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Class Dismissed reviewed in HNN

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)

SOURCE: Special to HNN (9-4-11)

[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.”…

Read the entire review in HNN

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