Neutering Neoliberalism


It is almost tautological to criticize and problematize the state of modern public education in America. No one, from either side of the political spectrum, is satisfied with it. In the University setting, tuition has been on the rise, mainly due to an “administrative bloat;” in other words, college costs are rising and yet faculty spending has decreased. The root cause to these gamut of problems is easily found at the ideological foundations underpinning these dissatisfactory shifts in education, namely, Neoliberalism. College has three potential purposes, according to William Deresiewicz: (1) The commercial, (2) the cognitive, and (3) the moral. Neoliberalism has “capitalized” on the commercial and has trickled down into ever-earlier, vocationally-minded educational aims. College now looks more like a business than a place of learning. Scarcely decades ago, it was not uncommon for one’s education to cease at age fourteen; the once powerful high school diploma has now inflated into the baccalaureate degree. College and, consequently, earlier public education has suffered from this shift. This inflation of modern education, along with a slew of other errors are, to my mind, rectified through Henry Giroux’s radical imposition of Critical Pedagogy. But first, it would be useful to get clear, borrowing from the writings of Wendy Brown and Deresiewicz, on what Neoliberalism is and why it is culpable for the shortcomings of modern education.

Neoliberalism, on the surface, is a free-market model that has been liberally applied to education. That is, Neoliberalism prioritizes economic liberty over social welfare. This pervasive ideology in America has chewed its way into the educational system, now redefining the role of the school to be business-oriented, satisfying its customer-students. One can plainly see the appeal of Neoliberalism as a model for educational efficiency; as it is a career-oriented approach, there is specificity to the direction of the student, results are quantitative, etc. Additionally, a Neoliberal framework for education is a mechanism through which societal norms–the status quo–are preserved.

One could justify Neoliberalism (as politicians frequently do) in an educational appeal to our country’s need for trained, skilled workers in technical fields. Senator Marco Rubio, for example,  recently swiped at my very discipline with the wisecrack that “We need more welders than philosophers.” And, though he’s obviously incorrect, Senator Rubio has reasonable aims: An increase in skilled workers is a way to better society through an increase in social mobility, human utility, and innovation. That much seems innocuous until we realize the severe incongruities in treating education as market model instead of the social welfare model it should be. According to Deresiewicz, the Neoliberal college–and earlier education for that matter–is no longer a place intended for learning, it is has been reduced to a form of job training. Education, as many have argued, needs a severe ideological overhaul in this country. To this end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt once penned a “Second Bill of Rights,” which, amongst other things, underscored the access to a good education as a fundamental human right–as an end in itself. The Neoliberal model entirely rejects this view of education, given how the primary value of Neoliberalism is a reduction of all things to economic choices. Thus, an “artificial scarcity” of education has now emerged in which students are evermore rapidly thrown onto the vocational treadmill; the underbelly of this is an overinflated, oversaturated market of unemployed, overqualified college graduates.

Digging deeper, it becomes clear how Neoliberalism places primacy to the pecuniary, is married to meritocracy, and is a compatriot with capitalism. The most basic thing Neoliberalism advocates for is maintaining the socio-political structure we have seen for roughly the last 50 years in America. Privatization, for the Neoliberal, is the paragon of priorities. That is, a rhetoric of privatization is premised on free-market fundamentalism, i.e. Adam Smith’s invisible guiding hand of the unregulated market forces. Neoliberalism seems to have worked rather well, at least economically; America is, after all, the richest nation in the history of the world. But there is a very distinct difference between economic liberties and social welfare in this model which is too often neglected: The former has all the power in a Neoliberal society, whereas the latter is completely subverted to individuals (i.e. Randianism).

We will temporarily table the broader societal problems birthed of Neoliberalism, and first hone in on the effects Neoliberalism has had on modern education, namely a reduction of knowledge, thought, and learning, to capital enhancement. Schooling, through Neoliberalism, has become purely an instrumental good, for the Neoliberal purpose of education is to “produce producers,” not people. This implicates a detachment from social life insofar that, as Neoliberalism despotically marches into earlier and earlier aged classrooms, the children’s lives and interests become increasingly quantified–sanitized from their humanity. The social aspects of education are nonexistent when education is seen purely as an instrumental good. Creativity, as well, is now seen as a marketing tool, a business concept. Never does the Neoliberal model of education consider parental, teacher, or student consent; nor does it ever give them genuine platforms to dissent.

