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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 16, April 15, 2023

What’s wrong in a neoliberal philosophy of education? | Arup Maharatna

Saturday 15 April 2023


by Arup Maharatna *


The popular notion of democracy, as we know and see it, construes inter alias that the entire adult population are impeccably equal in their right or entitlement to electing/selecting the government. But it should not be forgotten that this perfect equality of electoral right does not stem from a notion that all people are potentially equal in terms of intrinsic intellectual capabilities, talents, imaginativeness, and innate affinities. It is bountifully evident and plain that the number of those who are genetically or otherwise more endowed with superior intellect and affinities, imagination, curiosity, and creative impulses are perennially of a smaller size in comparison with those who possess ordinary levels of these mental capacities and resources. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the former group of intellectually better endowed population is conspicuous not just by virtue of their relative scantiness per se, but more because they only can offer to society a kind of an esoteric knowledge and ideas which are precious as the fountain for a continuous societal transcendence in all spheres. Thus, this tiny group of people is extremely precious even though they are perfectly equal with all others in terms of their electoral right to vote under a democracy. As this tiny precious group requires, for its survival and utmost functioning, societal adulation, recognition, support and perhaps even pamper, a democracy has to be seen as a regime where perfect equality of political right/freedom harmoniously coexists with an inequality of societal esteem and importance (not wealth or power) derived from an innately skewed distribution of talent, intellect and creativity.

Since the ancient times, philosophers, social thinkers, scholars, scientists, writers, mathematicians, musicians, painters and the like have been wittingly accorded both by the King and the people an exclusive esteem, recognition, or a social standing which is intrinsically distinct from somewhat customary/statutory/routinised adoration and salutation to the wealthy and powerful. This has been so not only because intellectual capacities and powers are the key to the former class of occupations/pursuits, but they are all far more important for societal progressive transformation than they are for its mundane day-to-day functioning, administration and management. As Thorstein Veblen, the famous American economist and sociologist of the early twentieth century remarked, it is on this continuous intellectual flourishing and achievements in diverse domains of human society that ‘modern civilized mankind most ingenuously plumes and rests its hopes’. The societal recognition and admiration — irrespective of colour, creed and race - for such intellectual and creative aspirations and outcomes are its best and most cherished reward — not wealth, affluence or power — in keeping them working hard and thinking deeply beyond their immediate self-interests and personal gains.

After WWII this long-standing legacy or social order began receiving a jolt with the raging of the Cold War wherein the western capitalist bloc set upon itself a comprehensive campaign for capitalism and market fundamentalism vigorously posited as a superior ideology and socio-economic system/organisation vis-à-vis socialism. As no political system in human history has been more friendly and compatible with capitalism and market sovereignty than democracy, the preaching of capitalism and rule of market subsumed, by default, the agenda of championing a democratic regime. With a central preoccupation and steady ascendance of market capitalism since WWII along with Cold War, it was the discipline of mainstream economics, which deals essentially with a free capitalist market and its myriad underpinnings, that was soon accorded a paramount importance, responsibility, and power by the capitalist bloc in fighting the ideological battle. For example, in a somewhat historic move in the 1960s the academic discipline of economics (amongst many other major social sciences) came to be seen as a particularly deserving candidate for the award of Nobel prize!

A new theorization or interpretation in economics - purportedly pertaining to a deeper understanding of the functioning and efficacy of capitalist market economy vis-à-vis socialist system — thus came to be regarded as sacrosanct, scientific and crucial for entire humanity as the new discoveries in such stellar disciplines as physics, chemistry, or medicines. Indeed, within a couple of decades following WWII, the discipline of economics which was virtually tasked to propagate the beauty and breadth of free capitalist market was offered ceremoniously and concertedly the very steering for humanity’s journey ahead. Economic growth — based, as it were, only on market mechanism - thus came to occupy the centre-stage of national concerns and aspirations, thereby undermining whatever was esoteric, humane or humanistic, artistic, or universal. And a large (and increasing) section mainstream economics profession with its hidden (and sometimes open) ideological baggage began to devote its academic prowess to illuminating the glorified perfection, efficiency, and liberty with which pecuniary motivations, incentives, animal spirits, market competition — the foundational ingredients of a capitalist free-market capitalist system — are crucial for growth and material prosperity both at micro and macro levels.

