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I enjoyed "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" and the questions it raised, while wondering why Professor X couldn't tell us his name or answer his own questions with possible solutions. The book was powerful enough, because thinking new thoughts on education in a climate where *everyone* agrees that *everyone* needs to go to college is kind of groundbreaking. But John Marsh has done even better in "Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality." This book is all of the things, while slightly different in focus, is all of the things that I missed in "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower": analytical, evidence-based, and proposes solutions (even if author John Marsh feels these solutions are unlikely to happen soon.) Where Professor X argues that perhaps education is not for every individual, John Marsh argues that education is perhaps not the answer to every individual problem: "I conclude that education bears far too much of the burden of our hopes for economic justice, and, moreover, that we ask education to accomplish things it simply cannot accomplish."
There's probably a joke in here somewhere, but Marsh reminds us that the only thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that everyone needs an education, and that education can get people, generally, out of poverty, and change the dire situation of our country. Marsh quotes Bush saying that inequality in the US is growing, and that "The reason is clear. We have an economy that increasingly rewards education and skills because of that education," and Obama has been pushing all kinds of education programs, specifically saying that this will "Provid[e] greater pathways for students to enter into and succeed in higher education is in the interest of all Americans, and is critical to developing a highly educated, highly skilled economy and workforce that will attract business and lead to lower unemployment" (from the White House website.) But Marsh argues, convincingly and with the stats to back it up, that this isn't the case. Education is great, but it doesn't solve inequality. The argument that education leads to the end of inequality is backwards: "Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve edcuational outcomes," he writes.
Education is the best possible Trojan horse. All politicians and lay people can agree that education is wonderful. What's not to like? Even people who don't like poor people or people of color can agree that education is a good thing. It's a problem that Americans don't get educated, a problem that maybe even the government has some responsiblity to fix (the degree depends on your political views). But poverty and inequality? That's an individual problem, one that no one really wants to deal with, or talk about, or tackle. If education can solve everything, then it's much easier to deal with education. Marsh traces the history of how education became the only way Americans felt they could have "opportunity," and then reminds us that just because you are have a college education does not mean that there is a job for you. Education does not produce jobs. Further, the socioeconomic and racial position you are born into is the key determining factor of where you will end up: education may provide a few individuals an opportunity to move up in their economic position, but not very many individuals. So talking about education, and uplifting is an easy out: Get a degree, you might make it! Well, you might, but you might not. Only much bigger solutions than an individual poor person going to school will help poverty in the US, and really, dealing with inequality is the major solution. Education as it stands is currently increasing US inequality.
It's a big idea to swallow, but it's hard to walk away from "Class Dismissed" without believing it, or at least some of it. Marsh knows the steps in the right direction will be hard, and unlikely. President Obama's initiatives are powerful and have popular support. Who doesn't want opportunity for themselves or their child? Strong labor, in the form of unions, is on the way out, and Marsh knows it, but argues that it is one key to lessening economic inequality. A tax revolution would help, too, and even Obama is campaigning on lowering taxes on the middle class. The chances of a "tax revolution" are also slim (note that in the 1940s and 1950s taxes on the top brackets were in the high 80 and 90 percents). Marsh is not anti-education. His point is rather that
We ought to acknowledge the limited but nevertheless real role education plays in providing individual economic opportunity and may play in generating national economic growth. At the same time, we should seek to make education more of an end in itself and less of a means toward some other en, whether that something else is opportunity, economic security, or national prosperity. Above all, we need to do a better job of securing hte right to a good education, but in doing so we must keep in mind that individuals have more economic rights, and perhaps more important economic rights, than the right to a good education.This book is a must read for those interested in education or inequality. It's eye-opening and thought-provoking. Marsh is an English professor and makes even the dullest of statistics and graphs (and there are plenty) readable.