Education is related to various kinds of development: individual human development, different dimensions of societal development (e.g., political and cultural), and national economic development. This entry focuses on the last relationship, between economic development and education, which can be understood from different perspectives, grounded in functionalist, conflict, or less structuralist social theories.
From a functionalist perspective, development is usually linked to the idea of modernization. Scholars and policy makers adopting this perspective stress that it is a normal and positive experience for undeveloped or developing nations’ economies to come to model the economies of “modern” or “developed” nations (i.e., capitalist or “free market” systems). Based on assumptions of human capital theory, investment in education (schooling and nonformal education) is seen as building a nation’s stock of human capital (the knowledge, skills, and values of its worker-citizens), and this along with investments in physical capital (e.g., machines) fosters economic development. Within functionalism, the education system is viewed as not only training but also selecting and sorting—meritocratically, based on their talents and motivations—future workers.
From this perspective, a developing nation’s government officials, business leaders, educators, other professionals, and citizens can steer their education systems to facilitate their nation’s advancement. Educational development to promote economic development is accomplished by using national human and financial resources as well as by arranging for financial and technical assistance from international organizations, such as corporations, philanthropic foundations, and bilateral and multilateral development agencies. The education systems of “developed”—and, particularly, “newly developed”—nations are taken as the models for other countries’ educational development.
Debates among functionalists tend to be couched in technical terms and to focus on (a) what levels of the education system (primary, secondary, or higher) contribute most effectively; (b) what kinds of skills, knowledge, and attitudes are most productive to include in the curriculum; (c) what mix of public and private funding sources is most appropriate; and (d) whether formal or nonformal education programs represent a better investment.
In contrast to functionalism, which views human systems as performing certain necessary functions (determined by consensus), conflict perspectives conceive of human social relations as determined by the needs and interests of dominant groups or nations, which conflict with or contradict the needs and interests of subordinate groups or nations. At an international level, conflict perspectives include dependency theory and world systems theory and tend to employ terms like imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism.
Rather than assuming that some nations are “undeveloped,” scholars and policy makers adopting a conflict perspective highlight that some nations are underdeveloped. That is, the economies of societies in the periphery of the world system are constructed through exploitative, dependence-inducing relationships imposed on such nations by the dominant groups in more powerful, core societies. Thus, more powerful nations “develop” and their elites accumulate capital at the expense of less powerful nations. Moreover, from a conflict perspective, socialism (rather than capitalism) is often viewed as the desired goal of economic development.
In the conflict-perspective narrative, elite groups in more powerful, wealthier nations design educational systems to serve their own interests. They seek to educate youth and adults within their own countries with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes “needed” for producing wealth that elites can accumulate, while at the same time inculcating worldviews that justify inequalities in wealth and power relations within and between countries. Individual or group achievements in education and in the economy are viewed as based not on “merit” but on the possession of cultural capital recognized and valued by elites.
Moreover, elites in core nations seek to shape the education systems of societies in the periphery to train more productive workers and to socialize citizens who view as legitimate not only their positions within their country’s stratification system but also their nation’s less privileged place within the hierarchically organized world system. Core country elites’ interventions that create underdevelopment in societies on the periphery are facilitated by the activities of multinational corporations, philanthropic foundations, and bilateral and multilateral development agencies.
Less Structuralist Views
In contrast to the more determinist, structuralist accounts provided by functionalist and conflict theories, less structuralist perspectives highlight human agency. Rather than (a) viewing government officials, administrators, and teachers in undeveloped or underdeveloped societies as passively accepting the educational policies, curriculum, and processes “lent” or “imposed on” them
by core and/or developed nations; and (b) viewing students (and their parents) as necessarily accepting and internalizing the lessons they are taught, adults or young people are portrayed as ignoring, resisting, struggling, or even strategically accepting (for purposes that contradict what was intended) “foreign” educational structures, content, and practices.
For instance, during their pre-1954 colonization of Vietnam, the French sought to use schooling to inculcate in Vietnamese youth conceptions of history and culture that characterized Vietnam as incapable of political or economic independence, but Vietnamese teachers and community members challenged this message and even set up “illegal” alternative schools to transmit other curricular messages to their children. In the 1980s, when Vietnam occupied Cambodia in the aftermath of the latter’s destructive Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnamese advisers promoted the use of the Vietnamese language and curricular ideas. However, these were accepted by Cambodian leaders only selectively, temporarily, and competitively—with the languages and ideas offered through educational assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union—in their strategic efforts to rebuild their higher education system.
Also in line with a less structuralist perspective are contingency theories, which emphasize that the links between education and the economy are always contingent and subject to readjustment. Such theories draw attention to political struggle over the selection and allocation of workers and to variations (across time and place) in employers’ demands for workers with different types of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Such theories could be combined with world systems theories to explain why different types of “educated” workers are desired by employers in different industries in core, semiperipheral, and peripheral societies, and why the formal and hidden curriculum of schooling and higher education might vary across Fordist and post-Fordist economic formations.
Finally, less structuralist theories are reflected in analyses that do not take as predetermined or natural that globalization entails certain changes in education or the economy. This creates debates regarding the contemporary relevance of the nations as economic or political entities. Scholars and policy makers in this tradition may focus attention on global dynamics and international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, which can shape the provision of education and other economic commodities and services. However, at the same time, they highlight the agency of actors situated in various (core and periphery) nations and transnational organizations.
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