Worlds of Education

Market Obscurantism

published 3 March 2017 updated 3 March 2017

By Jim Baker, Education International

Adam Smith and generations of free market, liberal, or classical economists who followed him saw the market as an efficient, workable way for the economy to function. It was based on self-interest. Smith argued, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. “

Smith and his successors did not believe, however, that all the needs and missions of society could be fulfilled by the market. And they did not consider that it was perfect. Many liberal economists were involved in reforms to regulate the market to make it function better. Anti-trust legislation, for example, was advocated to protect the market by preventing it from concentrating and destroying itself.

Later schools of economic thought developed that were skeptical of private Capital and wanted to eliminate it to oversee it, steer it, or contain it. In post-War Europe, people spoke of a 'social market'. A common element was that none of these different schools of thought considered the market as infallible or as an object of worship.

Market reverence can be blinding

The notion of the wisdom of the market, coupled with often uninformed attacks on public services has created an environment of facts versus faith. On issues like privatisation and commercialisation, facts, and experience matter, but only if you manage to prove, first, that the world is not flat. It is a kind of market obscurantism where critical thinking and evidence are chilled by zealots; real or feigned.

This fervour not only chills or de-rails real discussion, but it also obscures motives that may be less than angelic. To return to Adam Smith, he also said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Of course, he was part of the Enlightenment. Thinkers of that time, regardless of their differing philosophies, felt that the human mind should be liberated from rigid dogmas and that scepticism, tolerance, and critical thinking should be encouraged, practiced, and taught.

Serving children and shareholders?

Among the things that are obscured by the smokescreen of market faith is conflicts of interest. It is normal for profit-making enterprises to “deliver” for their shareholders. Unlike schools, their mandate is relatively simple; to turn a good and, if possible, quick profit from the education business.

However, to confound such profit-seeking behaviour with public service or the public good is aberrant and dangerous. The inherent conflict of interest between “serving” children and serving shareholders is compounded by implicating commercial firms with a pecuniary interest in the making of education policy.

Bridge International Academies could not be clearer about their raison d’être. On their website, they state that Bridge “was founded from day one on the premise of this massive market opportunity, knowing that to achieve success, we would need to achieve a scale never before seen in education, and at a speed that makes most people dizzy.”

Finding clarity in the darkness

EI and others, in the Enlightenment tradition, are shining light on these obscure, sometimes hidden habits and practices. And, even some governments are beginning to discover that they have been the victims of snake-oil marketing, often supported, directly or indirectly, by donor governments.

It is not only multinational companies, however, that are damaging education with market dogma. It is also affecting policy in many public schools. Private management thinking is too often transplanted into public services. That results, among other things, in excessive use of centrally designed standardised testing.

Such practices often focus on those elements of schooling that can most easily be measured. They borrow from the private sector axiom that there is no management without measurement. That distorts education by removing from priorities many subject areas to help children live and not just work, including those related to values like tolerance and democracy and peace, which are not easily measurable. They may also reduce the autonomy and role of professional teachers; expected to perform and deliver by carrying out orders and administering pre-packaged instruction.

Granting market and management thinking unexamined reverence is wrong and dangerous. Placing education in such a straightjacket is affecting the way in which communities are conceived, justice is understood, and democracy is practiced.

In other words, the mission of education is still about a lot more than finding market opportunities and comforting bottom lines. It is about building decent and democratic societies and equipping people to be independent actors in their own lives. And that will never be possible if education is to be switched onto auto-pilot, if the needs of students are not considered or if the professionalism of teachers is betrayed or their status diminished.

As Albert Einstein said: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.