Is there hope in fighting the neoliberal agenda for education? Is there a chance of pushing back against a one-dimensional, market driven approach to everything, one that most certainly includes education?
An answer lies in Paul Carr and Brad Porfilio’s, The Obama Education Files: Is There Hope to Stop the Neoliberal Agenda in Education? This article has been around since 2011. I just stumbled on to it, and it goes a long way in helping to understand some of the underlying forces that are working to dismantle public education- and the bigger picture of how these forces are working to dismantle anything labelled “public.”
The article rests on the assumption that, “The political economy of democracy must, we argue, foreshadow any serious discussion of the role of education in contemporary times.”
And what is the current state of this “political economy”? The authors refer to this as an “econ-ocracy,” a word which another scholar defines as “…a society where economic efficiency take precedence over all other policy decisions…” A very fitting definition.
So the context for political decision making occurs within a neoliberal econocracy, which means that the primary value that determines anything is economic efficiency.
“According to Hursh (2011) neoliberal ideology is grounded in the belief that economic prosperity and improvements for segments of the social world, such as health care, education, and the environment, emanate from ‘unregulated or free markets, the withering away of the state as government’s role in regulating businesses and funding social services are either eliminated or privatized, and encouraging individuals to become self-interested entrepreneurs.'”
Now, you may be wondering, where does this place concerns about democracy? Poverty? Income inequality? Educational inequity? Questions of race?
Not only does neoliberalism not consider other values, it erases them.
Consider the context that Obama is operating within:
“Since Obama has been in office, Wall Street bankers have had free reign over the economy (Taibbi, 2010). Obama’s continued support of Wall Street has not only allowed many investors to ‘thrive right now’ (Harvey, 2010), but, importantly, has put the banks and their leaders in better financial position than before the financial collapse of 2008. Unfortunately, catering to the financial elites has done little to eliminate poverty, homelessness, provide jobs, rebuild the infrastructure, of develop ‘sustainable energy technologies’ (Hursh 2010). The situation is even bleaker when one considers that African-Americans and economically-marginalized groups, who were considered to form a part of his base, are most affected by the lack of attention paid to them in favor of bankers and stockholders. The argument goes that Obama cannot speak out on behalf of those groups most affected because they would deflate his support from the wealthiest people, which elucidates the conundrum we’re facing: if he does what he said he would do, he will have only one term as President, and, if he does what the elites want, he will lose support, credibility and ‘hope’ for ‘change’.”
The market wins at the expense of democracy.
In other words, we all lose to the current hegemony of the free market. And in this context, democracy, the environment, issues that affect those in poverty and of color and all others without status or power, are non-existent.
As a simple example quite close to my home: Since Carr and Porfilio wrote their article, Detroit has been taken over by an Emergency Financial Manager and then guided into bankruptcy.
Think about that.
Very simply put, the value of economic efficiency has taken precedence over the messiness of democracy. The citizens of Detroit have had their vote trumped by a neoliberal, right-wing governor who has come to save the day. Never mind the history behind the bankruptcy, a history which includes white flight, corporate abandonment and a state that has failed to rightfully support the city. (Note that in this Detroit, even public pensions have been privatized.) These things aren’t relevant in a econocracy. (For more on the history of Detroit that led to the bankruptcy, see Thomas Sugrue’s important work, The Origins of the Urban Crises: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.)
I know all of the arguments for the EFM and bankruptcy- “…it had to happen…”
This is exactly the logic of neoliberalism.
And the same logic is dismantling our public schools.
In referencing the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, Carr and Porfilio rightly call it “…a $4.35 billion dollar ‘competitive incentive program’ that is designed, we contend, to further gut public schooling in the US, structure schools on market ideologies and practices, and provide the corporate elite an additional avenue to profit off of children.”
Yes, as I’ve written previously, under the corporate, market driven approach, “Students become objectified as workers for the purpose of increasing profit at the expense of the welfare of these children. Tax dollars, ostensibly spent for the public good, become corporate profit at the expense of our children.“
Under the logic of neoliberalism, where the free market trumps all, it is natural that our children become a capital investment.
Carr and Porfilio do point to some hope. They argue that the educational alternative to decimation of these spaces of democracy is:
“Education predicated on the ideals of love, democracy, and justice, as well as what Freire (1973) called conscientization, and geared to fostering students’ understanding of the larger forces responsible for injustice in schools and society, has the potential to stop students from dropping out of schools, and being alienated from the formal educational process, unlike any of the Obama administration’s aforementioned policies to improve the US educational system.”
I agree. (And Carr and Porfilio’s book, The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education, for which this article serves as an introduction, goes a long way to addressing this.)
But maybe even more importantly, because we hope for an education that promotes democracy, and because we are all swimming within the deep waters of neoliberalism, we first of all need to recognize ALL of the spaces in which democracy is becoming constrained or disappearing as a result of these forces.
Neoliberalism is a freight train that is leaving all other values behind.
And in this case, behind means not at all.