Policy Logics, Counter-Narratives, and New Directions: Boys and Schooling in a Neoliberal Age

By Konstanze Spohrer and Garth Stahl

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In this chapter we argue for approaches to researching and imagining aspiration that reflect the complexities of masculinities. We suggest that future academic work on boys’ aspirations adopts an intersectional approach to considering the everyday cultural practices of young men. The aim is to interrogate the global neoliberal policy context and its impact across multiple localities and nation-states.

Over the last two decades, boys have often been portrayed as the losers in the race for academic and economic success in policy debates around the world. These debates take place in a neo-liberal context in which education and learning is regarded important for maximizing human capital with a view to increasing economic prosperity. In this context, individuals are encouraged to act as ‘entrepreneurs of the self’ (Rose, 1996) who need to make smart investments in their educational qualifications and skills in order to remain competitive on a globalized labour market. As welfare states are scaled back, it is the individuals themselves who are responsible for their choices and life outcomes. This idea is particularly salient in global discourses on raising educational aspiration which suggest that particular groups of young people do not make the right choices and therefore need to be motivated to aim for higher qualifications and academic success.

As a consequence of portraying boys as ‘at risk’, a range of interventions have sought to raise aspirations and attainment, often with a focus on young men from low SES backgrounds. Interventions come in many forms, including role models, learning styles, student–teacher relationships, and literacy debates and target different groups of boys. Despite regional and national differences, policy initiatives on the whole seem to embrace a “recuperative masculinity politics” committed to addressing the perceived feminization of schooling and its alleged detrimental effect on boys’ education. Looking across the various culturally embedded initiatives, we like to draw attention to their narrow focus on “fixing boys” and their tendency to individualise responsibility for structural and material poverty and inequality.

Therefore, we argue that researching boys’ engagement with education requires a more nuanced analysis which takes into account how young men negotiate their identities against a background of neoliberal discourses and their social position within gendered, classed, and racialized structures. Therefore, we propose two moves in order to think and rethink masculinities in neoliberal times:

  • Embracing intersectional approaches to researching boys’ engagement with education: This means paying attention to how the interplay between social class, gender and ethnicity shape boys’ identities as well as their actual opportunities. We argue that in order to grasp young people’s identity making fully we tease out how neoliberal policies shape and reconfigure constellations of gender, social class, and ethnicity.
  • Sensitivity towards everyday cultural practices in reference to how aspirations are shaped, negotiated, and resisted. This means building on existing research which examines the ways in which boys understand and react to the neo-liberal demand to pursue individualized notions of ‘success’. Such an approach would examine how boys navigate potential tensions between their preferences and dominant discourses in imagining their future lives and their actions in everyday educational situations.

Such theorizations allow us to turn our attention to agency, contestation, and resistance, and, perhaps more importantly, unearth a wider field of potentialities in thinking about young people’s future lives. This appears not only important in relation to researching young men’s aspirations in neo-liberal times, but also for developing pedagogical approaches that support young people in developing their future imaginaries.

Blog adapted from:

Spohrer, K. & Stahl, G., (2017) ‘Policy Logics, Counter-Narratives, and New Directions: Boys and Schooling in a Neoliberal Age’ In Stahl, G., Nelson, D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.), Masculinity and Aspiration in an Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives. Routledge, New York.

Konstanze Spohrer is a Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University, and Garth Stahl is a Senior Lecturer in Education at University of South Australia. Twitter: @GarthStahl



Categories: Sociology of Education

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