BOOK/Seth Sandronsky

Education Not Enough Without Respect for Labor

This much is true. Americans with bachelor’s degrees and up earn higher pay than high school grads. Yet a third of the future jobs statewide created in the next 10 years, will require, at most, no more than a 12th-grade education. Meanwhile, US income inequality and poverty has been rising over the past three decades. Why has and does education bear the burden that it does for what ails the nation’s populace?

In Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, author John Marsh tackles the education premium and related issues of schools and social structure.  

His thesis is simple. Marsh argues against the conventional wisdom, from the handmaidens of Wall Street on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the statehouses and city halls across the US, of education ruling policy discussions about addressing inequality and poverty.

In short, Marsh’s narrative is that elected lawmakers can and should do more than repeat the tired and tiring line that education is the only path to prosperity. The rub is that common people must organize to open up new paths.

Well, what’s happening abroad? Marsh looks at policies of other industrialized countries. He shows how such societies do progressive social policy. They pay to improve low- and mid-income people’s lives. Why the unwillingness to do so in the US?

The power of the working class, notably organized labor, to set the policy agenda is weak. Case in point, as Marsh writes, is the failure of the House of Labor to advance the Employee Free Choice Act boosting workers’ opportunities to form unions and bargain first contracts with employers, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress!

Marsh, a professor of English at Penn State University, surveys education policies and theories, from colonial times to the present stateside. In the early days, of course, education served to strengthen students’ study of religion. World War II marks the proverbial turning point for

American education in its current trajectory is the supreme social policy for opportunity. Marsh shares his personal experiences teaching adults, the so-called working poor, in the Odyssey Project, making higher education available to them. This is a powerful part of his book. Readers discover how Marsh comes to understand that learning and teaching alone do not adequately repair the class injuries, hidden and not, hampering students’ upward mobility.  

The current tendency to focus, almost obsessively, on education, reveals in part how capitalist ideology of the commodity as the highest form of liberty steers our eyes away from class matters. Thus when mainstream politicians and pundits talk about freedom, it’s about a kind of liberty that does not challenge the social status quo in the marketplace.  

To solve such social problems as inequality and poverty, Marsh calls for making a formal education a, but not the, path to prosperity. He supports calls for more emphasis on creating labor union jobs as part of a public policy that benefits ordinary folks now on a path of accelerated downward mobility towards the misery that scarce income brings to about every sixth person in the US, officially speaking (just over $22,000 for a family of two adults and two kids). The actual poverty level, according to experts at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Economic Policy Institute, is more like every third person in the US.

But Marsh doesn’t stop at advocating government-friendly policies in labor relations. Why? As union power falls, inequality rises. He untangles the views of varied education critics. Yes, one of them is Robert Rector, a poverty denier, at the Heritage Foundation, founded with money partly from Joseph Coors in 1973.

In an introduction, five chapters, notes and appendix on the Gini coefficient that measures income inequality, Marsh presents a straightforward case that education alone is unable to reap economic justice, the production and distribution of income before and after taxes. His timely book picks up where The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch, who focuses on school choice and standardized tests, leaves off. I urge folks to read Class Dismissed for its bold approach to education and society. 

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2011

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