The Reasoning Guiding Our Choice of Contributors and Contributions

For many contemporary readers the idea that the primary goal of education is to provide nations with high-quality and globally competitive future workers may seem like a “given”—unquestioned and unquestionable. In fact, education and human capital have become so closely entwined in world educational thought that it has become the main language that educators themselves use to understand, describe, and promote “investment” in schooling.

However, even given the weight of contemporary discursive tradition that frames schooling’s primary purpose as driving the economic machine of progress, the authors included in this volume would like readers to consider certain fundamental questions about education and society. The authors ask questions such as the following:

  • • Have we always thought of public schools primarily as economic engines, or are there other ways we have understood them in the past?
  • • What are the fundamental purposes of schooling, and do all of them necessarily center on the production of future workers?
  • • Are there other potential benefits besides economics, both on the national and the individual level, that come from an educated citizenry?
  • • How have human capital and economically oriented understandings of the educational process grown out of and shaped international relations?
  • • What are some of the advantages and drawbacks to this way of thinking, for educators, students, and parents?
  • • Are there other ways we can conceive of schooling rather than a neoliberal perspective?
  • • Is there other language that could be used to understand and refer to schooling?
  • • What other languages could be used to talk about schooling and to promote its importance without limiting oneself to economic gain and loss?

In short, the purpose of this edited volume is to make the invisible of everyday discourse visible again, or to defamiliarize the familiar (Shklovsky, 1965/1998), so that readers may begin to perceive the production of human capital as only one of a number of potential ways to view schooling.

This defamiliarization, or rethinking, takes place in several ways. Many authors look historically at the formation and emergence of human capital theory to counter the impression that this type of logical framework is universal and is the best foundation for producing an educated citizen. They also examine the connection between the rationale of schooling for human resource development and international competition, and educational practices, such as curriculum and assessment. They look at how human capital theory has come to dominate educational policy, especially in terms of the allocation of resources and in providing “accountability” for the use of those resources. Finally, some of the writers look for alternatives to human capital as a framework for understanding school. They examine various ways to “play outside of the box” or to challenge the “horizons” (Cushman, 1995) that not only enable but also circumscribe what we are able to see, hear, and understand.

We believe that this project is particularly urgent at this point in history. For the past six decades, public education, both in the United States and in other nations globally, has been justified and funded as “investments” in the economic futures of the nationstate. However, as noted in the epigram to this introduction, the idea of education for human capital is changing in our current era. Two simultaneous processes are taking place. National governments are enacting surveillance of their educational systems more closely, demanding accountability, success on international comparison tests, and assurances that young people are getting the skills and dispositions presumed to make them successful in the workplace. However, under the influence of market-oriented economic theories, these same governments are increasingly reluctant to fund and support public education initiatives. At this point it is crucial for educators and educational researchers to respond to this situation by examining and reframing our understandings of the purpose of education. We need to reexamine human capital theory, understand the ways in which it might be relevant/helpful to education and the ways in which we might like to alter or replace the concept. In addition, it may be time to look at ways in which we can see education through other lenses.

This volume takes on the task of reexamination and reevaluation. It is particularly useful because it represents a point of dialog between authors with several perspectives on the need to reconceptualize the purpose of schooling. We present critiques of human capital theory from authors using Foucauldian, Gramscian, and Bakhtinian analysis, but all dialoguing with each other. In addition, we look at views moving past human capital theory, and propose other frameworks for understanding schooling.

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