Sights Unseen: On Willful Blindness to Education’s Higher Purpose

by Sherri Spelic, Austria

When something happens gradually, over time, it can be easy for us not to notice significant changes until we are confronted with a circumstance that surprises or shocks us. Through my readings about schools and education I find that I am often flabbergasted at some of the policies, initiatives and outcomes which document myriad ways in which student well-being and equitable treatment seem to be among the least considered priorities. Particularly in North American K-12 and higher education developments, I notice how business terminology and reasoning have entrenched themselves in our conversations about how schools should function in order to achieve the best outcomes for the economy. In this rhetorical space, education’s highest priority is to produce qualified and skilled members of the workforce.

As an educator, parent, and citizen, I fear that we as a society or even collection of societies put ourselves at risk if we fail to question and put a halt to this instrumentalist type of reasoning with regards to education. The rhetoric of brutal global competition is eroding our capacity to focus on asking what truly matters in providing our children and grandchildren with what they will need for their futures besides jobs and income. In all of our lip service to “21st Century Skills” we still pay more homage to the holy grail of what our offspring may earn rather than to how well equipped they will be to avert environmental, financial and/or social disaster by adopting and practicing those skills. We say that we want them to be critical thinkers and adept problem solvers while assuming, consciously or not, that their greatest challenge will likely be finding a job that pays well enough to free them from thousands of dollars of crushing student debt. “To get a good job” would appear to be our society’s best answer to the question “why school?” if we ever dared to pose it.

Dan Haesler recently wrote about the consequences of this phenomenon in Australia:

Our system is being guided by a perceived need to “compete” with Finland and our Asian neighbours in the education ‘race’. This leads to systems focusing heavily on comparative scores in standardised tests, which in turn puts pressure on teachers to get children ‘across the line’.

He notes a widespread disengagement among students in schools in addition to increasing unemployment levels among young people at both ends of the spectrum of educational attainment. Clearly, the focus on getting students “across the line” is not achieving its intended results.

Kentaro Toyama, in an article for The Atlantic, “Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Schools” asserts

In America, much of our collective handwringing about education comes from comparisons with other countries…” and he adds, “We all know that our schools are unequal. Less acknowledged is that this inequality is responsible for our lack of global competitiveness.

Our societies find themselves in a race and we, its citizens, need to prepare ourselves and our progeny to win, to keep pace, or at all costs, not to fall too far behind. That’s the going rhetoric in many of our societies. Seen in this light, education exists strictly as the means to very narrow ends: securing and perpetuating economic growth. And in a neoliberal worldview, this path is the one to take.

Until I read a book review of Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos my understanding of neoliberalism as a political worldview and playbook for political action, lacked coherence. In “Neoliberalism Is Changing Our World Without Our Even Noticing,” reviewer Hans Rollman offers readers an excellently concise guide to neoliberal thinking and practice based on Brown’s work. In one passage he illustrates how neoliberal doctrine which advocates for unfettered markets coupled with the least possible governmental regulation has become so ensconced in our popular thinking that our attempts to counter this line of reasoning employ much of the same language and mental models.

The danger, in other words, is that efforts to resist neoliberalism are increasingly being expressed in such a way that they serve to entrench and legitimize neoliberal values – economization, efficiency, capital enhancement—rather than questioning or challenging the desirability and social and political consequences of those values in the first place.

This rings especially true when I think about recent debates about school reform in the US. Our narrow definitions of school and student success through standardized test scores, college admissions (rather than completion), and relative income levels of graduates illustrate the extent of the dilemma. Lois Weiner describes the juxtaposition of education’s purposes and how this plays out in American society in a review of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools:

Ravitch does not address the contradiction between schooling’s non-economic purposes — its role in educating the next generation of citizens and nurturing each individual’s potential — and its use as a sorting mechanism to allocate a diminishing number of well-paying jobs. Unfortunately, neoliberal reforms resonate with many poor, minority parents precisely because they want the same opportunity for their children to compete for good jobs as middle-class children have.

Weiner speaks here of a contradiction between the economic imperative and what I have called education’s “higher purpose.” Her example underscores the slipperiness of neoliberal framing of public education in popular thinking. The fear of not being competitive is of course heightened for members of society farthest from the top. The certain and potential long and mid-term costs of entering the race under these conditions typically goes unmentioned.

In the neoliberal model, we lose sight of the individuals who make up our institutions, our neighborhoods, our body politic and their contributions to our communities. We become blind to the difference that volunteer efforts can make, or to the desire of many to pool and share their resources in order to benefit a greater good. We ignore the value of the resources and qualities in people which do not lend themselves to easy measurement. We put ourselves at risk as people and societies by doing so.

Education is a field which holds miraculous potential to uplift rather than sort and separate individuals and groups from each other. On a hopeful note, Dan Haessler concludes:

We need an education system that is equitable – not necessarily equal. It must be devoid of silos, rich in partnerships that bring together the corporate, academic, research, not-for-profit, community and education sectors to design a model that best suits the students in their care. Teachers must be empowered to go into schools to do what they went into teaching to do – help children – not to beat Finland.

