Higher education is often presented as a road to opportunity and the route to a more prosperous or equal society. But would more graduates bring greater equality?

John Marsh, Class Dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality (Monthly Review Press 2011), 255pp.

John Marsh, now an assistant professor of English at Penn State University, opens Class Dismissed by narrating how several years ago he initiated an outreach programme through his then university – the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – to provide evening classes for people in a deprived neighbourhood. The majority dropped out, mainly due to economic pressures such as being overworked, but he and a few colleagues persevered.

Marsh organised a small ‘graduation ceremony’ for the handful of locals who completed the course to honour their achievements and raise the profile of the initiative. At the event he was interviewed for the local news, and got chatting to the cameraman:
‘He [the cameraman] praised the program and what I had done. “If only”, he added, “people could get an education, we wouldn’t have all these problems”… He meant what everyone means by “all these problems” when they come to neighbourhoods like the one we found ourselves in that day: unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, and, as an embodiment of all these, poverty’ (p.12).

A range of social problems are linked, in most mainstream discussions, to education. But is education the way to tackle poverty and inequality? The answer is perhaps obvious: of course it isn’t. Jobs, better pay and pensions, funding of services, social housing and higher taxes on the wealthy: these are the things we need to reduce poverty and create a more equal society. The Occupy movement is currently putting inequality back on the political agenda, crystallised by the powerfully simple juxtaposition of the 1% and the 99%, and reminding us that vast disparities in living standards are far from inevitable.

Yet education, or more particularly, higher education, is often cited as not only a road to individual opportunity, but the way ahead for society as a whole. More graduates would equal, it is suggested, not just a stronger economy but a more socially mobile and equal society. The overwhelming focus on education evades discussion of policies which might inconvenience ‘the 1%’, like increased taxes on top earners, closing tax loopholes and stronger regulation of the financial sector.

John Marsh does a tremendous job of busting the myths, specifically in the context of US political and media discussion. It is not that he believes fewer people should go to university; in fact he emphatically rejects those right-wingers who peddle such a line. He also recognises that levels of education are, in general terms, connected to future earnings. He therefore remarks that he would advise any individual young person considering their future, if judging matters on a purely fiscal basis, to go to university.
Marsh also makes the non-vocational case for university as a valuable experience in itself, rejecting the dominant consensus that universities are a marketplace geared exclusively towards economic needs. He does not regret the many hours he put into his community outreach programme, which he recognises has been of value to those who have ‘graduated’ from it. Yet he increasingly came to question the dubious ideas that might be attached to it, like the assumptions implicit in the cameraman’s comments, remarking that he had, like Victor Frankenstein, ‘created a monster’.

It is the erroneous idea that more university graduates will solve America’s economic and social woes with which Marsh has a problem. He dissects this idea so forensically, with the help of a range of data on poverty in the US, that his case becomes unanswerable. The research is rigorous and the author’s handling of it ensures the book never becomes dry. Marsh teaches English literature and has a non-specialist’s eye for the need to make economic data and analysis fresh and engaging. His lively writing style is a great strength, with an ability to interweave hard data with illuminating examples from his own life, others’ experiences and history.

The title, Class Dismissed, alludes to the way class has been removed from political discussion. Marsh insists that rhetoric about educational advancement is no substitute for understanding and addressing the economic roots of problems in American society, especially inequality. He marshals his research into pursuing this case, demonstrating conclusively that bad education has not produced social inequality. Neither will more or better education reduce it.

In America, a college education has gradually become established as the definitive way to get ahead; ‘education’ is synonymous with ‘opportunity’. The mainstream arguments in the US are not identical to those here in the UK, but there is enough overlap to make this book highly relevant. Education is frequently held up as a panacea for society’s ills. Alternatively, bad education or lack of education is deemed the cause of our problems. Both of these views, which of course are two sides of the same coin, hugely underestimate the role played by economic realities.

One of the book’s strengths is Marsh’s tracing of the rise of this ideology: that education is the route to both individual opportunity and a more prosperous society. Two major chapters provide a historical account of changing ideologies, set against broader changes in American society from a century ago through to the Great Depression, Second World War, the long post-war boom and on to the recurring crises of the last four decades. During this last period the neoliberal offensive has ensured an extraordinary concentration of wealth at the top.

In the final chapter Marsh poses the question: ‘If not education, what?’ Here he makes a persuasive (and unfashionable) case for trade-union activism as a vital means of collectively challenging inequality and economic injustice. This is complemented by briefly indicating alternative economic policies. Finally he outlines the need for a vision of ‘education for learning not earning’. Class Dismissed is an extremely useful, and engaging, contribution to debates about inequality, poverty and education. While most directly pertinent to political debates in the US, we can also benefit from its insights in the UK.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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