Exposing the Limits and Myths of Educational Instrumentalism

Jul 18, 2015 by


In the last three decades, the dominant narrative concerning the purposes of education has become increasingly narrowed and instrumental (Apple, 1995; Anyon, 2005). Those of us who believe in the intrinsic value of education, experiential learning, and free inquiry are facing a historical transition from a tradition that values education as transformation and enlightenment to a new conceptualization that conceives of learning as serving the market with little regard for freedom of thought or originality (Cookson, 1992).

I call this movement educational instrumentalism because it elevates the quantifiable “products” of education such as paper credentials and time spent in school above the complex, adventurous, and rebellious processes that characterize transformative education (Greene, 1988). Traditionally, education has been seen as a vocation or a calling. Educational instrumentalism takes a different view—education’s purpose is preparation for employment and little else (Tucker, 2014).

In this commentary, it is argued that educational instrumentalism can cause a turning away from the deeper democratic and transformative purposes of education. Like those imprisoned in Plato’s Cave, learners who do not have the opportunity to experience free inquiry are vulnerable to the one-dimensional images and stereotypes produced by much of the media and publishing world. The learner is hobbled, even crippled, as she or he travels the developmental path of self-discovery and critical consciousness. This disempowering of mind produces tunnel social vision (Dewey, 1910/1991; Freire, 1970/1993; Berlin, 1996).

Educational instrumentalism is the background metaphor and rationale of much of contemporary educational policy discussions whether we look at much of the standards movement, the education “any-time, any-place” movement, or the top down reform movement embraced by many influential policy makers (Engel, 2000; Berliner & Biddle, 1995).

Thus, the demystification of the assumptions behind educational instrumentalism is not solely academic, it is essential if the deeper purposes of education are to be preserved. Below, I examine the assumptions and contradictions underlying educational instrumentalism, demystify some of its assumptions about learning, and conclude with an alternative argument—real education still matters.


The indispensable assumptions upon which educational instrumentalism rests are possessive individualism, and the conviction that the maximization of marketable talents in service to personal accumulation is education’s most important purpose.

Source: TCRecord: Article

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