We often reach our present state and location by way of the most unexpected routes and detours. The inspiration for this book, a metanarrative on globalization and education against a backdrop of unprecedented world crises, is no exception. Its first impulses actually occurred a number of years ago with my growing dissatisfaction about the social and political irrelevance of teaching and learning in international schools. In particular, I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy with the general disregard in these schools for the world’s large and growing problems, along with a special regret for the unrealized potential of international schools and international education to actively support sources of progressive social change and transformation in the world. The thwarted and largely unfulfilled progressive impulses of international education had been a cause of discouragement for me throughout the years in my career as an international educator, spanning three decades and five continents. In this particular case, I was teaching history, economics, and world social issues at an international school in east Africa, a part of the planet no stranger to human suffering. As weeks and months lapsed into years I became more-and-more disheartened by the many ways in which our work together at the school – learners, teachers, and managers – just seemed to painfully fail to foster the sort of compassionate, aware, concerned, sacrificing, engaged “planetary citizens” that are so direly needed in the world today, and so readily possible through international education. Indeed, helping to grow such a quality of person is central to institutional mandates and moral obligations of international schools and international educators!
Partly in response to my discouragement, I began researching and writing about the progressive (if mostly unrealized) possibilities of international schools against a backdrop of the many crises plaguing our planet. In 2015 Sense Publishers (now Brill) offered me a contract for a book entitled Globalization and the Neoliberal Schoolhouse: Education in a World of Trouble. My intent was to write the book as a seasoned international educator and concerned world citizen, highlighting and contrasting the possible and actual roles played by international schools in the contemporary crisis-ridden global political economy. I gladly accepted the writing contract, yet as I was working on the manuscript I quickly realized how very little I knew, and how very much there is to know, about the formal global influences (institutions, policies, principles, practices) that shape and drive schools and education at the local levels, including international schools and international education. Furthermore, in my research I repeatedly came across a concise, summative, understandable two-word term that beautifully captured the larger global field of influences impacting schools and schooling everywhere, often taking them far afield from the once embodied principles of quality learning, broad access, and meaningful civic engagement. The term is neoliberal globalization.
New curiosity, interest, and motivation were piqued. I realized I couldn’t in good faith, with any semblance of authority, write a book about the role of international schools in the present global economy without first understanding how that economy comes to impinge upon and sculpt these schools and the human relationships they engender. Consequently, I did an abrupt turn around in my assignment with Sense Publishers. Instead of writing about international schools and world crises per se, the direction of my work quickly eclipsed. It shifted toward an examination of the numerous ways neoliberal globalization has come to negatively influence local systems of education worldwide, causing or exacerbating crises of teaching and learning around the world while effectively preventing schools, learners, and educators from reasonably responding to those crises. In my examination I referred to the brand and quality of education supported since the 1980s by emerging global political economic forces, and to some degree embodied and concretized in schools and classrooms everywhere, as the neoliberal schoolhouse.
For the last three years I have attempted in my writing and research to unpack the elusive, multifarious, insidious, yet powerful and decisive, ways in which neoliberal ideology and policies, through the delivery systems provided by globalization, dominate and determine ever-larger academic, social, and cultural spaces in the life worlds of schools across the planet. The contents of my book represent that unpacking. It is an attempt to directly address questions of exclusion and narrowed access to education that result from neoliberal policies, as well as to weigh the cultural impact of private market incursions into the historically – and politically – sanctioned domains of public schools and public school learning. I also provide what I hope are fresh and encouraging approaches to our taking back popular control from destructive global neoliberal forces in education today. Finally, it is no coincidence that I begin my book with an ambitious inventory of a number of contemporary world crises, arguably of unprecedented magnitude, followed by a clarion call for one of the very few workable options remaining for a planet ravaged by war, inequality, environmental demise, and sickness: the re/vitalization of civic-minded, social justice-oriented, community-engaged, activist-framed approaches in education and learning.
Yet, much has taken place in the three years since I began work on the Neoliberal Schoolhouse. Indeed, in some ways the world has taken its own unexpected side trips and detours. While I was sequestered away, researching, pondering, and writing, one very important, and, for me, largely unexpected development took place on the world stage. I had for years been loosely tracking and openly supporting the leftist-oriented anti-globalization movements in North America and Europe. I felt somewhat hopeful about the democratic nature and popular vitality of a series of mass anti-globalization protests that began in the last months of the 20th century and continued, more or less, until last year. These mobilizations included the pivotal “Battle of Seattle” and London’s “Carnival Against Capitalism” in 1999, protests in major cities around the world against the WTO summit in Doha in 2001, followed more recently by a crescendo of G20 demonstrations in Toronto (2010) and Hamburg (2017). Given the significance of these events, I remained hopefully convinced that any mass, popular outpouring against neoliberal globalization would have to be unflinchingly forward-looking and politically progressive, waged in a spirit of social justice and increased equality worldwide. These beliefs were further cemented by the populist, anti-authoritarian undertones of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99% protests in 2011, echoed and reverberated in large part by the tsunami momentum of the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in 2010, and that for months and years spread like prairie fire across North Africa and the Middle East.
Yet, the severest threat to neoliberal globalization to date has come not from a broad coalition of progressive political and social interest groups, waging and raging with displays of civil disobedience at major meetings of global capitalism. Rather, the most effective current challenge to neoliberal globalization has arrived in the form of a recent surge of political flanking maneuvers and mass movements on the part of extreme alternative populist nationalism, or the “alt-right”. Astonishingly, this version of the Right has managed to galvanize the support of large segments of those excluded from the “benefits” of globalization in so-called developed countries in ways the Left has always imagined, yet has never quite accomplished. Through mass mobilizations and political canvassing, alt-right candidates have posed credible challenges and upsets to the established political order in country-after-country, from the USA to Germany and France, from Poland to Hungary and Russia, more recently in Brazil. Even historically social democratic-leaning Scandinavian states, like Sweden and Norway, are witnessing their own crest of anti-immigrant nationalistic populism (see Chapter 1). Although there has in fact been some rallying back by the Left, best personified perhaps by Bernie Sanders’ recent US Presidential bid and the congressional victory in New York state by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both self-proclaimed democratic socialists. For the most part, though, the anti-globalization Left has been dazed, confused, disoriented, and rudderless by the spreading appeal of nationalistic populism.
Anti-globalization sentiments and angers should logically be an integral part of the organic life force and popular stirrings of all coherent, engaged, culturally diverse, and demographically unifying Leftist social progressive political movements, and should include, perhaps foremost, a generous political influx of a nation’s “working poor”. Instead, in recent months poor, disenfranchised, and un(der)employed white rural and urban workers, with much to gain and little to lose from the Left’s agenda, have flocked to the Right’s (reactionary) anti-globalization movements in numerous nations “up North” in the world’s richer hemisphere. This regressive and reactionary brand of anti-globalization tragically involves clear marks of the beast, all defended and proscribed as legitimate calls for “returns to normalcy and tradition”. The aberrations of the alt-right include, among others, racism, sexism, migrant-bashing, and vociferous nationalism, not to mention brazen and continuous attacks on the legal entitlements of LGBT communities.
Education, the central focus of this book, suffers immeasurably from this reactionary brand of anti-globalization, if for no other reason than because the alt-right for all intents and purposes remains staunchly neoliberal in its educational values and policy prescriptions, albeit at the national level. President Trump’s recent nomination of school voucher-touting, student loan-enforcing, civil rights-eroding Betty De Vos, millionaire business woman turned US Education Secretary, for example, attests to a new strain of nationalist neoliberalism in education, milked from the political coffers of the “America First” movement. Similarly, it would appear that an increasing number of neoliberal cohorts of nationalist populism are now politically minding the store for schools and learning in many nations experiencing right-wing populist heat waves. Indeed, it has been the business of businesses for some time, whether national or global, to find ways to replace public goods overseen by public agencies, including education, with unregulated markets and corporate takeovers. So far the earmarks of this “conversion” appear to change things little for schools and learning. When neoliberal-oriented global governance at the local level is replaced by institutional regimes and representatives of nationalist neoliberalism, the only noticeable difference is that political decision-makers seek to do more the bidding of local capitalists than foreign capital. Old wine in an older bottle.
Although it is a little too soon to see exactly how education pundits of nationalistic populist alt-right movements will handle the downsizing, privatizing, and commercializing of public education sectors under neoliberal hegemony, I am hard pressed to imagine sizable or coherent opposition. The lamentable truth is such policies invariably go hand-in-glove with both the globalized and the nationalistic versions of neoliberalism. Thus, one can almost be certain, even in the face of expected nationalistic populist coups and regime changes, that, short of a massive public response, broad-based, inclusive, and affordable quality public education is probably not going to measurably increase any time soon. Nor will the nationalist neoliberal-influenced school policies of the alt-right help to promote civic-minded, socially progressive forms of teaching and learning. It is simply not in their best interest for nationalists, racists, and xenophobes to promote social progress.
As such, the recent and jarring emergence, momentum, and strength of multinational right-wing populism will do little more than season and flavor the political economic currents and solutions discussed in this book, while in no way changing their basic nature or their relation to education. Similarly, nationalistic populist movements represent surface changes in the broader global “background landscape” of neoliberalism within which the relationships between globalization, capital, and education are played out. I don’t believe, for example, that the recent uprisings of nationally confined Alternative Right parties across Europe will in any substantive manner change the basic analysis, reasoning, or conclusions regarding neoliberalism and education presented in my book. Although the tenets of “anti-globalization in-the-rough” espoused by contemporary nationalist populists may put a certain chill on a country’s international trade and commerce, even pull some national sectors out of multi lateral free trade and environmental protection agreements; the ultimate effects of these changes on present education policies will be so negligible as to not detract even slightly from the veracity and validity of the book’s central premises regarding the relationship between neoliberalism, education, and world problems. In short, national, regional, or global neoliberalism will all continue to erode inclusive, socially responsive education and fuel mounting crises; while inclusive, socially responsive education remains a vital antidote for fostering democracy, resuscitating civil society, dismantling harsh inequalities, and solving world problems.
Should the nationalist populists ultimately win, whatever that involves, the locus of the pervasively corrosive effects of neoliberalism on education will simply shift back toward a national center of gravity at the local level, away from regional or global institutions of neoliberal governance – such as the World Bank and the IMF – that now arrange and enforce the game rules of globalization. At the end of the (school) day, then, it makes little difference for inclusive quality public education whether neoliberal globalization or neoliberal nationalism wins out. The final outcome will involve little more that the difference between six and a half dozen. Equitable, broad-based learner access to quality public schools capable of fostering principles and practices of social progress and justice will still be discouraged, even prohibited. Humanistic and progressive principles in education will continue to be replaced by the promotional ethics of market privatization, commodification, and commercialization, ultimately consummated by the on-going sell-out of both public and private institutions of learning, in exchange for human capital models of education that enhance worker productivity and serve the demands and interests of private profit.
Whichever may prevail, national or global neoliberalism, or even if the two find a way to coalesce and blend, the progressive civic life blood of social justice-based learning and teaching will remain drained from the heart of the few remaining free public schools available. Moreover, when not contributing to or causing the gargantuan crises plaguing our planet, neoliberalism of any stripe will still offer no better response to the immense sufferings of the world than claims of having made our lives better through deregulated markets guided by some mystical, invisible, self-regulating hand of efficiency. After all is said and done, it won’t matter an iota to education or to educators if those deregulated markets and the hand that guides them are national and protectionist, or global and enforced by institutions of capitalist world governance. What will make rank though is whether social leveling between disadvantaged and privileged students, intergenerational upward mobility for the poorest learners, and the cultivation of the sensibilities and skills needed for effective civic participation and democratic engagement – progressive social attributes and processes for which inclusive, affordable, and accessible public education has historically shouldered the burden – will continue to be compromised and deformed. Without massive and effective progressive political and social opposition soon, all we will have left will be a class-based, pay-if-you-can, tiered system of largely privatized schools and learning. The exclusivity and quality of conditions in the best-endowed private schools will stand in even starker contrast than at present to those found in disadvantaged public schools in poor neighborhoods, forced in an attempt to stay afloat to adhere to learning-for-labor pedagogies that impart worker discipline and productivity standards, enforced by legislated demands supporting “dynamic” national and world labor markets.