in the U.S., and offers comparisons with other industrialized countries.Chapter 2 addresses the question, “While an individual may be able to learn his or her way out of poverty and inequality, can the nation?” The key point the author makes is that while education may improve the quality of workers, it will not improve the quantity of jobs or increase the wages of low-paying jobs. More education will not make low-paying jobs pay more. It is here that Marsh provides the evidence that by 2018, most new jobs will require only on-the-job training, and just one-third of jobs will require workers to have high-school diplomas.

Marsh tries to answer his first research question in Chapters 3 and 4. He makes his strongest arguments by citing the works of Andrew Carnegie, Horace Mann, and Jonathan Crane and by referencing public policy, such as the Higher Education Authorization Act of 1965. Although Marsh includes the historical accounts of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, he neglects to reference research or philosophies presented by other minority writers or by women.

The introduction of vocational education to the mix of public policy and educational philosophy in the early 1900s was when education began to be seen as the means to getting all people out of poverty; it was also when institutions of higher education began infusing vocational courses of study into the arts and sciences. The signing of the G.I. Bill after World War II strengthened the connection between opportunity and education, and the War on Poverty policies in the 1960s wedded the two concepts together for good. Lyndon B. Johnson declared, “The answer for all our national problems comes down to one single work: education” (p. 147).

Chapter 5 describes the author’s solution to economic inequality—redistribution of wealth—which makes sense if his only goal is to make the differences in family income smaller. Marsh cites many authors and public policies to support this position and explains some of the political barriers to implementation. However, he does not address two important issues. First, there is a natural conflict between democracy and capitalism (Okun, 1975). The double standard of a capitalist democracy is that while it is critical that everyone gets an equal vote, the process lauds an economic system that generates gaping disparities in the financial well-being of its citizenry. Second, inequity may need to occur to fix economic inequality. That is, public policy may have to show favoritism to one group of citizens (“the poor”) over another group (“the rich”).  

“While education may improve the quality of workers, it will not improve the quantity of jobs or increase the wages of low-paying jobs. More education will not make low-paying jobs pay more.”

Marsh points to two options for people in poverty: either study hard and enroll in college, or take a chance in the local labor market. Unfortunately, he does not address the third (and very real) option of studying hard and enrolling in college, but because of unwillingness or inability to relocate for better jobs, still taking a chance in the local labor market. The author skirts around this issue of underemployment, but does not address it directly. Marsh’s arguments would be stronger if he included some of the findings from Payne (1998) that address the psycho-socio factors persons in continued poverty must face.

 Higher education professionals who do not have backgrounds in consumer economics will find this book very helpful in providing a foundation on this topic. Class Dismissed is an excellent source of facts and data on economic equality and the educational public policies that were enacted in good faith to address inequality. Readers will be disappointed if they think this book is about education; the author includes few educational elements. He shares his own experience of founding a program to help people out of poverty through education—a program that realized large dropout rates. Human capital is introduced in Chapter 4, and Chapter 5 suggests that schools should focus on solving problems regardless of economic inequality (i.e., learning for learning’s sake). However, Marsh does not present any recommendations for administrators, educators, or others in higher education related to addressing the economic inequality challenge. But, to be fair, he did not set out in his research questions to do so.

References

Okun, A. M. (1975). Equality and efficiency: The big tradeoff. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institute.

Payne, R. K. (1998). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.

Margaret W. Sidle serves as Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at University of Pikeville.

 
 

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