Considering some Common Assumptions concerning U.S. Education

            I was privileged this week to serve on one of my university’s Fulbright selection interview committees. This prestigious and extremely competitive national program affords interested individuals opportunities to live and conduct research abroad for a year. Accordingly, it attracts some of our institution’s most accomplished students. This competition, judging from my interview experience, was no exception. One candidate with whom my group spoke had designed her potential program to address comparative education policy. Her research into the education systems of other countries, especially in Scandinavia, set me musing on how powerfully during recent decades neoliberal thinking has shaped, and continues to influence, our policy dialogue concerning education at all levels. I want here to reflect on several assumptions that now often underpin policy discussions for many of our political leaders that originate in neoliberal arguments. All of these in varying ways seek to commodify K-12 and higher education, and to imagine that the principal and overriding purpose these serve is economic in character.

            Most analysts and nearly all international rankings of educational systems consider Finland’s schools to be among the finest in the world according to a wide variety of measures, and that country’s teachers undergo extensive education and acculturation to their roles. Finnish class leaders also routinely see their ultimate goal not as preparing their students for current jobs, a position strongly pressed by many neoliberal advocates in this country who value education principally or solely for its economic purport, but as “preparing them for humanity.” In sharp contrast, many participants in our education policy dialogue now dismiss whole areas of inquiry and curriculum as fluff because they do not see the immediate relevance of those fields to the existing job market. The sort of claim for education offered routinely by Finish educators certainly can be found in the academy in the United States, but it is widely ignored or attacked by people otherwise pressing for increasing commodification of education at all levels. The assumption on which these advocates rely is ultimately very simple: the only evaluative criteria that matter are economic and utilitarian and therefore, the curricula that merit public support are those that prepare students directly and obviously for known employment roles.

            Indeed, in this view, at bottom, education, especially higher education, plays no role larger than producing individuals capable of competing for current job opportunities. The risks imposed by this belief are potentially very high as it emphasizes training in lieu of building analytical capabilities that might challenge and reimagine existing modes of production and social and market organization. Paul Hanstedt, Professor of English at Roanoke College in Virginia, captured this point succinctly in a recent commentary for WVTF Public Radio (August 29, 2014, http://wvtf.org/term/open-mic):

Years ago, I was at a workshop when someone said, “Well, obviously we don’t want our students to be line workers: We want them to be line managers.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but what I thought was, ‘No: I want my students to walk into the room, look at the line workers and the line managers and say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ And I want them to have the courage to act.’

            One key danger involved in making existing markets the arbiter of all education is that the nation will equip its individuals inadequately to think independently, to innovate and to advance the economy, even if that is one’s sole evaluative yardstick. To put the matter in historical perspective, this assumption concerning the purpose and value of education consigns educational institutions to preparing individuals to produce buggy whips even as automobiles are emerging as a possibility. And yet, the argument persists and variants of it are advanced each day by significant national figures and many state and local officials.

            More broadly, and apart from the notion that all that is imparted through education are job specific skills, many of today’s arguments concerning higher education particularly suffer from an overriding utilitarian claim that the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “reflection theory” of learning. Advocates of this view argue that the content of college courses ought to reflect the existing composition and attitudes of society. To the extent this is so, however, higher education becomes not a crucible where individuals learn to learn and to explore and challenge existing understandings, views and frames, but instead a place where students are exposed to and indoctrinated in what already is believed and known and considered acceptable. This approach runs the very real risk of stifling innovative thinking, and virtually ensuring the social, cultural and economic stagnation of the society that adopts it. It narrows the aim of higher education to equipping students with knowledge of what is, rather than providing them the capacities and encouragement to look beyond those conditions and structures to discern what might be.

            Many advocates of the neoliberal view of higher education have also recently adopted the argument that massive open online courses, called MOOCs, can substitute for a variety of college offerings that today exist in many domains. Those pressing for widespread adoption of this form of course delivery contend that it is far more efficient to have one “star” professor offer a MOOC in a topical area than to have many individuals do so on behalf of their respective institutions. The assumption seems to be that all who offer a course, whether in literature or politics or other disciplines, will teach it in virtually identical ways and that the selected “special” professor will teach it online better than those individuals could, irrespective of how and how well they presently offer their own courses. While I do not doubt there can be a role for such courses in higher education, there is no evidence that such curricular centralization and uniformity would lead to improved learning outcomes, nor that this approach would ensure superior treatment of whatever topics are being considered. Indeed, it is not even clear it is more efficient to offer courses in this fashion when one considers learning outcomes. Rather, the popularity of the approach with some administrators seems to inhere in the fact it appears to require fewer faculty members.

            What all of the “reform” arguments considered thus far share is a desire to view education solely in economic terms and to limit the student experience to learning efficiently what is perceived to be of immediate use in the marketplace. But in many ways much the most important dimension of education that happens to individuals in college does not happen only in the classroom. The university experience allows students to meet and interact with a wide array of individuals and the epistemic and values claims they represent while also coming to understand far more deeply in that process what they believe and why. And this they do as they grapple too with the ideas they are asked to address in their courses. Moreover, college often offers a student an opportunity to be on one’s own for the first time and to make decisions on a daily basis arising from that reality. Higher education also allows students to experience pluralism of beliefs and views and population for perhaps the first time in their lives. In short, the college years afford vital opportunities to mature and to acquire the capacities to function in society as political, social and economic actors.

            The current penchant to reduce education to online courses alone and to test taking, and to dismiss any curricula not immediately perceived to be directly tied to a current employment opportunity, is predicated on far too narrow an understanding of the capacities education may encourage in those who experience it. Those who understand these roles for education must continue to challenge this version of utilitarianism and to press for a much more robust vision of educational possibility at all scales. Our nation’s collective failure to do so, and to demand excellence in those efforts, risks far more than a slowdown in economic growth. It presages the continued decline of our educational system—already evident in international student achievement rankings—and the corrosion of the vital fabric on which political capacity, social possibility and community and economic development rest. Current arguments aimed at commodifying and trivializing the role of education must be met vigorously to prevent wholesale realization of that possibility.