The human capital approach to education

We can find one of the most visible manifestations of the reproduction of dominant conceptions in the World Bank’s decades-long stance on education which is based on the idea of ‘human capital’ and a related understanding of learning as ‘a largely technical activity to be managed by skilled people available primarily in the world’s richest countries' (Klees et al. 2019: 605).

The Education Strategy 2020, adopted in 2011 as one of the most influential education policy-shaping tools across the globe, reflects the Bank's ‘obsessive attachment to human capital theory’ (Fine and Rose 2003: 156), which appropriates education as a tool for economic growth and increased incomes.

A leading figure at the Delhi-based UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) sums up the World Bank’s human capital approach as follows:

you acquire skills so that you can enhance the abilities of the human being in improving or contributing to financial capital. So technology, technical skills, which will allow you to make more money, catering to whatever the different requirements of the world are, is what has been the focus.

(personal interview, October 2017; emphasis added)

This also becomes visible in the below excerpt from the World Bank’s Education Strategy 2020:

investments in quality education lead to more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development. Educated individuals are more employable, able to earn higher wages, cope better with economic shocks, and produce healthier children ... Learning for All means ensuring that all children and youth - not just the most privileged or the smartest - not only can go to school but also acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment.

(World Bank 2011: foreword)

We can furthermore see an ideology of Social Darwinism at work where the ones who are better educated and earn more will ‘produce healthier children' and lead ‘healthy, productive lives’, as opposed to the rest whose lives seem to be doomed without the right (OWW) education. Moreover, the presupposition of inequality is clearly visible by indirectly implying that the more privileged children are also the smarter ones, and by generally dividing children into ‘smart’ and apparently not so smart children.

The World Bank's ‘obsessiveness’ with human capital finds its continuation in its ‘Human Capital Project’ (HCP). The discourse of the HCP is, not surprisingly, embedded within the OWW’s liberal individual-real-science-markets ensemble, the World Bank’s extremely narrow and subjective understanding of Development

From OWWDevelopment to OWWEducation 73 as economic growth and increased income and the taking-for-granted of the liberal approach towards equality (i.e. the presupposition of inequality):

scientific and technological advances are transforming lives: they are even helping poorer countries close the gap with rich countries in life expectancy. But, poorer countries still face tremendous challenges ... There is a moral case to be made, of course, for investing in the health and education of all people. But there is an economic one as well: to be ready to compete and thrive in a rapidly changing environment. ‘Human capital’ - the potential of individuals - is going to be the most important long-term investment any country can make for its people’s future prosperity and quality of life ... The frontier for skills is moving faster than ever before. Countries need to gear up now to prepare their workforces for the tremendous challenges and opportunities that are being driven by technological change ... The World Bank Group is committing to help countries prioritize human capital in a sustained way, given the deepening recognition that jobs and skilled workers are key to national progress in countries at all income levels.

(World Bank 2018a)

As we can see, the World Bank understands people’s ‘future prosperity’ and ‘quality of life’ as the capacity ‘to be ready to compete and thrive in a rapidly changing environment’ - i.e. to become a full and active part of global market society. This demonstrates again how the human capital approach has a very particular idea of what makes a meaningful life, rooted firmly within the OWW: the more human capital one accumulates, the more one can convert it into financial capital to buy more and more products and contribute to economic growth - this is the Bank’s ultimate and only vision of a ‘productive life’.

In other words, OWW Education aims to transform independent, capable human beings into incapable, market-dependent consumers. This is no wonder, given the World Bank’s ‘insistence that society be understood as a market rather than a polity’ (Klees et al. 2019: 608-609). At the same time, this proves once more how allegedly neutral, objective expert knowledge is utilised to advance a specific worldview. As Klees et al. argue in then analysis of the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report (WDR) titled 'Learning to Realize Education’s Promise',

the World Bank prides itself on being evidence- and research-based, but it is not. Its premises and conclusions are based on ideology, not evidence ... The ideology behind the 2018 WDR and of the World Bank is neoliberalism, a term World Bank economists barely acknowledge ... This neoliberal school of economics hides its ideological recommendations behind a veneer of science. World Bank staff are intelligent and well intentioned - but hopelessly biased. They are hired and retained because their perspectives fit with the narrow neoliberal views that dominate the Bank.

