There is something dangerous about a commitment to funding education, but it has nothing to do with reducing it’s value by making it widely available. Rather as Noam Chomsky has argued, a commitment to funding education and social services is dangerous because it means promoting the value that we care about each other. If neoliberalism is ‘lovelessness as policy’ (Naomi Klein), then any challenge in the form of a social commitment to the least well off is the truly radical alternative to our current system. In an argument for publicly funding higher education, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom argues, “It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse-a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition.”
How would human capital theory put a value on vastly underpaid care labor that is essential to the functioning of the economy, or all of the unpaid work without which society would not function? In her conceptual critique of Becker’s human capital theory, Antonia Kupfer argues that schools do not simply produce human capital in a linear relation because unpaid work is “a precondition of education taking place.” Most of the work that goes into getting a child ready to attend school and to support them throughout their educational careers is unpaid and not counted as productive uses of human capital: from giving birth, to feeding children, washing their clothes, and getting them to school, the feminized work that readies children for education is truly massive. Kupfer asks, “How could ‘productivity’ be measured in the increasing service sector such as care of elderly, counseling or management? In fact, productivity is highly culturally conceptualized and impacted.”
According to Kupfer, the human capital “concept abolishes the difference between labour and capital by conceptualizing all people as capitalists through their capitalized work force.” The idea of human capital seems to democratize potential, when in fact financial capital is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. Piketty outright rejects the idea of human capital because “human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate)… In slave societies, of course, this is obviously not true.” (p. 46) If human capital theory was at some point during the mid 20th century kept in balance by a growing international commitment to human rights, Maren Elfert argues that it has “come out of equilibrium when neoliberal conservative governments came into power in the late 1970s which put the human capital approach at the service of an excessive market ideology, under which profit considerations dominated.”
Like so much of our lives under late capitalism, education has been subjected to an “excessive market ideology” for at least the last 50 years. Under human capital theory,“the role of the state could be limited to improving educational standards, expanding access to higher education, and creating flexible job markets that reward talent, ambition, and enterprise.”8 If we want to get to the root causes of why the education system is broken and what can be done to fix it, we need to free ourselves from the ideology that makes Caplan’s calculations all but inevitable.