Human Capital Economy in the US: What Would Dewey Say?

Any intelligent debate on contemporary issues requires a thorough understanding of history. When reforming the educational system, are we looking to the past for understanding and inspiration? When updating the national curriculum are we sufficiently analyzing the history of the nation’s education, or are we rushing into a quick-fix mentality spurred on by the demands of the global economy?

Joel Spring (2012) notes that, “[h]uman capital economics is now the driving force in public school policies” (p. 99). Coupled with the panic in the wake of the 1983 A Nation At Risk report, the human capital theory has triggered the creation of policies led by a ‘back to basics’ approach to education. Despite previous ideals of educating ‘the whole child’, we now see that “[l]iteracy, science, and math have a higher priority in education for the global economy than other subjects such as history, social studies, and arts education” (Spring, 2012, p. 85). In watching the video on America’s educational history, I am led to ask what John Dewey— the progressive educationalist behind the idea of American child-centered education— would have to say to the current makeup of the public school system.

as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on…

There is a conflict between the practical necessity of preparing youths for future jobs and the commitment to create good citizens and moral human beings. At the heart of this conflict lays the ‘purpose of education’, and when defining this, I believe it is imperative to go back to the past. John Dewey was opposed to career tracking in schools, as well as the measurement of IQ to place students in appropriate groups. Still, as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on. A progressive new idea emerged, introducing the concept that human beings are not equal in intelligence, capacity and ability. As Joel Spring remarks: “people began to think of going to school as a way of getting a job, not as going to school to become a wise person” (PBS, 2001).

According to Spring (2012), “A 1991 study found that the use of ability grouping in […] the United States was two-thirds higher than in other countries” (p. 75). Are we returning to the career tracking of the 1920s? Is the pressure of the global economy in fact transforming American public school into an efficient ‘worker factory’ where the main goal is to provide the global market with competent workers? If this is the case, what are the implications for the American democracy and its values of freedom, equality, and human rights?

Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor.

Today’s educational policies— and the human capital theories that underlie them— could be interpreted as a return to the past. Despite efforts of educationalists like John Dewey to educate the ‘whole child’, public education seem more tailored to the needs of the economy and the market place than to the upholding and progression of democratic values. Many are welcoming reforms labeled ‘Back to Basics’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’, convinced that for the nation to grow, we must allow the Free Market (which indisputably is the driving force in much of Western society) to shape our educational system. Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor. Is it constructive, however, to allow globalization to shape school policies? Would closer correspondence between curriculum design and the world of business strengthen America’s economic and political position? What would John Dewey say if faced with the American public schools of today?

References:

Spring, J. (2012). American Education, 15th Edition. New Yotk, NY: McGraw Hill. PBS (2001). “School: The Story of American Public Education” [Video file].

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