Even market-obsessed economic perspectives, perceptions and interpretations soon came to be authorised to invade pre-existing social, moral, humanistic, cultural, historical and political discourses and disciples to bring the latter in its line of thinking and philosophy. Thus market-based hardcore economic considerations began deciding whether a graduate course on classical music or paintings should continue to be offered at the university; whether a historic monument should be restored or not got to depend on economists’ self-styled calculations of monetary costs and benefits.

Majority of mainstream economists got mobilised towards depicting, in terms of its own self-styled elegance and argumentation, the centrality of pecuniary competition, animal spirits, and related materialistic motives and predilections even in perennially-thought emotional, sentimental, cultural, moral or behavioural domains such as marriage, reproduction, family, kinship and friendship, crime. Many imaginative economists began venturing to reinterpret human history in the light of a central role that market economic forces — profit, benefit, incentives, costs or the whole economics generally — are believed to have played in determining differential patterns of cultural, social, legal, institutional, technological levels and its trajectories between countries. This very line of theorizing was backed and touted by corporates, politicians in power, and their commissioned intellectual resources - all being armed increasingly with improved media and mass communications. They have instated an overriding intellectual paradigm that hails economic motives and pecuniary calculations as the central propeller of modern civilisation, leaving subservient all other social sciences including humanistic and artistic intellectual pursuits. Even researchers in literature — possibly out of a feeling of their sinking status in the absence of their lineage in economics - have started pointing out elements of mundane transactions underpinned in various literary creations (e.g. ‘translational transactions’). Everyone is then made to believe that: a human society is essentially a market where pristine economic motives and aspirations are played out to produce economic, social, cultural, moral, political outcomes and realities; one cannot find a single dollar left free to pick up on the street; knowledge is nothing but piece of information; education has no purpose other than providing some marketable skills including mental/intellectual training which are only to be sold or employed against its tangible (monetary) rewards determined in the labour market; thus the value of education consists only of what it earns in the market. Indeed, as would be elaborated below, all this ideational milieu arguably serves as the genesis of a comprehensive predicament of declining standard, quality and quantity of learning, intellectual stagnation and related crises in the contemporary juncture of global human history.


In the neoliberal ideational vein, education and its intrinsically unquantifiable outcome on the state of human mind not only came to be called a ‘commodity’ but the purpose of education got redefined as the one of producing ‘human capital’ (represented mostly by skills, not so much by critical, creative, imaginative thinking and intellect) as required in technology-governed production processes. Apart from the nearly nebulous radicalism applied into age-old traditional thinking, all these neoliberal notions have constituted a blunder in the entire educational sphere that is still in its progress. While education’s role — particularly via vocational and technical education - in preparing skilled and productive citizens for economic or material growth and prosperity is undeniable, the purpose of education has historically always been seen to be much broader and deeper and not generally convertible into numerically quantifiable objectives or goals. While many students in a class are intrinsically less creative or less imaginative or less thoughtful than the best ones in this respect, the educational standard/curriculum used to be, quite pragmatically, set in tune with the highest capacities of the superior ones, and the former generally end up joining all the economically necessary occupations as skilled workers or innovators, but not as original creators or inventors coming from the latter superior group. That education was traditionally thought that way can hardly be construed to be the past educational thinkers’ intellectual deficiency or deformity. In its defence, two points can be readily adduced. First, the traditional (broader) view of education is the one with which the world or even today’s advanced regions of the world made sustained and substantial progress not only materially in terms of economic growth, industrialisation, and improved standard of living, but also in many other diverse fields such as politics and political system, culture, arts, literature, film, and music.

