How neoliberalism ruins primary school education

In Britain, some well-educated folks are learning what primary school education in their fields is like, which is sometimes to say, really awful. The article raises a couple examples, one being of the failure to properly teach fractions, and the other of a “practically Dickensian in its pointlessness” dissection of sentences into parts of speech.[1] I’d take it to the bank that this isn’t just a British problem and, oh yeah, this isn’t just during COVID-19 lockdown: I remember the conundrum of fractions myself.

And I’ll never forget that English professor I had while I was in my Master’s program who dismissed many rules of grammar, saying she couldn’t remember them all.

There are a couple points I need to raise here: First, it was in that English professor’s class that I realized most, if not all, pedagogical theory was based on anecdote. One teacher finds a teaching method that works for them, publishes it, and it is immediately adopted everywhere as ‘theory.’ As inquiry goes, that’s pretty weak stuff—a case study is one thing but generalizability is another—and it’s one reason[2] I tend to be dismissive of doctorates in education (Ed.D.).[3] Truly insidious here are the notions that somehow these rote methods, formulaically replicated across countless classes, are any more ‘creative’ and responsive to different ‘learning styles’ than what Paulo Freire derided as a “banking deposit” model of education.[4]

Second, I even remember the junior high school classroom where my English teacher was going over parts of speech, dissecting a sentence on a green chalkboard with that ivory-colored chalk, and thinking to myself, first, that I’d never remember all this crap, which indeed I do not, and second, that there was no reason to remember all this crap, which indeed there is not and never has been.[5]

The deeper problem in all of this is that teachers are required to comply with a fixed-in-granite curriculum.[6] That kind of thinking up has spread like a disease at least up to the community college level—I remember being told in one interview that the goal was to make all sections of a class the same. The idea is that as a student, it shouldn’t matter who your instructor is: You’ll have the same experience.

Which is patent nonsense. No two teachers are the same. No two students are the same. Every class—and anyone who has actually taught more than a couple will tell you this—is different. I can express this phenomenon in systems theory as an example of emergent properties, but it’s the kind of concrete experience that brings life to that theory, and it also blows a hole you can fly a C-5M Super Galaxy through in those pedagogical so-called ‘theories.’

But just as neoliberalism insists on treating human beings as interchangeable parts in an economic machine, schools are increasingly treating us as interchangeable parts in rote ideas of what we should learn and how we should learn it.

  1. [1]Donna Ferguson, “Home schooling: ‘I’m a maths lecturer – and I had to get my children to teach me,’” Guardian, February 20, 2021,
  2. [2]The other reason I am dismissive of doctorates in education is what they pick up from business programs: Steven Conn, “Business Schools Have No Business in the University,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 20, 2018,; Johann N. Neem, “Abolish the Business Major!” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2019,
  3. [3]But yes, Jill Biden is a doctor, because first, no, I don’t make the rules; and second, the controversy there is more about sexism and right-wing anti-intellectualism than it is about rigor. Monica Hesse, “The Wall Street Journal column about Jill Biden is worse than you thought,” Washington Post, December 13, 2020,; Merriam-Webster, “The History of ‘Doctor,’” n.d.,
  4. [4]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th ann. ed. (New York: Continuum, 2008)
  5. [5]Donna Ferguson, “Home schooling: ‘I’m a maths lecturer – and I had to get my children to teach me,’” Guardian, February 20, 2021,
  6. [6]Donna Ferguson, “Home schooling: ‘I’m a maths lecturer – and I had to get my children to teach me,’” Guardian, February 20, 2021,

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