Neo-liberalism and education


These days if one gets a chance to attend a global forum sponsored by any branch of the neo-liberal financial establishment (e.g. the World Economic Forum, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization etc.), education is certain to be on the agenda. The rhetoric surrounding this subject is seductive to the uninitiated, the neo-liberal establishment having taken over many of the concepts and terms developed by liberal educators in the West (e.g. lifelong learning, teamwork), which have also been spread globally by well-meaning academics and activists.

However, it does not take much to see through the façade. One does not need a PhD to figure out that what is really meant is the diversion of public education to economic ends, which means colonizing existing educational systems with ever more utilitarian and economics-oriented outlooks. For example, “lifelong learning,” an idea developed by liberal educators, in the neo-liberal model has become having to retrain oneself continually to keep up with the demands of the ever-changing global employment marketplace. Another buzzword, “teamwork,” is an innocuous and unobtrusive way to replace middle-level management: a purging of global corporations, beginning with “Reaganomics” and “Thatcherism”, that removed most managers, but not the necessity that their work be done. So the tasks once done by these managers -” and the responsibilities shouldered by them -” were foisted on “teams” of workers who are paid no more than before for all the extra duties and responsibilities, and who are ever more liable to be dismissed for not being “team-players.” This outlook has been adopted by educationists to update a decrepit system that was initially designed to produce factory-workers, which is now being pressed into service for ends that the same financial interests have deemed to be economically expedient.

In this process of co-opting public education, the neo-liberals have driven another wedge between public educational systems and the people they are supposed to serve. An army of mercenary scholars, and their neo-liberal apologists, are now locked in battle, the outcome of which cannot be any better than what passes for education today and is likely to be much worse, after the smoke clears and all the wheeling and dealing is done. In the end, educational systems will be weakened as never before, with the neo-liberal thieves greedily eyeing public trusts (such as state-funded systems of schooling and healthcare) for private profit, while the established pseudo-liberal elites running those systems attempt to defend the indefensible. Much of this would be laughable if one had the time (and the stomach) to listen to the arguments on both sides of this hopelessly misguided and irrelevant debate. For example, many of the business-dedicated and state-oriented liberal “education experts” attached to the UN are still citing Japan as a model educational system to be emulated, because of the corporate ascendancy of the Japanese throughout the 1980s. At the time, everyone was thrilled by Japan’s successes, and the rush was on to duplicate the Japanese system, which seemed to create more productive (and more loyal) workers. Many of these tenured academics have been resting on their laurels in the twilight of their careers, and seem not to have read a single book since the Japanese fad emerged during the 1980s; certainly they have not read the critical assessments of Japanese education that began to come out in the 1990s and are still appearing today. Others have simply sold out to the new business-dominated agenda.

There are two immediately noticeable by-products of this dispute among liberals and neo-liberals. First, the bottom has nearly fallen out of the Japanese economy in recent years, so any argument that relies on Japanese economic supremacy as a justification for educational reform is fast becoming outdated and irrelevant. In fact, under American pressure, Japan is moving back to its highly-contested previous colonialist and war-based stance to protect the dwindling fruits of its post-war economic ascendancy. Second, the types of social pathology that are usually observed in young Westerners (e.g. drug-addiction, prostitution, suicide and violent crime) are now plaguing Japanese society. As well as taking over the slogans of liberal education, the neo-liberal establishment has also developed a discourse on education that centers on the necessity for technology, with slogans about the “information age” and the “knowledge economy” predominating in the halls of high capital, including the global economic forums. In a typical knee-jerk fashion, the liberal establishment has attempted to demonstrate that the existing systems can be upgraded for technological literacy. The outcomes of these arguments are irrelevant. Both protagonists are wrong-headed and selfish in their approaches, with one selling a system narrowly based on economist worldviews, and the other defending an outdated system that should have collapsed long ago. As usual, the students are caught in the middle.

As an example of how neo-liberalism has affected global discussions on education, one can read the initiative sponsored by Sir John Daniel, assistant director general for education at UNESCO. This initiative is part of UNESCO’s “Education for All” programme. Daniel’s outlook is disturbing. If he were just another technocrat, another cog in the educational establishment, it would be easy to dismiss his views as typical of the system and of the thinking it produces and fosters. But his being in a position to influence decision-making in a well-funded global education-reform initiative is cause for some concern. On the surface, Daniel advocates an odd, supply-side economist outlook for education, in which teachers are like sweatshop-workers (toiling for low wages while their wares are sold globally) and students are the new consumers (buying curricula conceived and produced far away from their own locales and conditions). Although he is critical of what is known as the “McDonaldization of education”, Daniel still sees McDonald’s as a successful enterprise that has desirable implications for educational reform, with its global uniformity and distribution-system superficially colored by local cuisine. Daniel also sees the new initiative working along the lines of the “open source” movement in computer software-development, creating commodities for the global marketplace of ideas. But for this economist outlook to have any merit, Daniel has to be more critical and sophisticated, and more aware of the implications of his remarks, lest they be seen as another corporate-inspired attempt to take over public education. However, there are deeper problems than this with his thesis.

Setting aside for the moment the question of who will benefit from it, the economist outlook assumes that the basic operation of the institutionalized modernist system of education is fine as it is, that teachers teach, students study and administrators administer. That is part of the problem: nobody is questioning the system, the mind-numbing, life-deadening system of schooling that so many people are yearning to escape. In Daniel’s view, this system must continue to rule. But this system has several flaws that link it to strands of both liberal and neo-liberal thought in the West, making it even more irrelevant to the rest of the world. Those concerned about the detrimental effects of colonialist education may even see this as a neo-colonial reform effort. Daniel treads the line between neo-liberal thinking on education, which tends to apply economist, business-derived solutions to all problems, and the old-school emancipatory and technocratic liberals who run the educational systems in the West and its former colonies. It is an interesting hybrid, but the important thing is what is common to these seemingly opposed outlooks.