Second, when general educational programmes including curriculum/pedagogy would be designed solely from the standpoint of human capital perspective or their immediate utility in the process of material production, it should end up producing only productive bunch of potential workers but not ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ whose life, identity and character transcend much beyond their professional productive role. Who would shape their tastes, preferences, life philosophy, sense of integrity and honesty, ideology, civic or democratic or humanistic values? We should not be oblivious to the fact that the people who are engaged in inventing robots — the epitome of skills, tasks, performance — are not robots themselves, but they are human-beings with intelligence, education, emotions, sentiments, love, affection, fatigue, and the whole personality defined by personal values, tastes, and choices, all of which lie under the purview of a broader perspective on education than of a narrower human capital paradigm. It is, of course, a matter of choice or vision whether we should cherish becoming a society of human ‘robots’ or of ‘robot-like’ citizens or of a diverse mature people and thinking and analytical individual citizens.

Relatedly, education essentially entails a process of internalising knowledge (not just information) and ideas of any specified field. Therefore, it cannot be produced just in the way a meal is cooked (or produced) in the kitchen with all the ingredients and a recipe available. For conducting a process of education, we need student, teacher, textbooks, classroom, blackboard, but there is still a further need for some mental ingredients of which availability and behaviour cannot entirely be certain or guaranteed or manufactured at will. For example, despite all other things being available for an educational session, a student may not have the requisite amount of attention, interest or curiosity about the subject being taught in the lecture hall. If so, the student would be able to internalise only little of what is intended to be taught, and hence education in this case cannot be said to have been imparted by teaching, despite availability of its know-how and other necessary physical ingredients. But this problem is, of course, less acute in the case of learning some vocational skills for which the involvement or requirement of the mental (or intellectual) ingredients is, though not entirely absent, much less restraining in that the student in this case needs to harness relatively little intellectual/mental powers (e.g. thinking, imagining, analysing) to learn the routinized steps or operations in acquiring those skills.

       Likewise, if a student is obsessed with the idea of education’s overwhelming role in human capital formation required only in economically productive/gainful activities, she is likely to lose interest in engaging intellectually with those subjects and ideas which do not readily evince its potential of being economically useful or rewarding. But the efficacy in learning a subject depends on the mental/intellectual level/state as well as degree of motivation and interest of the concerned learner. A student would be able to learn little out of an otherwise excellent lecture delivered by a teacher about whom the student has a preconceived notion that the concerned teacher is academically worthless. Under these circumstances and constraints, the student would not be able to stretch her mental powers of imagination and curiosity freely or spontaneously and would turn to be selective and stunted in her volition of internalising knowledge. This would, in turn, stifle her potential impulse or intellectual powers for creativity or inventiveness. Indeed, a gripping thought centred around private/personal gains/reward has similar circumscribing effects on the overall intellectual powers of a mind for creativity, originality, and inventiveness. For example, the scope for free play of imagination of a painter or musician can get immeasurably impaired by her overarching thoughts or concerns over the saleability or popularity of her creation. This situation becomes even worse when the curriculum and general courses in academic (non-vocational) programmes are consciously designed to be ‘utilitarian’ in its orientation to be immediately useful to the material world of production of commodities and services. This is a situation which is perhaps best illustrated by an analogy wherein education is seen as ‘love’ which was famously defined by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in one of his songs composed about a century ago as follows (paraphrased and translated from original Bengali): ‘As they run after love for the sake of comforts and happiness, the love disappears. What remains is comforts bereft of love’.

Since a mind — and its various ingredients - is inextricably and crucially linked with an act of learning and understanding, it is erroneous to treat all educational outcomes especially at a higher level merely as a bundle of skills or of some specialized information. This is primarily because education, more particularly higher education, is ideally and educationally supposed to result in a transformation of mental level or state and hence of mental/intellectual powers, not just the vocational or directly productive capacities. It is a pragmatic wisdom that an innately (and intellectually) superior mind, when exposed to the same environment, ideas, standards, and orientation as those suited to mediocre mental calibres and average intellectual abilities, would fail to flourish to their fullest potentials. But its converse is not equally true: persons of lower cognitive calibres, when faced with high standards of curriculum and pedagogy, are not only unlikely to lose their maximum potential but may often — of course invariably - better themselves up to their own fullest potential. Therefore, framing and teaching a curriculum and its standard from a human capital standpoint or from a vocationally-oriented objectives could turn considerably wasteful from the viewpoint of a highly plausible damage to the potentialities of students of superior intellectual abilities, creativities, and academic motivation and aspirations.

Opening the doors of non-vocational higher education institutions to all willing youth, irrespective of intellectual abilities and level of academic motivation, just on a ground of so-called ‘Ivory Tower’ for few being readily despicable, represents an ideational infirmity like a ‘fake news’ that has been pervasively infused under the neoliberal reign and its privatisation agenda. Higher education is, almost by its essential definition, is justly for those who are not only intellectually able but who also have a keen interest and intrinsic volition in pursuing the subject chosen academically, not just for grabbing a lucrative job. Otherwise, many admitted without required academic aptitudes and motivation (which is not easy to measure) would vitiate the concerned educational programme and prevent it from maintaining its required levels of academic standard and rigour. That the numerically measured majority of students at a typical educational institution are found belonging to upper or upper middle-income groups, with a tiny size of students’ body from underprivileged or poor section, has often mistakenly been posited as an evidence of social injustice perpetrated by educational institutions per se. It is important to be clear that the fact of social inequality in the access to education is just a manifestation of ‘social injustice’ that is rooted in the entire social structure and productive system prevailing in a polity, not in the idea and mission of education itself.

To think that the university admission policy could be harnessed into remedying social injustice or economic inequality created squarely by overarching socio-economic modes of production and distribution outside university seems largely to be a misnomer. It is important to keep in mind here that the special scholarships or financial assistance given historically to the students from underprivileged or poorer sections and communities are conceived effectively as an offshoot of the perennial mission of higher education, namely the cultivation of intrinsically able and interested minds, irrespective of class or race, for higher learning and research, not, as being popularly posited now, as a strategy or policy of addressing inequality or injustice germinated within the larger socio-economic system. On the contrary, university education system has partly been, or can be more, invaluably instrumental to addressing the issues of economic inequality and social injustice by trying — through scholarship, teaching, and curricula, research — to make all students realize its vices and analyse the real socio-economic mechanisms behind their making, with a view to evolving effective policy for their elimination. A plea for lowering the academic standard or the requirements of proven abilities and interest, if necessary, for admitting intellectually less able and less interested candidates from historically disadvantaged social groups may apparently appear appealing, but it often turns out to be just lucrative from the point of view of its favourable market-augmenting effects for edu-businesses. As recent (albeit scattered) evidence shows, this practice/policy of making compromises or concessions with the educational standard at the HE level is scarcely well-founded or justifiable from a longer-term point of view even from the standpoint of the marginalised or underprivileged groups, who are the victims of injustice originating in the larger socio-economic structure and system.

