Sugata Mitra and neoliberalism

Introduction 1. Sugata Mitra has been accused of being a neoliberal. Some of his supporters brush this off as bad-tempered mud-slinging by technophobes who are refusing the inevitability of change. Is it? We want to argue in this post that there is a very real sense in which Sugata Mitra’s approach to education fits very nicely with the neoliberal project.

Introduction 2. One of the things that marks neoliberalism is a gloves-off willingness to scrap the old post-war consensus (in countries like the UK) and wage war on the “enemy within” (and in our post about the personalisation of education in the UK we have described how the teachers were seen by the Thatcher government as part of that enemy within). Even though the ideology paints a myth of a harmonious market society, where supply and demand are perfectly balanced and everyone benefits, the divisions between opposing camps become more pronounced. We want to argue that Mitra’s ideas are in the wrong camp, and rather than opposing the attack those ideas lend tacit support to it.

Caveat 1. There will be no claim here about what Mitra actually believes or supports or signs up to or is affiliated with. We are not interested here in any connections he has had with organisations like the World Bank or multinational corporations. Nor does it concern us how he votes. We are arguing that Mitra’s ideas are in the wrong camp. Where Mitra is personally is a separate issue. He could be a card-carrying Maoist for all we know. It does not interest us and does not affect the argument that follows.

Caveat 2. We don’t want to argue that Mitra’s model for education would necessarily be the model of choice for any particular neoliberal political figure. If we could disinter Thatcher, for instance, she would doubtless dismiss the model without so much as a second thought. This is partly because neoliberalism, although it makes itself felt everywhere, is not a religion that covers every aspect of life. It is the equivalent of a few parables that people have to supplement with whatever else they can find. Thatcher supplemented the economics with some Victoriana, and so, even though Mitra’s ideas are congruent with neoliberalism, because they are also anti-Victorian they would have incurred the wrath of Thatcher. (She would, though, have loved the idea of unionised teachers being replaced by un-unionised volunteers dispersed in a cloud.)

Caveat 3. We are not assuming that neoliberalism requires a single approach to education and that it is the one that Mitra describes. Neoliberalism is primarily an approach to the economy. Surely children could be educated to accept a society dominated by market fundamentalism in a number of different ways. An authoritarian, teacher-intensive pedagogic model might be best for some (the 1%?), while Mitra’s money-saving, teacher-lite, corporate-friendly alternative might be more suited to others (the 99%?). All we need to establish is that Mitra’s model is one of those that would fit the neoliberal bill.

How to characterise neoliberalism, though? Neoliberalism refers to a new phase in our economic and political lives, one in which the economic imperative is liberated as much as possible from older concerns about the trivialities of social justice and democratic values. Neoliberalism emerged in the UK, for instance, in the 1970s after the humiliation of the UK government having to be bailed out by the IMF. The solution proposed was to give a much freer rein to the wealth-generating power of business, removing anything standing in the way of business doing what it knows best.

To make our argument we will highlight four aspects of the neoliberal project: the refusal of a positive public ethic (turning us all into butchers); the imposition of an atomistic social imaginary; the commodification of (almost) everything; and, finally, the quantum leap in a (supposedly) scientific form of management.

The rejection of a positive public ethic

Neoliberalism rests very heavily on chapter two in book one of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. There we find the passage that mentions the infamous butcher, and if people remember anything about Smith, it is more than likely that they remember this convivial slaughterer. For those who don’t remember, here is the passage quoted at some length. It begins from a recognition of how much we depend upon others:

In civilized society man stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons…and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

Neoliberalism wants to turn all of us into good Smithian butchers, and for that to happen the vestiges of a culture that appeals not to our self-love but to our humanity must be swept to the distant margins of society. And, apparently, there is no need to worry about things like moral decay. The good that we might have wanted people to pursue out of a concern for humanity will be provided much more efficiently (if unwittingly) when people are free to pursue their own self-interest.

Adam Smith neoliberalism

In this way the neoliberals support the business community’s refusal of any obligation to do anything in particular for the public good. The only social obligation impinging on business is the obligation to maximise profits. And so only the negative outline of a public ethic remains: the obligation not to do too much harm to one’s fellow butchers.

The world Adam Smith describes is the world of homo economicus. Now, although Sugata Mitra has toyed with the idea that the era of homo sapiens is coming to an end, he has said nothing to challenge the era of homo economicus.

