As I’ve explored at some length here, I think of schools today as guided by our mission statements and legal mandates to pursue an ageless ideal of education along the lines of how John Dewey characterized schooling as the act of “preparing students for the adult vocations needed for society to continue to exist.”
The question of whether our current schools / teachers / curriculum are preparing students for the 21st century involves an analysis of the implicit messages communicated by schools about education and whether they are in line with the values of enlightenment and learning: an investigation of what we might call the Hidden Curriculum.
José García and Noah De Lissovoy introduce the idea that “school curriculum at any given point in time can be marked by the cultural, political and economic structure of that particular society.” Building from this premise, they set about defining the momentary economic need addressed by 21st century school curricula:
“Capitalism in its current stage is marked by structural changes in the process of production along with the rise of a global neoliberal political order. This stage is characterized by the transition to a post-Fordist process of production along with the rise of a neoliberal political project to establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites through the crafting of specific political and ideological structures and understandings (Harvey 2005; Wacquant 2012). The school, as an institution within the state, serves to produce the subjects that are required for the novel social conditions of the neoliberal era.”
Garcia and De Lissovoy frame their analysis within a context of precarious employment and financial instability – especially among young people – and “the carceral [1. Latin: carcer - prison] turn in Neoliberalism.”
“Building from Michael Hardt’s notion of ‘prison time,’ we propose a notion of school time which links preparation and demoralization, as the subjectivity of students is organized as much for exclusion as for incorporation into familiar spaces of labor and citizenship.”
In doing so, they present a hidden curriculum which “lays the groundwork for an orientation of servility in relationship to authority and a condition of precarity in relation to work.”
Driving this evolution of the hidden curriculum, the authors suggest, is the advent of a “post-Fordist regime of production,” wherein labour are:
- Flexible, mobile and precarious;
- Highly adaptable to constant innovations in production;
- Willing to move frequently between jobs;
- Accepting of the fact that long-term employment is not guaranteed;
- And able to merge the communicative processes with those formally thought as “production,” or instrumental tasks.
Part of the larger neoliberal political project, the evolution of post-Fordist capitalism has been nurtured by the cultivation of “discourses of efficiency, consumerism, choice and accountability in place of sense of collective responsibility.”
“Spheres of social activity organized on the basis of notions of the public good or social solidarity are branded as inefficient from this perspective, and neoliberalism demands that they be reorganized according to the bottom-line logic of the market (Klein 2007). The school has been one of the crucial sites of the broad neoliberalism of society (Hursh 2005; Saltman 2005).”
“In [school], the planning ahead of how time will be used, controlled and regimented by power signifies the domination over an individual‘s control of his or her time, and thus his or her freedom and sense of agency. Furthermore, the control and regimentation of time eliminates possibilities for improvisation in daily experiences; nothing is unforeseeable.”
If the schools of the Fordist era of capitalism can be seen adopting the narrative motifs of the factory – with the student the symbolic factory worker – we glimpse a hidden curriculum preparing labour to receive an altogether different induction into the “real world,” one where one’s publicly available education could ensure a stable career and income, mortgage payments and a pension.
As in the unionized factory where the symbolic ‘worker’ will take up his life’s profession, through the hidden curriculum the student is taught to contribute his skills and working life to the larger project of labour as a respected part of capitalistic society.
Compared to the worker being groomed in the schools of the 21st century, we might forgive the many failings of 1950s institutions – racism, sexism, or violence against those outside the white mainstream – for their ability to maintain the intellectual ideals that would create the space for the civil rights movements that fought to create greater human freedom across the capitalistic experience. Today’s students are prepared to enter a world of labour created by the post-Fordist, neoliberal era where, for Hardt, Garcia and De Lissovoy, the societal metaphor at work in schools’ Hidden Curriculum has evolved in kind: “society is no longer a factory, it is a prison.”
“…in neoliberalism, freedom is understood as choice [...]. The choices are already prescribed and we express our freedom by choosing from the given options. Life even outside prison has thus become regimented and void of meaning, for we no longer have autonomy to decide what and how to use our time beyond exercising our freedom to consume.”
Gregory Bateson defines the type of learning within such a set of choices as Learning I, where development is achieved through a ”correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives.”
From Learning 0 to Learning IV, Bateson introduces a Hierarchy of Learning in his book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Learning II, Bateson says, would exist as corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made.”
In Learning II, there might still be a test, or a report card; but participants are invited to be engaged in the process.
“Within this seemingly inescapable reality of domination,” Garcia and De Lissovoy concede, “there are nevertheless moments in which inmates and those outside prison resist the drive of power to control time, in authentic encounters with others and the relationships that arise from such encounters.”
As Bateson’s hierarchy moves to Learning III, we see a glimpse of schooling which encourages a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made, a truly transformative act of learning that schools are also charged with providing. For the act of learning, and of schooling, is not merely to prepare the required labour for the dictates of an all-powerful market society; it is to prepare the minds and citizenry capable of creating a society, economy and culture that honours the best of what the Project of Enlightenment promises, and critiques the status quo, imagines what could be alongside the asking why things are the way they are, and has the skills to create a meaningful tomorrow.
Through such an education, 21st century schools might realize what Paulo Freire called the creation of:
a critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.