Pondering the Term Neoliberalism

Friedmanomics, School Vouchers, School Choice, and the Free Market: If you understand Milton Friedman you are on the road to understanding neoliberalism!

Let me save some folk’s time and state from the outset that if you understand the term neoliberalism and how it impacts current education reform, you need not go on reading. Going on might be a waste of time most of us can ill afford!

Now, I have confession to make. First of all, many years ago when I first encountered the term “neoliberalism” I actually thought it had something to do with what was generally considered liberal in the political sense, something like Progressivism and FDR’s New Deal policies – or fighting for social justice like what I thought all good “liberals” were engaged in doing. Maybe there are some folks out there who also had this experience – and maybe there are still some folks who think neoliberalism is just another way to describe the current tension between “liberals” and “conservatives” – and neoliberalism is just another word to describe liberals! Well – as I learned a bit more – I sure was wrong on that one!

Perhaps there are some who believe – just like I did many years ago – that neoliberalism was nothing more than liberalism with three additional words added! Well – I soon discovered that neoliberalism is conservatism in an economic sense. I wonder if there are a goodly number of Americans who when they hear the word neoliberalism Do Not automatically think conservatism?

I have another confession to make. I think the study of neoliberalism is not only intellectually fascinating, but also an essential activity for anyone who supports America’s public school system and wants to understand the free market corporate ideological forces that want to dismantle that system.

And now I have to make another confession, I think studying the writings of people like Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Joel Spring, Stanley Aronowitz, Svi Shapiro, Noam Chomsky, and David Harvey – to mention only a very few who have written about neoliberalism – is always a truly enlightening and intellectually invigorating experience! (Good God, am I now a full-fledged NERD???) Nevertheless, I suggest that supporters of public schools read some of the works by individuals such as this.

However, here is the problem. They are not easy reads. That is one reason out of a number of reasons why chapter 3 titled “Friedmanomics, School Vouchers, and Choice” in the The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy was written. Its accessible to folks. As chapter 2 of the book explains, the power of the conservatives since the Reagan administration was due in part to the coalescence of different factions of social, political, and economic conservative thinkers. Therefore, the book’s author, Deborah Duncan Owens, chose to use the term “conservatives” to refer to the coalesced group of pundits and policy makers who would drive education policy in the years since Reagan ascended to the presidency.

For me, understanding neoliberalism was an exercise in what the “educationsists” would – I think – call scaffolding. http://edglossary.org/scaffolding/. The term is often applied to children, but in fact as you can see from the definition we all actually learn that way. I know I had to do a good deal of scaffolding before I understood neoliberalism and I could begin to grasp what many of the authors mentioned above were talking about.

I mention all this because when I was teaching both undergraduate teacher education majors and graduate students, most of whom were practicing teachers, a lot of those folks did not really understand neoliberalism and actually were at first thinking the way I was thinking about neoliberalism those many years ago. I think many of them were quite relieved when I told them that that’s what I also originally thought neoliberalism actually meant!

However, if you want to understand the current state of the free market corporate ideological assault on America’s democratic institution of public schools, then you need to understand neoliberalism, and a good place to start is with understanding Milton Friedman and his Friedmanomic ideas.

Sometimes professionals and scholars write in a way that really marginalizes citizens. Of course, sometimes the way they write is essential in analyzing ideas within their professional context. However, sometimes people think that these writers are just being “kinda snooty” but they really are not. On the other hand, Henry Giroux explains, there is a need help citizens understand ideas like “neoliberalism” since citizens in a democracy are generally a pretty savvy group of folks! http:// www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/4349:the-public-intellectual-project

So I think a good way to begin understanding neoliberalism for those folks who find this topic rather new – or rather confusing (always remembering that I freely admit that I was one of those) might be to start here: http://www.globalissues.org/article/39/a-primer-on-neoliberalism

Then you might want to read Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

For me, after experiences like that, I actually began to understand the writings of the folks mentioned above!

And those are my thoughts about neoliberalism this Sunday morning before Thanksgiving!