Desiring Public Education

Year: 2015

Author: Gerrard, Jessica

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In the context of what appears to be an international embrace of neoliberal policy in education, it is common to herald, desire, and lament the loss of pubic education. Indeed, the notion of public education is a powerful and collectivising rallying cry, from the Manifesto for Public Universities in the UK to the ‘I give a Gonski’ campaign here in Australia. Implicitly or explicitly, the academic and popular mobilisation of public education versus neoliberalism can mobilise a historical figure of public education as emblematic of the progressive ideals of ‘community’ and ‘equality’.

In this paper, I argue that the pitting of a public education past against the neoliberal present romanticises the history of public education, and obfuscates the history of elitism, contestation, and concessional policy reform. There are, I suggest, two dangerous consequences to this. First, a glossing over of a long-held tensions and relationships between public education, the market, the ‘community’, and the state; and second, a reification of neoliberalism as an external ‘thing’ imposed upon the institutions of public education past, rather than a social practice that emerged from the social, institutional and political relations of the post-war welfare state. This paper concludes by reflecting on the repercussions of this for the conceptualisation, understanding and support of public education.