Happiness, Choice, and Low Cost Schools

About the private schools in the developing countries–especially the so-called Affordable Private Schools (APSs) or the Low Fees Private Schools (LFPS), as they are sometimes called–it is now repeatedly claimed that  consumers of educational services are ‘happy’ with this breed of schools.  They are happy with them because they seem to be high on their order of preference.  Because they are high on the order of preference, they are perceived as having greater ‘utility’ by their consumers.  Lest I appear to be throwing jargon around, the terms ‘utility‘ and ‘preference‘ are used in this post precisely in the sense in which the economists define them.

Well folks, this post in ‘just questions’ was motivated by some fascinating critical thoughts on happiness and choice that I came across while reading Sen’s Dewey lectures from 1985.  I could not resist speculating on their implications for the increasingly naturalised suggestion about leaving mass education at the mercy of market forces.  I  apologise for taking these quotes out of context–more on Sen’s broader argument from which they are extracted in a subsequent post. I should hasten to add, however, that these nuggets stand well on their own, and we can perhaps use them to raise some questions about the recent policy talk on the APS/LFPS.

Speaking of happiness as one of the view of utility, Sen has this to say:

…as it is interpreted in the utilitarian tradition, happiness is basically a mental state, and it ignores other aspects of a person’s well-being.  If a starving wreck, ravished by famine, buffeted by disease, is made happy through some mental conditioning (say, via the “opium” of religion), the person will be seen as doing well on this mental-state perspective, but that would be quite scandalous. (Sen, 1985, p.188)

Made happy through some mental conditioning! So if a consumer is ‘happy’ with a APS/LFPS because of informational constraints about the quality of education imparted in these schools, could we argue that absence of such information amounts to the sort of ‘mental conditioning’ that Sen speaks about? I may be off the mark here, but it would be good to hear other people’s ideas.

And then there is the choice and preference. Sen is arguing that the choice, which is an act [and not a mental state, like happiness], has no essential connection with well-being.  As he puts it:

A person’s choice may be guided by a number of motives of which the pursuit of personal well-being is only one.  The well-being motivation may well be dominant in some choices, but not in others.  Moral considerations may, inter alia, influence a person’s “commitments.”  The mixture of motivations makes it hard to form a good idea of a person’s well-being on the basis of choice information only. (ibid.)

But what does this quote tell us about the pro-choice arguments in education, as well as about the parental preference for APS/LFPS etc?  Well, the choice for APS/LFPS does not necessarily lead to well-being, and that due to informational restrictions it may even be completely misguided.  The hype about such schools may lure parents into a state of ‘happiness’ about them induced by misperception about the provision of quality education in such places.  Some enthusiasts say that parents are the best judge.  A highly preferred school is also a better school.  Well, Sen would probably argue against this idea.  Won’t he?  To be sure I am still deciphering Sen on this subject so will be more than happy to hear more from folks more learned in Sen.  That said, however, it comes as no surprise to me that the influential school privatisation enthusiast James Tooley spends an entire chapter taking potshots at Sen in his book The Beautiful Tree.

Also, there is a perennial debate regarding what can [or cannot] be chosen by the parents when it comes to the education of their children.  Consider this example from more than a century ago of a brief exchange between the  members of the Royal School Inquiry Commission (1868) and Robert Lowe.  The latter was arguing for more choice for the parents and less role for the state in defining the form and content of educational processes.  In response to Lowe, the commission chair asked the following:

Should you have any apprehension that the parents, if left the sole or principal judges of the course of study to be pursued might, from inadequate knowledge on those subjects, make a mistake; that they would prefer superficial accomplishments to a solid and well-grounded course of education?

Does, what Sen says above, support the commission’s position on choice?


