Chapter 4 traces the trajectory of the idea that education is THE solution to problems of poverty and economic inequity. Marsh's take is that in the 1960's there was a political moment where a War on Poverty seemed feasible and worthwhile, but that idea mostly collapsed, and improvements to education were the one idea that survived from the collapse. Personally, I think the idea of a winnable War on Poverty is hubris, given the multi-faceted and eternal nature of the problem. Dissecting the nature and causes of poverty would take us far afield from the educational interests motivating my blogging here, but irrespective of one's own optimism or pessimism on this topic, and irrespective of what one thinks a proper solution or mitigation would or should look like, improvements to education can only be part of the solution, not the bulk of the solution. As Marsh notes repeatedly, treating education as the entirety of the solution rather than a mere component of it essentially amounts to a postulate that the problem is entirely with the poor people, and that if they are improved then poverty is solved. If only it were that simple.
Marsh puts a negative face on the motives behind regarding education as the solution, and I'll get there in the next post. First, though, I'll examine the best possible defense of the idea that poverty can be fixed entirely through education. We're all familiar with the saying "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself thereafter." There are certainly important ideas in that saying, whether you view it through a conservative lens that sees moral hazard in handouts or a more sympathetic lens that sees dignity in labor. However, it's also a false dichotomy. What if you teach a person to fish but there are hardly any reliable boats available? What if pollution is killing all of the fish in the vicinity? The point I'm getting at in my analogy is that even if one mostly takes handouts off of the list of options, "teach a man to fish" leaves the structure of the economy unexamined. Is the growing bifurcation between rich and poor solely a consequence of poor people lacking the skills (whether through their own faults or accidents of birth) to compete in the modern economy, or are structural factors and economic policies also in play? If the later, will the economy have well-paying jobs available for all of the people lifted up if we just expand educational opportunity?
Mind you, I don't believe that education is completely irrelevant to issues of poverty and inequality. Certainly, education plays a substantial role in one's job prospects. However, I'm unconvinced that endlessly-expanding college enrollment rosters will fix everything, especially in the context of sending more people into STEM careers.* Saying that skill development helps people improve their prospects in life is different from saying that policy-makers have an accurate view of which fields will be in demand, and which types of education will help the most people prosper. Indeed, if I had an accurate forecast of the job market I would probably be able to find ways to make trillions of dollars in equities and commodities markets, since I would know which sectors will prosper or decline, and which raw materials they'll need. The choice isn't between teaching a man to fish and giving him a fish, it's between giving him food and some combination of teaching him to fish, improving the water quality in the bay, teaching him to grow corn, improving irrigation infrastructure, teaching him to grow apples, improving the rules on pesticides, etc.
On the other side of the coin, while I echo Marsh when he rejects the hypothesis that poverty can be addressed solely by improving poor people, it would be factually and ethically incorrect to deny that poverty does make its mark on people, and often that mark shows up in school. On page 153, Marsh cites a 1972 book that makes a point we've seen repeated in studies again and again over the years: Parental income affects educational outcomes at least as well as educational outcomes affect subsequent income.** So, just as we cannot ignore aspects of economic opportunity that go beyond educational opportunity, we also cannot ignore the fact that poverty leaves its cruel mark on people and thus affects how educational opportunity will play out. Maybe the better order of operations is to improve job opportunities so that the children of today's workers can do better in school, rather than improve schools in the hopes that people will eventually get better jobs.
Of course, "Just improve the job market!" is easier said than done, and I certainly have no easy prescriptions there. On the other hand, "Just improve the schools!" is also easier said than done, and decades of tinkering with schools has not reduced economic inequality in the US. I don't claim to know what the solution is, but I concur with Marsh's point that a single-minded focus on schools is not the way to go.
*An excellent book has been written on that topic. I read it when it came out last year, but maybe I'll return to it and blog it at some point.
**This is the next book that I plan to blog. Although the statistical data is now more than 40 years out of date, I plan to read it with the hopes of understanding how thinking on the issue has evolved over time.