‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education’, ‘Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought’ reviewed by Patrick Ainley

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

About the reviewer

Patrick Ainley was Professor of Training and Education in the School of Education and Training (as …


Two books on education, one on schools in the USA, the other on higher education in the UK; neither of them by Marxists yet both pointing to the profound ignorance and taking for granted of education by academics, including Marxist ones, who respond with confusion to the market reform of higher education heightened by the Coalition government, and find themselves surprised by the ‘terrible and paradoxical outcome’ with which Diane Ravitch concludes: ‘higher test scores and worse education.’(230) So that, ‘At the present time, public education is in peril … [and] Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival.’(242) On this, both books agree but on little else.

The confusion with which the so-called ‘academic community’ meets this situation is shown by the widespread espousal – by Williams as by many teachers and their students – of ‘education for its own sake’. This has always been a purely ideological claim and is an inadequate defence against the current incorporation of higher education in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’. Proclaiming the freedom of what was once a self-governing guild of university teachers granted academic freedom to set and examine courses linked to their research careers is special pleading that elevates research over teaching and HE over FE and general education in schools. It also misconceives the nature of teaching – seen as merely ‘knowledge reproduction’, while research is seen as superior ‘knowledge production’. This forgets that teachers (as opposed to instructors) have to relearn what they teach new generations for whom such knowledge is necessarily new.

Even the revival by autonomist Marxists of the notion of ‘the general intellect’ outlined in ‘the fragment on machines’ in the Grundrisse is misconceived; for example by Michael Bailey and Des Freedman whose Manifesto for Resistance shares illusions in higher education’s role in ‘turning out skilled labour for British capital’ (2010, 35). This is not the main role of UK HE and never has been. (‘Official knowledge’ is another matter but, even there, HE has never had a monopoly, despite its best efforts.) Such a misconception ignores the mass of students for whom HE – along with the schools and FE – functions increasingly as a main means of social control over youth in the absence of wages. The General Intellect, therefore, understood literally as intellect in general – the faculty and power to think demanded of a population by the development of the means of production, far from relying upon knowledge as the main productive force, finds itself increasingly absorbed by machines. Such insecure, part-time and contract employment as remains today has, as a result of automation and outsourcing, become deskilled. This tendency towards the degredation of work under monopoly capital, first identified by Braverman in relation to skilled manual labour, is now reaching up the occupational hierarchy to reduce many salaried ‘professions’, like teachers, towards the conditions of waged labour. This proletarianizes the professions at the same time as widening participation to them through higher education has been presented as professionalizing the proletariat.

Illusions in the redemptive power of higher education are still widely held however – to restart upward ‘social mobility’, for instance, by contributing to ‘employability’, when, in a class structure gone pear-shaped, the only social mobility is down. With her title Consuming Higher Education, Joanna Williams might have been expected to clear up some of these confusions. For instance, by explaining Why Learning Can’t be Bought when private universities in the USA, Brazil and Japan, for instance, provide an academically superior product to their fee-paying students compared with the public institutions in those countries, as indeed did British universities in the past and many private schools today.

Actually Williams has no answer to this question and even abstains from advocating the abolition of fees, which ‘enhance the sense that once rights have been fulfilled and access to university secured … students are entitled to a degree.’(147) So fees without entitlement would be fine with her since her explanation of events is that ‘the British Labour government made the promotion of social inclusion … a political priority … This led to a shift towards vocational instrumentalism in all forms of post-compulsory education.’(144) This accusation of ‘social engineering’ is familiar Daily Mail territory. Similarly, Williams’ answer to it – a return to rigour – is shared by Willetts and Gove, who both seek to reduce the numbers of what they perceive as the wrong sort of kids in the wrong sort of universities. These horny-handed sons of toil are therefore to be returned to the apprenticeships in FE from whence they have strayed, disregarding the fact that most of them are women and that few employers require apprentices nowadays. Meanwhile, ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is to be handed down unchanged in an Arnoldian canon to an academically selected elite. This returns us to the 1950s and the limited upward social mobility that then existed through the grammar schools. Selecting a minority of the formerly manually-working working class for elevation to the middle class of managers and professionals will thus be magically restored.

Though she repeatedly denies the existence of any ‘golden age’, Williams wants to go even further back to when students were ‘disciples of their lecturers, like university “pupils” before the Second World War’! (116) The idea of ‘pupilage’ contradicts her previous railing against the ‘infantilisation’ of youth by ‘therapeutic education’ focused on ‘personal transformation’. These are familiar tropes of the Furediist school of radical right critique of welfarism and, indeed, the Kent University Sociology Professor is frequently referenced, as are some of his acolytes – Hayes etc, though their names are indexed less often. As in Furedi’s ‘Institute of Ideas’, fundamental ideas such as ‘entitlement’ are raised by Williams but not explored. Why should there not be a sense of entitlement in connection with citizenship to progress in education, instead of relentless English selectivity? Or how would and should mass higher education differ from preceding minority character training for leadership expanded to a right of passage from home to living away and school to professional work for post-war middle-class youth?

