The Malta Independent 21 March 2023, Tuesday
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Miseducating education: an analysis of the neoliberal effect

Luke Fenech Monday, 30 January 2023, 11:15 Last update: about 3 months ago

Friday marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Amongst the Jewish community, Dutch Jews suffered horribly at the hands of Nazi Germany. To my surprise, a survey found that a quarter of Dutch millennials and Gen-Z alleged that the Holocaust was a myth and that the death toll was exaggerated. This surreal perception, as absurd as it sounds, is not a case of naivety or lack of historical awareness; worse, it is a clear symptom of miseducation. It is also miseducation when local University students, in October, flocked on top of each other to see who grabs the falling €5 note. And it is also a case of miseducation when young students are told to choose subjects based on ‘career aspirations’ or on what can get them the highest earning job, and not necessarily on what makes them content.


One wonders: what aims is our education system serving? Is it nurturing a sense of social justice?  Are we treating education as an end, or as a means (for instance to serve the market)? The aforesaid incidents made me rethink these questions, and thus our educational prospects (and consequences). The common threat that I found pervading these incidents (amongst others) is the neoliberal attitude that is being adopted by governments and people in power around the world, which in turn infiltrates the rhetoric and decisions that the general public follows. The neoliberal attitude, albeit miseducational, is like a persuasive and toxic pandemic: it speaks the language of the market, the language of everyone, which thus makes it accessible and easy to catch. Yet what is neoliberalism, and how is it damaging our education and critical awareness?

Neoliberalism is an economic and political ideology that advocates for limited government intervention in the economy and the promotion of free market policies. One of the main ways in which neoliberalism is thus damaging education is by promoting a narrow focus on measurable outcomes, such as test scores and exam classifications. This affects our daily language, for instance: “how much did your child get in maths?”, “what kind of mark shall I expect if you teach me private lessons?”, and “this job is only available for people with an intermediate C or better.” This emphasis on measurable outcomes leads to a standardisation of the curriculum and teaching methods, which suppresses creative and critical awareness. It also encourages teachers to focus on teaching to the exam, rather than fostering a love of learning and a desire for knowledge.

Neoliberalism also encourages a narrow focus on individualism, which can be detrimental to critical education and fostering a sense of social justice. It promotes the idea that individuals should be responsible for their own success and that the role of government and society is limited. This perspective can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding for others, which is clearly evident in the lack of appreciation for the humanities subjects, and the overt focus on STEM subjects, as the latter can get you “the most paid jobs”. Moreover, by exploiting education as a means to serve one’s individualistic ambition of ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ or of ‘standing out from the crowd’, the meaning and aim of education shatter. This individualistic outlook is also seen in youngsters who aspire to become the next wave of Youtubers and entrepreneurs, showing the least concern for the general public and socio-political issues.

Further, neoliberalism obsessively focuses on economic growth, which can be detrimental to education. This emphasis on economic growth often leads to a neglect of other important issues, such as social and environmental matters. This narrow focus can also lead to a lack of understanding of how different issues interconnect with one another, which is essential for critical awareness.

In this article, I do not argue that economical aspirations are wrong or not important, or that all students who opt for the highest-paid jobs have only individualistic intentions. My concern is that if our understanding of education is simply neoliberal, that of promoting a narrow focus on measurable outcomes, encouraging individualism and unconditional economic growth, notions such as social justice, issues of discrimination and poverty, activism, and ethics are not deemed important or worth learning about – notions which can collapse a society if they are neglected or not deemed important.

Therefore, it is critical to consider the negative impact of neoliberalism on education and to work towards alternative approaches that prioritise the well-being of students and society as a whole. For instance, if the surveyed Dutch millennials were encouraged to imagine the atrocities that happened to their forefathers, for example by visiting concentration camps, reading history, or watching documentaries, some responses would have surely been changed. It is also worth mentioning that “those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it”, as Santayana argued, which is not a cliché that one ought to shrug.

If those students who raised their hands to grab the falling €5 notes were instead taught to raise their sleeves towards activism or socio-political issues, our future would look slightly brighter. If youngsters who are pressured to choose subjects ‘that satisfy their career inspirations’ from the mere age of 13 (which is a smart way of preparing the next generation of workers for the demands of the market), are instead told that the arts and humanities are also worth considering and that the role of education is not just about getting you a job, but to open possibilities, and to embrace and respect people and communities, then, the meaning and aims of education would start to be better understood.

This paradigm shift is a collective one, starting from how education is being presented in parliament, how educators and similar stakeholders view education, and what the general public’s perception towards education and educators is. We have spoken a lot about economic growth, measurable outcomes, standardisation, jobs, and individualistic skills when marketing education. Now is the time to speak of inclusion and a sense of community, creativity and environmental sustainability, ethics and care towards oneself and others. The latter does not only reflect the essence of education but a clearer idea of what makes us human; a human who is part of a world and not of somebody else’s neoliberal purposes.


Luke Fenech

MTL in Ethics Education student

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