In 1985 a grade three teacher in Iowa named Jane Elliott tried an experiment on her class to teach them about discrimination. On one day she gave to all the blue-eyed students special privileges, like extra recess time, while the brown-eyed students were disadvantaged: having to stay in at recess, not being allowed to use the drinking fountain etc. On the second day she reversed these privileges for the brown-eyed students and discriminated against the blue-eyed ones. Her experimental lesson was later turned into the documentary A Class Divided. What’s remarkable about this is how quickly the children adopted discriminatory attitudes and behaviours based on eye colour: teasing one another and even getting into fights.

While this sort of discrimination doesn’t often occur, another sort is common. Educational assessment can be broadly of two types: criterion- or norm-referenced. In criterion-referenced assessment, students’ work is compared to some criteria, usually described in a marking rubric. It is thus ‘objective’ in the sense that any numbers of students in the class can receive top marks. Norm-referenced assessment on the other hand compares students’ work to others’ work. This is commonly called the bell curve and in this system it is not possible for all students to achieve top marks; furthermore, some must be placed at the bottom of the hierarchy no matter how well they do on the task.

Many tests, like the IQ test, and systems of education, like that in Victoria, use norm-referenced assessments. Yet this is not an educational imperative, but an ideological choice, and one which serves to make students compete against one another. Regardless of its stated purpose or advantages, getting students to compete against and compare themselves with one another corresponds to a competitive labour market where workers compete with one another for jobs. Yet this feature of the economy – that there are too few jobs for too many workers – is also an ideological choice. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) teaches us that the government can pursue full employment if it wishes to since it has no nominal constraints on spending; it can always afford to hire anyone who wants a job, leading to the Job Guarantee program of many MMT proponents. It is worth remembering that just about all Western countries, including Australia and the US, pursued a full-employment policy from the end of World War II until the beginning of the neoliberal era in the 1970s. The effect this had on education was that schools did not need to worry about inculcating ’employability’ skills, but could pursue any other sort of educational objectives with the assurance that anyone who wanted a job could get one.

Education as an institution reflects the wider system of political economy of which it is a part, and is based on our values and goals. What hinders greater social cohesion and equality is not some sort of ‘natural law’ but the choices we make as a society. Yet as Herman Daly and Josh Farley have poignantly stated:

“Although it is true that today many people know many things that no one knew in the past, it is also true that large segments of the present generation are more ignorant than were large segments of past generations. The level of policy in a democracy cannot rise above the average level of understanding of the population. In a democracy, the distribution of knowledge is as important as the distribution of wealth.” (2011, p. 41, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd ed.).