(ibid.: 615-16)

The pursuit of World Bank-recommended education policies in India and elsewhere then needs to be seen as another form of the ontological politics of inequality which reinforces the hierarchical, market-based OWW order. As a result of this narrow understanding of education, people today are - on one side - more and more deprived of their skills to create and produce anything on their own, while on the other side they are more and more pressured and exploited in the workplace, assigned to complete meaningless, repetitive and often useless tasks.5 Consequently,

the social costs of consumerism as the core educational promise includes not merely a crisis of meaning, the alienation of the individual from the self, from nature, and from others; but it also empties out the political and ethical possibilities of education as the only vision of social improvement becomes the individual promise of consumer commodity acquisition.

(Saltman 2011: 17)

At the centre of mainstream education, then, stands the belief that there is only one - the modern, individualist, consumerist, capitalist - way of life that is worthwhile and meaningful. Accordingly, in today’s common-sense logic of OWW Education, farmers, peasants, manual labourers, so-called ‘school dropouts’, indigenous people, forest dwellers and anyone and everyone else pursuing other ways of life, most often the ones which are ‘closer connected to nature', are seen as ‘uneducated’ and in need of OWW Education to finally be able to live their lives in meaningful ways as ‘good consumer-citizens’.

This is particularly the case in the schooling mode of education which aims to mould students into consumer-citizens from an early age on. Relatedly, recent Indian high school graduate Akshat Tyagi observes how

those who do more manual jobs are thought to be unfit for children to be friends with, and their interaction with them is kept at lowest possible levels. I have seen schools where they make sure you do not talk or even face the janitors, housekeepers or drivers. They might take you on a class trip to the school gardener for learning about seeds, they will not let you come to the same gardener every day for learning something other than what the curriculum prescribes. Such a practice will be termed as a wastage of your time. This is probably what many have described as the ‘caste system of modern knowledge’, in which these physical laborers are treated as untouchables and the presumed intellectuals are placed at the apex.

(Tyagi 2016: 21)

Ironically, while students are supposed to learn how to become a ‘productive part’ of global market society, they are strongly discouraged and prevented from finding out about what is going on in their own backyard, leading to an ever bigger disconnect with nature and a careless attitude concerning the exploitation of local, natural resources. This becomes also evident in the following account by Helena

Norberg-Hodge, talking about the meaning of ‘education’ before and after the introduction of OWW Education in Ladakh:

for generation after generation, Ladakhis grew up learning how to provide themselves with basic needs - food, clothing and shelter ... Developing the skills to make shoes out of yak skin and clothes from the wool of sheep or how to build houses out of mud and stone required location-specific knowledge. Education nurtured an intimate relationship with the living world. It gave children a wealth of ecological knowledge that allowed them, as they grew older, to use resources in an effective and sustainable way ... This all began to change when Western-style education came to Ladakh in the 1970s. In the modem schools, none of the cultural or ecologically adapted knowledge was provided. Children were instead trained to become specialists in a technological monoculture, rather than in diverse ecologically adapted societies. School was a place to forget traditional skills and, worse, to look down on them.

(Norberg-Hodge 2016: 52)

By (being forced to) focusing on highly specialised tasks instead of understanding entire processes and the causes and effects of and between these, school-going children today merely see final products devoid of any inner value and meaning. As Manish Jain accordingly argues,

students around the world are actively being de-skilled (particularly those from artisan, healing and farming backgrounds) and are being taught to despise and devalue physical labor - since labor is considered as non-intel-lectual work ... For the first 23 years of their lives, students are not encouraged to be meaningfully involved in productive activities related to their basic needs or their community’s needs which would encourage them to understand deep inter-connections or a sense of right relationship/limits vis a vis their natural resources.

