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I know George Monbiot best for his excellent articles about Neoliberalism and was shocked to read his article about education, In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant. The very title sounds like the kind of click-bait that the WEF, OECD, or World Bank uses to push their neoliberal agendas: Preparing for the Robots: Which Skills for the 21st Century Jobs?

Monbiot frames education as having a fundamentally economic purpose:

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

He makes sweeping generalizations about what classrooms and pedagogy look like:

So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

And adopts the ‘no change’ view that education adheres to a ‘factory model’:

There is, as Graham Brown-Martin explains in his book Learning {Re}imagined, a common reason for these perversities. Our schools were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

As far as relevance and utility are concerned, we might as well train children to operate a spinning jenny. Our schools teach skills that are not only redundant but counter-productive. Our children suffer this life-defying, dehumanising system for nothing.

As Fred Bartles pointed out to me, Monbiot has not exactly joined the GERM movement that advocates market-based solutions to education, which is a central plank of Milton Friedman’s Neoliberalism. But Monbiot sounds an awful lot like the worst neoliberal policy cliches when he talks about making sure we “equip children for the likely demands of the 21st century” and prepare kids for “the real world.”

Compare Monbiot to Andreas Schleicher’s (OECD) Case for 21st Century Learning: “How do we foster motivated, dedicated learners and prepare them to overcome the unforeseen challenges of tomorrow? The dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate or outsource.”

Or to the WEF: “Most education systems today are based on models put in place over a century ago. Fragmented attempts at reform and modernization have proven, in most cases, insufficient in addressing the growing gap between conventional education systems, the demands of modern life and new labour markets. Governments, businesses and individual learners must grasp the need for real, comprehensive change in order to close the preparedness gap as the world enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

In each case, the focus rests on preparation for the economy. So while, for Monbiot, the market is not the solution to creating better schools, better schools are supposed to serve the market. In a typology of futures, Kent de Heyer, drawing on Neil Gough, argues that tacit, token, and taken for granted futures encourage us to ‘act out someone else’s scenes’ – the market’s – rather than imagine better possibilities than what currently seem probable. The tacit are “never clearly stated” (real world), the token are cliches (21st Century), and the taken for granted assume ‘more of the same’ (increasing automation).

We should be skeptical of any sweeping generalizations about schools all being stuck in the past, especially some monolithic industrial era past, as Audrey Watters has cautioned. Keri Facer points that the ‘no change’ myth, essentially a token past,

presents a profoundly anti-progressive account of education history, one which does little justice to the dynamism of educators, educational activists and their capacity to act as a force for change in the world. The argument that the last century has seen few changes in schools, after all, relies on a particularly partial view of what counts as change. It requires in western countries, for example, that we overlook the fact that women and people of colour are now assumed to have the same educational rights as men and white people, that those with learning difficulties and physical disabilities are accorded respect and education rather than being consigned to asylums, and that children and young people have a right to protection from physical harm and abuse, rather than benefiting from being ‘taught a lesson’. While such rights are yet to translate into true equality, a perspective that nothing has changed in education might nonetheless be seen to be one that emerges from a particularly privileged position in which such rights are taken for granted. Such a ‘no change’ narrative serves to exclude progressive accounts of educational change, and to discourage an awareness of the gains that have already been made and consequently might be built upon in the future.





I footnotes