Education and Politics of the "Third Way"

By Shapiro, Svi | Tikkun, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Education and Politics of the "Third Way"

Shapiro, Svi, Tikkun

Education and Politics of the "Third Way"

Svi Shapiro is professor of education and coordinator of the Ph.D. program in Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

The end of the impeachment process also ended, for now at least, the right wing's obsessive attempt to destroy the Clinton presidency. This moment of relief is also a time to return to some serious thinking about what Clinton now offers us in the way of policies concerned with social change. The State of the Union and subsequent speeches, while certainly reflecting the President's adroitness at measuring the public mood, bring us back again to his tepid and limited agenda for reform. His major proposals--saving Social Security and raising educational standards--while significant, at least as far as the former is concerned, are hardly radical or earthshaking. Neither demands any serious rethinking of the basic contours of our vision and commitments as a society. Yet such limitations call for something more than a new round of "Clinton bashing." We need to look beyond this individual to the deeper influences that are shaping the Left's vision and agenda. Looking beyond our own shores (an increasing rarity in the media today) to the politically successful social democratic parties in Europe underscores just how much this is a time of modest expectations and widespread accommodation to the forces and thinking of the global marketplace. It also reminds us of just how much needs to be done to awaken and renew a politics concerned with deep and significant transformation.

That perception was powerfully brought home to me during a recent visit to Britain. It was a sober reminder (if I needed one) of just how little now remains of a radically different social vision within the mainstream politics of the Left. Both sides of the Atlantic talk instead of a "third way"--one that is represented in the United States by the "New Democrats" (of whom Clinton is the most famous standard-bearer), and by Tony Blair's "New Labour" in the United Kingdom. In Britain, where politics has been less obscured by the media's obsessive and sleazy focus on the personal behavior and misdemeanors of politicians, the larger meanings of public policies remain visible and relatively clear. What becomes very apparent is that the special rapport between Blair and Clinton reflects not just mutual affection based on a similarity of generation and culture, but, more crucially, a broad identity of social outlook and understanding about what is needed in responding to, as well as shaping, the world of the twenty-first century.

Not accidentally, at the center of New Labour's (Blair is insistent on the prefix) domestic policies are improvements in education. Indeed education is one of the defining concerns of the new government. And one could not help but be struck by the similarities between Blair's policies and the educational policies and proposals that Clinton himself continues so forcefully to argue. Of course education for both men means mainly the process of "investing in human capital" so as to make the workforce more adapted and suited to the conditions of the new global business environment. It is not hard to understand why a government might define the importance of education in this way. In the volatile and unstable conditions of the global economy, where workers' jobs depend increasingly on the ability of countries to court corporations to their shores, regions, or cities, a suitably skilled workforce appears to offer some leverage over future economic prospects for both individuals and nations. One can hardly question the importance of the capacity to earn a living to the sense of people's well-being, and a government's--especially a progressive government's--responsibility to make that possible. Yet the fixation on education as preparation and training for future jobs certainly means a very limited vision of what education might be about.

For example, there is little in Labour's educational priorities that really distinguishes them from those of the previous Tory government. …

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