How much can you learn in a neoliberal education system?

The notion of lifelong learning is now ubiquitous. In the Golden Age of capitalism – the decades following the Second World War – middle class dreams were couched in terms of material gain, mid-life affluence and early retirement. Today, middle class illusions rest on the promises of education, reskilling and lifelong learning.

Privatisation has expanded the education market and the teaching industry. As profits have grown, so has the integration of education with other industries and products, especially media, entertainment and consumer technologies.

This dynamic has fostered a new education ideology, driven by the culture of corporatisation and increasingly fanned by communications technology, which, like all inventions under capitalism, has been progressively gutted of its democratic potential and honed to sell products and profitable services.

In the education market, the consumer spotlight is on students, not as agents of social progress and change as they were 50 years ago in the streets of Paris, but as paying customers. 

For a student who learned to read with phonics, sat countless school exams, pays tens of thousands for a university course and works 20 hours a week while doing a degree, education is a very functional endeavour. This student-customer demands a “quality educational product” – delivered efficiently and guaranteeing success in the labour market.

The education industry peddles this “demanding customer” as the model student and a driver for promoting an education product built to comply with all the right market specifications: work-ready, adaptable, entrepreneurial.

The time-poor customer-student is focused on assessment. They don’t need “old fashioned” teachers, but instructors who can help them “navigate” their careers rather than challenge them to think deeply and critically. This education product may not even need much human interaction. Online courses and automated marking may soon restrict teachers to video presentations.

This is all glossed up with the liberal language common to the new education gurus. Students are “empowered” by learning being put in their hands.

But if you’re a teacher who believes that empowerment is about challenging students to engage with the world and the big ideas that shape and change it, then you don’t need to flip the classroom, you need to flip the system and fight to increase students’ contact with you, with each other and with the communities they are part of.

A good teacher needs to slow things down. In today’s world, where students are forced to rush from task to task, browser tab to browser tab, there is probably no better advice a teacher can give than Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s: “Don’t spread yourself too thin!”

“I can only advise them not to hurry, not to spread themselves thin, not to skip from one topic to another, and not to pass on to a second book until the first has been properly read, thought over, and mastered.”

Here is the crux of the matter: only through in-depth, systematic and meticulous study can we grasp connections and dynamics. And only as we do this can we come to know and understand “how to study and learn”.

“In the ideological sphere, just as in the economic arena, the phase of primitive accumulation is the most difficult and troublesome”, wrote Trotsky. 

“And only after certain basic elements of knowledge and particularly elements of theoretical skill (method) have been precisely mastered and have become, so to speak, part of the flesh and blood of one’s intellectual activity, does it become easier to keep up with the literature not only in areas one is familiar with, but in adjacent and even more remote fields of knowledge, because method, in the final analysis, is universal.”

There is something we need to add to Trotsky’s advice, which, given his audience and his era, he would have taken for granted. You cannot learn without opinion and argument. We can thank Socrates for making this obvious.

We might say that the dialectical method is innate in human existence. We are social beings and when we engage – which capitalism does its utmost to discourage – we learn through the clash of ideas and perspectives. 

The best learning environment is a community of debate, where teachers encourage and challenge their students, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said, to the point of being uncomfortable.

How else could you possibly have “deep learning”? To see not only what is, but also what has been and what could be, requires a “restless pursuit” of knowledge.