Mitra’s model of education provides one possible way of introducing children to this neoliberal world. It, too, rejects a positive public ethic as a framework for education, and relies instead on the thinnest liberal principles of abstract equality and respect for others (“No need to love humanity, girls and boys, but, please, no bullying online”). Just as the ends of the liberal homo economicus are private (self-centred) so the end of the child’s education is assumed by Mitra’s model to be personal to the child. Like Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra is one of the neoliberal fellow-travellers calling for the personalisation of education. Each child has his or her innate curiosity, and to respect that educators must follow it in whatever dark direction it may lead rather than trying to guide it towards a greater love for humanity.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who proposed a more thoughtful liberation pedagogy, argued that it was a mistake to simply impose obligations on children, but he also argued that education at its best carefully leads maturing children to the point where they would recognise public goods that they might feel obliged to promote. That larger ethical objective in education is completely missing from Mitra’s model. Nothing must compromise the sovereign curiosity of the child.

Of course, this turns out to be hypocrisy. Neoliberal pedagogues can’t ignore the claims of the larger society, and although they want the individual child to be sovereign, without the slightest embarrassment they will just as easily start talking about how well the new online education helps children develop the flexibility and the 21st century skills needed by the global economy. A positive public ethic is rejected as a breach of freedom, but no breach of freedom is seen in the hideous imperative to get your head down and become a cog in the global cash machine.

It is a short step indeed from Sugata Mitra’s SOLE to Adam Smith’s ethical abattoir.

It is easy here to assume that there is no alternative: Either we liberate the individual along neoliberal lines or we go back to some terribly regimented system which crushes the individual. But this is a false dichotomy. As we tried to show in the post about Rousseau’s approach to education, it is possible to begin with a much richer understanding of human freedom, and see that a much more maximal system of education is needed to guide children in the direction of autonomy and equip them sufficiently well to resist the forces of empire to which they are extremely vulnerable.

The atomistic social imaginary

Smith’s rejection of a positive public ethic is joined at the hip to what we might call the atomistic social imaginary – the view of society encapsulated perfectly by Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.” Even though we are ripping the claim out of context, and even though it was contradicted in a thousand ways by the deeds of people like Thatcher, it still expresses something essential to the neoliberal view of things: an imaginary view of society as an association of individuals, with each social atom collaborating for his or her private ends. “We are all individuals,” as the Monty Python team once put it. Society, what society?

Neoliberalism - there is no such thing as society

Sugata Mitra’s model of a personalised education fits perfectly with the atomistic social imaginary. The children are seen in a way that ignores completely their being part of some particular community. Each is a child in the abstract. There is no recognition that some of them might be part of a community that, perhaps, needs to defend itself against the prevailing high-tech imperialism – a defence that requires a maximal approach to education to help the children see the truth of what the community is fighting for. All we see are apparently random children who need an education. And education is understood in an utterly one-sided way to be all about the children, and to have nothing to do with the world that those children will later give new life to (a one-sidedness we have discussed at more length in our post about Hannah Arendt’s approach to education).

We won’t bother pointing out again (see our post on Sugata Mitra and Empire) how much of a delusion all this is, and how invasive the system is to which edtech belongs and how it relies upon an entire empire to give the box of tricks its all-important aura. Instead we rest our case on the way this one-sided model of a child-centred education dovetails nicely with the neoliberal atomistic social imaginary.

Supplementary point: In addition to leaving communities out of the theoretical model, Mitra’s form of education works on the ground to draw individuals out of the communities to which they belong, helping to shape them into the sort of social atoms required by the neoliberal order. A hole is opened in the wall of the community; a hole just big enough for children to climb through; and, being the curious creatures they are, they climb through, and in many cases they will be lost to their communities as the delights of a fast-paced pixelated entertainment appear more enticing than the rather inert and less entertaining life of the community.

Rousseau argued that anyone with a serious interest in education must be ready to build walls to protect the children. When Mitra sees a wall, he wants to open a child-sized hole in it.

Of course some kinds of communities deserve to be challenged, but Mitra is not challenging them. Instead, he simply takes the community out of the equation. What we are left with is an approach to education in which atomised children confront an anonymous financial-industrial-military-commercial-media-entertainment complex. And the model assumes that the children ought to be free to find their own way in the labyrinths of that imperial order. Inevitably, as they grow up, the members of the little SOLE teams will become painfully aware of their utter powerlessness and they will bend uncomplainingly to the imperatives of the global system that confronts them. So much for the sovereignty of the individual.


The imaginary social ontology that neoliberalism works with sees two things: the self (sovereign and free) and all the stuff that selves make use of when pursuing their ends. The self – the subject – is on one side, and that stuff – the object – is on the other. This model rules out the idea that some of that stuff might have a value that goes way beyond utility. Old ideas of the land, for instance, as something to which we belong simply make no sense within the framework of the neoliberal model. The world is understood, not as something essential to the self (internal to its self-understanding), but as made up of things that have the indifferent quality of property – something that can be exchanged for something else. In other words, the neoliberal world view sees the free subject on one side, and the world of commodities on the other.

