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The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling

reviewed by Harold J. Noah - 2006

coverTitle: The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling
Author(s): W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674015371 , Pages: 334, Year: 2004
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The first nine chapters of this book present a sustained and convincing set of arguments, describing some basic ways in which formal education in the U.S. has gone astray.  Final chapters summarize the major themes of the book and propose a general course of action that might offer hope of remedy.  The authors are exceptionally qualified to present their arguments, which should be taken to heart by all who have interest in the improvement of life in America.

The authors define the Education Gospel as an amalgam of at least four commonly-held dicta:  that more schooling for more people holds the solution for our most pressing social problems;  that the so-called Information Society is changing fundamentally the nature of work; that the proper task of our educational institutions is to prepare students ever more closely to undertake that new kind of work; and that the necessary preparation should extend to the entire population the opportunity to learn “higher order” skills.  Spread the embrace of formal education ever more widely, the Education Gospel argues, because this is the sovereign remedy for economic inequality and all of its attendant evils.  Over the past century the American public has increasingly bought into this set of interrelated beliefs.  One consequence has been the willingness to neglect all those other governmentally-supported avenues for the reduction of inequality.  If it is true that “the schools can do the job” in securing for everyone a crack at the American dream, then there is no need for a national health service (Canadian style); no need for family income supports (French style); no need for a national housing policy (British style); in short, no need for much more than the bare minimal support for the rhetoric of a welfare state.

Not that the authors are opposed to important elements of the education gospel.  They document the substantial private benefits that have accrued to individuals from their access to formal education and its associated credentials.  Their critique focuses on the social costs that come attached, not only the high financial costs borne by taxpayers, but also the steady deprecation and diminution of  academic content in the curricula of high schools, colleges, and universities, and its replacement by vocational subject matter.  Parents, students, and curriculum designers all use as their selection criterion: “Will this course pay off in terms of job prospects and job performance?”   The result has been a descent into what the authors term “HyperVoc”.  “In the world of HyperVoc, narrow work skills are all that matter, and a great deal of work has been routinized so that it can be carried out with prescribed skills -- even for many professionals.” (p. 258)

An introductory chapter sets out the ways in which “The Education Gospel” has developed and attracted support, as well as the nature of the dissent it has called forth. “We hope to disentangle the progressive and admirable features of twentieth-century developments from those that are less wonderful, to understand the power of the Education Gospel as well as its limits . . .” (p.24).

Three subsequent chapters take up in turn the high schools, the colleges and universities, and the community college, to show how and why a largely uncritical embrace of vocational purposes has pushed aside major academic concerns.  An additional chapter offers a critique of the fragmented mix of short-term job training programs and adult education that constitute the country’s “second-chance” opportunities.

Turning from their focus on institutions, the authors then present four chapters each devoted to a major theme: the peculiarly American approach to vocationalism; the dominance of private over public benefits that flow from an educational system based on excessive attention to vocational ends; the tensions that arise from an insistence on vocational education to prepare people for work, rather than having them learn primarily “on the job”; and, last, the contribution of education and credentials to the transformation and reinforcement of inequalities in American society.   

To combat these growing inequalities, the authors set out their vision of a Foundational  State, intended as a replacement for the now unfortunately discredited ideal of a Welfare State.  They recognize that current American political preferences are profoundly inimical to classic concepts of the welfare state – social security from the cradle to the grave.  But, they argue, it is nevertheless neither advisable, nor necessary, to do nothing to reduce the scandalous inequalities in opportunities, income, and educational quality that mar contemporary society. The Foundational State would follow three basic principles of educational policy:  correction of inequitable educational practices; creation of “strong” markets in education; and, correction of differences in family resources. They base their argument on a clear preference for a political regime that accepts collective responsibility for the development of human capacities.

Here are some single examples each of what they advocate under these three principles.   

The authors advocate an end to “allowing student ‘choice’ to create havoc with coherent programs . . . .this requires educational institutions to make coherent programs compelling to students . . .” (p. 261).  “A key responsibility of the Foundational State is to create the preconditions for developing human competencies . . .” (p. 264).

One of the preconditions of efficient (or “strong”) markets is that all participants have more or less equal access to relevant market information.  In an educational system that is bound to retain a central emphasis on vocationalism, this implies that much more attention be paid to reducing differences in levels of knowledge about options for schooling and access to employment.

The goal of correcting differences in family resources requires educational policy to focus on ways to bolster the school achievement of those who do not have the family supports necessary to succeed scholastically.  This means that it is not enough just to equalize school resources, we need to “correct the social and economic conditions that make it impossible for some students to benefit from educational opportunities” (p. 243).

The contemporary political climate in the United States holds little hope for such a broad vision of the state’s responsibilities to its citizens.  Political climates change with changing circumstances.  In time, the current neo-conservative rhetoric advocating a minimalist, anti-tax state may lose its appeal.  The program advocated by Messrs. Grubb and Lazerson may then gain some political traction.  But meanwhile, and even if the United States continues to pursue its current retreat toward an imagined laisser-faire, laisser-passer state, this is a book greatly to be valued as a profoundly informative, clearly presented, and exceptionally well-documented critique of that sprawling set of institutions we call American education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 110-112
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11951, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 4:08:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Harold Noah
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    HAROLD J. NOAH is Gardner Cowles Professor Emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University. He served on the faculty from 1964 to 1987, and as Dean of the College from 1975 to 1980. He has published extensively in comparative education and in the economics of education.
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