I agree. Our schools need a higher purpose than merely feeding the global economic machine. Without questioning the prevailing ethos of competition, of celebrating winners while blaming the losers, our schools will not improve. Our schools will not become nourishing places for children until our societies decide that children are more than future members of the workforce. Our societies will not prosper unless we educate our children to understand and appreciate that nations constitute much more than their gross domestic product.

Author Peter Block captures best what I would wish for in reinventing education systems which nurture and sustain us as a society rather than squeeze us for a designated output. Speaking about the ways in which our thinking in terms of the exclusively practical and doable ( the how?) tends to hamper our willingness to engage on questions of larger purpose and general well-being, he writes:

Whatever our destination, it is letting go of the practical imperative that is most likely to guide us to a larger sense of where we want to go and what values we want to embody in getting there. What matters is the experience of being human and all that this entails. What will matter most to us, upon deeper reflection, is the quality of the experience we create in the world, not the quantity.

(bold: Block’s) Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes. Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2002, p. 37.)

As members of results-driven societies, we appreciate the certitude that quantification appears to provide. As humans, however, we search doggedly for precisely those qualities of life which defy objective measurement: meaning, belonging, purpose, autonomy, happiness, to name a few possibilities. That our education systems strive to become more human rather than less rings true both as my deepest wish and our mounting challenge.


About the Author:

Sherri Spelic profile picture

Sherri Spelic is a leadership coach, education blogger and teacher based in Vienna, Austria. Understanding and unraveling the mysteries of human relations particularly with regard to learning, leading, following and failing are recurring themes in her writing which appears most frequently at Follow her on Twitter: @edifiedlistener.


3 thoughts on “Sights Unseen: On Willful Blindness to Education’s Higher Purpose

  1. Sherri, thanks again for writing and submitting this to edcontexts. Such a powerfully written piece, it really did make me step back and look critically at the way in which conversations about education are framed. When I stop to think about how it is spoken of – in the media, politics, in schools, universities, everyday conversation – education is absolutely, almost always framed in the context of getting a ‘good’ job, income, being a (economically) productive member of society – all of which is…”good for the economy.”

    In Australia – and in particular – Sydney, I think this is often discussed in conjunction with the rising cost of living, and housing affordability (Sydney being one of the least affordable cities in the world). The rhetoric of getting an education to get a good job / earn a good income / compete in the job market resonates because of people’s insecurity about the economy and cost of living. You need to get an education to get a ‘good job’ so you can afford to live in the expensive city which you can’t leave because that’s where all the work and good jobs are…all of this is so ingrained and socially conditioned into you that you don’t stop to question don’t even really notice it – until you come across a post like this, that points it out so eloquently (along with a collection of quotes from equally eloquent and insightful commentators). On reading your post, the experience that you describe in the opening sentence washed over me. It articulated my general unease with the ever-increasing focus on academic achievement and performance on standardised tests in schools, and the corporatisation of education. Education is increasingly run and marketed as a business rather than places that foster the pursuit of knowledge and discovery. So often students entering university base their decisions not on their interests and passions but on what is likely to lead to getting ‘good job’.
    I love the quote you’ve included from Peter Block at the end: “What matters is the experience of being human and all that this entails. What will matter most to us, upon deeper reflection, is the quality of the experience we create in the world, not the quantity.”
    I think this perfectly sums up what makes us uncomfortable with the neoliberal world view you’ve described, and why it feels wrong. It denies what matters most to us as humans – the quality of our experience in the world, and finding real purpose and meaning in it.
    I think I’ll be thinking about this post for a while. Thank you : )

    1. Thank you, Tanya. I hear you. Neoliberal creep somehow captures this feeling that this mindset has taken over without our having really noticed. Of course we want to do more than survive; we strive to succeed – that means finding ways to finance our lives in ways that allow us to care for ourselves and others.
      Here’s the thing though, when we as individuals, as organizations, as societies orient ourselves toward mutual and shared benefit, we can still generate functional and financially buoyant economies which are robust. I believe this is possible, although it sounds like a fairy tale in the neoliberal world view.
      When corporations invest well in their people by providing good child care & leave options, sponsoring continuing education, offering health care benefits, they tend to expand their markets, increase profits and enjoy high regard. And see I’ve just used the same neoliberal tactics to make my point. (damn!)
      At any rate, I do think it is possible for us to rethink our positions without destroying what works well in our governments, institutions and organizations. We can do better. I know we can. Thank you for thinking so deeply about this with me. This is where the change starts.

      1. Wow – this is why I love connecting with amazing people online…I think my brain may have just exploded reading your comment : ). I love the promise and positivity. I can see and feel the possibilities you describe here Sherri, and the hopeful way you’ve framed it makes it seem achievable. It also resonates because of some recent work experiences I’ve had which has made me question whether the organisation – or rather – the people making decisions in the organisation I work at- really value the people who work within it (and I don’t even work for a business – I work in government…but it seems like power and control is sometimes what drives decisions in this context – and this can have the same detrimental effects as economics driving education).
        It’s made me contemplate whether I might be better off in another organisation, that better aligns with my personal values….although I don’t know that this is the right solution or even a real solution…because I think you’re right: change starts with people rethinking their position, acting and inspiring others to do the same.
        Thanks for the inspiration to think deeply – it’s a paradigm shift that I’m hopeful, over time, will result in real change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *