U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neo-Liberal-Conservative America (some recent educational history)


“Every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in.”

Just when I thought I could let the discussion of neoliberalism rest for now, the comment thread at Ben’s most recent post on the subject sparked my wish to seek more clarity.

Ben writes:

And it’s fascinating to compare [an essay on the origins of U.S. neoliberalism] to more recent essays like Wendy Brown’s “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization” (Political Theory, Vol. 34, No. 6 (Dec., 2006), pp. 690-714; http://www.jstor.org/stable/20452506), which is equally innocent of neoliberalism (us). Instead, Brown discusses “neoconservatism” and “neoliberalism” (e) as somehow parallel constructs, though the first is more exclusively American:?“The problematic of this essay is well-suited to the analytics of dreamwork. This is the problematic of thinking together American neoconservatism—a fierce moral-political rationality—and neoliberalism—a market-political rationality that exceeds its peculiarly American instantiation and that does not align exclusively with any political persuasion.”?Here’s the problem (or at least a problem) with all this: although neoliberalism (us) may be an instance of neoliberalism (e), they are not the same thing…and, in fact, neoliberalism (e) pretty much encompasses all “mainstream” US political positions of (at least) the last thirty years or so (it’s called the “Washington consensus” ‘cause it’s a consensus, after all).?So while “neoliberalism” (us) was, indeed, constructed as a parallel contrastive term to “neoconservatism,” “neoliberalism” (e) really doesn’t work as contrastive with “neoconservatism,” despite its linguistic similarity.

I want to politely disagree with my colleague Ben on two fronts.

First, Ben’s careful spadework in separating out neoliberalism (us) from neoliberalism (e), though an interesting distinction, will, I suspect, in the longue durée mean very little. Neoliberalism (e) is now neoliberalism (g) (global). And neoliberalism (g), in the eyes of most people, is neoliberalism (e and us). In a fascinating interview about his most recent book on Marxism, Eric Hobsbawm, simply the best at historical periodization, speaks matter-of-factly about neoliberalism as our latest historical epoch (here, in the context of discussing why Marx and Marxism is relevant again):

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the capitalists stopped being afraid and to that extent both they and we could actually look at the problem in a much more balanced way, less distorted by passion than before. But it was more the instability of this neoliberal globalised economy that I think began to become so noticeable at the end of the century. You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm is obviously using the term neoliberalism in the sense of Ben’s neoliberalism (e). But he thinks neoliberalism (e) is in fact neoliberalism (us-e) and that neoliberalism (us-e) became neoliberalism (g). This seems right to me and this seems like the best use of the term in most contexts. The neoliberalism (us) that Ben dug up for us—the neoliberalism of 1980s Democrats like Gary Hart—is a relatively important aspect of recent political history, but is not all that important in most larger contexts.

This leads me to my second disagreement with Ben: I think the history of neoliberalism (e-us-g, from hereon just plain old neoliberalism) cannot so easily be separated from the history of neoconservatism. I will use as my example the postwar U.S. intellectual history of education.

Milton Friedman, one of the original neoliberal thinkers, actually wrote quite a bit about education during the 1950s (I cover this to some degree in chapter 5 of my book Education and the Cold War). He grounded his educational theory in both economic and political principles. On the one hand, as a laissez-faire economist, Friedman was an early proponent of educational privatization, believing that education would function more efficiently if subjected to the market. He believed that imposing the costs of education on parents would “equalize the social and private costs of having children and so promote a better distribution of families by size.” In other words, relieving taxpayers of the burden of paying for the educations of other people’s children would be a non-intrusive way of regulating those inclined to multiply beyond their financial means. On the other hand, as a libertarian political theorist, Friedman lamented the “nationalization” of education that had given rise to an “education industry” disinclined to constrain its own power and reach. As a solution, he proposed a voucher system that would empower parents as educational buyers, presenting them with a range of educational options. According to Friedman, vouchers would have the doubly beneficial effect of forcing schools to be more cost effective and of breaking the “education industry” monopoly. (See: Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education,” in Robert A. Solo, ed., Economics and the Public Interest [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955].)

In short, Friedman innovated neoliberal solutions to education in the sense that neoliberalism is all about introducing market principles to solve otherwise intractable social problems that government supposedly cannot solve. However, other than business elites, the majority of Americans in the 1950s were not yet amenable to thinking of their children’s education as they might consider a commodity such as a kitchen appliance. I would argue—and here is where I disagree with Ben—that neoconservatives were crucial in popularizing such neoliberal thinking.

One of the central achievements of Irving Kristol’s Public Interest and Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary is in convincing so many intellectuals and policymakers that the government often makes social problems worse. In the realm of education, the Coleman Report (1966) became legendary in neoconservative policy circles for supposedly proving that educational equity was unattainable via policy measures. In other words, the Coleman Report became the holy grail of those who contended that spending more money on the education of poor children was a waste of resources. It became the touchstone for those who argued instead that educational “excellence”—in other words, high standards measures by a testing regime—was the only means of ensuring educational improvement.

