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Education as Human Capital? Tracing the life and impact of an idea
It is commonly assumed today that one of the main values of education is its ability to prepare youth for the labor market. Assuming a higher salary comes with more degrees, students around the world have been willing to borrow money to pay for their education. In neoclassical economic thinking, this makes sense since education is for so-called human capital development, which not only increases the gross domestic product of a nation but also individual incomes of workers. But such an economic logic of education has not always been the case. The idea of human capital only dates to the 1950s. Modern public-school systems have been operational in many parts of the world since the mid-1800s. More broadly, education has conceivably existed as long as humans have roamed earth, yet the idea of human capital is less than 65 years old. Despite its novelty in human history, human capital theory has, today, convinced millions of students that education is a valuable investment. Education as human capital is a taken-for-granted logic, but one with material consequences. In the United States alone, where the theory of human capital was first promulgated in 1954, some 44 million adults hold over US$1.5 trillion of student debt. Loaded with debt, student loan borrowers are putting off marriage and purchasing homes. Stress and anxiety have soared as the average borrower is in her mid-40s by the time educational loans are repaid. Where then did the idea of human capital come from? How did the idea become commonplace not only inside economic but also educational institutions? And to what effect has such a conceptualization of education had on students? Based on the above three research questions, this research project has two objectives. The first research objective is to begin tracing the historical trajectory of the idea of human capital, from the halls of the University of Chicago’s economics department to the logic of World Bank development projects, and finally to the everyday belief that education is meant to prepare youth for the world of work. The second research objective is to document the impact such a dominant idea of education has had -- and is having -- on students.
1 Researchers
  • IOE - Education, Practice & Society
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