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School’s Out Forever

"Pledge of Allegiance" — a sketch from The Whitest Kids U’ Know

A review of John Marsh’s Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality 

By Malcolm Harris 

At the core of contemporary liberal ideology is the idea that education, done right, could solve all the nation’s major economic problems. Education is supposed to remedy the nation’s sundry inequalities and prepare a generation to become involved citizens. This is one of the few areas where the center-left has won over the wider public. In one of The West Wing’s more memorable monologues, Aaron Sorkin put this popular wisdom into Rob Lowe’s mouth:

Education is the silver bullet, education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces, the competition for the best teachers should be fierce, they should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense.

But if education really were the silver bullet, we would have hit something by now. Instead, as Penn State professor John Marsh argues in his forthcoming book Class Dismissed, we have an increasingly unequal country hiding behind the flimsy twin excuses of equal opportunity and personal responsibility. Marsh makes a convincing case that no amount of reformist tinkering can make higher education an engine of egalitarianism, because schools were never meant to reduce inequality in the first place. As long as we credit the education system with the ability to fix labor problems, Marsh argues, it is doomed to failure.

Marsh, who comes from a union household, sees the decline of labor organizing as the central source of high and rising inequality. As workers have lost bargaining power, he insists, the gap between classes has increased. Through a series of statistical correlations, he traces the “great divergence” between rich and poor incomes to the early ’80s and President Reagan’s union busting and supply-side tax cuts, and uses data from economist Emmanuel Saez, to show how the U.S. has become less and less equal ever since.

Unlike union organizing, which by its nature distributes benefits, the education cure functions through exclusivity. A diploma may offer a better place in line, but it doesn’t guarantee anyone a job commensurate with their skills. After all, if every young American were the student the president told them to be, we would have a lot of credentialed food-service workers. Low-wage workers beget low-wage workers, and the occasional exception makes the bitter pill of class immobility palatable enough to swallow.

Education has become the way to talk about class and labor in an American political system that is profoundly uncomfortable with both. In the hands of reformist technocrats, inequality is a matter of nuanced social engineering rather than a conflict between two unequal and opposed sides – those who profit and those who only work. If society wanted to reduce the growing discrepancy between rich and poor, we would worry less about tweaking the educational system and simply pay or give the poor more money. Marsh writes, “Given the political will, whether through redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, or a renaissance of labor unions, we could decrease poverty and inequality tomorrow regardless of the market or the number of educated and uneducated workers.”

Although Marsh takes the reader back to historical junctions when choosing such paths toward a more equal country seemed possible — like President Johnson’s war on poverty or President Nixon’s proposal for a national income — those days are long gone. As Governor Walker’s successful move against public unions in Wisconsin shows, organized labor’s fight for survival isn’t conducive to winning higher wages. Marsh is not optimistic about the likelihood of an American labor renaissance; the best outcome he can imagine is that we might hold the debate about class and wealth distribution in undisguised terms. “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,” he writes, “At the same time, we should seek to make education more of an end it itself and less of a means toward some other end.”

While Marsh uses all his considerable analytical prowess to dispel the myth of class mobility through education, he accepts the conventional wisdom about the “true” purposes of education without a second look. If schools can’t solve society’s economic problems, he suggests, then they should focus on what they can do. Citing Thomas Jefferson through Christopher Lasch, Marsh offers only these two possibilities: “To give everybody the intellectual resources — particularly the command of the language — needed to distinguish truth from public lies” and “to train scholars, intellectuals, and members of learned professions.”

A school system devoted to those two goals wouldn’t make the country more equal, but it might restore English professors like Marsh to their former glory. He writes, “The liberal arts might regain the stature their inevitably central locations on campus indicate they once had. How much better for students’ souls — for their future happiness — to have studied the humanities or some branch of the liberal arts?” Putting aside the supposed strength of the correlation between majoring in literature and happiness, the answer to “How much better for their souls?” isn’t graphable. But being an English professor means never questioning the transcendent impact of your own thought on others.

Marsh, who depicts himself as a veteran of left-wing politics, should know better than to put much stock in teaching students to be critical media consumers. Recognizing and exposing the Bush administration’s falsehoods — as brash and obvious as they were frequent — didn’t do the left much good: It didn’t avert or halt the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, it didn’t stop the tax cuts for the wealthy, and it hasn’t forced us to confront climate change. With more public access to information than ever before, fact-checking can be a cinch, and well-funded nonprofit organizations and popular television shows have devoted themselves to exposing public lies using primary-source documents. But the plutocracy is as bad as ever. In a time when, as Marsh admits, the facts about inequality won’t make a bit of difference on the policy front, how does reading Macbeth help students protect themselves against tyranny?

Just like the aberrational student elevated out of poverty through education, the exceptional teacher who can impact a student’s soul provides a flawed justification for a system which fails to provide anything of the sort on a larger scale. The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.” Classrooms, tellingly, are usually depicted in popular culture as excruciatingly boring. Teachers post Calvin and Hobbes cartoons about the soul-crushing banality of compulsory attendance on the classroom walls. In TV shows and movies about young people, class time is depicted only so that it can be interrupted by something more important — whether it’s whispered gossip, singing montages, or vampire slaying. Or, à la Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, class is so awful as to be a self-explanatory joke.

With the economic logic ripped apart, the only reasoning Marsh presents for keeping students in the prison/school for 12 to 16 years is that their souls might benefit from compulsory membership in a gerontocratic book club, even if we have to put a sizable proportion of them on amphetamines for it to work. This isn’t coincidental, it’s prefigurative, a determining sneak-peek at the adults they’ll become. High schools and colleges knowingly teach and enable the Adderall-seeking behavior that graduates will need to compete in the work world — that is if they don’t have standing prescriptions from elementary school. When a sixth-grader isn’t paying attention in class because he’s too busy clenching his knees together so as not to piss his pants before the bell rings, he’s not learning to be a better citizen or intellectual, he’s learning to be a better prisoner, employee, or soldier.

One of Marsh’s most suggestive comparisons is the number of striking workers against the number of new college admittances over time. Although the lines crossed long ago, the juxtaposition suggests the classroom is only one possible choice in pursuing a better life, and not necessarily the best one. Elsewhere around the world, young people try to construct better lives for themselves outside the classroom, as in Spain and Greece, where students fight against the austerity and increasing economic inequality Marsh fears, or in Egypt or Tunisia where revolution is not to be confused with an SAT-prep company. Using expert knowledge no teacher could have inculcated, young hackers risk jail to expose public falsehoods and build solidarity with peers overseas by fucking around on the internet. They’re not willing to leave the problems of their inherited world for moribund labor unions or withering socialist parties. Students in America could try a different kind of strike based on what’s occurred in Cairo and Athens — out of the classroom and into the streets. And how much better would that be for their future happiness, how much better for their souls?

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