Williams mentions the creation of the polytechnics as a form of HE on the cheap without looking at their other side of seeking a different (local and adult) form of HE. She then sees their dissolution into the universities as compounding the rot – elsewhere they are confused with ‘community colleges’ (144). Nor does Williams discover the reasons for her – or rather Hayes and Ecclestone’s (2009) – ‘therapeutic turn’ in the absence of any practical context in which to apply what has been learnt. In what Martin Allen and I call ‘Education without jobs’, the identity of learners becomes the object of (ex)change independent of any use value. This creates a situation where learning becomes an end in itself rather than a means toward achieving employment, let alone enlightenment. The result is profoundly alienating for teachers and students alike.

Instead of finding social explanations for what has occurred, Williams’ argument is typically tendentious and based upon the flimsy evidence of ‘interviews I have conducted with students and policymakers’ (5). The latter are not specified and the former amount – a footnote on p. 15 reveals – to 20 first-year undergraduates at unnamed universities in the south-east of England in January and February 2011. Williams also set out to focus on the USA as well as the UK with much reference to Bloom’s side of ‘the culture wars’ in the first chapters but this gets forgotten in conclusion since, while Clinton – like Blair – can support her thesis of wicked socialist engineering, Bush hardly can!

The continuities in approach by successive Presidencies are described in detail by Diane Ravitch’s account of her involvement as academic and policy adviser in successive decentralisation efforts for US schools since the 1960s, ending as George Bush’s assistant-secretary of education. She was, she admits, seduced by the ‘comforting belief that the invisible hand of the market will bring improvements through some unknown force.’ No Marxist either but – unlike Williams – open to learning from experience rather than adhering to supposedly ‘Correct Ideas’, Ravitch nails the responsibility for the death of the US school system in ‘The new corporate reformers … [who] think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing to incentivize the workforce – principals, teachers and students – with appropriate rewards and sanctions.’(11) However, Ravitch did not share their motivation for extending profit-making into the public sector and they did not share her commitment to ‘preserving public education because it is so intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy’ (14).

She therefore recounts the history of market-led education reform leading to Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which ‘changed the nature of public schooling across the nation by making standardized test scores the primary measure of school quality’ (15). ‘Whatever could not be measured did not count.’(21) ‘Measure and punish’ as she titles her Chapter 6, ‘a compliance regime that recreates the very pathologies it was intended to solve’ with ‘the consequence of mandating an unattainable goal [that all students will be proficient in English and maths by 2014] … is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States.’(103-4) ‘Rather than “leaving no child behind”, this strategy plays a shell game with low-performing students, moving them out and dispersing them, pretending they don’t exist.’(105) ‘Most states devise ways to pretend to meet the impossible goal.’(106) ‘Test scores became an obsession. Many school districts invested heavily in test-preparation materials and activities. Test-taking skills and strategies took precedence over knowledge … drill and practice became a significant part of the daily routine.’(107)

‘Three versions of school choice emerged: voucher schools, privately managed schools and charter schools.’(121) The regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage in competition with such schools, because they are ‘able to attract more motivated students, discharge laggards, enforce tough disciplinary codes, plus enjoying additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors.’(133) Like Blair’s academies and Gove’s ‘free schools’, ‘Charter schools represented, more than anything else, a concerted effort to deregulate public education, with few restrictions on pedagogy, curriculum, class size, discipline, or other details of their operation.’(133) ‘Their quality ranges from excellent to awful. That’s what happens when an industry is deregulated and the sluice gates opened to a huge flow of innovation, entrepreneurship and enterprise.’ Ironically, just as the financial markets collapsed, ‘many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.’(144)

‘If we continue on the present course, with big foundations and the federal government investing heavily in opening more charter schools, the result is predictable. Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected.’(220) Overemphasis on test scores is ‘training (not educating) a generation of children who are repelled by learning, thinking that it means only drudgery, worksheets, test-preparation and test-taking.’(231) And ‘at the same time as test scores rise, youngsters may be ignorant of current events, the structure of government, science, art, literature, etc.’ This returns Ravitch to her ‘paradoxical and terrible outcome: higher test scores and worse education.’(230)

Teachers cannot share the illusions of Vice Chancellors, teacher unions and New Labour in ever rising standards. Students may be working harder but they work to less purpose. At least Gove acknowledges this, though his answer – like Williams’ – is more of the same to restore an imaginary and impossible past. Instead, Ravitch suggests going beyond, on the one hand, cramming academic information for regurgitation in appropriate written form as an expression of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital and, on the other, behavioural training for apprenticeships often indistinguishable from workfare. The ‘Renaissance’ she looks for in education might open the critical space remaining at all levels of learning so that teachers and students together ‘confront with sober senses the real conditions of their existence’. (‘Sober’ is an operative word for many students, pointing to wider aspects of their experience ignored by Williams.)

2 January 2013


  • Bailey, M. and Freedman, D. Eds 2011 The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance London: Pluto.
  • Ecclestone, C. and Hayes, D. 2009 ). The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education London: Routledge.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *