School & District Management Opinion

Neoliberalism and the New Politics of Education

By Dave Powell — June 28, 2016 6 min read
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Like a lot of people who like to know what’s going on in the world I spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks trying to understand what was going on in the UK, where finally, on Thursday, the British voted to leave the European Union (the term, if you haven’t been following along, is “Brexit”). I’m no expert on British politics, but I have to say the vote left me feeling uneasy.

The sense of vertigo was amplified on social media, where I noticed that the politics were more confused than normal. There, folks who usually fill my Twitter feed with rants about neoliberal, corporate education reform and its negative impact on schools were denouncing Brexit as a new step toward fascism—apparently unaware that the argument for staying in was framed almost entirely in neoliberal economic terms. Indeed, it seems that the glue holding the EU together was and is economic; it’s certainly not political, in the sense that the European parliament has the power to dictate what happens within national borders (it doesn’t), nor is it cultural, as Europe contains multitudes. What makes the EU work, to the extent that it works at all, is that it functions as a great big open market that facilitates the movement of people and goods across cultural and national borders that have existed for centuries.

That may ultimately also prove to be its undoing, as continued movement of people raises the specters of terrorism and unbridled immigration in the minds of some voters, but the positive upshot of the EU has been a prolonged period political stability and peace on the European continent. People on the progressive end of the political spectrum here in the US seem to have intuited that the movement the EU fosters is good because it gives people the freedom to live where they want to live and (for the most part) do what they want to do, just like movement among states here in the US does. So they came down against the Brexit.

What explains the apparently schizophrenic reaction then? I think it might have something to do with the strange and complicated shape of the politics of education here in the US. Let me explain. Let’s start with the traditional poles: liberal and conservative. The liberal approach to education centers on providing students with equality of opportunity; the goal of a liberal education policy, then, would be to provide relatively equal resources and then let the students who work hardest rise to the top of the social hierarchy through merit and hard work. Character traits like determination, skill, and work ethic (“grit,” anyone?) are highly valued by liberals, who see education as a vehicle for personal and social development.

In contrast, conservatives tend to see education as some of the glue that holds society together. Cultural conservatives value a traditional curriculum that transmits certain values to students; their goal would be to use education for the transmission of traditional ideas and as a form of social control. With me so far?

There are also modifiers: these days we have neoconservatives and neoliberals on the spectrum as well. Neoconservative views are associated with the desire to spread traditional American values to other countries through an interventionist foreign policy, while neoliberal views are associated with the spread of those values via economic means. You don’t hear much about neoconservative education policy because, well, we don’t use our schools to evangelize about American values in the rest of the world. You do hear a lot about neoliberalism in education circles, though, especially if you study the politics of education. That’s because neoliberal education policies are easy to spot—they’re associated with globalization and school choice and other things that progressive educators tend to be wary of. The idea is to use “free markets” to create greater educational opportunities for everyone.

That brings us back to the Brexit vote. The vote in the UK seems to have broken largely on generational and educational lines, and it can be seen as essentially a referendum on neoliberal economics and politics. Well educated voters and younger voters expressed a strong preference for the movement of people and goods that the EU made possible; older voters and less well educated voters, many of whom probably tend to be conservative for different reasons (the former because they may want to hold on to traditional values, the latter because they tend to have lower paying working class jobs that may have been affected by open markets) expressed a preference for leaving those markets behind. In short, the people who benefited from the open market created by the EU voted to stay tethered to it; the people who didn’t feel they benefited voted to leave.

And this is where education comes into the picture. The neoliberal project has been deeply entwined with education policy for some time because it has to be: the central premise of neoliberalism is that markets should be open, that people should be free to go where they want to go, buy what they want to buy, and do what they want to do. Part of the reason neoliberals care so much about education is because employers want assurances, when people cross old boundaries, that they’ll be able to assimilate into the cultures and economies they enter. Neoliberalism promises to erase boundaries to create one big open marketplace.

But something is lost if boundaries are erased and traditions are ignored. If the price of creating one big market is that everyone has to be taught the same thing in the same way, I’m certainly not on board—and this explains why a lot of other people distrust neoliberalism too. Distrust of neoliberalism also explains a lot of the animus directed at Common Core, misdirected though I think it may be (Common Core does not, in fact, require everyone to learn the same thing in the same way) and at standardized testing (which animus has, in my view, not been misdirected at all). A major misstep made by proponents of standards has been their failure to clarify that standards are designed to facilitate the movement of people, ideas, and goods, not impose the cultural values of the elite on everyone else. Well crafted standards protect teachers and students by establishing clear and consistent goals for teachers to teach to. That’s why they’re on my agenda. They also protect teachers and students who may move from one place to another by ensuring that guidelines and expectations follow them when they do. That’s one reason standards are on the neoliberal agenda.

The question is: can we find a way to facilitate movement while also protecting cultural traditions—and do that in a way that doesn’t exclude others for superficial or suspicious reasons? If so, we might have a way forward. The neoliberal agenda is a frustrating one for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is that neoliberals have used the language of freedom to justify widening inequality, corruption, and greed. And yet the core idea that our world is a better place when cultures coexist peacefully and people are free to explore the world at will is a compelling one. In education policy, neoliberalism has fallen short by rushing to create new “markets” via deregulation and school choice without paying enough attention to the collateral damage these new choices cause in the communities where they are introduced. What are we going to do about that?

And what would an education policy built on the idea that the idea that people, ideas, and goods should be able to move freely—with the caveat that equality matters and that no one should be exploited to satisfy the greed of others—actually look like? This, I think, is one question that is going to define the politics of education in the uncertain decades to come. It’s a weighty one to consider on summer vacation, I admit, but worth thinking about if we want to be proactive about improving education instead of simply reacting to the things going on around us. What else were you going to do with your summer anyway?

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