Entrepreneurial education: Life Adjustment for the 21st century?

by Ivan Diego

“The word is about, there's something evolving, whatever may come, the world keeps revolving They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution's near, but to me it seems quite clear that it's all just a little bit of history repeating”

Shirley Bassey

Regardless of the extended assertion on the uniqueness of the zeitgeist of the moment, it is apt to point out the fact that many of the thoughts encapsulated in current Entrepreneurial Education rhetoric can be easily traced back to the early 20th century, a period of history where foundational ideas for progressive educational reform were described in the seminal works of authors such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Peter Petersen, Helen Parkhurst or Celestin Freinet. 

The phrases “Learner-centric approaches, teacher as facilitator, community engagement, authentic assessment, democratic learning, learning by doing, discovery learning, project-based learning” pepper the prevailing pedagogical discourse in the urgent call to strengthen the institutional anchoring of Entrepreneurial Education in schools  as illustrated by initiatives such as the OECD/ EC “Entrepreneurship360” or the recently published UK policy guidance “An Education System Fit for an Entrepreneur”. 

Before being embraced, co-opted, engulfed and even corrupted (critics may hasten to say), by the monolithic discourse in praise of Entrepreneurial Education,  the Progressive Education movement has had a story of its own that impacted on the way schooling is understood. Time has yet to come to give back the movement the credit it deserves, while adopting a critical stance to contrast the evidence available and gauge the strength  of what has become a common set of beliefs and assumptions about teaching and learning.

Kohn (2008)provides a concise summary of the key features of Progressive Education: Child-centered and attends to the Whole-child, Community-based, promotes Collaboration, believes in and supports Social justice, develops intrinsic motivation, aims at deep understanding, conceives learning as an active endeavor, and takes kids seriously.

Few would tag this set of characteristics as anachronistic. On the contrary, not very different concoctions of these ingredients characterize current thinking about the role schools and education should play in the development of the skills young people need to navigate the uncertain and troubled waters of the 21st century.  Look either side of the Atlantic Ocean and you will find a cornucopia of initiatives spearheading this kind of thinking under different banners but with similar visions and overlapping purposes.  Among others I’m thinking here of  Partnership for 21st Century Skills, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning  and Entrepreneurial Education,  which all could be said to juggle with similar conceptual balls.

The scope of this article is drawing admittedly contentious parallels between Entrepreneurial Education and a particular episode in the history of progressive curricular reform played out in the United States of America in the aftermath of WWII and that came to be known as the Life Adjustment movement. 

“Knowledge of subject matter…is not the primary emphasis. The end goal… is on the development of the abilities that help the individual adjust to group living, to become skilled in utilizing sources of information…in attacking a problem, and to engage in processes of civic action”

Any speaker at an Entrepreneurial Education event could easily have uttered this indictment but the fact is this excerpt is taken from a curriculum guide released by the Dallas Board of Education in…1953!! at a time when Life Adjustment was in full swing.

Comparing US in the 50ies with Europe in the 21st century may sound a bit far-fetched but bear with me for a few more lines and similarities may pop-up.  Life adjustment must be understood in the context of the aftermath of WWII.  The language of Life Adjustment was first used in the “Prosser Resolution” of 1945. Prosser blamed secondary schools for failing to provide an adequate education for the 60% of students unwilling to enter college or attend vocational programs.

Life adjusters, namely scientific curriculum designers, not teachers, entertained a certainly contemptuous opinion of youth and schools. A deficit model was used to describe young people and their appalling social and emotional deficiencies.  Schools were not held in high regard with their rigid, traditional and outdated curriculum deemed not well adjusted to student interests.  It sounds familiar, doesn´t it?

Life adjustment therapeutic rationale came to the rescue abandoning a social, collective, structural approach to understand “problems” in favor of a more individualistic one based in emotional deficiencies subject to interventions geared towards changing behavior in desirable directions to make them fit with a largely unquestioned American, suburban democratic way of life and meet a pressing need to recover normality after the ravages and turmoil of second world war.

