Project Defy

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Two

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Two

How did the broad idea of education get reduced to a tool – as argued in the first part of this blog series – to ‘produce’ consumer-citizens that keep the market economy going, and what exactly does this look like? The second part of the blog illustrates this by looking in more detail into the now widely promoted and pushed ‘human capital’ approach to education.

The World Bank provides one of the most evident, but by far not the only, examples of the global agenda of Development actors to establish Education programmes as serving almost exclusively the (consumption) needs of the global market. Accordingly, the World Bank’s Education Strategy 2020, adopted in 2011 as one of the most recent and influential education policy-shaping tools, reflects the Bank’s “obsessive attachment to human capital theory” (Fine and Rose, 2003, p156), which “stresses education as a cause of economic growth and increased income” (Spring, 2018, p305):

Investments in quality education lead to more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development. Educated individuals are more employable, able to earn higher wages, cope better with economic shocks, and produce healthier children. (…) Learning for All means ensuring that all children and youth – not just the most privileged or the smartest – not only can go to school but also acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment” (World Bank, 2011, foreword). 

This obsession with human capital finds its continuation in the current World Bank’s ‘Human Capital Project’ (HCP), which ultimately “should deliver progress toward a world in which all children (…) are able to enter the job market as healthy, skilled, and productive adults” (World Bank, 2018). Dr. Nandini Chatterjee of Delhi-based UNESCO MGIEP further describes the World Bank’s human capital approach as follows: “You acquire skills so that you can enhance the abilities of the human being in improving or contributing to financial capital. So technology, technical skills, which will allow you to make more money, catering to whatever the different requirements of the world are, is what has been the focus” (2017, own interview; emphasis added). 

This shows that the human capital approach to education has a very particular idea of what makes a meaningful life, rooted firmly within the consumerist model of market society: “Human capital education promises students higher incomes that can be used to purchase more and more products” (Spring, 2018, p305). Schooling aims to transform independent, capable human beings into incapable, (market-)dependent consumers who keep the consumerist market economy going while, at the same time, reinforcing a consumerist way of life that is destroying nature and life on earth. 

Put succinctly, a meaningful life is reduced to and equated with being able to perpetually consume goods and products. Today, people are more and more deprived of their skills to produce things on their own on one side, while on the other side they are more and more pressured and exploited in the workplace, assigned to complete meaningless, repetitive and often useless tasks. This is what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’:

Bullshit jobs are ones where the person doing them secretly believes that if the job (or even sometimes the entire industry) were to disappear, it would make no difference — or perhaps, as in the case of say telemarketers, lobbyists, or many corporate law firms, the world would be a better place. And that’s not all: think of all the people doing real work in support of bullshit jobs, cleaning their office buildings, doing security or pest control for them, looking after the psychological and social damage done to human beings by people all working too hard on nothing. I’m sure we could easily eliminate half the work we’re doing and that would have major positive effects on everything from art and culture to climate change (Graeber, 2018).

In a world full of bullshit jobs, it is therefore the task of the media-education-advertising complex to establish consumerism as a way of life which “captures the fantasy world of people with brand names and fashions that promise personal transformation, the vicarious thrill of imagining the glamorous lives of media celebrities, and the promise of escape from hard work through packaged travel and cruises to an envisioned paradise” (Spring, 2018, p306). 

Ultimately, at the centre of schooling stands the belief that there is only one, the modern, individualist, consumerist, capitalist, way of life that is worthwhile and meaningful – just have a look at any school textbook, no matter in which country you are, and see which jobs and ways of life they feature and portray as desirable.  This belief is of course what keeps the neoliberal-capitalist economy and, overall, the hierarchical order of ‘democratic’ market society, running. Accordingly, “we live in a culture that is based on the illusion – and schooling is central to the creation and perpetuation of this illusion – that happiness lies outside of us, and specifically in the hands of those who have power [i.e., money]” (Jensen, 2004, p6). 

In turn, all other ways of life that diverge from the consumerist ideology are portrayed as an aberration, a deficiency that needs to be corrected and obliterated. This is why in today’s common-sense logic of schooling, farmers, peasants, indigenous people, forest dwellers, and anyone and everyone else pursuing other ways of life outside market society, usually the ones which are closer connected to nature and based on living in harmony with rather than exploiting nature, are seen as ‘uneducated’ and in need of education to finally be able to live their lives in meaningful ways as consumer-citizens. 

In the third part of the blog series, we will look more closely into how modern education marginalises these alternative ways of life and what the consequences of this are.

Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl

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