Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality

reviewed by Cynthia Taines — January 10, 2012

coverTitle: Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality
Author(s): John Marsh
Publisher: Monthly Review Press, New York
ISBN: 1583672435, Pages: 328, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Why are people poor? In the book Class Dismissed, John Marsh says it’s simple—too few jobs and too many jobs that pay poorly. What should we do about poverty—and its disturbing corollary—educational inequality? That’s obvious too, Marsh states: increase union strength and membership, guarantee a living wage, and redistribute wealth to protect the poor and the unemployed. And why aren’t we doing these things? We have fallen prey to overzealous preaching from politicians, academics, policymakers, and think tankers who have made education out to be our economic salvation. In this book, Marsh seeks to “refocus debates about poverty and economic inequality back where they belong” and cut education down to its appropriate, limited size (p. 207). By which he means there is really no debate at all. Economic Solutions for Economic Problems! could be the slogan for the book.

If I sound a little insouciant, that’s because Marsh’s cheekiness is infectious. He’s like your clever uncle who will take down every argument around the dinner table until only his is left. But since he’s family he does it with humor and understanding—you aren’t dumb to believe schools will work, he tells you, you’re just blinded by your desire to make life fair by tinkering around the educational edges (p. 169).

I don’t know if Marsh is actually an uncle but he tells us he isn’t a threat. “Since I am an English professor, it can only get so technical” (p. 28). His writing is clear and entertaining and he’s good at taking lay readers through data tables in a way they will understand. He offers himself as a gentle guide until you arrive at his same conclusions.

To get to that destination, Marsh begins in chapter 1 with the statement that “poverty and economic inequality matter,” both individually and socially (p. 27). As he admits, in many (perhaps most) quarters this isn’t news. But political discourse being what it is these days, he plays it safe by citing data from economists, think tanks, government agencies, and the like. In chapter 2, Marsh pits various contemporary studies against one another to demonstrate that education is neither the cause nor the solution to the economic distress of the poor (and the fineness of the wealthy). Marsh goes back in time in chapters 3 and 4, selectively using secondary and some primary historical sources to argue that the equation of education with social opportunity is a man-made artifact of the 20th century. As such, he wants us to unmake this association in the 21st. His penultimate conclusion in chapter 5 is that the structure of the economy, and workers’ lack of bargaining power to change it, has created both poverty and inequality. Therefore, it will take economic interventions revolving around labor and redistribution to restructure our society. Educational strategies are “not sufficient” and “not necessary” for the task ahead (p. 91). Do you still care about schools? You’re welcome to try for educational access or equity since it makes a little bit of difference to individuals (p. 209). But if you do, and Marsh is your Yiddish uncle, he will probably call your effort ‘futzing’.

I’m going to be the earnest cousin at the dinner party for a moment. Marsh has just called economic inequality a “greater injustice” and educational inequality a “lesser” one (p. 209, 212). But in the words of Audre Lorde: “there is no hierarchy of oppression” (Lorde, 2009, p. 220). Instead, we should see these two disadvantages as related and intersecting (Lorde, 1984). Related because oppression is, on a deeper level, the inequitable distribution of power in a society that allows some to deny both economic and educational needs and reserve the corresponding privileges for themselves. Intersecting because these injustices are not separate compartments but affect the same people at the same time. Ranking them reduces real-life complexity—and the range of solutions available. In his effort to diminish the standing of educational interventions, Marsh overlooks the work of scholars who have re-analyzed the Coleman Report to find that education matters more than may have been appreciated then (Borman & Dowling, 2010). Christopher Jencks, whom Marsh casts as a like-minded protagonist, reversed course in 1998’s The Black-White Test Score Gap, where he argued that reducing the achievement gap could “substantially” reduce racial inequities in earnings (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, pp. 4-5). So rather than either-or, both economics and education shape the starting points, the processes, and the outcomes of children’s social lives. Both tools, and many more, are needed in the metaphorical toolbox, the one we use to work on social inequality.

Let’s say there’s a college student in the conversation, heck, let’s make her a teacher-in-training. She’s on break from school and comes to the dinner table with a youthful mix of idealism and cynicism. She wants to know: What is the way forward? Or should she just give up and say, some things never change and there’s not a whole lot that citizens or teachers or schools can do anyway? In reply, Marsh cheerfully dispenses doses of hopeless realism. What should change, he argues, is labor rights and wages but any attempt will run into the “‘buzz saw’ of contemporary American politics” (p.  200). A “mass engagement,” where we protest economic inequities and petition for reforms is deemed “impossible” (p. 201). The enormous undertaking of educational equality will have “relatively little effect” nonetheless (p. 209). The more limited goal of education for education’s sake is a “castl[e] in the sky” (p. 207).

In their methods classes, teacher education students like the one above are learning the technique of the lesson opener. They are to write “Do Now” on the whiteboard at the beginning of class, followed by some kind of activity for students that align with the lesson’s objectives. From Marsh we have a cogent lesson on the problem and a passionate plea for particular solutions. He has our attention. But after such a spirited argument about economics and equality, it’s a bit of a let down that there is a blank space where the “do now” should be.


Borman, G. D., & Dowling, M. (2010). Schools and inequality: A multilevel analysis of Coleman's Equality of Opportunity data. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1201-1246.

Jencks, C., & Phillips, M. (Eds.). (1998). The black-white test score gap. Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Learning from the 60s. In A. Lorde, Sister outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Crossing Press.

Lorde, A. (2009). There is no hierarchy of oppressions. In R. P. Byrd, J. B. Cole & B. Guy-Sheftall (Eds.), I am your sister: Collected and unpublished writings of Audre Lorde. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 10, 2012
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16643, Date Accessed: 1/8/2013 4:56:19 PM

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