Review of Alexander J. Means (2018). Learning to Save the Future: Rethinking Education and Work in an Era of Digital Capitalism
Learning to Save the Future: Rethinking Education and Work in an Era of Digital Capitalism is a timely, well-researched, accessible and insightful critique of today’s prevailing commonsense assumption that education, markets and technology will solve the serious political, social and economic crises we face. Amidst widespread debate about the threat automation, data analytics, robotics, advanced computing power and the Internet of Things pose (as well as their emancipatory potential), Learning to Save the Future takes aim at the popular belief that a looming technological revolution entails we shift to a ‘21st century education’ to forge agile, critical, creative, resilient, digitally-savvy and entrepreneurial life-long learners whose soft-skills, knowledge and ability to continually upgrade themselves will enable them to create or contribute to sustainable opportunities for growing economic wealth.
Learning to Save the Future shows us why this thinking is not only wrong but harmful, particularly to those already most disadvantaged. Robots are threatening mass unemployment, the 1% is leaving everyone else behind, environmental destruction is accelerating, precarity is the ‘new normal’ and a looming automation revolution appears set to make these crises worse for the unprepared; yet, teaching more coding, ‘grit’, entrepreneurship, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or even STEAM (adding the Arts and Humanities to this human capital building project) is not the solution. As Alexander J. Means illustrates, this ‘solutionist’ thinking ignores the ways in which capitalism’s inherent structural dynamics contribute to these crises and subverts the emancipatory potential of education and technology. In place of an unimaginative educational solutionism which erases capitalism’s racialized, gendered and classed structural inequities and cannot countenance even minor changes to our political economy, he provides a vision of education as ‘mass intellectuality’ to better take advantage of our technological capabilities so we can create a post-capitalist world which supports human emancipation, robust democratic institutions and the ability and opportunity for all to flourish.
Written for both a scholarly and broader audience, Means draws from a range of disciplines including Marxist political economy, Post-structuralism, Autonomism and Accelerationism to illuminate the historical, ethical and discursive supports underpinning this ‘educational solutionist’ thinking and the threat it poses to our future. Each chapter of this text is organized around a key ‘problem field’ associated with education as a solution to technological disruption with the first setting the broad parameters of the book’s analysis by providing an initial critique of educational solutionism and its assumption that the creation of novel technologies, improved market efficiency and appropriately trained humans will solve our pressing social, economic and political crises.
The second chapter provides an historical overview of human capital theory, which underpins educational solutionism, before moving to illustrate its conceptual, ethical and political failings. The next four chapters expand upon this analysis, beginning with the third chapter which overviews the growing precarity afflicting millennial youth while juxtaposing three theoretical frames for viewing this precarity: the theory of skill-biased technological change (SBTC) which assumes that “a rising supply of skilled labour generates employment as it keeps pace with new technological requirements” (Means 2018: 44); liberal Keynesianism; and Marxist political economy. While agreeing with Keynesians that SBTC - an extension of human capital theory - occludes capitalism’s disequilibrium tendencies and cannot solve the inequality capitalism generates, Means cogently illustrates that their demand-side solutions are insufficient, borrowing from Marxist theorists such as David Harvey to show that disequilibrium, crises and precarity are core features of capitalism’s inherent structural dynamics.
The fourth chapter takes aim at the popular rhetoric surrounding ‘creativity’ in education, analyzing the creative economy’s historical evolution as a solution to late capitalism’s crises and mobilizing Autonomist insights on the ‘commons’ and ‘biopolitical production’ to draw out the antagonism between capitalist control and creativity in education. The fifth chapter on ‘algorithmic education’ analyzes historical antecedents and recent digital learning technology initiatives which promise to enhance human capital inculcation through data analytic software that personalizes student learning. As with the other chapters, the philosophical, sociological and economic analysis uncovers the ethics and worldview underpinning these digital learning initiatives to illustrate their relation to broader social changes and impact on human subjectivity, education and democracy.
The sixth chapter brings together many of the findings of the previous chapters to examine the present relationship between education and automation. After providing a succinct overview of past and present predictions about technological unemployment from Marx, Keynes and Schumpeter to automation researchers such as Frey and Osborne (2013), Ford (2015) and Cowen (2013), the chapter analyzes the merits of three responses to technological unemployment: human capital maximization; Keynesian proposals such as work sharing and a guaranteed income; and radical post-work alternatives. The seventh, and final chapter, draws from a range of contemporary sources to overview future possibilities if we keep on our present path. Stagnation, increased precarity and social disintegration are projected to be real possibilities leading Means to offer a vision of education as ‘mass intellectuality’, a project which aims to provide citizens with the ability to not only critique present structural injustices but to create and flourish within a post-capitalist future.
Learning to Save the Future: Rethinking Education and Work in an Era of Digital Capitalism is an exemplary text that should be widely read. A novel offering for the field of education, which has few critical analyses of the relationship between education, automation and capitalism from a post-work perspective, Learning to Save the Future is a key text for gaining a more critical understanding of the role education and advanced technology play in the many important crises we face today. For graduate students or beginning researchers in the field of critical theory, Means illustrates how to critically analyze dominant discourses and practices in an accessible manner while still providing a wide-ranging and trenchant critique that draws upon recent advanced research. Throughout his examination of each problem field, Means provides the reader with the necessary context to understand what is at stake by laying out the history of the dominant thinking in the field. He then brings in contrasting perspectives, as he moves from an immanent critique to a more radical critique informed by a range of critical disciplines to better illuminate key problems or shortcomings with educational solutionism and its alternatives. Importantly, he does so in a way that does not sacrifice clarity or his analysis for the sake of theoretical ornamentation. As such, Learning to Save the Future provides an excellent example of how to use critical and complex theoretical frameworks to illuminate problematic aspects of seemingly uncontroversial and benign phenomena.
Further, the book is an important read for citizens concerned about democracy and the future of our world. Throughout the book, Means draws out the sometimes violent implications of educational solutionism, particularly how its moralization and individualization of racialized, gendered and classed structural inequities across a number of problem fields supports blaming marginalized groups for systemic inequities. This reminder of the violence of supposedly non-ideological or ‘technocratic’ policy solutions is particularly salient given right-wing populism’s resurgence as a seemingly credible alternative to neoliberal solutionism. Means’ critical historicizing of education and technology is also important, reminding us that neither education or technology are neutral but have been shaped to serve particular ends and so can be reshaped to support other, more equitable outcomes. This denaturalization of the prevailing dogma on education, technology and the economy is so important for political agency as Means notes. Finally, his vision of education as mass intellectuality prods us to rethink and revalue the purpose and character of education so we can move beyond initiatives and debates dominated by the unimaginative and stale solutionism that dominates the field of education today.
Throughout Learning to Save the Future: Rethinking Education and Work in an Era of Digital Capitalism, Means points to openings and opportunities that exist today to garner support for valuing education and technology differently. To recover the emancipatory potential of both education and technology and restore futurity to a future that appears increasingly precarious, crisis-ridden and unsustainable, we must take advantage of these openings. Educational solutionism is not the answer, and its veneer of optimism is wearing thin. We need positive change now. The greatest value of this book is that it provides a means to create this change.
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- Ford, M. (2015). Rise of the robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Working Paper. Oxford: Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford. https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf. Accessed July 20, 2018.
- Means, A. J. (2018). Learning to save the future: Rethinking education and work in an era of digital capitalism. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar