Neoliberalism And Its Impact On Modern Education: A Critical Analysis

The role of education in shaping modern man

“They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience”

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That was the point put forward by the 16th century litterateur Francis Bacon about studies in his famous essay Of Studies. However almost 500 years later, in the 21st century, the medium and purpose of studies has come to acquire a different connotation. In the modern age, the word study has come to be associated with ‘education’ that is imparted especially through institutions. These purpose and action of these educational institutions, more often than not, borders around capitalistic intentions or mean mercenary motives that are being followed as well as subtly preached to the students. These students, through their studies, are being channelized towards acquiring the “perfect nature” of modern man which has its roots in the capitalistic stereotypes established by the society. This attitude has its roots in the rise to fame of neoliberalism and bourgeois culture in a ‘laissez faire’ or free society after the French Revolution.

Although neoliberalism had started with a noble intent of empowering the common man by making private economic policies free from a total control of the government, however, in the 21st century, the same phenomena has a significant role to play in the degradation of the society. In the present context, neoliberalism brings down the value of every object to the price of the object, where even a human being is valued in terms of the person’s wealth. In the modern age, neo-liberalistic evaluation or criticism of everything is largely based on its market value. Neo-liberalism affects the society from its very core by probing into the education system and shaping the minds of the students in such a manner that they grow up to become so-called ideal citizens who conform to the stereotypes of the society. The content or the texts taught at schools and colleges are prepared in a similar fashion.

In his famous work ‘Discipline and Punishment’, Michel Foucault talks about the theory of ‘gaze’ which is built upon a set of power relations and related disciplinary mechanisms. On a global level, the stereotypes are being formed from the perspective of the western European gaze. The prime examples of this are the portrayals of Africans as uncivilized and barbaric, or the east as a mystical region. On a closer look, it can be seen that hypocrisy exists in hideous and nuanced, sugar-coated formats at different levels of the portrayal of society in textbooks and history books. Even the cultural ethos of every society is so much enmeshed with such perceptions that by the time a person reaches college, his/her perceptions are already formatted accordingly, and furthered by college education whereafter, they are expected to make use of this education to earn money, get married and lead life lavishly. Such are the yardsticks of success in the modern society. For example, one most common perception in every society is the idea of a poor family as unhappy, suffering people, devoid of any power or talent (The Danger Of A Single Story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Thus, books have a huge impact on the minds of a person, and at the same time, they risk the dangers of forming biased opinions where a different side of the story may be left out.

Effects of neoliberalism on the education system

The education system craftily makes use of this medium and, by presentation of tropes and biased ideologies, shuns the depiction of financially rich men as happy and successful, and the poor as eternally damned, shuns their creative genius and drives them towards becoming money-minded citizens. The increasing rate of market-oriented literacy is preventing creativity in the minds of the modern youth to have a free play in today’s world (YouTube, 2018). Money is portrayed as the only means of happiness.

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The logos of educational institutions are often accompanied by a motto represented by short aphoristic statements like ‘Strive to Succeed’ or ‘Courage to Know’. They look to represent high values associated with rational and independent thinking, leading to confidence and thereby, courage to implement the thoughts into action. The primary objective of college education is to enhance the critical and analytical powers of a person with respect to a particular discipline. In this process students are taught to work in groups so that they can fit into their respective professional world. Their personal, intellectual and social development, along with social and communicational skills are all built with the aim of preparing them for white-collar jobs. Thus, colleges ultimately end up preparing highly skilled and effective automatons who can do good business, and thinking and learning of other values which make them human. This is largely the current state of higher educations, where values like leadership integrity and service providing capabilities are directly aimed at making producers in a neoliberal market (Deresiewicz et al.). Their creativity is also directed towards this objective. Thus, in the modern age, only the commercial purpose of education takes the forefront, relegating the essentially cognitive and moral values to the background. The cognitive and moral values are measured in terms of professional skills.

Apparently, liberal arts appear to suffer the most. However, on a larger scale, the entire purpose of learning undergoes marked changes, where knowledge for the sake of knowledge is hampered the most. Even the STEM subjects, which is largely focused upon in modern education, are approached from a professional stance and not for the sake of enhancing the knowledge in those subjects to create something unique (Deresiewicz et al.).

Since a line from Francis Bacon’s essay has been used at the very beginning, it must be mentioned that Bacon focused hugely focused on the utilitarian aspect of studies, at the same time, providing suggestions for balancing it with humanitarian values. Just as the modern college education disregards those values, at the same time, history shows that the complete opposite in the form of idealizing led to the bohemian lifestyle of the hippies in 1960s and 70s America. Bacon’s essay offers perfect suggestions of approaching education in the modern world so as to strike the middle chord, where neoliberal values are equipoised at maintaining the dignity of knowledge and education, at the same time, making adequate use of them. The given lines indicates that studies shape the character of an individual, at the same time preparing them for professional world. Studies “are perfected by experience” suggest that one should not close the doors of perception upon any new knowledge, as the assimilation of knowledge from such experiences would add on to the knowledge they have already acquired through previous studies (Bacon, 2018).

The importance of striking a balance between the utilitarian and humanitarian aspects of education

Another text that had been referred to earlier was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment, with special emphasis on the Gaze Theory (Dreyfus and Rabinow). In this theory, he focuses on observation based on power relations between two parties between in a hospital, prison or school where similar apparatus of power is at work. Foucault’s theory questions the legitimacy of the set norms and seeks to disrupt them due to an inherent fallacy on those power structures. In this, it deviates from Bacon’s proposition which focuses more on assimilation. However, it is also true that Foucault’s formulation of his theory was a result of much study and practical experience which added on to his previous studies. Thus Bacon’s views on the procedures and the purpose of study holds true in case of Foucault. Thus, the neoliberal claim of education for a purpose holds true for both. At the same time, the ideas put forward by both of them are largely based on humanitarian grounds. They present perfect examples of how to make perfect use of education not at the cost of the knowledge quotient.

Another point that must be remembered is that earlier liberal education was limited only to the elite class. The sole objective of the provision of education for all was the betterment of lifestyle of the labour class by availability of adequate employment facilities for them so that the can rise up the economic ladder (Deresiewicz et al.). This may justify the stance of the modern college education to some extent. However, on a broader scale, competitive and market oriented education and lifestyle prevents reflective thinking, which is a gateway to a newer and better world.

Therefore, it may be concluded by saying that expensive college education is the buying of a particular skill-set and relevant job by spending a great amount of money. The interest of the candidate is, in many cases, irrelevant in this regard. Thus, modern youths are being turned into technocrats who would conform to fast-paced market of a stagnant social system. The advancement of society rest on the shoulders of the youth in every generation. However, the advancement of technology has a lot of negative societal impacts. If the youth are to be kept hooded and not allowed to think freely out of the box (not just in terms of professional goals), it would delay the possibility of a social development. Thus neoliberalism disregards the possibility of such changes, and holds that the current state of free-market capitalism, with constant bombardment of market-oriented images, marks the last stage of human history. In this situation, it is of utmost importance to treat higher education with much care and not as a commodity with market intentions. High intellectual and moral value must be attached to college education. The recent trends of various student activist movements and political engagement of youth acts as a ray of hope in this dark age of neo-liberalistic educational stagnancy. It is ironic how this very project, which intends to criticize conformity to the modern educational standards, has to conform to the same for a similar purpose of higher grades and subsequently a better future, in terms of economy.  

Reference List

“The Danger Of A Single Story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”. Youtube, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg. Accessed 14 Aug 2018.

Bacon, F. (2018). Of Studies. [online] Psy.gla.ac.uk. Available at: https://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/best/BaconJohnson.pdf [Accessed 14 Aug. 2018].

Deresiewicz, William et al. “[Essay] | The Neoliberal Arts, By William Deresiewicz | Harper’s Magazine – Part 8”. Harper’s Magazine, 2018, https://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/the-neoliberal-arts/8/. Accessed 14 Aug 2018.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Routledge, 2014.

YouTube. (2018). Hackschooling makes me happy | Logan LaPlante | TEDxUniversityofNevada. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY [Accessed 14 Aug. 2018].