Dislodging the Human Capital Approach in Educational Policy and Program Discourse: Key Insights from a Capabilities and Human Rights Approach Perspective

Nera, Kevin Ross Diaz (2016). 'Dislodging the Human Capital Approach in Educational Policy and Program Discourse: Key Insights from a Capabilities and Human Rights Approach Perspective' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract Abstract: The ascendancy of the neo-liberal interpretation of “development” as an increase in purely economic terms achieved through a series of targeted interventions by professional development experts over passive beneficiaries has achieved hegemonic status in academic and policy discourse. In the field of education, this is manifest in the dominance of the human capital paradigm as the principal framework for legitimizing the mobilization of resources to ensure the attainment of instrumentally-oriented educational outcomes. As a result, manifest injustices including systematic and/or culturally-legitimized discrimination against individuals or groups remain unresolved as they are taken to be ontologically inferior contributors to economic growth and are thus marginally problematized on the political field. Existing educational policies that dictate content and pedagogy serve to reinforce this discursive hegemony. As a response, I would like to propose that an alternative educational framework that derives its principles from a synthesis of the human rights approach and capabilities approach would serve as preliminary step towards the dislodging of the human capital discourse. This overcoming operates on the following three levels, namely: (1) providing a critique of the informational limitations of the human capital approach as a normative framework, (2) providing an alternative normative framework that serves as a more sensitive normative framework to people’s valued outcomes and (3) emphasizing the constructive importance of cultivating the twin capabilities of aspiration and voice as a primary mean and principal end of development. This paper will be divided into four main parts described as follows: Neo-liberalism and the discourse of development: Following the work of Arturo Escobar, I submit that the politics of development should be understood primarily on the level of discourse as the dominant perspectives that inform development discourse shape the policies, projects, and techniques employed in development work. Despite being increasingly contested in academic circles in recent decades, the neo-liberal perspective remains firmly lodged in policy circles and development organizations. In the field of education, this is manifested in the dominance of the human capital approach which frames the importance of achieving educational outcomes as an investment in an important factor of production. This pragmatic perspective has led to an increase in the mobilization of resources to improve educational access understood as the provision of economic requirements to provide formal schooling. The limitations of the Neo-liberal discourse and the need for an alternative: The Capabilities Approach, pioneered by Amartya Sen, emphasizes the importance of understanding the informational limitations of different ethical theories as these define (1) the justifications made for the design and implementation of policies and interventions and (2) the space with which normative evaluations are made. As a result of the analytic distinctions made by the Capabilities Approach between means and ends, well-being and agency, opportunities and processes, among others, theorists have access to an analytic toolkit with which the intrinsic conceptual limitations of dominant perspectives such as the human capital approach can be brought to light. These theoretical tools serve an important role in organizing the manifold criticisms made by development practitioners immersed in empirical work. On the discursive level, this theoretical apparatus provides legitimacy to the critique of dominant discourses and emphasizes the urgency of an alternative normative framework. The Capabilities Approach as an alternative framework for educational policy design, implementation and evaluation: Aside from its capacity for critique, the Capabilities Approach argues that the primary aim of development is the expansion of people’s substantive freedom to lead the lives they have reason to value. This emphasis on the space of freedoms provides a broader, more sensitive, and empowering departure point for designing, implementing and evaluating development practices as it recognizes the importance for stakeholders to be active agents in the shaping of their own lives. The intrinsic importance of exercising agency as part and parcel of an individual’s well-being goes beyond the instrumental role that empowerment contributes to the increased efficiency and sustainability of achieving developmental outcomes. The former need not be justified by the latter. Furthermore, the capabilities approach is sufficiently flexible to be able to recognize the important insights drawn from other ethical theories which enables it to accommodate some of their features. In the field of education specifically, the capability approach is able to recognize the merits of education as an investment that leads to economic returns for individuals and their society. However, it sets this contribution in its proper place as one of the many contributions that education provides rather than the sole end it seeks to achieve. In addition, it also recognizes the important contribution that the human rights perspective provides to education as the notion of human rights provides both the (1) force of an ethical claim that being provided with the freedom to be educated ought to be the norm rather than the exception and (2) the capacity to deal sufficiently with the process aspect of freedom which the capabilities approach admittedly lacks. The Constructive Role of Education and its effects on Voice and Aspiration: One of the salient features that distinguishes the Capabilities Approach is the emphasis placed on the life that one has reason to value as it recognizes the debilitating effects that prolonged exposure to oppressive circumstances has on the psyche of the human person. With the prevalence of adapted preferences especially in poorer countries, people become conditioned to no longer feel themselves to be deprived, absolutely and/or relatively, from being free to pursue reasonably valued lives. In cases when deprivation becomes normal, the lack of freedom to practice the capability for voice feeds a vicious cycle of aspirational and voice-deprivation. One of the key contributions that the Capabilities Approach must therefore have in the field of education must consist in the cultivation of aspirational and voice-capabilities as these constitute important facets of practical reason which in turn leads to the productive use of public reasoning for the transformation of societal institutions. 

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