Hence learning outcomes were listed as attitudes, actions and dispositions that would undoubtedly come in handy to face real problems in real life. Relevance and meaningfulness reigned supreme, what else? And the mix was enriched with an irresistibly utilitarian approach to curriculum design centered in the interests of students and dashed with all sorts of practical topics in detriment of more academic subjects.  Bring in the administration of personality and ability tests to students by guidance counselors and the mandate for teachers to establish direct connections to the local community and an orchestrated whole-school effort to make it happen and you may start to infer that any similarity to recent events in the Entrepreneurial Education agenda is not purely coincidental.

Similar means, different purposes

Having reached this point I feel compelled to give the floor to Durkheim, who in stark opposition to Shirley Bassey, posited that “knowledge of old mistakes made in the past will enable us neither to foresee nor to avert those which will be made in the future” (Durkheim, 1977) Means may look similar but the game is played in a completely different context.

Lots of things have changed in schools and a 19th century living dead invasion may not feel familiar at all with the school environment, no matter what the next Illuminati EdTech pundit says to support the Unique Selling Point of the ultimate game-changer app in the education world.

Zooming out it seems quite clear the social and economic conditions are completely different. Whereas the States in the 50ies were facing an unprecedented economic boom, and “Life Adjustment education aimed to make the middle class well-adjusted, socially mobile and satisfied with American life” (Fallace, 2011), Europe in the early 21st century is still immersed in the midst of recession, with a shrinking middle class, social mobility in historical lows and dissatisfaction with the European way of life on the rise as attested in the latest European Election. In this context, what does Entrepreneurial Education aim at? I would like to take for granted its emancipating and empowering role to navigate and thrive on the troubled waters of 21st century as those in favor imply but one just wonders if this is just another little bit of history repeating.  Further questions snowball: 

Is Entrepreneurial Education, then, Life Adjustment for the 21st century whose main purpose is to make the future members of the “precariat” (Standing, 2011), a well-adjusted, socially immobile, politically detached and complacent class in the middle (not to be mistaken with middle class)?  To what extent the notion of the entrepreneurial learner borrowed from a constructivist perspective serves the interests of the current cult of the enterprising self as some authors argue? (Rodriguez, 2013) What would happen in the next pendulum swing? Is it reasonable to expect Entrepreneurial Education to fall from grace just as Life Adjustment did when the onset of Cold War imposed a completely different set of educational priorities, namely the need for a well-trained corps of scientists and engineers that could put up with the Russians in the arms race? 

Far-fetched, tendentious, conspiranoid?  Probably. However this is not a call to renounce “Entrepreneurial Education” in its entirety, just a playful attempt to tame its excesses.  In the next article I will touch upon teachers (and students) reactions against a wholesale adoption of Entrepreneurial Education in what represents a very interesting process of active appropriation and resistance.

Tendentiously yours

Additional Reading

Fallace, TD (2011) The Effects of Life Adjustment Education on the US History Curriculum 1948-1957. The History Teacher. Vol 44. Number 4.

Franklin, B & Johnson C.(2007) What the Schools Teach: A Social History of the American Curriculum since 1950.  Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Gifford, A. (1997) History Repeating Retrieved 18/07/2014 from http://www.lyricsbox.com/propellerheads-lyrics-history-repeating-hpt5m9n.html

Kliebard, HM (1988) Success and Failure in educational reform: Are there historical “lessons”?.  Peabody Journal of Education. Vol. 65. Iss 2.

Kohn, A. (2008) Progressive Education. Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard To Find. Independent  School.  alfiekohn.org. Retrieved 28/01/2014 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/progressive.htm

Reese, W. (2001) The Origins of Progressive Education. History of Education Quarterly, 411. 23

Rodríguez, E (2013) Child- centered pedagogies, curriculum reforms and neoliberalism. Many causes for concern, some reasons for hope".  Journal of Pedagogy / Pedagogický casopis, 4.1 pp 59-78. Retrieved 4 Feb. 2014, from http://dx.doi.org/10.2478/jped-2013-0004 

Standing, G. (2011) Who will be a voice for the emerging precariat? Retrieved 18/07/2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jun/01/voice-for-emerging-precariat

Weiler, K. (2004) What Can We Learn from Progressive Education?, The Radical Teacher, No.69, Progressive Education. Pp4-9  Retrieved 28/01/2014 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20710239