The controversial influence of neoliberalism in modern society, sometimes seen as destructive and dehumanizing, others a savior to the sinking of American global preeminence, is a topic of conversation for many American progressives in the 21st century. This powerful hegemonic discourse prioritizes, among other things, “the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; [and] the celebration of profitmaking as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship.” (Giroux, 2014) The very fact that neoliberalism constitutes a form of hegemony (a self-replicating set of morals defined by the powerful, which in turn act to establish social control over the functioning of the rest of society’s members) or even a doxa (Patrick, 2013) means that it reproduces itself by acting from within the trajectory of our country’s sociocultural, political, and economic development while seeming a logical, even necessary progression.
The ways in which neoliberalism impacts and shapes American society in general, and American schooling in particular, has found traction in impassioned dialogue about PreK-12 education in recent years (see Shannon, Whitney, & Wilson, 2014 and Ross & Gibson, 2006 for examples). However, a similarly critical and reflective conversation about our society’s shift toward free-market-centered values is largely missing in the field of non-profit adult education, which has remained over the last decade the site of the now-popular “workforce skills training,” which aims to meet the demand of several key high-growth industries namely, elder care, food service, and hospitals, among others for new employees, while “increas[ing] the competitiveness of American workers.” (Greenstone & Looney, 2011, p. 4) This reflects the still-present struggle brought by the Great Recession of 2008, which caused our country to shift its narrative to include concerns about economic stability and the need for citizens to be connected with jobs in a time of scarcity. (The White House, 2014) While public schools are battlegrounds for parents who resist the trend toward standardized testing and other forms of privatization, the lack of either critical thinking or political awareness in the field of non-profit adult education has left organizations, educators, and especially learners vulnerable to ideological influences that redefine outcomes vis-à-vis complicated, less-than-humanitarian intentions.
Civilized societies tend to have a longstanding social view of non-profit charity and service organizations as beneficial, generally helpful in ameliorating problems relating to areas of social life including: agriculture, food, and nutrition; employment and job training; public safety and disaster preparedness, housing, and youth development, among others. (Directory of Charities and Nonprofit Organizations, 2014) While in America workforce skills training organizations in particular espouse the improvement of their clients’ lives, it is important to consider that the purported goal of such specialized education to provide skills training for learners who seek better employment opportunities may also encode certain hidden agendas, biases, and expectations for the low-status students typically undertaking this form of education (immigrants, people of color, people who are low-income, and people with disabilities). This coded set of assumptions can occur in non-profit adult education in the form of curriculum, pedagogy, program development, and partnerships with affiliate organizations that accept the graduates of these programs for further training or employment; such assumptions, if they do indeed exist, they may well reflect the powerful influence that “corporate-style managerialism” (Patrick, 2013) has had in adult education as well as ideologically-situated views of the role of education and of the learners themselves. The purpose of this research is, then, to discover these assumptions and their role in workforce skills training courses as a description of the influence of American neoliberal discourse, and its power to subordinate low-status learners, in non-profit adult education.