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Class Dismissed reviewed on Counterfire

Class Dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality



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….

Read the entire review on Counterfire

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