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Are Schools Creating Citizens? Or Workers and Consumers?

Posted By on February 18, 2013

overseas jobs

US schools train kids for jobs that have been shipped overseas

This is the second of a series of guest posts by Dr Danny Weil from an article (World Class Standards: Whose World, Which Economic Classes and What Standards?) he originally posted at Daily Censored.

In this section Dr Weil challenges the assumption that the sole purpose of schools is to train future workers. He also stresses the profound effect globalization and the supremacy of multinational corporations over western democracy has had in transforming Americans from “citizens” to “consumers.” He makes the following critical points:

  1. Our current K-12 public education system is preparing our youth for jobs that no longer exist because they have been shipped overseas.
  2. For neo-liberals, the only purpose of schools is to serve national interests and market forces, rather than the students themselves.
  3. The goal of neo-liberal educational models is to boost productivity, forge a stronger national identity and create a new class of disciplined consumers for the “new world order.”

 (I have bolded points which deserve special attention)


Linking the Discussion of Standards to Educational Purpose

by Dr Danny Weil

Reporter: Mr. Ghandi, what do you think of modern civilization?

Ghandi:  That would be a good idea.

Perusing the newspaper or listening to television or radio, one would walk away thinking that we are all in agreement as to what educational standards should be adopted and what they should assess.  The debate has been cast as a national debate and yet as a nation, we as people have not been involved in theorizing the debate or developing its actualities.  There is no discussion as to how the current standards proposals have been designed, who designed them, or for what purpose.   Leaders and elites have designed the discourse, tailored the contents, and dictated the terms of debate.

Yet the current national debate regarding standards is important for it points to the fact that it is not the debate we should be having.  Debating standards is putting the cart before the horse.  The real debate would ask us to incorporate into consideration such questions as what is good teaching, how does one learn, what is intelligence, whose interests does it serve, and how is it  achieved?  It would be a debate that invited community, parents, students and teachers to engage in discourse about what it means to be human, how to act in and with the world, and how to make sense out of personal life in light of historical and cultural change.

There are many points of view regarding the role or purpose of schools in society and the aspiration of this article is not to give a prolonged or detailed characterization of the myriad frames of reference on the subject.  However, I think that by characterizing at least some of these points of view in terms of how the debate is currently viewed, is essential to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue about assessment and standards. Currently, popular political debates regarding literacy, standards, and assessment continue to concentrate on anecdotal evidence and attention seeking headlines that really do little or nothing to help teachers, their students or their students’ parents move towards a genuine curriculum of thinking and learning.  Furthermore, many parents and community members continue to labor under old paradigms of what it means to be literate, intelligent and assessed; paradigms fueled and nurtured by an ignorant and demagogic media that continues to separate assessment from learning while seeking to frame the complex issue of education in either back-to-basics or outcome-based education—public schools or private schools.

Economic Conservatives and the Neo-liberal Argument

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people….  We have, in effect been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” – A Nation at Risk (1983).

The prevailing point of view at this juncture in history, one that is embraced by both economic and neo-liberal assertions and resonates throughout the media, seems to be that school is merely a training ground for the necessities of market civilization—i.e., preparation in school is preparation for work.

Fundamentally, this means that students go to school for the purpose of learning how to compete in a capitalist global society where they are taught job skills they are told are essential to get ahead.  The National Skill Standards Board, containing appointees by President Bill Clinton, adopts this position in their discussion of standards:

The National Skill Standards Board is building a voluntary national system of skill standards, assessment and certification that will enhance the ability of the United States to compete effectively in the global economy.

From this point of view, education, beginning in primary school, should be designed to create producers and consumers who accept and adapt to the business models inherent in capitalist society as well as the power relations that govern them.  The new political discourse of conservative neo-liberalism discusses education only as it relates to markets, national identity, global competition, increased productivity and unbridled consumption.  Nothing is said about helping students relate to the world in critical ways.  For economic conservatives, schools serve national and market forces—not people.  Even for those CEO’s and neo-liberals who bemoan the current state of education as an antiquated testimony of the past and talk about the need for critical thinking, their goal is also clearly tied to the bandwagon of individual economic necessity, as illustrated by an educational speech made by the former CEO of Apple Corporation, John Sculley, at Bill Clinton’s 1992 Economic Conference:

“We are still trapped in a K-12 public education system, which is preparing our youth for jobs that no longer exist.  A highly skilled work force must begin with a world class public education system which will turn out a world class product. . .It is an issue about an educational system aligned with the new economy and a broad educational opportunity for everyone.  Our public education system has not successfully made the shift from teaching the memorization of facts to achieving learning of critical thinking skills. …It’s America’s choice: High skills or low wages.”

According to the new gospel of neo-liberalism, there is a need not only for a different kind of production under Post-Fordism, but for a different kind of worker—the knowledge worker.  This is the worker who is adaptable and amenable to multi-task work environments, who has a theoretical understanding of systems and how they function, who can work in teams, accept new managerial authority, form data into patterns and then interpret this data for the good of company profits; workers who can operate within wider frames of reference, who seek out new information from multiple sources and who can solve business problems and make business decisions.  For neo-liberals and their economic conservative counterparts, the new millennium is foisting upon us new market-driven-cognitive demands, different productive relations, and schools must be ready to accept and meet this challenge if one wants to get ahead and if America is truly able to compete.

Former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, makes similar arguments in his book, The Work of Nations (1992):

“We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century.  There will no longer be national economies at least as we have come to understand the concept.  All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise the nation.  Each nation’s primary asset will be its citizens’ skills and insights.”

For neo-liberals like Reich and Sculley the rhetoric is clear: less desirable jobs will not exist in the US but will be shipped overseas to third world countries—the new assembly line of global capitalism. More complex, intellectually challenging work, they argue, will become the norm in the United States and of course, there will be winners and losers.  However, this time the winners and losers will not only be within nations, but will actually be nations themselves.  The message the neo-liberal agenda promotes is very clear: global economic necessities demand an educational system tied to the skills and training necessary to compete in the new millennium of a cybernetic global capitalism.  Critical thinking is important only as it relates to creating critical mass—designing better products, boosting productivity, fashioning better customer service, creating stronger national identity and creating a new class of disciplined consumers—preparing citizen-consumers for this “new world order” becomes the raison d’être of education and educational sites.

(To be continued)

Dr. Danny Weil is a public interest attorney who has practiced for more than twenty years and has been published in a case of first impression in California. He is no longer active as a lawyer but has written seven books on education, has taught second grade in South Central LA, PS 122, taught K-1 migrant children in Santa Maria, California and Guadalupe, California, taught in the California Youth Authority to first and second degree murderers and taught for seventeen years at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, CA. in the philosophy department. Dr. Weil holds a BA in Political Economics and Philosophy, a multi-subject bilingual credential in education (he is fluent in Spanish) and has a PhD in Critical Thinking. He is a writer for the Truthout Intellectual Project. He prefaces his Daily Censored post with the statement that this article was written fourteen years ago – before NCLB and the criminal Bush presidency.

photo credit: Robert Scoble via photopin cc


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