Neoliberalism, having infected the very purpose of education, has deteriorated everything to its market value such that students’ interests are stultified, tailored to what is “commercially viable” . Everything about education has become symbolized, through Neoliberalism, to the market language of supply and demand. But even our conception of the student is murdered through the Neoliberal lens; when the purpose of school becomes to “produce producers,” students first become “products,” which are to become future “producers,” human and economic “capital,” “investors” in themselves, etc. And as kids mature through the Neoliberal educational system, they begin to adopt a Stockholm Syndrome-like attitude towards the market language–including human beings–via the lens of cost-benefit analysis. Everything in education, then, is constrained to the dominant values of those who are in control of finances. The Neoliberal education has abjured “the project of producing a public readied for participation in popular sovereignty,” i.e. democracy. However, the Neoliberal education isn’t just a conspiratorial, top-down model. For adhering to the economic aims of education seems to be, for many people, the only way to organize society. But this also affects teachers, subjecting them to the empty buzzwords of “accountability,” and “merit pay,” for example. These ideas polarizingly divorce the vocation of the teacher from the broader context of their own lives. And the subjects of schooling have been boiled down such that, according to Deresiewicz, the “scholar” has been killed. In other words, Neoliberalism has effaced the conception of knowledge pursued as an end in itself; it has transmogrified everything about modern education into economics.

My immediate objection to applying the Neoliberal framework to education is that the very model precludes social critique. It is arrived at through appealing to economic scarcity which, frankly, is an appeal to the base instincts of ignorance and fear. Neoliberalism ascribes a moral worth to the very idea of working hard and earning money for their own sake. Not once are the psychological ramifications of such a view accounted for in Neoliberal education. And this is plainly evident in the small talk of everyday life. For, it never fails that, when I am meeting someone new, the first question out of their lips is, “What are you going to do with a degree in Philosophy?” This question is at its most insulting when the question is well-intended because of the tacit social presupposition that I, as a student, should only seek an education to train for a vocation. It bleeds a Neoliberal ideology. Never once does anyone presume that I simply enjoy learning about philosophy or engaging in vigorous intellectual debate in an academic arena. The real question should be “What interests you about Philosophy?” This anecdote highlights the ideological shift–from nearly all citizens–regarding the function of American Neoliberal education. The modern college degree is seen as valuable insofar that is has a “positive ROI.” Thus, a “war on learning” has successfully been waged in the educational arena. Instead of college preparing for life, it now prepares you to work for the rest of your life.

The worst offense of Neoliberalism in education is that it severely undercuts and inhibits democracy. Rather, Neoliberalism forestalls “democratization.” For we are not a democracy without a vibrant, well-informed, and earnestly critical citizenry; this entails the viewing of democracy as a still-unfinished process, never an object we have passively apprehended. By precluding social critique, Neoliberalism entirely runs against the very foundations of social democracy, because its sufficient conditions are “limited extremes of concentrated wealth and poverty, orientation toward citizenship as a practice of considering the public good, and citizens modestly discerning about the ways of power, history, representation, and justice.”. Democracy, then, thrives on Neoliberalism’s antipode. Neoliberalism exists through the “gentle despotism” of people’s “wholesale ignorance” about the forces shaping their lives. Thus, by reducing education to the economic, we have subverted the idea of a democratic “society” with personal interests, needs, and values. In other words, leadership has replaced citizenship.

Looking back to Deresiewicz’s three potential aims of college, through Neoliberalism, modern education is almost entirely ignoring the cognitive and moral realms. College is no longer about taking time to think about the world and how it could be better. No longer do we look to the youth to step outside the world and question it; we now fear that they may in fact change it. Giroux adds to this account of youth, noting how “nurturance, trust and respect” for future generations have been replaced by “fear, disdain, and suspicion.” These are symptoms of thinking about everything–including people–in Neoliberal market terms; we are all “economic competitors.” In short, the attitude of apathy in America is that the world isn’t going to change, so we don’t need young people to imagine how it might. Furthermore, by rendering youth in the market language, they threaten the old guard. If we are to continue championing our devotion to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as the social welfare of all, then Neoliberalism has long overstayed its welcome.

In response to the egregious, repugnant consequences of Neoliberalism, and in terms of its pernicious effects on education, I propose the introduction of Critical Pedagogy into the pedagogical and political spheres. Critical Pedagogy is a radical redefinition of education, which aims to vitally inspire “political intervention,” or social change, through active participation in democratic evaluation and critique. In Critical Pedagogy, everything in education is always aimed at possibility and envisioning the way we want the world to be. Thus, a precondition of this view is to resist ever totalizing certainties and answers; for as soon as we have fixed society into place–made it an object–we have lost democracy–as an action.

