The Philosopher and the Pragmatist: Common Sense, Nonsense, and Rightness in the Modern Conversation about Non-Profit Adult Education

Modern debates about American education have addressed important topics including the growth in public schools of standardized testing to monitor student progress, of value-added measurements designed to determine the “value” that teachers contribute to their students’ education (the term is placed in quotation marks to indicate the subjective nature of such a prospect), of the purchase of prepackaged materials and curriculum designed by “edu-business” (Ball, 2013), of private takeover of public schools and of the charter school boom. These new modes of analysis, delivery, and corporate involvement have been introduced via a relatively recent trend in education, that is, a market-based way of managing schooling. Such a trend stems in part from the Great Recession of 2008, though policy-making back in the 1970s, when globalization and technology expanded rapidly. The modern market-based response to social ills is nowadays considered a commonsensical way of resolving problems according to a capitalist viewpoint – often typified by the ethos a free market is necessary for a healthy economy and, thus, a healthy and free nation – and it attends to concerns at the highest level of our national existence, including that of education. Questions about the widely lamented “failure” of American schools, first documented in “A Nation at Risk” (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), in comparison to those in other countries vis-à-vis the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores are being discussed at all levels of governance, from local school districts up through the U.S. government, and it seems that at the core of this conversation is a strong desire to maintain American preeminence in economic and geopolitical terms in the face of rising global challenges to our empire. The messianic free-market proposition, which prioritizes competition, efficiency, accountability, and predictability, has thus been welcomed at the table of politicians and power players as a silent partner in negotiations across board rooms and budget meetings in the education world; such a viewpoint has, increasingly, seeped into common consciousness in the media through punditry, advertising and persuasive journalism on all channels. (McChesney, 2001)

This slow, yet powerful, sea change in thinking reflects the growing dominance of what is known as neoliberalism, an economically-based mode of thinking rooted in Milton Friedman’s work in the Chicago School in the 1950s, which has come to dominate conversations about a vast network of issues in American society, including the topic of education. (Lipman, 2006) A well-known progressive and public intellectual, Henry Giroux decries American neoliberalism as “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) Critiques like this are often met with counterattacks from conservatives and corporatists claiming that such a perspective is “political” and even anti-American. (Guerlain, 2002) In the field of education, too, progressives are finding themselves faced with an American public increasingly blasé about the influence of corporate moneys and fiscally driven decision-making in schooling. Such resistance to perspectives that seek to interrogate the dominance of neoliberalism may be due to the fact that such widespread acquiescence occurs when an ideology is raised from the “supra-social” status of a hegemony – Gramsci’s (1971) term to describe 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 – to the even-higher level of a doxa, that is, “an unquestionable orthodoxy that operates as if it were the objective truth” as described by Chopra (as cited in Patrick, 2013).

The fact that neoliberal solutions to putative problems in education and other industries have become the commonsensical response of an America stepping back from the precipice of the Great Recession indicates that those who seek to interrogate the logic, relevance, and ethical implications of “neoliberalism-as-savior” are suggesting an almost Sisyphean feat in challenging the public to see from a critical perspective what they assume is true and good. Such important critical thinking is often undertaken in philosophical circles; reflection, according to John Stuart Mill, is the means by which we avoid “intellectual pacification” and attempt at all times to think freely so as to break the “mental despotism” of whatever age we happen to be in. (Mill, 1860, pp. 36-37) It must be conceded, though, that this absence of vision among the hoi polloi is not without an understandable explanation due in part to membership in any particular society; Russell Means (1980), for example, might argue that because we are members of Western society, our views are necessarily restricted to the options that fall under the Western ideological superstructure (a cultural history perhaps deserving the term “doxa” as well). But in the face of many crises in modern American society, an unrecognized crisis might in fact be a general lack of philosophical thinking as a common activity among both leadership and its constituents. It often seems that our decision-making around issues of unemployment, poverty, crime, prejudice, and other problems has lacked vision, especially in the last decade, except insofar as the dollar is concerned; we’d rather simply aim at short-term economic targets than consider the long-term impacts of decision-making in social, cultural, educational, economic, and even historical terms. A prodigious question that is notably absent in these broad-based and widely impactful decisions made by our government in terms of the environment, the role of policing and prisons, taxation, democratic representation, social programs, and of course education is this: What sort of nation are we constructing?

The original prompt for this paper was to write about what we learned from doing the presentations of our findings and network charts in our class with Dr. Spring, especially as this learning could assist us as PhD candidates, academics, and/or professionals in the future. My network chart (see Appendix A) reflects the political and ideological connections between the power players – various funders, corporate partners, local governance, and educators – through my previous employer, Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, MA, and their potential impact on the coursework, pedagogy, program design, and outcomes provided to the low-status students who take classes there. In creating the chart, I sought to establish that not only was it important to consider the connections between these power players but also focus on their communication through the discourse of philanthropy (specifically charity and service work) and on the resulting prioritization of neoliberal outcomes over all others (e.g., democratic, advocacy/social activist-minded, etc.) in adult education in non-profit organizations like JVS. (The concept of discourse as mentioned above will not be further explored here; however, the concept as it is intended here is derived from Michel Foucault’s theories as outlined in his 1966 publication Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things, published in 1970 in English).

Two particular outcomes of this project held great significance for me. Firstly, I found myself resisting the simple drawing of connections between single entities in the chart, preferring to consider the discourses within which each entity was nested. The power circles of local, state, and federal government, the world of philanthropy, and the business world overlapped under the heading of mainstream American society, and I found that some actors could be placed into several categories at the same time (e.g., government and business, etc.). I suggest that these entities interact through the broader discourse of philanthropy, establishing relationships and influence over the educational projects within the non-profit organizations they support politically and/or financially. Further, I argue that because non-profit organizations like JVS have corporate partners that will potentially hire the low-status students – who are most often immigrants from north and central Africa, Latin America, and South and East Asia and who are low-income, have disabilities, may be living in a shelter or even homeless, and often have children to support – that study in these non-profit organizations, the form of education that takes place there prioritizes the market-driven need of these corporate partners for low-status workers (line cooks, retail workers, certified nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, etc.) over all other potential needs, goals, or potential these students might have.

As I write of this first outcome, it is important for me to recognize the ineluctable influence of the doxa of neoliberalism as it creeps into my mind. Why not help these students find a better job? such a voice asks, reminding me of the Platonic view that any progress should be embraced, that the improvement in the lives of struggling people is a good one. What harm is there in wanting to help them improve their lot? And if the byproduct of this is to help high-growth industries in our economy like health care, food service, and others meet their needs, why should this be seen as a negative thing? The chiding voice continues: Why do academics always have to critique, theorize, and break down what is working well?

In fact, when I presented this network chart to the rest of my class in Dr. Spring’s class, I feel I received a polite version of this very response, which leads me to my second significant outcome in doing this project. My classmates, who are often more pragmatic than I am, were certainly interested and appreciated both my work as an adult educator in non-profit organizations and on the project itself. However, I think many of them couldn’t see the point I was trying to make, a fact which I suggest stems from the very reason that the neoliberal doxa has made itself the objective lens via which we perceive our choices in education. This was my point, made more clear perhaps in written form: Why should the education of adults in the non-profit world contain less of the critical thinking we progressives are attempting to apply in addressing the consequences of rampant standardized testing, teacher evaluation through value-added measures, the charter school boom in public PreK-12 schooling, and other forms of privatization and corporate involvement? Why is it that non-profit adult education is perfectly acceptable as a form not only of training, but also of subordination, of preparation for low-status employment that largely benefits the wealthy? These questions spawn many more: Is this form of thinking due to the fact that we see adults as already fully formed, so to speak, socioculturally, emotionally and cognitively? Is it perhaps because of inherent biases that we may have against immigrants and other low-status groups, because we believe (perhaps unconsciously) that they are a burden on the social safety net and even take jobs from native-born Americans? (American Civil Liberties Union, 2008) I believe that these questions are of great significance in considering the relatively apolitical (or, better put, politically overlooked) world of adult education in non-profits; equally important is the fact that few have asked such questions because neoliberalism has taken such a firm hold on the American consciousness.

Thus, I will end this essay with a vow that I make for myself, for my fellow educators, and for my students: I promise to continue to think philosophically about the important and often overlooked field of non-profit adult education, all the while building my own fluency, my own form of “critical sociopolitical literacy,” for building bridges and better understandings with the pragmatists, while working to mediate and change the relationship between the power holders in society and those who are subject to their will. As academics we, too, belong to a powerful sociocultural group, able to act as bridge-builders and communicators as well as critics of the neoliberal status quo. I must understand that within the powerful hegemony/doxa of neoliberalism rest many enshrined “truths” that cannot be easily moved from their thrones, including the powerfully influential discourse of philanthropy as a form of apolitical good. I must be clear in my use of terminology and be willing to understand things from the other side; I must be clear, too, that in seeking to understand what education is and can be – no matter whether it be for children or adults, native-born people or immigrants – my role must be to remind my colleagues that our goal is educating within a democratic vision (if not a truly democratic version yet) of our society. Just as we progressives argue that American children are not simply future workers but future participants in a(n) (ostensibly) democratic nation, so too must we remember that immigrants – including some of the parents of these American children for whom we so passionately advocate – who come to live in our community, society, and country deserve more than a dehumanizing, prescribed, circumscribed version of a neoliberally defined future.

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. (2008, April 11). Immigration Myths and Facts. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from https://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/immigration-myths-and-facts

Ball, S. J. (2013, June 19). Global Policy Networks, Social Enterprise and Edu-business: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary. (1st Edition). Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. London, U.K.: Tavistock/Routledge.

Giroux, H. (2014, October 19). Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism. Truthout.org. (M. Nevradakis, Interviewer)

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Reprint ed.). (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Eds.) International Publishers Co.

Guerlain, P. (2002). Americanization and Globalization: The Power Behind the Words. Annales du monde anglophone , No 15.

Lipman, P. (2006). “No Child Left Behind”: Globalization, Privatization, and the Politics of Inequality. In E. W. Ross, & R. Gibson (Eds.), Neoliberalism and Education Reform (pp. 36-37). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

McChesney, R. (2001). Global media, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Monthly Review , 52 (10).

Means, R. (2012, October 22). For the World to Live, Europe Must Die. Mother Jones. San Francisco, CA.

Mill, J. S. (1860). On Liberty. Harvard Classics Volume 25. P.F. Collier & Son (Copyright 1909).

The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC.

Patrick, F. (2013). Neoliberalism, the Knowledge Economy, and the Learner: Challenging the Inevitability of the Commodified Self as an Outcome of Education. (T. A. Betts, T. Carvalho, & R. Pasnak, Eds.) ISRN Education , 2013.

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