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Addressing Democratic Issues in an Era of Education Capitalism: Educating for Sustainable and Cohesive Societies

Régis Malet

University of Bordeaux

Public Education and the Democratic Ideal

Public policies are always advancing in their action against the backdrop of more or less stabilized, consensual or conflicting conventions, in connection with local and crossed histories of the nations. Depending on whether one considers that the realization of a democratic society is linked to the sharing of a common good for the members of a society through the work of education, or whether one believes that educating for active citizenship imposes greater plasticity on individuals, in terms of their awareness and capacity to mobilize their cognitive and behavioral styles and their singular creative potential (Rosanvallon 2008), the imaginary and the aims surrounding the notion of education will vary considerably (Malet and Garnier 2020; Wagoner et al. 2018; Treier & Jackman 2008). These dimensions of democratic actualization through education -emancipating vs adaptive, common vs singular- are not exclusive, but their opposition is at work in many contemporary critiques of the education policies in a globalized economy (Cartledge 2016; Giroux 2002; Malet and Mangez 2013). One may question the contemporary crisis of narrative conventions as a result of the diffusion of a global political pragmatics and educational watchwords that reflect not only a hybridization of national educational systems, but also the global imposition of one of these narrative regime alone, namely based on human capital (Becker 1964, 2002). We will therefore explore the paths of a democratic public education that does not get lost in individualism and educational capitalism, but promotes values of solidarity and cooperation that condition the construction of democratic, open and sustainable democratic societies.

Journey into Hybridization

The trajectories of many educational systems suggest that the processes of expansion structuration of education, and the narratives that shaped this structuration are idiosyncratic, yet quite often very connected. Indeed, to justify choices in education for any national society means being able collectively to justify how it is conceived as right and fair to distribute “educational goods” and, ultimately, it is also being able to justify the inequalities produced by education.

As a matter of fact, if one society is unable to justify through a narrative on what education produces, then inequalities are just unfair. The purpose, through these narrative conventions, is to ensure somehow that inequalities appear as fair, if I may say. Of course no national system of education is the pure expression of one or another of these regimes alone. Rather, it results from a compromise between several regimes: either academic, or professional, comprehensive, or, last but not least, market-based (Malet 2022a). The liberal market-based model of education is now spreading beyond the countries that promoted it, in a movement of domination by a globalized capitalist convention. According to the French sociologist Laurent Thévenot (1996), “market constitutes in itself an order of justification”, despite its basis upon individual interests, “according to a specific figure of competition as a common good”. In a market-oriented convention, added values in educational paths will not only come from the diploma outcome, but from where they were obtained (in what school, university…), and this goes with the concern of informed consumers.

If the French model is emblematic of a strange alliance of meritocratic, academic and market conventions (Malet 2022a), there are others, in South America (Baten & Mumme 2010; Brown & Hunter 2004) or in Asia (Lee 2020). This market-oriented model thus spills over from the countries that have promoted it, in a movement of imposition, forcing the other models to quite acrobatic narrative adjustments. The irony of such a process of global diffusion is that even educational traditions marked by alternative narrative conventions, more societal than individualistic, more progressive than performative, incorporate this global paradigm and deny it in the movement.

The market-based regime calls into question the very nature of the public good attached to education, advocating for an education that is at once individualistic, competitive, performative and inclusive. Personalization and inclusion tend to become the watchwords of policies promoting an individual in capacity or “capability” so as to no longer have to deal with the social forms of inequality construction (Oakes 2005; Cardoso Garcia & Michels 2021). At the same time, we observe a certain propensity to medicalize the regulation of differences in education: diagnosis, specific disorders, special needs are all processes of assignment that no longer consider learning as a social construct, but as an aggregate of disparate individual characteristics to be treated by some specialization.

The promotion of the individual in his or her potential for professional achievement and personal fulfillment leads, in the same movement, to conceiving this promotion in reference to the benefits of the organization and the economy in which one is called upon to place his or her activity. This strong focus on the individual and on the development of his or her capital orients the purpose of investment in education, both in terms of the concepts at work of individual achievement and of gain for the community in which they are called upon to participate (Malet & Garnier 2021; Malet 2022b). Its scope extends even far beyond the educational and training sphere, to draw a tacit conception of quality, success and professional and personal achievement, a conception that is therefore strongly based on values, even if this conception, centered on the needs of social and economic environments inhabited by individuals who are adaptable and effective beyond their technical skills alone, is implicit.

In this respect, it can be said that the dominant approach of contemporary educational policies is at the same time individualizing, adaptive and clinical, and not societal in any sense, either in its inspiration or in its horizon. This quasi-epidemiological diffusion of contemporary educational policies under economic control (Steiner-Khamsi 2004) which, by this economic reason which imposes itself on them, weakens national societies in their capacity to project themselves. The stake is democratic and it is major.

Educational Capitalism or the Disenchantment of the Democratic Ideal

In order to understand what is at stake today in terms of educational policies, it is necessary to grasp a break with the imaginary of a controlled, planned intervention of States in educational reforms. This is not the case in principle and in discourse, because control of one’s own destiny remains a democratic requirement, at least a formal requirement, at least in a modern conception of public action. Moreover, one can observe almost everywhere in the world that educational policies are increasingly presented in the form of an injunction to adaptive change, much more than in the projection of a future society – or more precisely, adaptation becomes the project, the projective or planning dimension tending to disappear, under the effect of a more adaptative and unhistoric model. This leads to forms of public action in education which, because they are less concentric, are also more complex to analyze, because they involve actors at different levels, the national level being one of these, and this level of initiative is itself caught up in overarching, supranational, and sometimes even sub-national agendas, which weaken its real capacity for initiative (Bonal et al. 2004; Malet 2004).

The economic agenda assigned to education on the basis of human capital contributes to the de-socialization and deterritorialization of educational action, and in fact contributes to weakening rather than strengthening schools in their function as institutions of society. Individualistic in essence, holistic and extensive to formal education, it contributes to overcoming the segmentations between initial training, employment and professional development, but also between learning objects and subjects in training, between formal competencies and personal qualities (Yorke 2011; Fugate et al., 2021).

Finally, the conceptions of education inspired by theories of human capital accompany a global movement of transformation of work. The fading traditional contractual form of work between employee and employer, and the progression of a protean work life led or undergone by individuals in changing environments, rather than managed by the organizations to which they entrust their career development, marks the end of the “organizational career” (Hall 1996: 8). These conceptions of the individual in training and at work question the mechanisms of fragmentation specific to a liquid modernity (Bauman, 2006), calling into question social ties in their ideals of homogeneity and cohesion. From then on, in this alliance of calling for creativity, adaptability, responsibility and taking one’s professional destiny into one’s own hands, educational capitalism places the question of autonomy at the heart of its project (Bacigalupo et al., 2016; Malet 2022a). In doing so, it outlines a new form of integration of employment and labor issues into the mandate now addressed to educational and training institutions.

The very extension of the notion of human capital, which now includes various forms of employability capital, is thus identified, testifying to this absorption of the individual by an economic rationale that exploits all of the individual’s resources by distinguishing between his or her social, cultural and identity capital, and no longer spares any boundaries between the professional and personal or even intimate spheres (“life skills”) (Tomlinson and Nghia 2020).

This form of dilution of the individual in his or her education pathway for the benefit of a community in which he or she is expected to be both creative and efficient, draws a hyper-individualistic conception of learning and success, according to which the individual is called upon to distinguish himself or herself by his or her added value. Such a conception is highly dependent on contexts of exploitation of these individual resources, qualifying what is commonly identified by the highly controversial term employability (Bacigalupo et al. 2016; Small, Shacklock, & Marchant 2018), and doing so for a benefit that may ultimately elude the individual altogether.

Yet many studies have shown how socially and occupationally selective these social capitals are, due to persistent determinisms, characterized in particular by unevenly shared skills (Labadie 2012; Malet 2021b; Malet & Liu 2021). Mobility capital, like emotional capital or entrepreneurship capital, lie upon cultural, social, economic, and territorial conditions, resources and skills that cannot be ignored except at the risk of increasing inequalities, which are constructed first and foremost in and through education and schooling.

Acting both on a demand for qualification in addition to graduation of young people, but also on a context of fluidity of unstable and indeterminate professional environments (Clarke, 2017; Holmes, 2017), educational institutions are somehow invited to develop creative and adaptable individuals, and to move a graduate from being a job seeker to a job creator (Warmsley et al. 2022). Such a proposal may seem marked by an acknowledgement of the powerlessness of education institutions to prepare young generations for a stable and continuous working life. These developments are taking place against a backdrop of renewed narratives regarding the aspirations of young people, which further influence these transitions in the relationship between education, training and work. If adaptability seems to be the watchword of contemporary educational policies, this should not elude the fact that the individualization of educational practices exposes the most fragile ones to various forms of exclusion for which our so-called inclusive societies will soon make them bear responsibility (Garnier, Derouet & Malet 2020).

Facing this blindness, which would make liberalism the unsurpassable breeding ground for individual freedoms and social democracy, public education in democratic societies must address, in order to question its promises, the conditions of actualization and sustainability, but also its limits in the framework of a globalized educational capitalism, which places individuals in competition regardless of their social, economic and cultural capital.

Beyond the Capital, the Quest of a Common Good – Democratic Education and Sustainable Development

A public education inspired by theories of human capital can no longer be seriously considered within the framework of a democratic education project, without indexing the curricula to conditions and resources (cultural, social, economic, territorial). Qualities such as initiative, autonomy, self-efficacy, creativity, adaptability to complex environments and resilience are not equally shared, socially.

Indeed, we can measure the risk of an education based on human capital, validating through education and training a social capital already valued by the economy. It is therefore the necessary maintenance of a public education and informed of the stakes of preparation, adaptation but also of humanization of youth, which alone can allow this conciliation between the ideals of a democratic education and the education to pragmatic competencies in society. The question of the social responsibility of individuals and citizens contributes to creating the necessary conditions for a combination of social participation skills and the promotion of a civic humanism that is morally informed by the protective aims of mobilizing all means to “succeed”.

Thus, education for sustainable development (ESD), in the wake of the Brundtland Report (UN, 1987), has been advocated by international organizations (Girault et al. 2013). However, this promotion goes far beyond teaching about climate risks or energy production and consumption practices. Linked to social justice issues, it aims at critical education and contains a cardinal civic component, particularly asserted in Europe (Malet 2021a). At the heart of democratic citizenship is indeed the ability to grasp and participate in major societal and public issues. Schools and teachers are meant to be at the heart of such an agenda to ensure the development and learning of proactive behaviors to develop adaptive and engaged citizens in society.

In this perspective, what might separate individuals, then becomes a promise of connection, integrating what Hannah Arendt identified in her Condition of Modern Man (1958/1998) as vita activa, grouping three fundamental human activities: labor, work and action. Posing as a principle that no human life can be considered outside the presence and the relation to others and a co-presence to a world, Arendt also takes care to distinguish in the human condition the relations between private and public spheres, components of the human life and condition, which it would be very risky to dissolve for the reason of the promotion of an individual thrown into the world, rich of all his capitals, validated or not. A capitalist and holistic conception of employability which is uncontrolled or opportunistic is indeed threatening to undermine the balance between the public and private spheres of the individual’s condition.

The issue is therefore fundamentally democratic. Public educational institutions have an essential role to play in the management of these distinct spheres of human life, notably by introducing a humanistic and civic dimension that promotes a subject of education that bases its action on values (Biesta 2010; Malet 1998). This is precisely where the difference lies with what, in a capitalist conception of education, could be more oppressive than emancipatory for citizens educated and trained to make their own the demands of a globalized economy.


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