Neoliberalism and the hijacking of globalization and education

David Hursh

Over the last several decades, neoliberalism has been presented as a necessary and inevitable outcome of globalization and, therefore, has shaped social, economic, and educational policies. However, neoliberalism or free market capitalism neither achieves the economic and social benefits claimed for it nor functions as a self-regulating system. Instead, neoliberalism, as the current global recession makes abundantly clear, has devastated global economies and wrecked havoc on the environment. Therefore, I will argue the following:

  • Over the last several decades, beginning with Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the U.S, politicians, the corporate and media elite have hijacked the process of globalization (the shrinkage of space and time) to promote neoliberalism as the only way in which the world can be organized. Neoliberalism promises to increase economic growth and reduce poverty and inequality. Consequently, neoliberalism, with its emphasis on privatization, deregulation, competition, and the dismantling of welfare and education programs except in the service of capital, has come to dominate the decision-making process.
  • Education, from preschools through the post-secondary level, is increasingly reshaped into competitive markets where students are to be assessed via standardized tests with the goal of creating entrepreneurial individuals who will be economically productive members of society, responsible only for her or him self. Neoliberal societies aim to create instrumentally rational individuals who can compete in the marketplace (Peters, 1994).
  • However, neoliberalism in practice differs from neoliberals’ theoretical assertions. Instead, writes Harvey (2005), neoliberalism is:

a benevolent mask of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but more particularly in the main financial centers of global capitalism. (p. 119)

  • Moreover, by prioritizing profits over other non-monetary aspects of our lives, neoliberalism has been disastrous for the environment, especially after the election of George W. Bush, who refused to endorse reduction in carbon emissions on the grounds that it might hinder economic growth (Bellow, 2005, p. 183). In opting out of the Kyoto protocols, Bush claimed: “I will explain as clear as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy…. That’s my priority. I’m worried about the economy” (Bush, cited in McKibben, 2006, p. 18). (Although Bush’s real worry seemed not to be the overall economy but getting profits to corporate executives.
  • Furthermore, neoliberals’ faith that markets need not be regulated because markets will regulate themselves, in hindsight, may only be true at the cost of everyone’s well being. For example, repealing sections of the Glass-Steagall Act prohibiting banks from owning other financial companies and reducing oversight, led to banks becoming involved in insurance and other industries, and making questionable mortgage loans. Consequently, when borrowers were unable to make escalating payments, the mortgage and housing industry collapsed, millions have been thrown out of work, and we have entered a global recession. As Brenner and Theodore (2005) state, “neoliberal political practice has generated pervasive market failures, new forms of social polarization, a dramatic intensification of uneven spatial development at all spatial scales” (p. 5).
  • The current economic recession has even led some neoliberals, including Alan Greenspan, to acknowledge that if markets are to survive and prosper, they cannot be unregulated. Increasingly, economists and politicians realize that markets need some albeit minimal oversight. However, I will argue that in the U.S., the question is whether Barack Obama will do more than aim to restore market efficiency by instituting some regulations and, instead, subordinate the market to the goal of creating global economic, social, and environmental justice.
  • Finally, I will argue that we need to a new educational system that does not focus on training individuals to be economically productive but rather aims to answer the essential questions of our time. For example, David Orr (1994, 2002) and Bill McKibben (2007) argue that environmental sustainability requires rethinking the purpose of education and society. Orr (2002) begins a recent book by asking,

How do we re-imagine and remake the human presence on earth in ways that work over the long haul? Such questions are the heart of what theologian Thomas Berry  (1999) calls “the Great Work” of our age. This effort is nothing less than the effort to harmonize the human enterprise with how the world works as a physical system and how it ought to work as a moral system. (p. 3)

This great work requires that we situate the question of environmental sustainability within larger issues of ethics/justice, politics, economy, agriculture, design, and science and that these become the focus of education.

Hijacking globalization to serve neoliberalism

Thomas Friedman, best selling author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005), is a leading proponent of neoliberalism whose views are adopted by corporate and governmental leaders around the globe. While Friedman never uses the term neoliberalism, preferring instead free-market capitalism, the policies he advances are the same: competition, markets, deregulation, privatization, and the reduction of the welfare state. Manfred Steger, in Globalism: Market Ideology Meets Terrorism (2005), portrays Friedman as providing the “official narrative of globalization” (p. 54).

Friedman argues that globalization requires neoliberal policies and that neoliberal policies support the process of globalization. They are essentially two sides of the same coin and we can no more reject free-market capitalism than we can reject globalization. We have, according to Friedman (1999), no choice but to adopt neoliberal policies.