In this connection, what is particularly interesting in Mitra’s model is what happens to knowledge – the object of education. It would be an oversimplification to say that Sugata Mitra commodifies that object, treating it as nothing more than cultural capital. However, his model works with a caricature of knowledge that treats it as something as indifferent to the subject as commodities traded on futures markets.

One of the reasons why Mitra regards the internet as the number one learning opportunity in the history of supposedly child-driven education is an assumption about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge is assumed to be a single phenomenon. There is only one knowledge worth talking about in education, and that is the kind of thing we find on Wikipedia and other online warehouses of digitised information. The knowledge exists there on Wikipedia. Hence the ease with which Mitra can toy with the idea of the obsolescence of human knowing. Why care about the inability of anyone to remember anything as long as individuals, when the need arises, can find the answers to their questions in a matter of seconds online? It is a matter of complete indifference whether knowledge is “in the head” or on a hard disc somewhere on the internet. And in training children to accept this image of an indifferent world of learning, are we not providing them with a very nice training for their future acceptance of a world of equally indifferent commodities?

To bring out the terrible conservatism of this approach to knowledge, let’s sketch a more radical alternative. The more radical view has its roots in the Delphic imperative to know ourselves (already discussed in our post about Delphi, the space odyssey, Camille Paglia and education). According to this view, we need to develop a better understanding of ourselves and of the peculiar form of social life of which we are a part. In the days before Wikipedia people talked about consciousness-raising – the need for people to become more aware of aspects of their lives that they perhaps haven’t reflected on, and more aware of the controversial histories that they are implicated in. This is a form of knowledge about which we cannot be indifferent. It is our knowledge of our selves – knowledge that instead of being used for private ends can change those ends, and so change the path along which that life travels. If the future wife of a young man raises the issue of patriarchy, this is something that the young man needs to be aware of as something that he is a part of and in relation to which he must decide where he stands.

Knowledge as self-knowledge flies in the face of the false neoliberal ontology, and it is something Sugata Mitra completely ignores. Some of us trying to rethink education might consider it to be knowledge at its best.

Cognitive alienation and edtech

Scientific management

Neoliberalism is the latest in a series of attempts to replace forms of public life that are essentially political with a supposedly scientific form of management. In the past we had scientific socialists dreaming of a withering away of the state and of its replacement by a scientific administration of things. Neoliberalism is a variation on the same theme, although instead of the withering away of the state, what we have seen is a centralisation of the power needed to force through the supposedly scientific management of more and more aspects of public life – a pseudo-science based on a very, very dubious imaginary view of social life.

Neoliberalism by force

In countries like the UK, neoliberalism has brought about the rise of the manager in public life. In healthcare, for instance, the older idea that doctors knew best about local healthcare priorities was thrown out of the window and a new regime established where managers with no background in healthcare would come in and take the decisions about where the money should go, applying more rational (money-saving) principles.

Things in education were somewhat different, but as we have pointed out in our post about personalisation of education in the UK, there was a parallel attack on the autonomy of the teaching profession. Just as doctors ought to keep their heads down and not meddle with the organisation of healthcare, so teachers ought to keep their heads down and teach their subjects well-enough to meet the targets set for them, and not meddle with things like the curriculum (which was previously considered to be something best left in the hands of the teaching profession).

Mitra’s approach fits perfectly with this trend of removing the key players with local knowledge from politically sensitive roles and giving those responsibilities to people coming in from outside who supposedly have some independent insight into the most efficient and the cheapest way of organising things.

In effect, what Mitra is proposing is the most efficient and the cheapest way of educating the children of the poor. Data obtained from meticulous fieldwork, he argues, show that the children of the poor can educate themselves faster when his model is applied. With this new science-based approach to education, all forms of local, experience-based understanding of the issues and the priorities (conservative and radical alike) are brushed aside, and a new system of money-saving SOLEs is to be set up in deprived areas by people who are acting as, in effect, new scientific managers of education. Any protesting voices can be dismissed as being those of people who are simply blind to the painstaking scientific research proving that this is the most efficient approach.

The sage on the stage is dead; long live the sage in the admin department.

End piece

In online comments about Sugata Mitra it is not uncommon to see people praising him for rocking the boat. But what boat is he rocking? If we take a look inside the neoliberal boat, which is the biggest boat in the political port at the moment, we will see Sugata Mitra there dining, if not at the captain’s table, at one of the lesser tables dotted around it.

written by Torn Halves on April 22, 2014 in Edtech and education and Sugata Mitra with no comments