How ‘neoliberalism’ stifles debatePosted: September 1, 2016
I have always considered myself to be politically centre-left. I understand that this is a broad category and on some issues I might be more to the left than on others. Yet I haven’t really agonised about this because I thought my views were pretty mainstream.
Two factors have made me stop and think about this in recent times. Firstly, my promotion of teacher-led methods tends to be associated with the political right. Many – but certainly not all – of those who follow my blog might describe themselves as small ‘c’ conservatives and I suppose this is understandable because teacher-led instruction is a traditional approach (even if ‘progressive’ education has a longer history than you might think). But this is not the reason I am convinced by the need for teacher-led ‘explicit’ instruction. The evidence shows that explicit instruction is more effective and leads to more equitable outcomes and this fits well with my egalitarian beliefs.
The other factor that has given me pause for thought is the increasingly polarised political debate. In England now, anyone who is not an unthinking supporter of Jeremy Corbyn is labelled a ‘Tory’. And across the world, any proposal spanning a mass of ideas from centre-left to far-right is labelled ‘neoliberal’. I see centre-right think-tanks condemned in the strongest possible terms and I think, “I quite like some of these people and some of their ideas.”
I wasn’t aware until today that the term ‘neoliberal’ has been hijacked and now means something quite opposed to its original meaning. Whereas it used to imply economic liberalism with a friendly, social face, it is now used entirely negatively. As Colin Talbot explains in this post, nobody self-identifies as a neoliberal and this fact should make us pause and consider whether it describes an ideology that anyone actually subscribes to.
In the current climate, is it even possible to debate the merits of Charter Schools or their English equivalent, Free Schools? This is an issue that I’m keen to discuss. Some of these schools have been set-up to apply the kinds of teaching methods that I advocate. Yet I worry whether they will only ever be of niche value; a cottage-industry for the sharp-elbowed. If we examine the case of Sweden, we might conclude that Free Schools became dominated by the same monolithic student-centred philosophy as many state systems, perhaps to an even greater extent. Maybe this isn’t the mechanism to improve schools. I don’t really know and we’re not talking about it.
And it would seem odd to describe Free Schools as a program of privatisation because they are non-profit and are funded and regulated by the state. The academies programme, the forerunner of Free Schools, was even set-up by the British Labour Party, but I suppose that we are now meant to consider the British Labour Party of the early 2000s as neoliberal too.
Schools need some kind of reform. I am sure of that. When a concept such as whole-language reading instruction can arise and come to dominate entire school systems years after thorough research has shown its methods to be ineffective, then we have a broken system. But if all directions out are labelled ‘neoliberal’ then it makes it hard to think.
If neoliberalism means the opening-up of state-funded services to the voluntary sector, local autonomy, independence and choice, with information made available about levels of performance – as many seem to currently use the term – then it is just one tool that a politician could potentially utilise. There is still an argument to be had over what needs fixing and whether this is the best tool for the job.
I would agree that there are elements of the political right who are ideologically committed to more markets as a good in itself, just as there are elements of the political spectrum that are committed to all sorts of silly things. But that doesn’t have to affect sensible people like us. We can make decisions on the merits of any particular case. Rather than shutting away ideas in a closet labelled “neoliberalism”, the political debate would be much better served by a detailed examination of specific proposals. We might then be a little better informed.