The driving force behind globalization is free market capitalism—the more you let market forces rule and the more you open your economy to free trade and competition, the more efficient your economy will be. Globalization means the spread of free-market capitalism to virtually every country in the world. Therefore globalization also has its own set of economic rules—rules that revolve around opening, deregulating and privatizing your economy, in order to make it more competitive and attractive to foreign investment. (p. 9)

Neoliberals, like Friedman, have promoted their policies sufficiently to dominate the public discourse so that people are increasingly unlikely to challenge their assertions. Neoliberalism has become ingrained as the rationale for social and economic policies and, as such, is rarely challenged, but accepted as necessary and inevitable.

A whole set of propositions is being imposed as self-evident: it is taken for granted that maximum growth, and therefore productivity and competitiveness, are the ultimate and sole goal of human actions; or that economic forces cannot be resisted. (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 30)

Neoliberalism and education

Neoliberalism, writes Leitner, Sheppard, Sziarto & Maringanti (2007), replaces the common good and state concern for public welfare with the entrepreneurial individual aiming to succeed within competitive markets. Neoliberal policies favor

supply-side innovation and competitiveness; decentralization, devolution, and attrition of political governance, deregulation and privatization of industry, land and public services [including schools]; and replacing welfare with ‘workfarist’ social policies…. A neoliberal subjectivity has emerged that normalizes the logic of individualism and entrepreneurialism, equating individual freedom with self-interested choices, making individuals responsible for their own well-being, and redefining citizens as consumers and clients. (p. 1-2)

Because neoliberalism is described as inevitable, neoliberal education reforms are also assumed to be “natural” and inevitable. President Bush’s statements supporting the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) exemplify how neoliberals connect globalization with neoliberal education reforms.

NCLB is an important way to make sure America remains competitive in the 21st century. We’re living in a global world. See, the education system must compete with education systems in China and India. If we fail to give our students the skills necessary to compete in the world in the 21st century, the jobs will go elsewhere. (U.S. Department of Education, 2006, p. 2)

In the U.S., elementary and secondary reforms have focused on developing markets in education and, where possible, privatizing education. In order to hold schools accountable for producing productive workers, neoliberal proponents have pushed for high-stakes standardized exams in which teachers and students are punished for failing to achieve test-score thresholds. Such reforms, as I have described elsewhere (Hursh,  2007, 2008) have resulted in an increased drop out rate for students of color and students living in poverty, and a slowing in the reduction of the achievement gap between students of color and White students (Orfield, 2006).

Similarly, over the last few decades, neoliberal rationalities have been infused into post-secondary education. I recently have, with my colleague Andrew Wall, begun to examine the consequences of neoliberalism for post-secondary education. In our paper (Hursh & Wall, 2008) presented at the 2008 meeting of the World University Forum, we argued that neoliberal policies were increasingly colonizing higher education and, therefore, such processes needed to be analyzed and resisted.

We described how,

traditional notions of the purpose of the university, fraught with ambiguous aims including knowledge generation, service to society and liberal education, have been scrutinized and transformed into neoliberal objectives more easily articulated for policymakers (Cohen & March, 1986; Pheffer, 1977; Weick, 1976)…. The university is increasingly conceived ‘as an enterprise,’ with knowledge as a commodity to be invested in, bought and sold, and academics as entrepreneurs, who are evaluated based on the income they generate (Seguerski, p. 304). (Hursh & Wall, 2008)


Universities are conceived less as a place that generates knowledge that is important in itself or for society in general. Instead, universities look to how they can partner with corporations to create knowledge that has an economic benefit. Moreover, universities themselves have become corporatized, seeking to minimize their costs while maximizing their revenue. Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy (2006) describes American Higher Education as increasingly market smart and mission driven, suggesting the reconciliation of the corporatization of the university with traditional university purposes…. Slaughter and Rhoades (2005) and Slaughter and Leslie (1997) describe the emergence of academic capitalism with vivid examples of how fiscal resource tensions and declining state support for higher education have led to a push toward entrepreneurialism, commodification of knowledge and seeing students as consumers whose tuition revenue must be maximized.

The press toward entrepreneurialism is a push to generate a diversification of revenue streams for an institution.  New knowledge, existing expertise, and instructional capacity are all commodities to be operationalized to generate revenue and institutional profit.  An “academic capitalist knowledge and learning regime” has emerged, replacing an ideology of a “public good knowledge and learning regime” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2005). Faculty in the new academic capitalist environment are pressured to develop research that attracts funding, often in the form of corporate sponsorship, and that generates patents that might be utilized by the office of technology transfer to be transformed into profitable lines of business.  The danger inherent in the push toward entrepreneurialism in research includes narrowing academic freedom and research to what is fundable and permissible to be published under funding agreements (Mendoza, 2007).  The knowledge production is distorted to conform to the market.

Similarly, students become valued not as learners and individuals who will become a part of the fabric of society, but as little economic engines whose knowledge will fuel an economy and at the same time whose tuition becomes essential for the economic vitality of institutions of higher education in the United States (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2005).  The sea change in US policy away from a low tuition and low aid to a high tuition and high aid approach to access and funding of higher education has moved students closer and closer to being pure consumers (Alexander, 1998).  The high cost of tuition means that institutions work to maximize tuition revenue, through escalating tuition, higher enrollment and decreased costs. (Hursh & Wall. 2008, p. 7-8)

Neoliberalism and its consequences for the environment and workers

Neoliberals’ desire to not intervene in markets and to focus on economic growth, primarily in terms of consumption, has both significantly contributed to the   environmental problems that we face and to global warming. For example, the negative consequences of China’s wholesale adoption of capitalist, neoliberal policies have become increasingly evident. Harvey (2005, p. 174) describes how neoliberal policies contributed to the degradation of China’s environment. China now has sixteen of the twenty worst cities in the world with respect to air pollution (Bradsher, 2003) and, according to a recent study, has surpassed the United States as the top emitter of carbon dioxide. Recent reports (Barboza, 2007) indicate that China’s air and water pollution causes 750,000 premature deaths annually and costs $160 billion a year in damages. Furthermore, the drive for capitalist expansion at all costs has contributed to numerous ecological disasters, including benzene and nitrozine spills in the Singhua River (Lague, 2005), which contaminated drinking water for millions of people, and exporting dangerous products, including toys with lead paint, defective auto tires, and poisoned toothpaste.

Furthermore, as I noted above, by privileging markets over the environment, the Bush administration has exacerbated global warming to such an extent that implementing carbon emission reductions now may be too late to halt continued melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica with the related rise in sea levels (Hansen, 2006).

Even though it is Bush’s and other neoliberals’ unending faith in the market that has contributed to our environmental catastrophe, they continue to resist governmental regulations of greenhouse gases or incentives for reducing energy use, and persist in believing that the market will create technological solutions to our environmental problems.

While decreasing corporate regulation, neoliberalism requires that “the state create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices,” (Harvey, 2005, p. 2) including international organizations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, that pressure national governments to eliminate trade barriers and reduce social spending. In the United States, state and federal governments have intervened to create testing and accountability requirements, including regulations privatizing public schools that serve the interests of private corporations. Neoliberals demand that governments reduce corporate regulations while intensifying their intervention into people’s lives. Under neoliberalism, governments exist to promote corporate profit rather than public welfare.

Moreover, recent research has revealed how neoliberalism contributes to increasing economic (Davis, 2005; Leitner, Sheppard, & Peck, 2007) and educational (Lipman, 2004; Anyon, 2005) inequality within cities. Mike Davis, in Planet of Slums (2005), details the negative consequences that neoliberalism has for most of the world. Many countries, especially in the global South, currently create few if any formal jobs. Davis cites one UN projection that only 10% of Africa’s new workers will find formal jobs (p. 177), and, therefore, few will have jobs in which they earn more than a meager insecure income. Contrary to Friedman’s cheerful description of India’s high tech boom, it is, according to a “leading Western economic consultant … a drop in the bucket in a sea of poverty” (p. 173).

In addition, neoliberal governments play a minimalist role in providing services. Davis cites a Nairobi slum-dweller: “The state does nothing here. It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals” (p. 62).  Because of the lack of housing and services, the urban slum population continues to grow exponentially, with Black Africa estimated to have 332 million slum-dwellers by 2015. Illnesses related to inadequate water supply, waste disposal, and garbage currently kill 30,000 people daily (p. 142). In 46 countries people are poorer today than in 1990 (p. 163). Many of the world’s cities and much of the world’s populations are growing poorer and the world is becoming more, not less, unequal (Jomo & Baudot, 2007).

Beyond neoliberal economic and education policies

Neoliberalism, then, is a failed policy that has increased economic and social disparity, has led to our current global recession, and has subverted education’s goals in the service of the commodification of knowledge. However, activists, scholars, students have long resisted the subversion of education for the purpose of economic growth and the current financial and environmental crises have further revealed the dangers and contradictions of neoliberal policies.

