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Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures

reviewed by Roger Saul - May 30, 2019

coverTitle: Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures
Author(s): Gerald Coles
Publisher: Monthly Review Press, New York
ISBN: 1583676902, Pages: 288, Year: 2018
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Gerald Coles’s Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures exposes the workings of an elaborate con. Its perpetrators are the corporate architects of global capitalism. Its marks are educators, parents, students, teacher unions, and anyone who cares about the current direction of American education. And its effectiveness is such that the discourses it seeks to perpetuate have come to pass as unquestioned truth: American students will be left behind if schools don’t better prepare them for success in the global economy; the global economy most values STEM disciplines, so schools need to prioritize STEM subjects; given that school curricula are too often outdated, it is wise to look to corporations, especially ones succeeding in the global marketplace, for new ideas about educational leadership, innovation, and citizenship; and individual responsibility, initiative, and determination, not social positioning, will invariably determine student success in our increasingly competitive world.

Notions such as these permeate today’s educational landscape. They have largely determined the direction of public discourse and school policy over the past several decades, finding bipartisan agreement and broad support. Yet they are, all of them, fabrications.

The global economy’s education con can be said to proceed in stages:


Stage 1: Get schools and the public to subscribe to a narrative of the global economy that global elites value while obscuring its real workings and impacts. This means teaching students to value an ethic of individual prosperity, accumulation, and “21st century” technical skills while ignoring its associated costs: the billions of people around the world living in abject poverty (including, by one estimate Coles cites, 17% of the world’s children), the growth of an easily exploitable workforce, and environmental degradation.


Stage 2: Having elevated an idealized version of the global economy’s workings, incentivize schools to adopt programs and policies that will support it, knowing all the while that doing so is not really what the global economy needs, nor are STEM fields the domain within which most future students will find jobs. For what that global economy really needs is an abundance of low-skilled labor to fulfill its inequitable mandate, which public schools are already fulfilling well in prioritizing apolitical, corporately driven STEM curricula.

Stage 3: When high skilled, high paying STEM jobs fail to materialize for students – and Coles cites much research suggesting they have not appeared, and will not – blame schools in order to obscure the global economy’s lie. Doing so immunizes the global economy’s corporate architects from any culpability. A convenient rhetorical misdirection is always at hand: the reason American students have not gotten desired jobs is not because of the global economy’s false promises, but because schools have not prepared them well enough to compete within it.

Stage 4: Now let the con do its own work, by thrusting educational stakeholders into passively supporting the conditions of their own oppression. Watch first as public schools become objects of public derision to the extent that they do not meet the global economy’s employment goals as sold to students and their parents. Watch again as well-meaning educational reformers work to reverse the fact that marginalized students are largely left out of opportunities for success in today’s schools, an exercise that unwittingly supports the corporate school ethos, for it obscures a more pressing form of student dispossession, the fact that school success is redundant in a global economic context of precarious employment and growing environmental catastrophe. Now seize upon these conditions to justify corporate influence over the direction of schools, publicizing acts of corporate benevolence (resource donation, charter school financing, jobs programs, free curricula) while conducting business operations that accomplish the opposite (through tax loopholes that underfund public education, business practices that exploit workers, and environmental policies that jeopardize students’ futures).

Coles’s account of how corporate power infuses educational discourses and practices is meticulously detailed, persuasive, and relentless in its conviction. Virtually none of his claims read as conjecture. His style of argumentation is to elevate publicly verifiable facts derived from scholarship, policy documents, and reliable news media, assembling them into credible lines of reasoning. Following this model, his seven chapters cover the hypocrisies of popular discourses that value sanitized notions of the global economy (Chapter 1), the global economy’s perpetuation of wealth inequality around the globe (Chapter 2), its various mechanisms for exploiting of workers in the U.S. economy (Chapter 3), its destructive effects on U.S. schools (Chapters 4, 5, and 6), and strategies educators, students, parents, and unions might employ to “fight back” (Chapter 7).

A few gentle critiques of Coles’s argument arise. His book names a lot of names – corporations doing bad things, their CEOs, special interests – but it’s not at all clear whether he thinks these various entities are purposely conspiring to keep the public in the dark about the global economy’s destructiveness in order to support their profit-making imperatives, or whether they somehow believe their own rhetoric as they set out to cast educators and schools as scapegoats for the public’s increasing dissatisfactions. Is corporate power’s marginalization of students and schools intentional or procedural? When, for example, Bill Gates speaks with conviction about his view of the inherent morality of global capitalism and the important place of schools in properly supporting it, is he purposely conspiring to destroy public schools by publicizing what he perceives to be their inadequacies, or is he an intellectual dupe within this same formulation?

The answer may not matter to Coles, and for good reason; the outcome, negative, is the same for students regardless. Yet, one of these circumstances feels much worse than the other. If the exercise of corporate power over schools can be sourced to the intentional actions of locatable entities, then at least its culprits are visible and contestations of them possible. If, on the other hand, it is procedural, simply a function of how capitalism operates today, then the situation feels much more hopeless, for this implies that many of us are implicated in perpetuating and profiting from a set of inequitable conditions whose deepest motivations, our own included, might run counter to what we imagine our ethics and politics to be.

Neither does Coles do much to locate the global economic conditions he so thoroughly details within our current historical moment of Trumpism, Brexit, and the contemporary rise of nationalism. This omission feels especially pronounced when he discusses issues like the fact that, in the current global economic context, many American workers have the right to feel aggrieved because they can no longer rely on financial stabilities as they used to. The recourse for many workers in the U.S. and beyond has of course been an appeal to nationalism, including a version of it that embraces isolationism, xenophobia, and racism. Coles’s politics have nothing to do with the latter. But given the vigor of his stance against globalization, one would expect some account of what has come to be seen by so many as its antidote.

What to do about all this? Coles concludes his work with several suggestions: advocacy for various public policy changes that would seek to protect workers and students, holding politicians and corporations to account, and expecting more from unions, who have in his view largely abandoned the class politics they once valued in favor of recasting themselves as mouthpieces for the individualized complaints of workers.

Coles’s most detailed suggestion reads as his most important: if schools aim to prepare students for work in the global economy, he says, then students should be given the opportunity to study the whole of it rather than the sanitized version global corporate elites have succeeded in selling. “Studying about the global economy,” he notes, “would seem to be an obvious imperative for curricula aimed at educating for the global economy” (p. 205). Here Coles points to the reality that young people have not been supported enough in imagining their futures outside of the global economy’s frames of reference, in which case he writes that it is incumbent upon educators, unions, and activist organizations to facilitate their opportunities for doing so, or we risk perpetuating an increasingly untenable circumstance.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 30, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22821, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:24:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Roger Saul
    University of New Brunswick
    E-mail Author
    ROGER SAUL is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick, where he writes and teaches about the foundations of education, cultural studies, and sociocultural influences on teaching and learning. His recent writing appears in Power and Education, Explorations in Media Ecology, the Journal of Children and Media, Global Studies of Childhood, and the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy.
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