More importantly, this misconceived argument, while coterminous with the vision of ‘massification’ of higher education, has been instrumental to misinterpreting the age-old idea that higher education institutions do represent an Ivory Tower but only around its sole focus/mission of nurturing and educating the able, talented, and interested in higher learning irrespective of class or race or caste. It seems undeniable that many candidates even amongst upper-class or socially privileged households are traditionally denied admission to renowned universities just because they failed to testify to the required levels of academic ability and volition. On the contrary, the university authorities have generally been open and willing to admit intellectually able candidates of weaker socio-economic background and means with various financial waivers and scholarships. In any case even if this financial support was not adequately provided to the poor meritorious applicants, this per se can hardly be a case for dispensing with the educational focus on the college/university as a site exclusively for intellectually capable and academically motivated candidates, irrespective of class, caste and race. Thus, the Ivory Tower approach to higher education with its overarching mission and values centred around the cultivation of originality and creativity are a necessity even today from the standpoint of the imperatives of keeping up both economic growth/dynamism and civilizational progression defined not just in terms of newer versions of mobile phones, Apps or ATMs incessantly innovated. A total dependence on the free market mechanism, as is often envisaged or even preached by the neoliberal thinking, is, thus, misappropriate in the arena of education in which a significant role is played by human mind and its innate and acquired attributes including its volitions.

In a similar vein, the neoliberal agenda of blurring the age-old separation between vocationally-oriented and non-vocational general higher education through inter alias doling out university or degree-awarding status to the technical or polytechnic institutions has been a blunder of which adverse impact on the overall academic quality and standard of HE is still in progress. This has drastically changed the very notion of the university itself which has been in place for centuries. It sounds hardly wise to undermine the basic fact that the traditional (pre-war) idea of university and of higher education at large did not come about as a product of a fluke or fancy in the past, but it evolved through a lot of hard thinking, discussions and debates, and experiments over centuries. The lately empowered mainstream economics profession’s positing of education as a private good, rather than its long-standing view as a public good, after the WWII or at the peak of Cold War, has turned, in a sense, to be ideationally too cavalier. Global implementation of this new theatrical idea could well be seen now as a blunder in progress as the whole world seems now paying its heavy price in the form of comprehensive declines in educational standard and academic rigour among present generations.

Higher education is traditionally considered to be a public good on the time-tested premise that it does not just impart skills tradable privately in the job market, but it promotes and cultivates an innately limited group of potentially and intellectually talented, original, and creative minds whose output, creations, or services would cater mostly to the causes and well-being of the larger society or public or even humanity. Now, viewing this as a matter of only private pursuits of the learners and thereby leaving the entire educational arrangement/process with the free private market with its ‘give-and-take’ mechanisms founded on allegedly universal and rational motto of self-maximisation, instigates a policy of steady withdrawal of the government/state funding from higher education — a policy perception which can be branded as a blunder in its progress from the standpoint of societal progression including economic growth. This view of neoliberal persuasions leaves some far-reaching vacuums. First, if all providers of education are to be governed solely by their own institutional profits and revenues, who will cultivate the talent, intellect, creativity, and inventiveness, which are neither manufacturable at will even in the presence of all physical ingredients, nor intrinsically ‘well-behaved’ in terms of its response to just pecuniary incentives/prices, but are doggedly motivated and required for public welfare and well-being and overall humanity’s progression? Second, since the majority of prospective students, whose prime interest is in securing the marketable degrees required in the job market), would (rationally and psychologically?) tend to be averse to the pains and pangs associated with the learning process (e.g. attending classes attentively on a regular basis, struggling with abstract and intellectually demanding subjects and ideas, and exam-related stress etc.), what is the guarantee that the educational institutions would not be ready to lower the academic standard of education in order to secure a larger share of the potential market i.e. the number of students?

All these concerns are probably the reason why most of the developed Western countries appear generally much sloth in cutting down the state’s financial responsibility for higher education, whereas there is a mindless rash move going on in majority of developing countries towards its increasing privatisation and marketisation. Privatisation in terms of the share of private capital in total expenditure on higher education is only one dimension of the privatisation of higher education, the other being the increasing grip of neoliberal free market principles over the management of public educational institutions funded mostly by the state. This latter privatisation process has been going on unabated across the globe including the advanced western world. This explains (at least partly) why, despite almost overwhelming share of state finances in higher education, the developed world is not immune to the ongoing process of declining academic standard and intellectual power and hence of a steady intellectual retrogression.

* (Author: Arup Maharatna is Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad)

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