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Talk About Teaching and Learning

The Education Gospel:
Loud Music, The Lone Ranger, Playing Within Your Game, And It’s Hard To Learn When You’re Hungry

Marvin Lazerson

The Education Gospel

The term “Education Gospel” refers to a system of belief that social, economic, civic, and moral problems can be solved through schooling.  Like most faith-based beliefs, it is neither susceptible to nor does it depend upon empirical verification. It is what we believe.

In the last few decades the Education Gospel has come to focus on economic goals. Its essential message can be summarized as follows: The Knowledge Revolution has changed the nature of work; the jobs of the future will require advanced levels of schooling. Providing this education will create vibrant economic expansion, more productive workers, and greater success in the global marketplace.     

The Education Gospel has produced remarkable results. Americans have provided more schooling for more people for longer periods of time than any other country. Millions of people can attest to the personal opportunities created for them by higher education.  

 But the Education Gospel has its less attractive characteristics. It assumes that schools really are the best place to learn to work, when so much of success at work is rooted in characteristics that have little to do with schooling. It has terribly distorted and narrowed the purposes of education into getting jobs and getting ahead. And, it has lead to a virtual neglect and sometimes outright hostility to other forms of social policy.

The Education Gospel has also led to an endless cycle of overschooling. As each level of schooling becomes more crowded, one has to move to the next level in order to differentiate one’s self. We thus have created a situation in which it is rational for any individual to stay in school, but socially irrational and terribly expensive for so many people to stay in school year after year.

Loud Music

When I was growing up my father and grandfather worked in a New York City factory where they had to shout to be heard. This shouting as a form of conversation continued when they sat down at the dinner table, where I also had to shout, with my younger sisters ultimately joining in. My reaction to all of this noise was to go to my room and  play rock and roll music as loudly as I could. This led to more shouting and turning up the family television.

Over the years, I began to view educational reformers as an expanded version of my family. The advocates of reform, from all sides of the political spectrum, try to shout over one another. Unless we lower the volume, there will be little improvement in our schools, because every momentary shift in power simply increases the volume of another voice.  Everybody is shouting, but no one is really hearing anything.

The Lone Ranger

During the 1950s, the Lone Ranger radio program was one of my outlets to a world outside my family. However politically incorrect I later understood the Lone Ranger to be, that stirring moment when someone would say, “why those are silver bullets, mister” has always remained with me.

Those silver bullets, a metaphor for how Americans view educational reform, are an unfortunate complement to the loud music. Silver bullets are being shot out of various sized guns with bewildering rapidity: make schools smaller; create charter schools or mission-oriented schools; provide vouchers so people can shop around and buy at lower costs; create national standards and more standardized tests, require academic majors as a pre-requisite to getting certified to teach.

None of these reforms is necessarily bad; most reforms have some merit and some downsides. Just about every evaluation of any worth more or less says the same thing. Some schools and some students benefit, some lose out, and many—if not most—are essentially unaffected. But in a world of silver bullets and loud music, such balanced views of education’s complex reality have little meaning.

Even when we are on the right track, education takes a long time to have an effect. It is hard in the middle of the education wars to remind ourselves that there are no silver bullets. But we have a responsibility to say as clearly as we can, that any given reform may help some, if we do it right, but no reform will make the educational problem disappear.

It’s Hard to Learn When You’re Hungry

Some 35 years ago, Christopher Jencks and his colleagues published Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. In it, Jencks argued that schools alone could do very little to change the structure of inequality in the United States. Although he underplayed the things that schools could accomplish, Jencks’ basic argument about structural inequality was right.

What frustrated me about Inequality, however, was that one had to read hundreds of pages of relatively difficult text before the final chapter, which was a call for stronger public policies to redistribute income from the most wealthy to the least wealthy.

I now find myself in the same boat. In our book, The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling, Norton Grubb and I produced around 200 pages before we get to the chapter that says that America’s faith in education cannot be realized in a world in which there is so much structured inequality.1

The central dilemma of the belief system we call the Education Gospel is that it wants to use education as a substitute for other social policies to reduce unemployment, to alleviate poverty, to narrow the distribution of earnings, and to end racial differences. This substitution is self-defeating. We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education. The schools cannot succeed at their basic job of creating literate citizens without social policies that involve housing, health and nutrition, income support, urban and rural community building and improved employment opportunities.

What is hardest to take is that as the rhetoric of the Education Gospel continues to ratchet up, the social policies essential to make it work, have been eviscerated. The fact is that we cannot fix schools without fixing inequality, and we cannot fix inequality without fixing schools. We cannot choose one or the other and expect either that inequality will diminish or that education will  become substantially better.

The Education Gospel then is a trap because it turns us into believers that schools can accomplish everything and therefore we have to do little else. The world does not work that way, no matter how loudly we play our music, no matter how many silver bullets we purport to have, no matter how hard we play the game, because the game is played at lots of sites, under quite different conditions, and does not end when the whistle blows, the buzzer goes off, or the school bell rings. To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.

1 Dr. Lazerson is co-author, with W. Norton Grubb, of The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling (Harvard University Press, 2004). Originally presented as the Gordon S. Bodek Invitational Lecture at Penn.

Marvin Lazerson holds the Howard and Judith Berkowitz Chair in the Graduate School of Education. His most recent book, co-authored with GSE Dean Susan Fuhrman, is Institutions of American Democracy: The Public Schools (Oxford University Press, 2005). This essay is adapted from an article, The Education Gospel, that appeared in Education Week on May 5, 2005.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 25, March 14, 2006


March 14, 2006
Volume 52 Number 25


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