Big issues and ELT 2: Neoliberalism
In my last post I looked at globalisation and how it is impacting on ELT. This time I’m going to try and tackle the connected concept of neoliberalism. This term is normally used in the context of economic policy, but this doesn’t make it irrelevant to ELT. On the contrary, over the last 20-odd years neoliberalism has become pretty much synonymous with capitalism, and is therefore impacting massively on society as a whole across the world. This includes education in general and perhaps global industries like ELT even moreso.
I am neither an economist nor a politician. But I’m going to have a go at defining neoliberalism anyway, and if anyone wants to correct me or give an alternative definition then they are very welcome to do so. The purpose of these posts is not so much to say what I think, but to get people thinking about how these issues apply to their contexts.
Previous, more classical versions of liberalism were mostly about creating a society that allows people to live free from exploitation or oppression. Many philosophers of the 18th century, Kant for example, believed that freedom went hand in hand with Enlightenment; knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world would allow individuals to liberate themselves from what he called ‘the guardians‘ – that faceless authority which nowadays we would be more likely to refer to as “the man”.
Neoliberalism is also about creating a free society that promotes the rights of the individual, but argues that this freedom can be attained differently. Harvey describes neoliberalism as:
‘…a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’.
(Harvey 2005: 2)
If people are given the freedom to make economic choices, the idea is that political freedom will inevitably follow. Milton Friedman, a political economist whose ideas had a huge impact on the development of neoliberal society, described the importance of a free economy thus:
‘It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.’
(Friedman 1962: 15)
In order for economic freedom to be achieved, the state, and trade unions for that matter, need to play a reduced role in controlling the market, allowing the market to control itself according to the will of the people. This means less state ownership, more privatisation, free trade, and the active participation of the population in the market, both as consumers and producers. Reduced government influence allows the market to dictate the availability of resources and the direction of society. Neoliberalism, therefore, creates an environment that promotes entrepreneurship, competition and competitiveness. It encourages people to be go-getters, and rewards those who can be successful within a competitive market.
In order for a thriving market to exist, consumerism is one of the fundamentals of neoliberalism. People need to want stuff, and once they get that stuff, they need to want more stuff. This requires people to be greedy and acquisitive or, as Olssen et al put it, ‘perpetually responsive’ (Olssen et al 2004: 137).
Now, there are some problems with all of this. Let’s look at the idea that the population controls the market. This can only really happen if everyone has equal access to the market, but of course that isn’t the case. People or organisations with more financial clout are able to exercise more control over how the market works, which gives them even more financial clout and consequently even more control. Economic freedom can only be achieved if you have money, and the more money you have the more freedom you have. Conversely, those with little or no money can’t participate actively in the economy and therefore have no control over the market and, as a result, no freedom.
So what about people who are not successful in the market? Neoliberals would argue that this is their fault. They’re too lazy, or apathetic, or maybe just stupid. Whatever the reason, such people don’t deserve to be successful.
But maybe it’s not about laziness, or apathy, or intelligence. In a neoliberal society it is often people with the least scruples and the lowest morals (and their descendants) who thrive. Compassion, morality and a sense of social justice do not lead to success, so people who place importance on these values are likely to struggle. George Monbiot’s recent article illustrates this much better than I can, and I strongly recommend you read it to get his view of the damaging impact of neoliberalism.
So, everything is about the market. So much so, in fact, that Paul Treanor suggests this:
‘Neo-liberals tend to believe that humans exist for the market, and not the other way around.’
To a large extent then, those of us who are not involved in controlling the market are actually enslaved by it. Instead of giving people what a particular group thinks they ought to want, a free market gives us what a particular group wants us to want. And they want us to want whatever they have to sell us – cigarettes, guns, oil, English language courses (hang on we’ll get to that in a bit) – and if we don’t want them, they have to convince us that we do want them.
So there are flaws in the argument that neoliberalism creates a free society. Let’s look then at the kind of society that neoliberalism does create. Monbiot and others have argued that it rewards the selfish and unscrupulous. But there’s more to it than that. Treanor describes neoliberalism in its ideal form as:
‘…a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction, with transactions occurring in an infinitely short time, and repeated at an infinitely fast rate.’
Everything, therefore, is seen in business terms. In hospitals, patients are clients. In schools, exam results are performance indicators. Social workers are service providers. Neoliberalism doesn’t just exist in business contexts; it is now pervasive across all areas of society. Everything that exists has a potential market value. This includes abstract things like actions, and ideas. Even knowledge is a commodity.
Margaret Thatcher, who, along with Ronald Reagan in the USA, was one of the first leaders to introduce neoliberalism into Western society, famously said that there is no such thing as society, just individuals. In a neoliberal world, social interaction is purely transactional. There is no point in talking to someone unless you can get something out of the conversation. There’s no room for chit-chat in a neoliberal world – unless that chit-chat can lead to something that will be of value to at least one of the speakers.
Right, let’s summarise some of the values and concepts associated with neoliberalism:
• Privatisation is good
• The state plays a limited role in the market
• People are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and competitive
• There is no real place for trade unions
• There is no real value placed on compassion or social justice
• A minority of people ends up controlling the market
• People are required to be consumers
• Everything is a commodity
• Everything has a market value
• Interactions become transactions
OK, so how do we apply all of this to English Language Teaching? Here are some questions to consider:
1. Is it just a coincidence that the rise of English as a global language happened around the same time as the rise of neoliberalism in the English-speaking world?
2. Why do governments want their population to learn English? Is it to empower these people or is it to allow them to contribute more to the economy?
3. How much control does the government have over the English language teaching industry in your country?
4. How big a role do private enterprises play in the provision of English Language Teaching?
5. Why do individuals want to learn English? Is it more for social reasons or for economic reasons?
6. To what extent are schools and universities in your country run as businesses?
7. What is generally seen as the purpose of education in your context? Is it to provide knowledge or is it to prepare learners for (or enhance their capacity in) the workplace?
8. Is the private education sector in your country expanding?
9. Is there a strong union in your workplace? When was the last time you went on strike?
10. Are teachers held in high regard in your country? What about English language teachers – higher or lower? If there is a difference, why is this?
11. Does your institution view similar institutions as partners or competitors?
12. In your teaching context, how often are courses referred to as “products”?
13. How often does your institution get contacted by publishing or software companies trying to sell their latest EdTech solutions?
14. How often do you do a speaking task with your students that has no measurable outcome?
15. Why would your students prefer to talk to you than to each other?
16. Who pays for the education you provide, and where does that money go?
17. Generally speaking, did the people in charge of your organization get to where they are because of their principles and high moral standing? If not, what common qualities can you identify in them?
18. Are decisions on course content etc. made on the basis of their educational value, or as a direct result of student preferences?
19. If you show compassion towards your students, is this because of the organization you work for or in spite of it?
20. Do you sometimes question the moral value of what you are doing in your job?
21. Isn’t it strange that a teacher should even be asked that question?
Considering the answers to these questions should hopefully allow you to evaluate the extent to which neoliberalism impacts on ELT in your particular context. For me it’s important to understand that neoliberalism affects more than just national and global economics. Everything (including education) is a commodity, and as such, everything (including the English language) is for sale. So what does that make us? Are we providers of learning or are we merely peddling a commodity so that somebody (certainly not us) can get rich?
Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Friedman, M. (1962), Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Olssen, M., Codd, J. and O’Neill, A-M. (2004), Education Policy: Globalization, Citizenship and Democracy, London: Sage.