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II Deconstruction and Critique of Human Capital and Education

Governing the Brain: New Narratives of Human Capital in Australian Early Childhood Education

Zsuzsa Millei

Becker (1964) at the University of Chicago originated the idea of human capital theory. In Becker’s understanding of the theory the individual is repositioned—as an actor in the social world—in the market of behaviors. According to his theory, as a rational actor, the individual optimizes his or her own “profit” by accumulating those behaviors and skills that make him or her more desirable on the market. At the heart of the theory lies the possibility of perfecting the human (Luke, 1997). By translating behavior into economic terms, human capital theory enabled the systematic application of economic theory to social issues, such as unemployment or the issue of minorities who dominated in lesser-skilled occupations. While this theory construes the individual in terms of two components, first, genetic endowment and second, acquired set of aptitudes (Besley & Peters, 2007), more emphasis in policy making has been placed on how best to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and aptitudes. Education, training, and parenting under the influence of policies using human capital reasoning became aligned with market goals and applied market terms, such as investment, return, competition, and so on.

Neuroscientific arguments gained increased significance in early childhood education and care (ECEC) discourse internationally, including policy, theory, and practice during the past decade (White, 2011). While human capital reasoning continued to provide a commanding rationale for policy efforts in early care and education (Press, Wong, & Sumsion, 2012), neuroscientific evidence offered new ways to legitimize policy on all parts of the political spectrum. It also offered authoritative evidence to underpin stakeholders’ advocacy work. This chapter is a critical engagement with the current popularity and uncritical uptake of neuroscience discourses in early childhood policy through some examples of Australian ECEC policy and practice. While neuroscience discourses offer uncontested power to arguments for the provision of early childhood education, it is also possible that these discourses will lead to unexpected outcomes. They potentially threaten the value placed on pedagogical work aimed at the acquisition of aptitudes and focus on bringing out genetic endowments of the individual leading to a new eugenic current. It might potentially lead to disinvestment from institutional delivery of care and education, and to a radical change in pedagogy and curricula that targets new capacities of the individual through pharmaceutical drugs and/or various novel technologies.

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