Jim Cullen: Review of John Marsh's "Class Dismissed: Why We Can't Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality" (Monthly Review Press, 2011)






Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

In general, college professors are not particularly well-regarded as political analysts (the noun "academic" is a term of unvarnished contempt in precincts like FOX news). But there is a special circle of irrelevance reserved for English professors, who are not typically known for their quantitative acumen -- or, for that matter, their ability to write in a language the rest of us understand. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up this book by John Marsh, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. Amazingly, I encountered a work of deft econometrics. Even more amazing, it's clear, lively, and realistic.

What might seem most amazing of all is that Marsh makes an argument which, particularly coming from this first-generation college-educated son and grandson of steelworkers, is deeply counter-intuitive. Which is that as weapon against poverty, education is overrated. As he demonstrates at the outset, this article of faith has become so canonical on the Left no less than the Right that it has crowded out every alternative way of thinking about addressing an inequality problem in the United States that is now widely acknowledged, even accepted. That doesn't stop Marsh from concisely documenting it, with great care in grappling with counter-evidence as well as counter-arguments.

What becomes increasingly evident is that Marsh isn't so much denying what everyone else is seeing, but rather calling attention to what they don't (or won't): that in terms of social reform, better schools are better seen a result, not a means, of upward mobility. It's as if we as a society agree that poverty, like cancer, is terrible disease. But it must be fought by solely by prevention, with no effort to actually try and treat, much less cure, those who already afflicted with it.  Yes: education can make a steelworker's son an English professor. But there are only so many English professors a society can absorb (and that number is shrinking all the time). This is a fact that's so obvious it simply gets ignored. So it is that Marsh quotes the liberal darling Tom Friedman flatly stating that "There are barely any jobs left for someone with only a high school diploma."

But of course there are lots of jobs left for people with nothing more than a high school diploma -- which in fact is the majority of people in the United States. What Friedman apparently means, Marsh notes, is that are no good jobs. But why aren't those jobs good? Well, for one thing, the work isn't all that exciting (then again, work rarely is, even for people who have "good" jobs). But also because those jobs pay poorly, not even providing subsistence wages, and they subject workers to indignities ranging from irritation to harassment. To even raise these issues is a one-way ticket to political irrelevance in the United States. As Marsh notes with a pithy sentence in a book full of them, "opportunity seems to be what we talk about when we don't want to talk about labor." Still, plenty of countries around the world have managed to provide opportunity, educational and otherwise, as well as reduce inequality. No fair-minded person calls Canada a failed state.

But -- and this is key to Marsh's analysis -- there was a time when Americans thought about these questions differently. In an elegant two-chapter survey of American educational history, Marsh shows that schooling was considered one tool (a tool especially cherished by the Right, though not exclusively its property) in the construction of a fair and stable society that included a modicum of economic redistribution as the price of private property. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his famous speech outlining an Economic Bill of Rights in 1944, education was not a prerequisite for a living wage or a decent home, but part of package. The Great Society initially made moves toward reducing inequality, but became increasingly hypnotized by training programs and Lyndon Johnson's edict against advocating direct transfers (which, ironically, is something Richard Nixon dangled before voters in a diabolically clever Family Assistance Plan he knew would never pass Congress). "And thus died any hopes for a War on Poverty that would prepare jobs for people rather than people for jobs," Marsh writes. Yet even as late as the mid-seventies, when a weak economy and a surfeit of of diplomas led to the proverbial Ph.D. cab driver, education was not understood as the sole means of economic security and the American Dream.

Now it is. Marsh begins the book with a confession by way of describing his own efforts to create a free ad-hoc school for working people in his community, only gradually realizing that the structural barriers involved were almost insuperable. As someone who grew up in the Rust Belt and who currently reads those quaint artifacts known as newspapers, he has has few illusions about a political system that has been thoroughly preempted by those who conflate national interest with corporate interest. If change is over going to happen, it's going to be because the workers of the world find a way to unite. The work of equality is ours.


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