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Problematizing Human Capital Language in Early Childhood

Some of the problematic areas of the most recent of England’s policies (as well as in many other countries including the United States) from the early twenty-first century include the discourses of normal child versus child at risk, or the idea of the dangerous outsider. In the context of England these sociocultural assumptions are enfolded into ideas about Britishness and Englishness—imagined communities with circulations of slippery and complex ideas about citizen- ship/national subjectivities and of ethnic or cultural belonging—and young children are constructed as human capital for the nation, as part of a market-oriented framing of the young UK child as a learner and future worker. The three problematic areas of normal/at risk, Britishness(es)/Englishness(es), and human capital are themes that appear throughout this section.

Another area of concern relates to “governmentality” or the technologies of surveillance that are woven into policy language. In the essay “Governmentality,” Michel Foucault uses the term to refer to a shift that occurred during the eighteenth century in which the locus of control moved from a circulation of power between the sovereign and the individual to one in which individual citizens regulated themselves rather than being regulated by a sovereign. Governmentality involves the regulation of individuals in ways that are “at once internal and external to the state” (Foucault, 1991) as they strive to be “good” citizens.

This subjectivity of the child, which was a key feature in the early twenty-first-century education policies, was that of a diverse group of individuals finding common ground in a shared or “universal” task, working together with varying degrees of acceptance and persecution of each other’s cultural differences. This transcendent universalization of the curriculum and the goals of learning is a shift away from the prior curricular emphasis on diversity and cultural inclusion as the end goal of curriculum (which had been emphasized in earlier 2000-2001 documents.) This acknowledgment of diversity that is unified into a single goal is a new, or rather recycled, discourse that produced the cultural assimilation in the early twentieth century (and many times historically) that resulted in the systems of universal governmentally funded education. This system was prevalent throughout the twentieth century and is still the norm in the early twenty-first century although this system of universal schooling is the target of several political challenges such as voucher systems and charter schools that have gained in popularity (following another set of discourses of privatization, autonomy, and school/parental choice, as well as antigovernment “standardized for all” schooling.) This recycling of cultural assimilation and universal curriculum, with a new emphasis on inclusion (or nod to diversity, at least) is reflected in the turn toward standards in teaching and standardized tests that swept education reforms in the early twenty-first century as exemplified by the United States’ No Child Left Behind and also in the multiple levels of testing and in key stage standards that were implemented in England as part of the national curriculum. Before a more in-depth look at the key stages that were introduced as part of the national curriculum, the education policies that were instrumental in shaping late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century schooling comprise the topic of the next subsection.

The use of statistics and populational reasoning is one way in which “scientific” and universal replaced the earlier imaginaries of child. The role of parent as protector and nurturer, rescuer from germs and immorality, now becomes that of an administrator of stimulation prescribed by the scientific experts. This universal learning prescribes a way in which all children may be educated through literacy or numeracy training, which transcends the messiness of cultural compatibility or individual learning differences. It structures the teacher as the applicator of the scientifically determined learning process and the child as the recipient. The learning is orderly, predictable, and can be measured by standardized tests, administered at regular intervals in the child’s school years to measure the “progress” the child has made toward reaching his/her potential and offers the illusory promise of protection from uncertainty.

Is Reason comforted, then, does that giantess, metaphysical chance, no longer threaten or offer untold delights? Do we live in a world made safe by statistical laws, the laws of averages writ small upon the tiniest particles of matter? Of course not. (Hacking, 1990, p. 215; italics added)

We could also read Hacking’s statement as “the tiniest of children.” The scientific and universal research, including brain research, being used by policy makers to support their interest in early learning not only ignores inequities and cultural differences but it also uses norms that are presumed generalizable to all but that have been created from research done on a selected cultural population—often white, male, from university-educated families (Bloch, 1987; Mallory & New, 1994). The emphasis upon universal standards, including high-stakes test results, in the new reforms perpetuates the myth that scientific transcends all differences. These universal scientifically derived standards are used to create discourses of normal and at risk that assume child and teacher are universal, knowable, and governable if the standards are followed.

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