Human Capital and Neurosciences in Policy

Ball and Junemann (2012, p. 4) write that “governance networks bring into play particular kinds of expert knowledge, ranging from industrial psychology to auditing, which” inform and shape policy discourses by constructing policy problems and interventions in particular ways. Governance networks are made up of interdependent actors—often extra governmental entities—involved in delivering provisions based on the exchange of money, information, and expertise and rely on lasting ties and networks between expertise, reputation, and legitimation. In this context, policy discourses construct and position human subjects as actors and affected entities in particular ways according to the expert knowledges they draw upon and get shaped by. As human capital theory continues to be utilized in governance networks, it interacts with other expert knowledges, such as neuroscience, that gained reputation and legitimation recently (Kraft, 2012; MacNaughton, 2004) and reconfigured notions of the human subject as actors and affected entities in early years policy discourses.

As Ball and Junemann (2012, p. 3) explain, network structures define the agenda, including the problem and outcomes of policy networks. ECEC network structures in Australia include in both their “issue networks” and “tight policy communities” economists and neuroscientists or their representatives.1 ECEC policy is shaped by neuroscience research quite explicitly since the Rudd and Gillard governments’ “education revolution” agenda, which specifically focused on ECEC and intended to bring significant changes in education policy and practice to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. The subsection of “education revolution,” the ECEC agenda titled as Investing in the Early Years—a National Early Childhood Development Strategy (referred to as “Strategy” in the following text) released by the Council of Australian Governments in 2009 contains explicit references to neuroscientific evidence in a seamless whole with human capital theory to condition the future of the child:

National effort to improve child outcomes will in turn contribute to increased social inclusion, human capital and productivity in Australia.

It will help ensure Australia is well placed to meet social and economic challenges in the future and remain internationally competitive.

Our understanding of the interactions between genetics and early childhood experiences has advanced through research in neurobiology which highlights the importance of the early years in shaping the architecture of the brain. (Council of Australian Governments, 2009, p. 4)

This Strategy served as the basis to write the new national curriculum and quality framework for the early years that radically reshaped policy, curriculum, and provision. Moreover, it shaped new kinds of ECEC actors—parents and educators as responsible for the neurohealth of children and children as “embrained” subjects (Lemke, 2005). As referred to in the Strategy, neuro-health practices of families and caregivers condition the future of the child by setting “trajectories for learning and development throughout life” (Council of Australian Governments, 2009, p. 29). As part of scientific evidence, early brain development argues for “optimal” stimulation in the early years so that brain synapses and pathways develop to their optimal capacities. Evidence in regard to hardwiring and pruning processes taking place in the brain legitimates and provides powerful arguments for policy initiatives, funding, and intervention in many policy fields related to the early years. Intertwined with the future focus of human capital theory, neuro-health therefore became a part of ensuring Australia’s competitiveness on the international market.

In this chapter, I analyze the ways in which neuroscientific discourses entangled with human capital theory have reshaped or are reshaping the notion of the human subject and affected entity in ECEC policies and practices. What are or could be the possible consequences of these entanglements for the government of different sections of population? This timely analysis follows developments in which neurosciences already effectively shape educational knowledge production and the very nature of the child to be educated and cared for. They offer novel ways to think about and problematize education and care often turning back to biological theories and eugenic arguments (Edwards, Gillies, & Horsley, 2013; Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013).

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