(Jain n.d.)

What becomes clear then is that the ‘skills’ taught across the various OWW Education strands promoted and implemented by OWW Development actors are not intended to serve as the means required for people to create, build, enhance and expand their livelihood options, and thus to build meaningful lives with each other based on the presupposition of equality. Instead, these skills are seen as -and dictated by - current and always changing market demands that ‘help’ an individual to integrate him- or herself in the highly specialised, exploitative and uneven division of labour of the global economy.

A current example for this is also the new emphasis on multidisciplinary higher education in the Indian government's National Education Policy 2020. Multidisciplinarity - not to be confused with interdisciplinarity - aims to provide students with basic knowledge across multiple disciplines while eschewing any kind of depth and critical understanding of different disciplines. The purpose - in line with the overall NEP framework which continuously stresses the need for greater flexibility and talks about the ‘quickly changing employment landscape and global ecosystem’ (Government of India 2020: 3) - then is, first and foremost, to create a multi-skilled labour force that can easily adapt to various market demands.

Another example can be found in what is packaged by various OWW Development actors in the euphemism of ‘lifelong learning’ as part of one’s ‘selffulfilment’ and ‘self-development’. As such, the promotion of lifelong learning (rather than learning for or about life) merely reflects the ever-increasing need for the retraining and redeployment of skills according to global market demands.

Both schooling and lifelong learning as part of OWW Education thus contribute to a further de-skilling of people by making them even more dependent on the market and the acquiring of a range of narrow technical skills which might become obsolete again in no time. Be it through skill and vocational training programmes or schools,

youth [and adults alike] are not taught independent survival skills, which they might desire (knowledge of local environments, food sources, production skills). Rather they are left only with the option to work for wages as mediated means to meet some survival needs (and many others geared only toward the survival of the market, such as many consumer goods).

(Shantz 2017)

While OWW Development portrays schooling as ‘the great equaliser’ in India and elsewhere, this constitutes indeed nothing more than another variant of OWW Development’s Myth of Equality. Given that especially the most marginalised groups in India have gained unprecedented access to the modern education system over the last decades, we should expect a positive co-relation between increased access to education, decreasing inequality and rising income levels and employment rates. Instead, the opposite holds true with the disparities between the rich and the vast majority of India’s population ever, and ever faster, growing.6

While India features one of the highest numbers of billionaires in the world, there is a deeply entrenched, persistently high level of informal, insecure work ‘creating a highly exploitable labour force ... The majority of Indian workers -92 per cent - are engaged in precarious work ... trapped in low wages or vulnerable self-employment and miserable work conditions’ (Shah and Lerche 2018: 11). Moreover, 75% of India’s large rural population continues to live on less than 33 rupees (equal to 0.44 USD) per day.7

Nothing much has changed, then, ever since Bowles and Gintis ([1976] 2012: 8) came to the conclusion that ‘education over the years has never been a potent force for economic equality’. As we will further see, OWW Education's many failures and shortcomings - in parallel to what we have explored with the overall OWW Development model - have not led to calls for the abolishment of OWW Education, but to calls for its intensification and acceleration.

Taken together, we can see how OWW Education’s ultimate task is to transform social, independent and creative human beings - who have many different and diverging ideas of what makes meaningful lives - into individualist, passive, market-dependent consumer-citizens who seek fulfilment in life through the amassment of status symbols and products.

It is an education which privileges one way of living above any others and indeed looks down upon, marginalises and destroys other ways of life. Being completely empty of any content and ways in which we can co-create meaningful lives with each other based on notions of diversity and harmonious co-living, such an education then can also very easily incorporate a nationalist agenda which further alienates people from each other and adds even more divisions and hierarchies to a worldview already pervaded by the presupposition of inequality.

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