Repudiating the stultifying Neoliberal model, Critical Pedagogy takes an interdisciplinary approach to education. It is radically contextual, always taking care to ground schooling in everyday life concerns. Critical Pedagogy also values social relations, economic concerns do not shut them down as Neoliberalism does. These social relations function to foster a mix of compassion, ethics, and hope in students. Critical Pedagogy also always aims to inspire the core tenets of democracy: equality, justice, and freedom; the Neoliberal model has reduced those terms, including democracy, to their mere “economic valances.” Thus, a Critical Pedagogy is ongoing. As with democracy, it is never complete; democratization in education is what is needed to solve the problems of monolithic Neoliberalism.

Critical Pedagogy is unique in its approach because it doesn’t guarantee certainty, nor does it impose ideology of any kind. Rather, it aims to birth an ongoing “culture of questioning,” which involves taking critical approaches through a gamut of lenses: Neo-Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, critical theory, etc. If there is any “ideology” involved in the approach of a Critical Pedagogy, it is to resurrect a militant democratic socialism beyond the “dream world” of capitalism. That is, the main function of Critical Pedagogy is to problematize modernity’s universal project of citizenship. Critical Pedagogy aims to educate for a life of freedom, of intellectual sovereignty and participation in collective self-rule. Pedagogy, then, becomes political; politics, consequently, become pedagogical.

At the heart of Critical Pedagogy, there is the concern–against Neoliberalism–that education must address real social needs. Education can’t be some top-down imposition from a detached authority figure whose needs don’t remotely reflect the students’. Thus, critical pedagogy is always open to debate, as with democracy. Involved in this openness is ditching the “materiality” of politics by first understanding the dominating, interweaved structures of power in society. Critical Pedagogy, furthermore, commits itself to providing opportunities for the mobilization of collective action and outrage, in terms of politics. It makes visible the alternative models of radical democratic relations in a wide variety of sites. Critical Pedagogy even goes so far as to create, ideally, a “hegemony of democratic values.” It does this by revitalizing the “language” of civic education as a part of the broader discourse; Neoliberalism, meanwhile, has all but expunged civics courses before higher education. At the heart of Critical Pedagogy is the grounding of a “defense of militant utopian thinking,” that things can be better and we can, as social agents, take charge of politics and bring about the change we want to see in society. Critical Pedagogy commands much respect in its core aim to reinstate a “politics of possibility” in everyday life. Neoliberalism rejects the consent of those participating; Critical Pedagogy is predicated on it. To these ends, I propose Critical Pedagogy as a radical answer–”cultural politics”–to Neoliberalism’s immense influence on education.

To bring about a Critical Pedagogy would require an overhaul of our conceptions of the roles of the teacher and student. Educators begin to revitalize struggles to instigate social change, not based on their own values, but responsive to a reestablishment of political and social agency in all. The pedagogue’s main role is to teach the “language” of critique; they are politically, socially, and ethically accountable. Students, in this approach, are actively involved in their own problematizing of politics and pedagogy. Thus, education is no longer just vocationally aimed, as with Neoliberal education. Education’s main concern, as politicized pedagogy, is to unite and motivate citizens to participate in social movements. This requires vigorous, constant opposition to commercializing or corporatizing the educational sphere. Thus, Critical Pedagogy aims for students to adopt three main learning outcomes: Critical learning, ethical deliberation, and civic engagement.

Many problems appear for bringing a Critical Pedagogy to ubiquity in American society. This is most clearly illustrated by the American population’s general political apathy. For example, a national poll of senatorial approval ratings was recently published by the Morning Consult. At the top of the list was senator Bernie Sanders, who managed 83% approval. If this were a standardized test, we would be extremely concerned if the highest grade in the class was a B minus. For context, the tenth highest senator, Elizabeth Warren, polled in at a mere 64% approval, and the list gets progressively worse. Though the fallibility of polls is well documented, I think this indicates an obstacle for Critical Pedagogy. That is, to radically democratize our society at the pedagogical level is hard enough. But the broader political current in which the Critical Pedagogue has to swim is severely powerful, for the general American population has been deeply discouraged into an entrenched political apathy, one which is easily explained: The news media is nothing but sensationalism and fear-mongering; political campaigns are nothing but vacuous, capricious pandering; cases of voter fraud are not infrequently brought to light; gerrymandering of voter districts and precincts is rampant from republicans and democrats alike; the stagnation of bureaucracy is as much a truism as the failures of modern public education. The list continues, but I will arbitrarily stop there. Political apathy is but one of the many challenges Critical Pedagogy must face in the fight against Neoliberalism.

