An Educational Development Agenda for a Round Earth: Learning from Political Philosophy

William C. Brehm

The University of Hong Kong

When Samuel Shenton saw the first satellite images of Earth in 1956, he proclaimed “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”[1] No matter what empirical evidence Shenton or other “Flat Earthers” (as the New York Times dubbed his followers) encountered, they continued to advocate an idea that was conceptually challenged in 6th Century Greek philosophy, navigationally disproven by Magellan in the 1500s, and empirically falsified in the 1950s with satellite imagery. What is interesting about Shenton is his ad hominem assertion that the problem lies in “untrained eyes.” With enough “training,” his quote implies, the “Round Earthers” of the world would eventually see “correctly.”

The effects of globalization in the twenty-first century have similarly been described as creating a flat earth. The contemporary “flat earthers,” however, see vast supply chains spanning a borderless globe as technology advances (primarily in the form of job automation and file digitization), and financial capital and human resources travel across nation-states at increasing speeds.[2]

Contemporary “flat earthers” like Thomas Friedman blame the “antiglobalization movement” for not understanding that the global poor “do not resent the rich” but rather are looking for “any pathway to get rich and join the flat world and cross that line into the middle class.”[3]  Similar to the “untrained eye” opinion of Shenton, which placed blame on those foolish enough to accept as truth a satellite photograph of a round earth, the “flat earth” perspective of globalization does not acknowledge alternative conceptions of global flows. This alternative angle frames contemporary processes of interconnection in uneven opportunities and peaks and valleys of participation, understanding both the wealth creation and personal devastation caused by job automation,[4] nanosecond financial trading,[5] and envy between people.[6] Instead the “antiglobalization movement” is considered out of “touch with the true aspirations of the world’s poor.”[7]

When it comes to education, “flat earthers” place it atop the list of development priorities for people living in “places like rural India and China” because it will help them “to acquire the tools to collaborate and participate in the flat world.”[8] The universal purpose of education implied is for human capital accumulation.[9] Education is considered an investment in humans because it results in higher earnings. The more people earning more money will increase the gross domestic product of a nation. Training and enabling poor and disadvantaged people for higher-paying jobs will also mean they enter the global middle class, which is marked by greater levels of consumption and, therefore, happiness.

The conceptualization of education for human capital accumulation by “flat earthers” has hijacked efforts to achieve the development goals in education.[10] Education geared toward national development becomes the raison d’être of educational development. Like the “flat earthers” of the past, fault lies not with the goals or the institutions and people promoting development, but rather with the national governments that have not structured, governed, or funded their education systems properly.[11]

The main problem of this “flat earth” conceptualization of educational development derives from a perversion of the political philosophy underpinning much of the development agenda. The liberal theory of justice is at the root of the universal declaration of human rights and has been exploited by “flat earthers” in two ways. First, instead of protecting the freedom to choose any value and purpose of education, “flat earthers” have advanced one value of education based on human capital. Second, the “surprisingly thin line between strict egalitarianism and libertarianism”[12]—the two major contemporary strands of thought within liberalism—has allowed “flat earthers” to advocate for particular structures of education that support a free-market of choice without acknowledging the need to redistribute resources through systems of taxation or subsidization.

Universal human rights are rooted in liberalism. These rights were defined to protect the “inherent dignity and…equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” which have foundations in “freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[13] Human rights are meant to respect a person’s “freedom to develop and exercise those capacities that are considered essential or important to being a person”; the good life, however defined, by “protection from coercive interference”; and “citizens’ capacity for reason as well as their sense of reasonableness or fairness.”[14] It is no accident that the words “freedom” and “justice” appear in the declaration because they signal major tenants of liberalism—the freedom to choose and act on one’s convictions and capabilities, and justice achieved through fair protection of the qualities that make one human.

There are two major strands of thinking about the ways in which freedom and justice are achieved within liberalism. First, there are the libertarians like Milton Friedman who supported the freedom to choose in a free-market and saw taxation and subsidization as unfair because they put unnecessary burdens on some people while providing unjust advantages to others. Second, there are liberal egalitarians like John Rawls who saw freedom as the ability for humans to act autonomously but who recognized the need for distributive justice towards the worst off in society. Distributive justice entails distinguishing “between chosen or unchosen inequalities or disadvantages”[15] and then righting the latter.

Shadow education[16] offers an example of the differences between the two theories of justice. Whereas libertarians would see all forms of shadow education as just because students are free to choose and pay for educational services within a free-market, liberal egalitarians would see shadow education as just only if all students have equal opportunity to attend extra lessons or if it is used as a way to redistribute educational opportunities to disadvantaged students. In both strands of thought, freedom of choice allows for unequal outcomes, but the different notions of  “fairness” lead to different types of government regulations.

