Friday, February 3, 2012

What is REALLY driving education policy?

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
—Du Bois (1903, p. 1)

Du Bois’s idea of the color line has not disappeared from American culture and politics. Perhaps it has grown fainter with the momentous changes of the past half century, culminating in the election of the first Black U.S. President in 2008. But the 21st century promises to feature a different line, one that partially grows out of the color line. It may prove to be the century in which the battle between individualism and communitarianism is contested. Public institutions of all sorts in America are struggling for survival against the forces of demographic shifts, the divisive influence of racial and ethnic prejudice, and the exigencies of a seriously weakened economy. This struggle is critical to the future of K–12 public education. The competing conceptions of individualism and communitarianism provide a lens through which to view how population pressures, prejudice, and financial concerns shape the politics and public debate over schools.

For more than 100 years, but intensifying in the past two decades, the importance of individual liberty and achievement, which can be labeled the philosophy of individualism, has stood against a belief in the importance of the community or shared achievement, or the philosophy of communitarianism, in debates on how to promote the welfare of society. This great debate is rising to the consciousness of ordinary Americans in various vernacular forms transmitted through and heightened by popular media. In the 21st century, the contest between private and public good will have profound implications for all public institutions, including K–12 education. In the United States today, individualism appears to be ascendant as a political philosophy both to conservatives on the Right and neoliberals on the Left. The causes for this rise in the rhetoric of individualism are rooted in a few fundamental forces: population changes, working their effects through the mechanisms of representative democracy; prejudice, lurking behind the veil of individual choice of affiliation; and economics (the “purse”) through policies of taxation and privatization. These forces have already had a profound effect on social institutions, family life, and schools in the United States as well as many other industrialized nations. They will exert pressure on developing nations, not only ones that are driven by nascent market economies but also communitarian nations and current-day theocracies. Absent from consideration of the forces driving education policy are such empty shibboleths as "international competitiveness," "job skills," and a "common core of standards."

Based on the introduction to Glass, G. V & Rud, A. G. (2012). The Struggle Between Individualism and Communitarianism: The Pressure of Population, Prejudice, and the Purse. Chapter 10 in Review of Research in Education, Vol. 36. To be published in March 2012.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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