When I was a kid growing up in a small town, my parents told me that the key to a good life was getting an education. By “good life” they meant everything from finding a well-paying job to learning how to be an intelligent and decent person. As educators who had used their own college degrees to enter the middle class, they had good reason to assume this strategy could work for everyone.
In school, I also got the message (or was it a threat?) over and over from teachers: getting good grades will help you get into a good college which will help you find the Holy Grail of a good job. So you better believe I went straight to college and kept right on going, barely pausing to take a breath, until I was 35 years old.
(Actually, I took some time off between my B.A. and graduate school to work the phones at a rental car agency, type zip codes into a computer at the post office, and wait tables at a fancy restaurant (not all at the same time). So I decided to go to grad school because I had this dumb idea that somebody would pay me to teach Jane Austen novels to wide-eyed undergraduates. Isn’t that hilarious?)
In addition to well-meaning parents and teachers, our political leaders have long issued proclamations about the value of education as a route to a decent job. That is why George W. Bush called the No Child Left Behind law a “jobs act.” And, in a 2009 Joint Session of Congress, President Obama recommended that the unemployed help themselves by enrolling in college. In the form of advice to job seekers, the idea goes like this: Need a job? Go to school. Need a better job? Go to school some more. It’s really so simple, isn’t it?
Education, then, bears a gigantic burden in America. It’s supposed to enrich our lives while preparing us to find meaningful (and well-paying) work in the labor market.
When I started teaching writing to first generation collegians as a graduate student in New York, I too embraced the myth of education. I believed that I was helping young people gain the skills they needed to find success in their professional and personal lives.
Later, as I watched so many of my bright, capable low-income students struggle to earn degrees that seemed more likely to lead to a lifetime of debt than a good job, I began to doubt that mass education could be a tool of social mobility in an economy with stagnating wages and a growing, low-wage, service economy. This realization challenged everything I thought I knew about the trajectory of my own life as well as my belief in the basic fairness of the world. The more I studied the real relationship between education and upward mobility, the more troubled I became.
After coming to some provisional conclusions regarding these matters, I wrote a dissertation. Then, I wrote a brief essay for Inside Higher Ed in which I proposed that “those of us working in academe begin to dismantle the myth that higher education can facilitate social mobility on a mass scale.” Frankly, I didn’t think this claim was all that controversial because I was merely reporting what many well-known scholars had already said (this is the primary function of a dissertation, after all.) So I was shocked at the many negative responses the article received. (Looking back, I am also surprised that I wrote the words “those of us working in academe,” since I already knew that, very soon, those words written by me, would not include me.)
Angry readers claimed that I was too focused on the economic pay off of degrees while ignoring the social and cognitive benefits of college. I was also labeled a hypocrite who had obviously earned higher degrees myself but didn’t want to extend that opportunity to others. Furthermore, I was accused of being an elitist who “put all low-income students in one basket.” Many such students achieve social mobility through education, I was informed, even though there was nothing in my article that said otherwise. And what did baskets have to do with it anyway? I had simply argued that such a strategy could not work for everyone absent policies to create jobs and improve wages and other benefits for all workers.
Being called an elitist by fellow educators after I had spent years teaching non-elite students and researching their lives taught me a lesson. First, people who make snarky, uninformed comments on the internet without having to identify themselves suck. Secondly, making the point that more education is not the answer to unemployment, poverty or income inequality, and may in some cases make those problems worse, is a dangerous path to tread. The idea that more college degrees will magically create more equality and increase the earning power of workers is among the most cherished tenets of the American Dream, and one may not expect to question it without reprisal.
I don’t claim that I operate under fewer illusions than other people. However, I must assert that a preponderance of research shows that education is not a tool of equality. In truth, education is more likely to confirm and extend inequities that already exist and dress them all up in a big meritocratic bow. In other words, the myth of education helps perpetuate the false notion that people largely get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
Why does merely saying so seem so difficult?
The difficulty comes partly from having to surround the facts with qualifiers. It shouldn’t need to be said, for example, that everyone ought to have the right to a quality, affordable education. But let me say here that I strongly endorse broad access to college. The point is that I am capable of holding that conviction in my brain at the same time that I know education has serious limitations as a tool of upward mobility. Furthermore, our policy makers’ and political leaders’ emphasis on education as a weapon against recession, stagnant wages, and growing inequality is a distraction from the very real problems we face.
That is why I admire John Marsh’s new book Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality so much. Seriously, Marsh is my new favorite smartperson. Everyone should read this book. Don’t have it yet? Go on over to whatever online book retailer you like and order it right now.
Okay, here’s what you need to know about this fascinating book before you read it yourself and admonish me for all the fascinating tidbits I didn’t write about here.
Marsh, an English professor with a head for statistics (which suggests he may be an alien from another planet, if you ask me) smashes so many prevailing notions about how education works and what it can (and mostly cannot) do for people that I don’t even know where to begin to list them. You will think differently about the GI Bill and the Kennedy/Johnson War on Poverty after you finish this book. Furthermore, Marsh’s historical account of how education became synonymous with “equal opportunity” manages to capture (and translate into readable prose) the technical aspects of the debate as well as provide a provocative discussion of the bigger questions – such as why Ann’s younger self decided that going to grad school would be a good way to remedy the despair that comes from frothing cappuccinos for Wall Street execs day in and day out – that are not easily answered.
But Class Dismissed is more than just a critique of prevailing notions because, despite (or because of) the wealth of research and analysis Marsh provides, he ultimately raises more questions than he answers. In that regard, his conclusions are painful and indecisive, as they must be. In fact, a place of ambivalence and torment is the only place where Marsh’s research, or any serious examination of the relationship between education and equality, should ultimately lead.
Poor People Have Microwaves!
Marsh begins by explaining, in concrete terms, why poverty and income inequality matter. You might be surprised to hear that this is actually an argument that needs to be made. But it does need to be made, forcefully and over and over again. Recently, for example, the Heritage Foundation released a report implying that poverty is no big deal in America because a lot of poor people have refrigerators and microwaves these days. This inspired Stephen Colbert to exclaim: “Wow! Poor people can both preserve and heat food!”
Marsh says poverty is, in fact, a huge problem, even for those who have access to basic household appliances. In 2009, he writes, “14.3% of Americans, over 43 million people, lived in poverty,” which the government defines as a family of four – two parents and two children – earning $21,756 or less. These numbers mean that a lot of kids – slightly more than one out of five – live in poverty as well. And many millions more live just above the poverty threshold. Perhaps more importantly, poverty is not an entrenched position that people fall into and then never leave. In fact, 58% of Americans experience poverty (or near poverty) at some time in their lives due to a job loss, a health problem, or some other unexpected circumstance.
Of course, it behooves me to emphasize that inequality has gotten worse at the same time that the rich have gotten much, much richer (and not just because I like the word “behooves”). Marsh includes some handy charts and graphs (charts and graphs in an English professor’s book!) illustrating how most economic gains have been going to the very wealthiest since the 1970′s. Marsh helpfully cites the work of economists like Picketty and Saez (love those guys!) as well as political scientists Hacker and Pierson (awesomesauce!). These folks are doing crazy important work, and I think everyone should read their stuff immediately. Even English teachers. Especially English teachers.
If you manage to read Class Dismissed (or Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All-Politics) and avoid committing suicide from the sheer anguish of it all, you will learn that poor people are not the only ones who experience poverty’s negative effects. In fact, living in a country with a lot of income inequality reduces well-being and life expectancy for everyone. This means, as Marsh explains, “everyone stands to gain from reducing poverty and inequality.”
1+1= 2: There Are Not Enough Jobs
Once Marsh has illustrated what a serious inequality problem we face in America and why everyone should care about it, he gets down to the dangerous business of explaining why more education cannot put us on the road to equality and more equally distributed prosperity. (I’ll have more to say about the “dangerous” part of his argument later.
Marsh cites study after study showing that schooling cannot have the same effects for everyone because there are not enough college-level jobs to go around. “The number of heads of households living in poverty,” Marsh explains, “outnumbers the supply of job openings that would lift the holders and their families above the poverty threshold.” Or, as education scholars Jean Anyon and Kiersten Greene write, “for education to lead to better jobs, there have to be jobs available.”
I’m trying to resist the urge to write: “duh!” But Greene and Anyon know, as Marsh does, that this point is not as obvious as it seems. They know how some will respond: “Wait! I got a job because of my degree!” Or: “my second cousin, Oswaldo, couldn’t afford rent until he went back to school, and now he has a good job! Therefore, education is a miracle elixir!”