Despite the tenet of choice within liberalism, the “flat earther” conception of educational development (supported by institutions like the World Bank and justified by theories like the World Culture Theory[17]) have articulated standard interventions to make “proper” national education systems. Although the development goals are “nothing more than goals…[and] were not born with a plan, a budget, or a specific mapping out of responsibilities,”[18] they nevertheless have resulted in a list of recommendations that are “remarkably similar”[19] worldwide: “reduce the central government role in providing education; decentralize; increase school fees; encourage and assist private schools; reduce direct support to students, especially at tertiary level; introduce double shifts and multi-grade classrooms; assign high priority to instructional materials; favor in-service over pre-service teacher education.”[20]

These approaches to educational development over-emphasize a libertarian notion of justice in spite of the equally important liberal equalitarian foundations of the human rights declaration. Self-interest is privileged in a libertarian notion of justice, which is exemplified by the increasing privatization of education worldwide.[21] Returning to the earlier example, a culture of self-interest imbedded in mainstream education is clearly present in the shadow education marketplace. In many countries, students purchase extra lessons to prepare for examinations. The reason for this is the self-interest of students who desire higher scores on high-stake examinations. Such a practice is just within libertarianism but is complicated through the lens of liberal egalitarianism because rich students have an unfair advantage over poor students in the ability to purchase such classes.

More fundamentally, advancing one standard way to organize education systems to achieve the MDGs goes against a foundational principle of liberalism—the freedom to choose. Liberalism does not define a telos of education, but rather respects and protects the means by which people choose self-articulated ends. Yet, the contemporary “flat earthers” developing national education systems perceive one, universal purpose of education—the human capital development of citizens. Although there has been much written about other purposes of education beyond human capital—from Dewey or Greene’s notions of freedom[22] to Freire’s notion of emancipation[23] to Noddings’ notion of care[24]—liberalism does not demand a teleological debate over the purpose of education because it must preserve the freedom of choice. The “flat earthers” have taken advantage of this shortcoming.

An alternative approach to educational justice starts with the question, “What virtues come from education that society should honor?”. Such a question requires a debate within society as to the value of education and, consequently, how to distribute goods and resources to achieve this end. Debate on the political philosophy of the post-2015 development agenda adds a level of complexity that has been plagued by the “accessible simplicity”[25] of the development goals. Answers to the question will probably show that the world is round, complex, and multi-dimensional.

[1] Schadewal, R.J. (1982). Six ‘flood’ arguments creationists can’t answer. Creation Evolution Journal, 3(3), 12-17.

[2]  Friedman, T.L. (2007). The World is Flat 3.0: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Macmillan.

[3] Ibid, p. 548

[4] Condon, B. and Wiseman, P. (2013). “Millions of middle-class jobs kills by machines in great recession’s wake.” Online:

[5] Stockhammer, E. (2002) “Rising inequality as a root cause of the present crisis.” Online:

[6] Kitzmüller, E. “Economy as a victimizing mechanisms”. Online:

[7] Friedman, 2007, op cit.

[8] Ibid, p. 548.

[9] Human capital is the idea that knowledge produced through education is valuable to national economies.

[10] The most recent development goals are the Millennium Development Goals, which are comprised of eight goals, two of which are related to education. Goal 2 is to achieve universal primary education. Goal 3 is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.

[11] The 2010 MDG country report for South Africa by the United Nations Development Programme, for example, blamed the government and development partners for the shortcomings: “Despite the best efforts of the government and other development partners there continues to be a number of contingent and structural challenges that are hindering successful poverty eradication.” Online:

[12] Cappelen, A.W. and Tungodden, B. (2004) The liberal egalitarian paradox. Online:

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Preamble.

[14] Shapiro, D. (1993). Liberal Egalitarianism, Basic Rights, and Free Market Capitalism. Reason Papers, 18, pp. 180-181.

[15] Ibid, p. 173

[16] Recently shadow education, which comprises the fee-based education services purchased and received by students in addition to mainstream schooling, has been used as an example of the shortcomings of the MDGs. See Bray, M. (2012). “How shadow education can undermine the EFA Goals: The expansion and implications of private tutoring.” Online:

[17] Carney, S., Rappleye, and Silova, I. (2012). Between faith and science: World culture theory and comparative education. Comparative Education Review, 56(3), pp. 366-393.

[18] McArthur, J. (2013) “Own the goals: What the millennium development goals have accomplished.” Online:

[19] Samoff, J.(1999). ‘Education sector analysis in Africa: Limited national control and even less national ownership.’ International Journal of Educational Development, 19, p. 249.

[20] Ibid, p. 250.

[21] Ball, S. J. and Youdell, D. (2007). Hidden privatisation in public education. Brussels: Education International.

[22] Dewey, J. (1928/1960). “Philosophies of Freedom.” In his On Experience, Nature, and Freedom, ed. R. Bernstein. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

Greene, M. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press

[23] Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

[24] Noddings, N. (2005). The Challenge to Care in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press

[25] McArthur, 2013, op cit.