In his brief note “Higher Education for Sale” Sir Daniel advocates the “commoditization” of education, which in his view will make course-materials globally available in the same way that McDonalds makes fast food available everywhere. Daniel’s prospectus is typical of many liberal and neo-liberal educators, who blur the usual lines between an economist neo-liberal outlook and an emancipatory or technocratic liberal outlook, the former associated with business-planners and the latter with state educationists. Such distinctions no longer apply, and Daniel is a good demonstration of why that is the case. Daniel continues to advocate a supply-side system of schooling, in that decisions about course-materials are made by technocrats and bureaucrats, and then sold or otherwise supplied to consumers, who in this case are the teachers and students. The only thing missing from this description of a vulgar outlook (which is also emotionally empty and psychologically barren) is the money trail: Daniel is silent about the financial implications of this prospectus. Who pays for the free course-materials and who benefits from this free-market approach? Such questions must be answered. Seeing students as consumers is not new, and in many ways schooling in the liberal emancipatory or technocratic liberal model has always regarded students as passive recipients of one or another system or curriculum, but ‘business’ experts have almost completely transferred that outlook into a more economics-oriented framework.

The covert message is that consumers are passive, and educationists and technocrats are active. This demeans consumers and also ignores a new generation of social-science thinking that emphasizes the agency of consumers. But there is another, more subtle, problem with this plan. Daniel sees “courseware” (to use the corporate buzzword) as the medium of exchange, not human interactions and knowledge, and neither teacher nor student really has much of a role in this trade. Daniel’s is a severely reductionist outlook that squeezes virtually all the humanity out of learning, by separating off teachers and students and integrating them all into a technical and economist framework. The system itself is not questioned, only the means for administering it, and Daniels is offering a strictly managerial outlook on learning, typical of both the liberal and neo-liberal true believers. The political economy of Daniel’s plan is also weak. Using the framework of ‘commoditization’ suggests business and profit, in line with the corporate determination to take over public education for private profit. At the same time, his comparison with the open-source movement implies some sort of socialized access to courseware. So which is it, Sir John? Or so you really think we can have both? What Daniel is actually doing is leaving a gaping loophole in his liberal-sounding rhetoric for the neo-liberals to leap in and take over.

Part of the neo-liberal agenda is pinned on access to technology, and this is enthusiastically supported by the global technology corporations, which are eager to sell their wares to the “deprived” masses of the ‘Third World’, and who eagerly seek government contracts to support the further integration of computers into teaching. The economic implications of this plan will result in the further looting of public coffers in the ‘Third World’, siphoning off much-needed funds from local initiatives to subsidize the high-technology industries of America, Europe and Japan. This agenda assumes that without computers one cannot learn, and that those who have no computers are necessarily deprived of knowledge. A liberal-sounding concern for the poor is being used to support and strengthen a neo-liberal economic plan. But beside the economic implications of this plan, one can also ask more basic questions, such as what kind of learning took place before the computer age, and what kind of knowledge will be excluded from the digital networks that are supposed to emancipate the downtrodden.

Part of the problem with all this is that we have to accept the distinctions and definitions imposed by the neo-liberals, in particular that those without computers or disposable wealth to spend on gadgets are deprived, lacking meaning and opportunity in their lives. Several governments, some of which have been bribed or intimidated, are hurrying to integrate computers into teaching and learning without having fully understood (or even debated) the implications of their use. It is a plain fact that computers are only capable of storing and transmitting a very limited type of knowledge (the one that can be digitized), at the expense of virtually every other form of knowledge, insight and awareness. A computer is first and foremost a sorting mechanism; yet computers are increasingly becoming the criterion of what knowledge is and what it is not. Beyond that, once knowledge is digitized, it becomes another commodity on the global marketplace: something that the neo-liberal financial establishment has long being trying to achieve.

On the cultural implications, other severe problems arise from suggestions that courseware can be translated and customized for local use, in much the same way that McDonald’s sells its globally uniform diet by adding a few locally-oriented dishes to its menu (e.g. the “McArabia” sandwich now being marketed in the Arab world). This facile plan to integrate global knowledge norms locally through simple translation ignores the metaphorical basis of all language, that language “thinks” us as much as we use it to think. Sir Daniel, like others in the neo-liberal mode of thought, seems to see language as transparent and not carrying any meaning in itself, only appearing to transmit meaning, like a conduit. This ignores the differences between what a language denotes and what it connotes, and it is completely naïve and ignorant about developments in anthropology, linguistics and psychology during the past half-century, which have analysed how language constructs and influences meanings and their transmission, and is culture-bound. In the end, translation acts as a colonial tool to fool the colonized into thinking that they are just getting “pure knowledge” (whatever that is-” indeed if it is anything), when in reality they are getting a particular worldview embodied in the language and thought-system used to construct that supposedly universally-relevant knowledge in the first place.

If it were not for its emanating from UNESCO, which commands an enormous bureaucracy and gigantic financial base, the “Education For All” prospectus could simply be ignored. But perhaps we should just let the neo-liberals and liberals fight it out, the main spoils of battle being the decrepit systems that many people are trying to escape anyway. In addition, if parents and students are still committed to the pious fraud that schools will get them “good jobs”, then criticism of this initiative is obviously not going to help much. Perhaps concerned communities and peoples should instead try to escape the system with their sanity and values still intact, while the elitist liberals and neo-liberals quarrel in the corner, disregarded by the rest of us. And, if this escape becomes a mass exodus, then they will have only each other in the end, as the rest of humanity continues to find more meaningful ways to understand ourselves and better learn about the world in which we all live.


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