The following post is a book review I wrote for the NACAC online book review section. It was published in August, 2008.
Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
By Peter Sacks
University of California Press
$24.95, 373 pages (incl. notes and index), hardcover
Reviewed by Willard M. Dix
Executive Director, College Access Counseling
The college admission Petri dish grows many strains of the American Dream. Mixing aspiration, class-consciousness, education, social and cultural expectations, adolescent psychology, family dynamics, and financial complexity, it produces wildly varying results. Until recently, the formula seemed simple: “merit” plus financial wherewithal plus extracurricular prowess equaled entrée into the hallowed halls. But social and cultural awareness over the last 30 years has shown that formula to be more complex than once thought, and its effects more pernicious than the Dream would dictate.
In his new book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, Peter Sacks looks at issues of class using the high school to college nexus as his laboratory. Combining solid research with portraits of young people and one educator struggling against class–bound issues, he asks us to consider that issues of class, as much as of education, have a significant impact on those striving to better their circumstances in American society.
Crashing the party
Sacks argues that “class is the grand organizing principle of American education” and as such it works against those not already in the middle- or upper-middle classes. He challenges us to rethink the simplistic assumption that education by itself is a way for non-elites to enter the middle class. Educational “standards,” for example, often cater to those already capable of meeting them, rather than encourage others’ achievement. As a reverse example, he profiles Oceanside High School’s Dayle Mazzarella, “a dangerous man,” who developed a successful program that opened advanced courses to students once considered incapable of succeeding in them. Sacks calls the San Diego teacher someone who is “crashing the exclusive party that American higher education has become” because he dares to assume that non-elites can achieve the same success of their more privileged peers if only they are challenged and supported properly.
Public and Private Commitment
Although this portrait and others in the book help bring the theme of class and education into focus, they are not as compelling as Sacks’s look at how higher education seems to be becoming more, rather than less, a bastion for elites and more adept at serving private, rather than public (read society’s) interests. He notes that “a mere three percent of the freshmen enrolled at the nation’s 146 most selective institutions came from the lowest socioeconomic quartile” in a 2004 study, while “ almost 75 percent…came from the highest…quartile.” In another, it was found that “one’s social background —particularly one’s father’s education —proved to be just as powerful as academic merit in predicting the selectivity of the college one attended,” and that, in fact, that power has doubled over the years from 1980 to 1992.
At a time when a great deal of college rhetoric focuses on serving more lower-income and first-generation students, the facts seem to indicate otherwise. Sacks quotes a recent study contrasting university endowments with the number of students receiving Pell Grants on campus: Many of those with the healthiest endowments had the fewest Pell recipients: Harvard (6.8 percent), Princeton (7.4), Washington University in St. Louis (8) and Wake Forest (7) being among them. Even more unsettling are the records of state institutions, designed specifically to provide education for the public good. He finds that the University of Michigan, for example, while increasing its overall prestige through greater selectivity and claiming to pay more attention to “socio-economic diversity” actually slashed its Pell Grant enrollment in half between 1992 and 2002. It and other similar institutions seem to be abandoning their commitment to the greater good in favor of chasing institutional prestige, a worrisome development that threatens their social role as developers of the middle class.
At the gates
Sacks believes that we should work harder to make American education the leg up to the middle class we envision it to be. He celebrates the “rabble rousers” and “gate crashers” already doing that work and in the final chapter makes a few suggestions for action that would bear much more development. Tearing Down the Gates is in fact more polite than radical, spotlighting the intersection of class, privilege, and education and prodding us to a wider consideration of how they ought to work. The battle has not yet been joined, but, as Sacks notes, “for any educational reform to really happen…America will have to confront its class problem.” By putting high school education and college admission in this context, Sacks has significantly moved that discussion forward.