Rather than describing the breath of that resistance, what I prefer to do here is suggest that the question of how we develop a world that is both socially just and environmentally sustainable can and should be one of the essential questions that we ask in our educational institutions.

We need to ask: How do we develop a just sustainable world, that is, how we are to live on this planet in a way in which we meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 8)? In addition, it is not enough to develop a world that is environmental sustainable if most in the global north has a high standard of living and most in the global south are living in poverty `(Bello, 2002). We also need ask is how do we create a “just sustainable world.”

David Orr, a professor in environmental studies, increasingly situates environmental studies within ethical, economic, and political contexts. In particular, he criticizes education and politics for failing to take on the “great issues” of our age. Orr quotes Vaclav Havel (1992), the Czech playwright, writer, and politician, who stated that “Genuine politics—politics worthy of the name…is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us”  (p. 6)

Bill McKibben, whose early books were on the environment, most recently, in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007), advocates that we rethink our economic principles so that rather than focusing on growth and increasing the Gross Domestic Product, we focus on improving the quality of our lives and our local communities. How do we measure people’s quality of life and how do we develop economies that work towards improving the well being of everyone?

Figuring out how do develop such a world requires that we develop an interdisciplinary understanding of the world that incorporates global politics and local initiatives, science and ethics, history and technology. A good example of the interrelatedness of seemingly disparate issues is Michael Pollan’s (the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) argument that if we in the U.S. are to decrease the amount of energy we use, improve people’s health, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and combat global warming, we need to rethink what we eat. A month before the election, Pollan’s (200b) open letter to the incoming “Farmer in Chief” outlined his proposal for a new food policy to the incoming president. In the article, he argued that because our current agriculture policies subsidize growing corn, soy, wheat, and rice (most of the corn is turned into corn syrup for our soft drinks or feed for livestock). The subsidies make fast food burgers and soft drinks cheap but vegetables and fruit expensive. Consequently, people are more likely to be obese and suffer from illnesses, such as adult onset diabetes. In fact “four of the top killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer.”  Therefore, while our fast food may be cheap, we pay for it with our health and rising medical costs.

In addition, the amount of energy necessary to plant, fertilize, harvest, and ship these crops so that they can be made into foods is significant. In the U.S., the food industry uses more energy than used by people to commute to and from work. Moreover, by subsidizing crops that are grown not for human consumption but for cattle, and are shipped long distances contributes significantly to global warming. In writing about food policy, Pollan interweaves what he has learned about agricultural policies and practices, nutrition, diseases, health care, energy use and global warming and concludes that we must change our food policies if we are to reduce energy use, slow global warming, and improve nutrition and people’s health. In fact, he argues that we cannot solve the problem of global warming and our worsening health without confronting our abysmal agricultural policies and developing a new food (rather than agricultural) policy.

My own essential question that I think should be part of the curriculum focuses on how do we develop an environmentally sustainable world that is also socially just? That is, how do we create a world in which we meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the future, in which humans and other living things continue to flourish? If we fail to answer this question, human civilization and the global environment will decline. Consequently, how we develop an environmentally sustainable world that is also just, that treats fairly people, is the essential question of our time (Bello, 2002).

Answering this essential question requires that we take an interdisciplinary approach to examining a wide range of complicated questions that will require our best scientific, philosophical, political, and economic thinking. For example, we need to ask: How do we develop a global system in which countries that are at various stages of development agree on issues of energy production and use? How do we rethink the production and consumption of food so as to place less of a burden on the environment?

Moreover, I would argue that we are unethical if we are not assisting students in asking and answering questions like these. Rather than thinking about how our students have performed on a standardized test, or whether they have memorized their textbook sufficiently in order to pass an exam, we need to be asking whether our students are learning how to pose questions, collect and analyze data, and make decisions for themselves and their community.

Focusing on these questions will require that we rethink our educational systems away from one in which teachers deposit knowledge in students heads while teaching an artificially segregated subject area to one in which students, teachers, and community members actively work to answer questions that are important to both individuals and communities. Moreover, they allow us to raise questions about the purposes of economic systems and the goals of our society.

Lastly, as essential questions, there is no one agreeing upon the answer as to how we develop a just sustainable world (or even whether this is the question we should be asking).  What makes sense for one community will be different for another. What makes sense at one time will be different from another. Moreover, there will be differences of opinion in what counts as fair. Such questions promote dialogue between communities and countries and a greater understanding of what people face in order to live healthy and safe lives.


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