After sighing dramatically and hitting my forehead with my palm a few times, I will respond to these anecdotal accounts by saying that of course education helps some of the people find better jobs at higher wages some of the time. People with college degrees do earn more on average than people who only have high school diplomas (I will have more to say about this point a little later).
Another reason education cannot improve poverty rates is that only 9% of low-income students earn college degrees in the first place. As Marsh writes, “Dumb rich kids should not go to college at the same rate as smart poor kids,” as they currently do. Think about that. There aren’t enough good jobs for all the college graduates looking for work now (there were not enough in the free-wheeling 90′s either, or at any other time in our nation’s history). What would happen if, suddenly, every low-income person went to college and earned a B.A.? Would there miraculously be well-paying jobs for all those highly educated graduates?
Claiming that everyone should go to college to qualify for a decent wage, Marsh writes, “displays what feels like a willed naïveté about how the economy and labor markets work.” If we want to help people earn better wages, we have to raise wages, not advise more citizens to get degrees as the solution to the problem of low wages. “The real question,” Marsh writes, “is whether the guidance we offer one young person (get a college degree) is guidance we could offer a whole class of people – say, the poor or low-income, or unemployed.”
Reducing Inequality Requires Reducing Inequality
Marsh’s thesis is that we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. It is entirely reasonable. Nevertheless, I am curious to see how this book will be received in the halls of academe. I’d bet Marsh’s conclusions will be difficult for a lot of people to swallow. He may be called a traitor, an elitist, or an English professor who has committed the cardinal sin of straying too far from traditional disciplinary boundaries (see my giddy excitement at his use of charts and graphs). Maybe I am underestimating the academy’s collective ability to acknowledge a solid and compelling argument that challenges their raison d’être. But I doubt it.
Now I’ve gone and made vast generalizations about academia, and I haven’t even gotten to the part that is going to really blow people away yet! The part that is really going to blow people away is Marsh’s shocking statement that, if we want to reduce inequality, we should go ahead and actually reduce inequality.
Nuts, right? Stay with me.
Marsh advises us to get back to what FDR proposed in his 1944 State of the Union speech: the right to “a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all Nations.” Yes, Roosevelt did say that. For our 32nd president, “freedom” (a word that gets tossed around a lot these days) included freedom from economic insecurity. And, as Marsh makes clear, Roosevelt said nothing about convincing people to earn degrees, which would then help them compete against their compatriots for a decent job, which would then potentially free them from economic insecurity until they got laid off and found themselves in the bread line again. No, Roosevelt was talking about freedom from economic insecurity as entirely its own thing.
And that brings me to what I think is Marsh’s most dangerous proposal, one we should all think about incessantly during our unemployment-induced nighttime insomnia fevers. (What? Am I the only one?)
What if people could be relatively sure they would earn a decent living whether they went to college or not?
What if the government initiated a “full-employment” policy wherein every citizen had the right to a decent job, regardless of whether s/he went to college or majored in English or Engineering or Puddle Studies? Of course, everyone would still have the right to a quality education. But what if the decision to enroll in college, or the choice of major, had no bearing on the likelihood that a person would one day find herself unemployed or poor? “What if,” Marsh asks, “you could be fairly certain of economic security regardless of what use you made of your right to an education?”
Did you stop reading this blog post yet out of incalculable mental stupefaction at the absolute insanity/reasonableness of that solution to America’s long nightmare of inequality?
You see, Marsh’s most difficult task is not just dismantling a cherished American myth; he must also chip away at what he calls the “narcissism of the meritocracy.” In other words: “those who hold economic and political power, particularly since the second World War, suffer from an inability to recognize any other way into the middle class than the one they took.” I would add that it is not only “those who hold economic and political power” who can’t imagine another path but the one they took. It is, potentially, anyone who thinks s/he arrived at their station in life as a result of education, or anyone who thinks s/he might have done better for themselves if only s/he had a better education, which is a whole lot of people, by which I mean everyone. This is why Marsh’s book may inspire anger and confusion, even though he is basically a genius.
I shall conclude part one of this blog post, which is really about how I like this book, by saying that, in my next post, I will discuss the one infinitesimal quibble that I have with Class Dismissed.
What if things are even worse than Marsh contends?
What if numbers, beautiful numbers, reveal truths and disguise them at the same time? In that case, my infinitesimal quibble may be monumental enough to begin, barely, to attempt to answer (or at least fail at answering) the questions Marsh raises: what should education be? And how?