Furthermore, according to Deresiewicz, the market has now become so powerful that it is “swallowing” the very counterbalancing institutions of government which this country was founded on. For example, in wake of the American Supreme Court’s narrow approval of the nail-in-the-coffin Citizens United case in 2010, Neoliberalism has invaded politics from all sides. By allowing the inundation of money in politics, it has become all-but-impossible to mobilize collective social groups to inspire political change responsive to the general population. Those with immense wealth have translated that wealth into political power. Neoliberalism, recall, ascribes a moral worth to meritocracy. Many people, if they know about Citizens United at all, haven’t explored the ramifications of money invading politics. It’s difficult to effectively critique the power of political bribes in a system which is married to meritocracy and compatriot with capitalism. So, if we are to create an educational system to tackle Neoliberalism, we must first overturn Citizens United and similar legislative embarrassments.

But there are additional problems for bringing about a thriving Critical Pedagogy into public education. Government officials and educational administrators have obvious stake in preventing Critical Pedagogy from replacing the current model of education. Additionally, a handful of megacorporations have readily created monopolies on the buying power of schools; this is true especially of textbooks, student breakfast/lunch, computer systems, etc. The lottery, which allegedly allocates funds to education, is a lot slimier and less effective than the adverts would like us to believe. A similar trend continues all the way down. So, effectively, critical pedagogy is pitted against almost all the “powers that be” in society.

At this point, one might agree that a the Critical Pedagogy approach is needed in order to thwart Neoliberalism’s monopolistic stranglehold of education. But one might also be inclined to doubt that Critical Pedagogy is possible; there are simply too many powerful societal antagonists to attack. Yet, I think that to conclude this would be mistaken. In fact, it would be in bad faith to ignore the irony of such a conclusion, for the Critical Pedagogue would respond that this helpless attitude is due to the very pervasion of Neoliberal ideology. The central aim of Critical Pedagogy is to convert all the “impossible” forms of social change into fundamentally possible ones. The Critical Pedagogue might reply to one who doubts in the viability of such an approach that, in spite of their doubt, Critical Pedagogy is all the more urgently necessitated. It is because of this feeling of “helplessness” in the face of Neoliberalism’s immense power; Critical Pedagogy is the mechanism through which democratization is demonstrated, equality is enacted, freedom is fastened, etc. Neoliberalism, then, only dominates through our passivity to it.

Critical Pedagogy, to my mind, is the best approach to grappling with the inefficiencies and aporetic complexities of the political sphere. To bring this about, I’d argue that we need to wage a war of ideas in this country. This “war” of ideas is to be waged on the public and the powerful. Positive social change cannot happen without civil discourse; this means shedding our fears of argument, apprehending the language of critique, and even talking politics with your uncle on Thanksgiving. The very impediment to living in a desirable society is a disengagement from the social, ethical, and political realms of the public sphere. Here, I quote Brown at length:

Consider this justification, from the 1946 President’s Commission of Higher Education, for immense federal investment in public higher education: “It is an investment in social welfare, better living standards, better health and less crime. It is an investment in a bulwark against garbled information, half-truths and untruths, against ignorance and intolerance. It is an investment in human talent, better human relationships, democracy and peace.” Critical Pedagogy does not stop in the classroom, but that is where it must start. I believe that Critical Pedagogy is not failsafe, but it is forward looking. It is, in the Neoliberal language, an “investment.”

In my previous writings, I have advocated for the aims of education to be Aristotle’s “Eudaimonia,” a good life oriented towards living well. It seems to me that, of all approaches to education, Critical Pedagogy is needed in order to bring that good life about. For, if we continue to wear the pseudonym of democracy, whilst not participating in it throughout our lives, at every level, then we are deeply mistaken. As things are now, it takes everyone–not just a few–to come together and actively participate in finding what our common values are and the best way to reify them. Critical Pedagogy does not promise panacea, but it does promise possibility and progress. Democracy, if it is to exist at all, has to start in the classroom.


Works Cited:

Brown, Wendy. Undoing the DemosNeoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Massachusetts: MIT,

Deresiewicz, William. “The Neoliberal Arts.” Harper’s Magazine September 2015: 1-8. Web.

Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Contiuum International Group, 2011.

Wilson, Reid. Bernie Sanders is the Most Popular Senator in America. Morning Consult, 2015.


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