Meta-theory 2: Integral Meta-theory and the future of human capital

An excerpt from: Stein, Z. (2013). Ethics and the new education: psychometrics, biotechnology, and the future of human capital. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. 8(3-4) 146-163  [pdf]

Introduction: tomorrow’s child

During the first decade of the 21st Century, the world economy was set into crisis and national political discourse and policy was thrown behind the idea of continued US technological and scientific superiority, more specifically the need for comprehensive educational reform to prepare American children for the techno-scientific economy of tomorrow. This climate saw federal testing policies set so that accountability metrics dominated school cultures. Prescription drugs for academic under-performance skyrocketed. Already large financial inequalities between school districts continued to increase, and technological progress in the broader culture began outstripping school infrastructures by years (with kids feeling like they are going back in time when they enter school buildings). This has led to the deterioration of teaching and learning in schools—failures that have been well documented (Hursh, 2008; RAND, 2011).

I argue here that there are issues deeper than the US educational system’s failures, e.g., failures to provide adequate buildings, or failures to foster a love of learning, etc.— its sins of omission, if you will. Recent decades have shown the system capable of committing sins of commission—where educational processes become unacceptable because of what is being done to students, not just because of what is withheld, lacking, or inequitably distributed. Two trends occupy my attention here: standardized testing and educational psychopharmacology. Tests and pills. These are the technocratic solutions to the educational crises of the 21st Century. In this paper I show how they reveal the logic of reductive human capital theory and the structure of its coercive, de-agentifying, instrumentalizing educational practices.

In order to better diagnose these pathologies of reductive human capital theory I begin by laying out a set of normative meta-theoretical distinctions. Drawing on the work of Wilber and Bhaskar, I build a minimalist integral meta-theory of education. I then look at some ethical issues involved with standardized testing infrastructures, briefly touching on the history of their use in the US as a function of human capital theory. My proposed integral meta-theory of education is employed to reveal ethically significant differences between efficiency oriented testing practices, and justice oriented ones. I argue further that the recent epidemic of psychotropic drug prescriptions for school aged children is dialectically related to the dominance of efficiency oriented testing infrastructures, both through their common roots in reductive human capital theory and through their practical in-the-classroom compatibilities (e.g., kids on pills do better on tests). Looking at the rhetoric and science surrounding the growth of educationally oriented psychopharmacology, I deploy the same meta-theoretical approach to characterize the ethical difference between designing children and raising them. I conclude with a series of provocations and reflections directed at kindling the social imagination and reviving our sense that there are alternatives to dystopian educational futures. Tomorrow’s child will inhabit the most pervasive, invasive, and complex educational configurations in history. But there are possibilities for meta-theoretically guided transformative practice and design in education—ways by which to bend geo-historical forces toward the creation and perpetuation of more humane, just, and liberating educational systems (Dewey, 1916; 1929).

 Integral educational meta-theory: beyond reductive human capital theory

I have written elsewhere about the nature of meta-theory, its relation to philosophy, interdisciplinarity, the sciences, and developmental psychology and education in particular (Stein, 2009; 2010; 2010a; 2011). I’ve argued for a specific form of meta-theorizing that is predominantly normative, “problem-focused and methodologically pluralistic,” and which serves as a basis for discourse-specific critique and dialectical comment; a role I have described as the discourse regulative function of meta-theoretical endeavors (Stein, 2010). Meta-theories, I have argued, are theories that set the terms by which sub-theories are built, or that “norm the norms” by which sub-theories are validated and put into practice. Therefore, meta-theories are an important part of the universe of discourse and function in complex ways, especially when they are inchoate or suppressed, which is often the case in post-modern culture.

Following Habermas, I’ve argued that one of the defining aspects of post-modern culture is its lack of meta-theory and meta-narrative, and the related inability of individuals to build universalized and historicized action-orienting self-understandings (Ibid). According to this line of thought, it is no longer the monovocal ideological meta-narrative of modernity that inhibits the moral evolution of the species; it is now the absence of any explicit shared meta-narrative or meta-theory that inhibits enlightenment. However, behind the polyvocal pastiche of our post-modern geo-historical moment, meta-theories and meta-narratives exist in abundance; they have simply been forced underground. As Bhaskar (1986) demonstrated in his ideology critique of positivism, one of the most powerful things a meta-theory can do is to convince the world it does not exist, or, more typically, that there is simply no alternative.

