One of the important parts in understanding neoliberalism as a particular dispositive of power (or perhaps a mode of biopower – that sort of distinction doesn’t matter here) lies in understanding the various techniques it deploys. After all, there is no “neoliberalism” or “neoliberal power” existing in the abstract; as Foucault repeatedly demonstrates, power can only be fully understood by digging down to the mircro-level, to all the little practices and techniques that add up to a particular social regime of power. Attention to these details has been one of my interests for a while (for example, in the case of privacy notices, or the emergence of best practices).
At least since Althusser, we’ve been accustomed to recognize the schools as part of the ideological state apparatus, and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish underscored the point. The locus classicus of neoliberalism in K-12 education is of course the rise of standardized testing regimes such as those imposed by No Child Left Behind. Another area of focus has been the rise of semi-privatized charter schools. Here, I want to take note of another, more subtle: the use of online homework assignments. Recall that one of the central aspects of neoliberalism at work is the erasure of the work/home boundary and the devolution of technological minutiae to employees; the result is what Ian Bogost calls “hyper-employment,” and the necessary parallel rise of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” a phenomenon brought about by the fact that we don’t actually have 24 hours of useful work a day to do. On the job, workers are subject to nearly unlimited surveillance, and things like employee wellness programs extend that surveillance into the home. It is only to be expected that this surveillant, time-wasting product of the neoliberal thought collective will be visited on our children.
Those of us who finished K-12 a while ago are invariably shocked by the sheer amount of homework that our children are assigned, despite evidence that the homework does much less good than people think, especially in early grades. The intensification of homework regimes in itself serves to efface the school-home distinction, as well as communicate the idea that one should always be “at school” (when I was in school, the response to evidence that American students were under-achieving was to propose longer school days. Same mindset here, but it’s cheaper for the state to execute, and it transfers more of the burden to individual families and students, both principles dear to the neoliberal project).
But we can be more specific now, as school systems increasingly adopt information technologies. For example, my son brought home from 8th grade a worksheet attached to an online video the other day. This was a completely typical assignment. Notably, many of the questions on the worksheet were designed not to test whether the students knew the material being taught, but whether they had watched the video (so they asked who the corporate sponsors were, things like that. No, I’m not kidding. Incessant branding is another technique of neoliberalism). In other words, the assignment communicated that spending a requisite amount of time was as important as knowing the substance of the material. A student who already knew all the answers to the real questions would still have to sit through the video. Since it’s a video, it’s not possible to skim or otherwise proceed quickly: all one can do to resist is barely pay attention. But you have to pay enough attention to answer the irrelevant questions. Conversely, the student who does not know any of the material has to waste time on the irrelevant questions, and also is stuck with a medium where annotating or creating study aids is very difficult. Again, what matters is not learning, but the fact that a lot of time is spent on the appearance of learning.
Such assignments are increasingly pervasive. Whatever their pedagogical value, they communicate to students that a very important part of becoming educated is spending a lot of their time at home on the internet: school has become “virtual,” which is to say that it has become everywhere. Kids are to be “at school” all the time. This thought is reinforced by the fact that a lot of classroom time is also spent on various forms of screen-based work, including watching videos. Our children are going to understand the autonomist concept of “real subsumption” intuitively. The inability to distinguish between home and school – increasingly packaged as preparation for work – is a given in their lives. And effacing that distinction is at least as important as learning any substantive material.
Finally, of course, even the presence of online homework preferences families with the resources to have continuous internet available to their children. Those who depend on the library for their internet access are severely disadvantaged by such a state of affairs. None of this is meant to disparage the idea of learning online (I’m writing a blog!), but it is to say that we need to be attentive not just to the blunt, but to the subtle ways that the educational front is an important one for advancing the neoliberal dispositive.