Saturday, October 27, 2012

John Marsh: Class Dismissed

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People are speaking up about why education might not be the answer to every problem, and maybe, just maybe, that not every person needs to go to college. Professor X felt he couldn't tell his personal story without hiding behind a nom de plume, but took the stance last year that maybe not every American needed to go to college. College is expensive and leaves individuals saddled with debt forever, many of whom aren't even qualified for what American colleges purport to teach. The "college premium"- some college, a two year degree, or bachelor's degree required- was helping no one, since many of these jobs didn't actually need degrees at all, and students and institutions were going (back) to school unnecessarily. He asked for a change in the discussion: do we really need to send Americans to school? Is college really college if it's remedial at its very core? Who is college serving?

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. 


mamagotcha said...

Hmm. I may have to get my hands on this one.

One of the accusations leveled at those of us who choose to homeschool is that we are cheating the schools out of our energy and efforts... that by focusing all our resources on our own children, we are withdrawing them from our potential efforts as PTA parents or classroom assistants. I'm not sure how many parents are all that involved along those lines, but it's one of the few arguments against homeschooling that hit me hard... the idea that my choice is not only better for my own kids, but potentially causing damage to others.

I don't think school has ever been much of a cooperative community effort, though... kids are sent to the school, the school does its job and fills the kids' heads with knowledge, the kid returns home. I know there are studies that show a correlation between parent involvement and student success, and that the extrapolation of that correlation would point to the greatest success paired with the greatest parental involvement (ie, homeschooling), and my personal experience shows this to be true.

There must be a sweet spot, though... a level of involvement from the community that brings up the success rate for all children. I have not witnessed that outside of situations like Waldorf schools that require parental involvement as a condition of attending, and those kinds of private school communities are already representative of the higher economic classes. I wonder if that kind of community investment in education would also ensure a community's economic betterment simultaneously. Still, making it compulsory would only generate resistance... how to create an atmosphere where global economic and educational improvements outweigh the current societal ideal of individual success?

Something to think about, at any rate.