So when I propose that human capital theory is the predominant educational meta-theory in post-industrial societies, I am not suggesting that it functions this way explicitly or by design, although, of course, sometimes it does (Goldin & Katz, 2008). The idea at the core of human capital theory as an educational meta-theory is that the main function of educational systems in complex societies is to supply the economy with the next generation of workers. This idea has been active in political life for some time (Becker, 1964), and can be seen as a successor to the idea that educational systems function to create pliable citizens and patriots (Cremin, 1970; 1988). The idea that educational systems feed human capital into the economy organizes a related constellation of concepts and theoretical commitments, e.g., simple de-stratified economic models of human behavior, the abstract universalization of value, cost, and benefit, and the homogenization of system-supported identities, among others. Human capital theory, in a variety of more or less explicit forms, has become the assumed consensus meta-theory for a wide variety of educational configurations; from large-scale educational policy and research to the ideals parents have for their children’s education.

Because the discourse around human capital theory is very large, and there are many complex and nuanced positions, I will be making reference to a particular species of reductive human capital theory (RHCT). This is not so much a straw man as an ideal type. The term “reductive” is also a necessary qualification, because, as will become clear below, it is possible to conceive of integrally informed alternatives to human capital theory. These alternatives situate the moment of truth in RHCT in terms of more complex and differentiated social theories, dislodging the primacy of instrumental reason, and deepening theorizing about individual agency, freedom, and choice. RHCT is, by definition, incapable of dealing with complexity, agency, or dialectal and communicative reason. This is because, using Bhaskar’s terminology, RHCT is ontologically monovalent—a form of thought committed to reducing the ontological complexity of education as much as possible, concerned only with the control and prediction of closed systems.

Below I explore how the reductive-instrumental rationality of RHCT can be seen in traditional approaches to standardized testing that make simplistic and untenable assumptions about teaching, learning, and culture. Yet despite the theoretical and empirical inadequacies of these approaches to testing, the dominant narrative in educational policy circles is that there is no alternative to these approaches for fostering accountability and efficiency in large-scale educational organizations. Likewise, psychopharmacological approaches to educational underperformance are based upon the idea of treating ADHD and related disorders as discrete disease entities, which involves untenable assumptions about the nature of learning, behavior, and human development. Yet psychopharmacological approaches prove useful for raising academic achievement as measured by performances on standardized tests—an outcome of such unquestioned value that it is viewed as an acceptable risk to have the brains (not to mention the self-understandings) of millions of children fundamentally alerted by the forced administration of psychotropic drugs.

These and other symptoms of RHCT are revealed below through the use of meta-theoretical models from Integral Theory (IT) and Dialectical Critical Realism (CR). Wilber (1995; 1999; 2006) and Bhaskar (1986; 1993) offer complimentary comprehensive philosophical meta-theories. I do not have space to discuss the full range of their shared philosophical commitments, constructs, and methods, which include: reconstructive/transcendental arguments; social science conceived as an axiology of freedom; ontological emergence, change, and evolution; stratified selves/compound individuals; differentiated and laminated social realities; transformational bio-psycho-social models of human agency; and the immanent possibility of geo-historical evolutionary ‘progress’ toward a eudaimonistic society. The full Venn diagram, if you will, showing also their respective omissions and absences is a task for another time (Stein, forthcoming).

Here I employ two related ideas that both meta-theoretical systems share: a 4-fold model of social reality and a transformational bio-psycho-socio-cultural model of human action. Both ideas are clearly represented by Wilber’s four quadrants and Bhaskar’s four-planer social cube. These models represent human social reality, and thus the structure of human action, as a “four-planer” or “four-quadrant” autopoietic dynamic. That is, according to these models, social reality consists of at least an individual, in a cultural and social system that is reproducing itself in relation to natural realities, both those internal to the social reality (individual psycho-biology) and those that are external (the biosphere). Said differently, and still resisting the urge to have an orgy of diagrams, both models are attempts to represent the full complexity of the social realities addressed by the human sciences, which must account for at least the interplay of: individual agency and psychology; cultural/hermeneutic reproduction and transmission; social-systems and institutional structures; and the natural realities of the body and biosphere. Below I adopt these dynamic 4-fold models of social reality and human action as the minimal components of an Integral Meta-theory of Education (IMoE).

A fully articulated IMoE would include more than just a bio-psycho-socio-cultural model of social reality and human action. There would be (among other things) levels of development (both individual and socio-cultural), psychological frameworks for transcendence, spirituality, and metaReality, as well as commitments to universally efficacious evolutionary processes, from the individual to the geo-historical and cosmic. But these additional meta-theoretical accouterments are not needed for my purposes here, and, in fact, may not be needed in many cases where the goals of meta-theoretically enabled critique are simply to redress flagrant reductionisms and irrationalities. I do not have space to argue for this kind of opportunistic, rhetorically-made-to-order meta-theorizing, which follows from my arguments elsewhere in support of a problem-focused methodological pluralism that attends to the pragmatics of discourse-specific critique (Stein, 2010). Rather than arguing for a particular approach to meta-theory, the goal of this paper is to make a set of specific critical comments concerning contemporary educational configurations and to outline related possibilities for preferable futures. I turn now to this task, with a minimalist IMoE in hand.