Class dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality.
John March, Monthly Review Press, 2011.

Reviewed by Peter Curtis: Early childhood Educator and member of the AEU.

John Marsh poses critical questions arising from his own experiences as a teacher offering opportunities to those who fell out of mass education systems. His extra curricula activities involve delivering a nine-month course in the humanities to students who struggle against the tyranny of poverty and social inequality.

He begins with his observation that there is a universal view that education can overcome the inequality inherent in our societies. Regardless of anyone’s own particular experiences of schooling, the driving principle of all so-called education reform is the belief that higher education is the passport required to travel beyond a lifetime of poverty.

He acknowledges that many of those who participate in his classes never make it; defeated by the demands of working two to three jobs, trying to pay the rent, overcoming the effects of drug addiction, and raising children. How then can our society expect ‘education’ to overcome the effects of such profound inequality? The next question he asks of us is why higher education is regarded as the panacea to social ills produced by generations of poverty.

Absent from education reform rhetoric is the explicit reference to the effects of inequality. Government ministers prefer to couch debates around quality and provision in terms of increasing national productivity and social mobility; if everyone has the opportunity to access higher education then ‘productivity’ or more accurately, increases to company profits, will eradicate poverty and inequality. Our current Prime Minster expresses the view that the aim of all education, from cradle to grave, is to increase productivity.

Peter Garret our Federal education minister noted in a recent speech to the Sydney Institute that those who fall out of our school are,

 “kids from poor families. There are other factors that intersect and compound this disadvantage. Indigenous students, students with disabilities, kids from the bush – most don’t do as well as they should … Any new model must also be an improvement on the current situation. It must be fair, effective and sustainable. If we are to have a productive, prosperous and sustainable future, it will be built on the capacity of our people. And capacity building starts at school. Home / The Hon Peter Garrett MP / Developing a uniquely Australian school education system—Address to the Sydney Institute

Garret, perhaps succumbing to the body of evidence of the Gonski Review, suggests that there is class dimension to the inequality of provision, and so ends up at the point where Marsh so devastatingly begins his critique of the myth that schools and higher education, and its lack, are the cause of inequality and poverty and consequently too, the means to wealth and privilege. 

 John Marsh is assistant professor of English at Penn State University. In addition to many articles and reviews, he is the author of Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry, and the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941, which won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.