Productionist Models and Education

Farm Factory Wife, by csessums

A book I’m reading now, Food Wars, has this to say about “Productionism”, the paradigm that dominated food policy through the 20th century:

In the Productionist paradigm (Figure 1.3), health is portrayed as being enhanced, above all, by increasing production, which required investment in both monetary and scientific terms. Agriculture, the prophets of Productionism argued, deserved massive support if it was to move away from ‘peasant’, low-yield systems. (This, incidentally, was their rationale for the now much-derided subsidy system throughout the West.) As long as food could be adequately and equitably distributed, health benefits would result. This Productionist view of health saw the main problems as under-consumption, under-production and poor distribution. The health goal of public policy, therefore, should be to increase production of key health-enhancing ingredients such as milk, meat, wheat, and other ‘big’ agricultural commodities. Figure 1.3 shows how this policy relationship might connect inputs and outputs in health.

The health assumptions on which the Productionist paradigm was built were based on what today would be regarded as a very narrow understanding of nutrition and health. For example, the observation in the 1800s that animal protein aided human growth led to massive resources in countries such as the US and Europe being invested in the development of the dairy and meat industries. The agricultural and agribusiness focus of the Productionist paradigm has also been weakened by the shift of power and finance down the food supply chain to the retailing, trade and consumer industries such as food service, where most of the money from food is now made (a feature spelled out in Chapter 4). In the US, for example, about half of all food expenditure is on consumption outside the home. (Food Wars, page 34)

There’s obvious differences between food and education, but I couldn’t help seeing in this description of Productionism a parallel to focus on “access” in education today. In particular, it’s difficult to see how years of research on what sort of education works is being applied to the access debate – we are stuck in the equivalent of the “make more calories, make more protein” mindset.

That’s not to say Productionism is wrong – it’s a paradigm, not a theory. And in the 20th century, Productionism was fairly triumphant – we have avoided, by and large, the global famines and conflict that were predicted in the 1970s, largely due to moving away from those “low-yield” systems that Productionism set out to change. But Productionism is also behind much of our current ills – food policy’s relentless focus on calories over nutritional quality, for example, has massively distorted incentives for healthy eating, and the focus on a one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture has resulted in monocultures that many feel endanger the ecosystem as well as local economies.

If we accept that post WWII higher education policy operated largely under a Productionist paradigm, the question is whether the paradigm (if the paradigm does indeed capture our current “access” and “success” initiatives) has already become too reductive. When we talk all-or-nothing replacement of face-to-face education with online – and when we see online as a “delivery system” for our educational calories rather than a way to provide essential nutrients and foster a healthy interconnected sector – when the level of conversation is more about production and distribution, and less about how online education fits into our society as a whole and enriches the things we already value – then I think that maybe we are in the grip of 20th century Productionism…


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