I Theory and History of Human Capital

Introduction and Historical Perspective

Theodora Lightfoot-Rueda and Ruth Lynn Peach

In nations around the globe, the language of human capital has come to dominate public discourse concerning education, to the point where this language is so ubiquitous that it has become nearly invisible. As Rizvi and Lingard explain,

An almost universal shift from social democratic to neoliberal orientations in thinking about educational purposes and governance [has] result[ed] in policies of corporatization, privatization and commercialization, on the one hand, and on a greater demand for accountability, on the other . . . At the same time, educational purposes have been re-defined in terms of a narrower set of concerns about human capital development, and the role education must play to meet the needs of the global economy and to ensure the competitiveness of the national economy. (2009, p. 10; italics added)

This language consists of a number of different elements but much international educational discourse contains the following three assumptions about the link between education and capital. The first of these assumptions is an unquestioned explicit or implicit link between schooling and economic status. Related to this is the idea that as nations compete globally for trade, capital, and the like, student scores on comparative international tests reflect and predict the success or failure of economic accomplishments. Finally, many policy makers and members of the public believe that the preparation of young people for future economic productivity, often seen as represented by the teaching and learning of a collection of discrete and measurable skills, is the main purpose of schooling. Although the language, and even the context, of such discursively based assumptions varies from country to country, this embedded reasoning is evident in political and educational policy statements in nations across the globe. In the United States, for example, this type of reasoning is embedded in statements such as the following from the US Department of Education (2010) website:

Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:

  • 1. Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • 2. Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction . . .

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.

In another example, this one from England, this reasoning is reflected in the creation of a new terminology through early twenty- first-century discourses that, as in other times, have crafted the child with a renewed sense of importance in relation to the nation, now imbued with “potential” and new dispositions. Producing young children as human capital for their countries through a business model of schooling was part of the political agenda that produced the Education Act 2002 in England, which made under-fives part of the national curriculum and trajectory of the “schooled” child. Politicians promoted these reforms by promising that their enactment would create improvements in the quality and quantity of workers. The following excerpt from a speech promoting the English act is one example:

The next few years pose a special challenge—to move from catching up with the rest of the world, as we have by cutting class sizes, raising teacher salaries, improving pedagogy, to moving ahead and giving our young people the best possible chance of making their way in the world and contributing to economic and social renewal in this country. (Miliband, 2002)

In another example Baroness Estelle Morris, former minister for school standards, included this comment in a report made to Parliament on

December 16, 1999, as the Labour party was in the process of creating the education program that produced the Education Act 2002:

The Government have established child care as a major strand of their

school standards agenda, of their family-friendly policy and of economic

and competitive policy [italics added]. (Morris, December 16, 1999)

This emphasis on creating a UK citizen who would be competitive in a globalized economy demonstrates the human capital rationale behind increased support for early years programs. The italics here emphasize the newness of certain language—in this case—“foundation stage,” the emphasis on a new distinct identity, the importance of learning goals assessed at the end of the foundation stage; the italics highlight ways of reasoning that appear normal but signal new and multiple narratives or discourses.

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