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Human Capital Theory within a Discursive Grid

What opens the possibility for early childhood education to merge with human capital theory and to be subjected to cost-benefit analyses in Turkey? Human capital theory does not exist in isolation; instead, it exists in relation to a series of other discourses, both contemporary and historical. Within this series of discourses, human capital theory gets assembled, takes on its meaning, and gains intelligibility. In order to understand how human capital theory has become one of the dominant frames deciding how we think and talk about early education in Turkey, it has to be studied with, and in relation to, a series of other discourses existing within the discursive space of early childhood education in Turkey. This is the aim of the following pages.

Engineering the Child’s Potential: Developmental Discourse

The vision of early childhood education as a future-oriented investment in human capital mobilizes, communicates, and is based on a particular conception of the child as a resource holding various capacities and potentials. Human capital theory is very connected to the idea of innate potential (or resources). The realization and improvement of the innate potential in a planned and optimized environment is the principal issue in the investment agenda. For example, the TUSIAD report claims,

Children are born with a particular genetic potential. Yet being able to utilize this potential at the highest level is closely related to how supportive the child’s environment is for her development. (2005, p.

27; my translation)

The discourse of child development is one of the major discourses that gives intelligibility to, and opens the possibility for, the vision of early education as an investment in human capital. The very first evidence presented in the TUSIAD report in support of early education comes from the discipline of child development. It discusses how “early years is the period during which children develop (cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically) faster than any other time in their lives” (TUSIAD, 2005, p. 27; my translation). These early years are also framed in the report as a period during which environmental influences have a critical effect on the developmental potential of the child. It is suggested that the very first years of life provide parents and the government with a once-in-life-time opportunity to shape and control the child’s genetic potential. Especially, the strategic use of neuroscientific vocabulary provides a “natural” explanatory framework for why early education is important for the child’s adult potential. The TUSIAD report writes,

The early years are an important stage for brain development. Brain development occurs through the formation of synapses. The formation of synapses is closely connected with the life experiences of the child and the stimulation in her environment. Therefore, the experiences and stimulations with which early years education provides the child will play a crucial role in supporting her brain development. (p.

27; my translation)

Invoking neuro-scientific vocabulary in early education advocacy, the TUSiAD report suggests that children come into the world with the neurons that they need throughout their lifetime. On the other hand, what is needed more is connections between the neurons. The neuronal connections (synapses) are formed and shaped by the early experiences of the child. The report holds as a truth that synapses are required for the building up and improvement of children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical capabilities; these capabilities will render children competent and competitive in adulthood.

In these neurological accounts of childhood, children are, in Foucault’s words, “abilities-machines” (2008, p. 229). As Brockling explains, “These machines require prudent development, careful maintenance, and continuous adjustment to market requirements. This cannot begin early enough and demands, before the individual takes the building up and permanent improvement of his competences into his own hands, the engagement of parents and other social institutions” (2011 p. 259). Early education services are attributed to a central role in ensuring the optimal development of children (including the optimal synaptic wiring of children) and accordingly enabling them to reach their adult potential and become the selfinvesting individuals of the future who manage their own development effectively.

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