I just completed reading Chester Finn’s memoir, Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik. Finn is the longtime neoconservative educational policy thinker who started his career in the 1970s working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and who also worked in Reagan’s department of education under the guidance of William Bennett. He’s written widely on educational “excellence” and in support of school choice, or Friedman’s “vouchers.” In Troublemaker, Finn repeatedly refers to a “post-Coleman consciousness.” In other words, this report, which had neoliberal policy implications but was trumpeted most widely by neconservatives, forever changed the game for Finn and for the neoconservative educationists who would eventually win the national debate. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top are national policies rooted in “post-Coleman consciousness.”

One interesting note, based on Wendy Brown’s definition of neoconservatism as “a fierce moral-political rationality”: neocons like Finn are distinguishable from neoliberals like John Chubb and Terry Moe, who wrote the bible of school choice—Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990)—in that he, in addition to supporting market solutions, believed in a strong, patriotic, anti-relativist curriculum. As such, Finn joined the fierce neoconservative critique, led by Lynne Cheney, of the 1994 National History Standards. In Troublemaker, Finn lumps his critique of the history standards together with his treatment of the national English standards, created around the same time:

the quest for standards was… weakened by the credulous expectation that self-interested experts, mostly free from the discipline of consumers, parents, practicing teachers, and policymakers—and sometimes free from leading university scholars in their own fields—could successfully distill from their own cherished subjects the essential skills and knowledge that kids should learn in school, and could do so while (a) avoiding political correctness, (b) sparing schools from the savage internecine disputes within the field, and (c) producing a manageable document of essential curricular guidance rather than a kitchen-sink tome with the heft of the Los Angeles phone directory… The dismaying results ranged from incoherent blather (English) to left-leaning political correctness (history)… The U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to condemn the history standards, and an early draft of the English standards was so vapid that Clinton’s Education Department cut off further funding (173).

Finn’s longtime collaborator Diane Ravitch had a similar take on the National History Standards in her magnum opus Left Back (2000): “The abortive attempt to create national standards revealed… the wide gap between avant-garde thinkers in the academic world and the general public” (174). Together, Finn and Ravitch founded the Educational Excellence Network in 1981 to push for neoliberal-neoconservative reforms. In 1988 they co-authored What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (not much).

As most of USIH readers are probably aware, Ravitch, unlike Finn, has recently made an intellectual U-Turn (Tim blogged about this back in May). Ravitch the neocon, it seems, is not happy with the destructive consequences of neoliberal educational policy. Ravitch has even become the biggest critic of Bill Gates the educational philanthropist. (Check out this great Ravitch interview on the topic of Gates.) I admire Ravitch’s flip-flop, since, as Joanne Barkan demonstrates in a devastating critique of educational philanthropists like Gates, neoliberalism has been just as destructive to education as it has been to the economy. Thanks neocons!

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I would also argue that Neoliberalism is a result to much faith in what is ultimately bad science. I point out the requirement of NCLB that instructional methods be “research based”. But there is no definition of what counts as research. In my experience educational research is some of the shoddiest that is conducted. It takes place mostly at university lab schools and follows no scientific method. There is rarely if ever a control group and the sample sizes are so small as to make the statistics virtually meaningless.

    Ben Goldacer has an excellent book about the over reliance on bad science called Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. Neoliberals (g) point to the preponderance of the scientific evidence that supports global climate change, so why not believe in science. And we should believe in good science, however, as I stated above, most educational research is terrible science (if it can even be called that).

    For example, there is a company that many school districts use to help select its future teachers (both of them local to you Andrew us it) called Polaris Selection. Polaris claims to be “research-based” (http://www.generalasp.com/home/solutions.polaris.selection.aspx). Yet they do not list a single research reference let alone a peer review journal article to tout their method. The founder Dr. John Arnold spent his carrier in the Industrial organization. Having taken their exam I can tell you it is asinine. Many of the questions deal with whether or not students like or respect you. (Which do you think is the correct answer? Hint: It is “like” since the theory says that if students like you the will respect you).
    I think many Neoliberals would say “Oooo”, you can scientifically predict who will be good teachers and go with it. This in turn gives Neoconservatives ammunition when these measures ultimately fail. It is a symbiotic relationship.

    The Gate Foundation and the other billionaire educational reformists think they have found the formulas to quality education in their bad science. So they have decided to push that agenda, even though as you pointed out that critics like Diane Ravitch have pointed out its flaws.

    While I think that ideology plays a huge role in the rise of Neoliberalism (g) and Neoconservatism, I feel that, at least is some small way, my theory contributes to the continued failure of both sides to push meaningful education reform (like tackling poverty and providing mental and medical health services).

  2. Thanks for the comments Rhett. Interestingly, the faith in science and measurement is consistent with the technocratic side of neoliberalism evident in, say, the ways in which the World Bank operates when it works to reorganize national economies. But, and this is where the different national origins of neoliberalism are murky, it’s also quite evident in the belief in technocratic solutions elucidated by the American neoliberals in the Democratic Party of the 1980s and 90s, like Michael Dukakis. Actually, this type of faith goes back further. Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote a speech for JFK in 1962 talking about how all political solutions had become technocratic instead of ideological. And it goes back much further than that as well. The progressives came to power in big cities, as against the machines, by emphasizing professionalism over politics. This is anti-politics 101. (None of this is to argue we should be anti-science, by the way, rather, that science is no substitute for politics, and it’s no substitute for fair educational policy.)

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