Photo: bensonk42, Creative Commons
In the brave new world of neoliberalism, everyone is encouraged – ‘empowered’ – to choose freely what to buy, do, eat, what health care to have, what schools to attend, what to invest in, so their opportunities are maximized. If they’re smart, savvy and ‘hard-working people’, they’ll be able to navigate successfully through this world of opportunities. Society, which as Margaret Thatcher told us does not exist, apparently has no structures, no deep, enduring inequalities, no extraordinary imbalances of power, no privileges or discrimination, no inheritance of huge advantages and disadvantages, no free-riding by the rich. There’s just a mass of individuals-from-nowhere encountering each other on a level-playing field of competition and markets. Winners and losers emerge, of course, but their success or failure is deserved so it’s a meritocracy. We need risk-takers, special enterprising people who have the ability to make things happen, apparently.
We’re supposed to be ‘entrepreneurial selves’, constantly doing improving things in order to sell ourselves to others in the market of life, enlarging and ‘leveraging’ our ‘skillsets’ (sounds more impressive than skills, eh?), updating our cv’s, networking, using social media to promote ourselves, in competition with everyone else, so we can get ahead. Don’t think of the losers this inevitably creates, you wouldn’t want to be seen with them anyway; stay focused and positive. This is the route to success – and of course, to wealth and well-being.
I don’t remember becoming aware of the concept of the curriculum vitae – or resumé as Americans call it – until I was in my early 20s. Now I’ve heard that even primary school kids are introduced to it. Neoliberalism has colonised schools and universities, and continues to extend its influence into the minutiae of life within them.
You might expect that it would encourage pupils and students to become independent thinkers and actors, inquisitive and adventurous, well on the way to becoming skilled and self-reliant – entrepreneurs of their own lives. But ask anyone involved in education and you’ll find out that it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead of encouraging independent thought, the neoliberal education system is increasingly ‘teaching-to-the-test’, producing students who don’t want to take the risk of thinking independently and who just want to know the answers that will get them the grades.
It would be short-sighted and unfair to blame the students, though. Why? 2 reasons:
- With the burial of the post-war ideal of full employment – which was largely achieved for 30 years – young people face a very real threat of failure and unemployment – and of course, huge debts too. Now, taking risks in your assessments by learning and thinking independently is hardly an attractive option when grades matter so much for getting into university and for getting a job. ‘What should I have written to get a top mark?’ ask some students when they get their work back. If tutors say go and read, question, explore and think, it sounds like they’re cheating them, moving the goalposts.
- League-tables and audits: UK education is under the cosh of competition through league tables. Grades become the holy grail. In the stunningly unimaginative and mechanistic model of education in which all learning has to have pre-set, unambiguous objectives and ‘measurable outcomes’, grades are the primary measure of both students, tutors, schools, colleges and universities, while the content and the pleasure of exploring and learning are secondary. No wonder there is grade inflation. No wonder some teachers are tempted to drop heavy hints to their students about the ‘correct’ answers.
Worry about the future plus the reduction of education to a qualifications factory adds up to anxious, cautious students who understandably want their upper second class degree to ensure that they’re at least not disadvantaged in the labour market. And given chronic job shortages, employers faced with narrowing down hundreds of applicants per vacancy to a few find grades and league table rankings an easy way of doing this.
So where’s the space for creativity, adventure, experimentation, risk taking? And you do need time and space – so you can get absorbed, experiment and indeed play. A bit of daydreaming, wondering and walking can also help, especially if they follow some focused work – it’s surprising how often it’s then that you get the answers you were looking for. It’s all to do with allowing the right hemisphere brain to take over for a bit. And you need security too, so you’re not afraid of making mistakes, for the road to originality is paved with them. Comedian John Cleese and educationalist-cum-comedian Ken Robinson have made entertaining videos about these very things.
Our neoliberal culture is inimical to all of these, with its constant pressure to multi-task, scattering our minds with stimuli that turn out to be unsatisfying, and achieve (maximize your ‘deliverables’!), and with its chronic impatience – the shareholders want their money and they want it now. A few iconic firms like Apple may promote an image of creativity and even the pursuit of beauty, but don’t be fooled, the bottom line is the bottom line, and Apple pursues it ruthlessly.
The main thing neoliberal education provides for the economy is not independent, entrepreneurial students, but indebted individuals – a source of unearned income for whoever owns the debt – trained to comply with whatever is demanded of them.
 Actually, some of the founders of neoliberalism knew this was nonsense. Frederik von Hayek, Thatcher’s guru, said outcomes in markets owe a great deal to luck, though he wondered if children should be told this, in case it discouraged them from making an effort. Hayek, F.A. (1976) ‘‘Social’ or distributive justice’ in his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 2, p.74. Similarly: ‘the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything we call moral merit or deserts.’ Hayek, F.A. (1960) The Constitution of Liberty, p. 94. Neoliberal politicians prefer not to know this because they realise it wouldn’t play well with the electorate, or indeed with the rich who fund their parties.
 This is a term inspired by the work of Michel Foucault on neoliberalism and care of the self. See his Birth of Biopolitics lectures.