Freedom of thought and the future American citizen

In my Modern Political Theory class, I am reading John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote about utilitarianism – a concept he and Jeremy Bentham forged in the 19th century – and the idea that freedom of thought, not just freedom from a despotical leader, was necessary for human beings to achieve their full intellectual potential. Really interesting stuff, and very applicable to the world of today. Mill felt that the tyranny of the majority (see Tocqueville, who coined the phrase) could serve to oppress us, and even the loss of a single voice represented a tragedy of humanity to be avoided.

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Concurrent to these ideas, my studies of late include reading about the privatization of education in America and the world over by multinational education corporations (“edu-businesses”) in “Global Education Inc.: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary” by Stephen Ball. The book documents the influence of the neoliberal ideology in education management – meaning that priorities include measurements, outcomes, and that key term so often used, accountability. Education, according to Ball, is becoming a product rather than a process, supported by the belief that America is and should continue to be the preeminent economic (and military and political and cultural) force in the world, a position which can be consolidated only by maintaining that our children must be able to compete – and win – on the world stage. The Executive Summary for the Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology (2010) initiative by the U.S. Department of Education says it all:

Education is the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy. It is the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans…The challenging and rapidly changing demands of our global economy tell us what people need to know and who needs to learn. (7-8) (emphasis added)

So this means, in essence, that the goals, priorities, design, and philosophy of education should be defined according to the global economy. Let’s just be clear about that. It may not seem like a big deal, but consider the fact that what we’re talking about here is preparing children to perform as future contributors to an economy above all else. Of course, as citizens in this country it’s hoped that part of their lives would encompass their participation in commerce at some level, whether this be as a worker or an owner, and certainly important nowadays, a consumer. However, read the last line carefully: both what students need to learn, as well as who needs to learn in the first place, are defined by economic outcomes. The critical eye will pick up that this is a political agenda as well as an economic one, and a sinister one at that.

The reason why I mentioned Mill in the beginning of this post is that his work is relevant to such a conversation about the purpose of education. If the greater good is served by the freedom of every individual to have his/her beliefs, rather than acquiesce to the dominance of one kind of thinking which trains the creative mind into a position of servitude – by this I mean that education in such a context would serve to develop workers, rather than free thinkers – then the model proposed in the “Transforming American Education” document represents a form, albeit seemingly logical and even necessary, of enslavement. It could be argued that we are always forced to adapt to social norms as we grow up, either through schooling or other processes of learning acceptable behavior and beliefs in various contexts. However, it has not always been the case that education has become a prescribed form of mental training to serve the economic goals of a country, at least not to the detriment of the development of creativity, curiosity, the capacity for abstract thought, and the ability to consider oneself a democratic subject. John Dewey, an American educational philosopher in the early 20th century, argued strenuously for the responsibility of education to do just this, when powerful socioeconomic forces resulting from the Industrial Revolution brought into question the purpose of education: creating workers, or democratic subjects?

I vote for the latter in all moments of history. I don’t think we need to worry nearly as much about economic dominance as we do about our children’s right to free thought, exposure to different ideas than the most commonly valued ones, and support and care from educators and their community not as units of human capital growing to feed the economic machine, but as future members of a society we have founded and claim to uphold as democratic.

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