Sen, A. (1985). Well-being, agency and freedom: the Dewey lectures 1984. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(4), 169-221.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

8 Responses to “Happiness, Choice, and Low Cost Schools”

  1. Concise article on what defines reaching a state of actual well-being and how do we get to it..But you seem to be questioning the ‘conditions’ in which this state of well being is attained.What defines who we are?Motives?Environment?Familial ties? But as long as it is attained, i don’t think it defines the quality of that state of well being or lowers its impact/intensity. In terms of education, then yes i agree with your analysis that misinformation, lack of choices i.e. financial constraints may color the individual’s definition of well being or somewhat skewer it.But if it achieves for them, a goal or desire i.e. to attain education for their child, which will in turn provide better opportunities(and by that i mean opportunities they seek–not development practitioners definition of better opportunities), like instead of farming the child will get a job as a shopkeeper, for example), then we cant define for them just how much or little of well being they have achieved, just because it is not according to a certain definable standard set by international committees. The quality of life indicators which define well being are subjective, and that does not in any way effect the level of ‘well being’ achieved as long as the individuals involved are satisfied.

  2. I do not find Sen’s arguments against choice per se. But, for me, they do add a note of caution about making provision of public goods choice dependent without ensuring first that everybody has the roughly the same level of capability of acting on the available choices. It appears to me that this capability-based approach (to justice) argues for leveling the playing field before making choice a deciding criteria. And by doing so it goes against the grain of neo-liberal ideology that folks like Tooley espouse.

  3. A most interesting take on the subject. whether the most preferred school is the best school, whether ‘happiness’ about a particular choice reflects true differences in quality or other factors are important question to ask. Discussions with parents show that perceptions of quality seem almost entirely dependent on what other members in the friends and family circle percieve. These informal channels become the most common mode of acquiring information about a school as well.

    Exit from private schools in urban Chakwal [a town in upper Punjab] immediately after primary level ( in grades 6 and 7) is a very significant phenomenon ( but we saw evidence of this in Sargodha [central Punjab] and Charsaddah [Khyper Pakhtunkhwa] as well) . This is mostly due to the perception that 1. private school certificates don’t count (a proxy for whether or not a school is registered or affiliated or either. many times parents don’t know, so end up taking children out of registered and affiliated priv schools also); 2. teachers in private schools at middle and high levels aren’t qualified. many parents strategise by sending their kids to public schools and have them enrolled in tuition academies in the evenings.

    As regards superficial indicators becoming the basis for school choice and school preference – one head of a private school has had considerable problems with convincing the parents in his school that test scores don’t matter as much as other factors such as conceptual and general knowledge and instilling confidence in children. Other private schools seem to be concentrating more on mimicking what their competitors are doing during assembly as a signal that theirs is a good quality school. Also, almost all policy reactions from the public sector to compete with private sector growth appear at first glance to be superficial signals like the switch to english medium, advertising and others. Im sure they’ll have a deeper positive impact as well, eventually, but im not sure if thats the main reason for the changes as far as provincial directorate of schools is concerned, in Punjab atleast.

  4. Ayesha Razzaque Reply 24/06/2011 at 7:54 am

    I am writing my response taking into account not only your blog post but also the comments that follow. Here it goes:

    Families, served by LFPS, usually don’t know what they are missing. In fact, most of us don’t know what we are missing. And because of that ignorance we are often happy with a certain level of well-being (which is usually determined by our environment, including the economic, sociological, and cultural contexts etc). But, should that be an excuse for us (governments, especially in the case of education) to not strive to change human experience/ environment so that those who don’t know the possibilities can discover and strive for new levels of happiness/ well being?

    This becomes even more important in current times when interdependence both on the local and global levels is changing (whether we like it or not) human experiences.Human experiences are no longer isolated, several factors have allowed for the sharing of lived experiences among people of various economic classes and cultures.

    I met with a family (organic farmers, a couple of days ago, in a rural community in Can Tho (Viet Nam). The parents are illiterate and had no clue about the schooling/education of their children, even though all 4 children in the household go to school (elementary to middle levels). Even though the mother could not answer any questions (except for how her children go to and come back from school, and how much it costs her) about the schooling of her children, she did have a very concrete answer when I asked what her ambitions were for her children. She immediately answered that she wanted them to have jobs since farming is hard work (although she did not know what possibilities existed for them and how far they could go in terms of the level of education). she obviously struggled with imagining possibilities that exist for her children and for sure did not consider herself or her husband capable of making a better choice. Regardless, wants her children to have their best shot at life. I firmly believe that it is important that human beings (especially families like this one) are not only made aware of the possibilities that exist for them and the level of happiness and well-being that is attainable, but are also provided consultation/ opportunities that will help them achieve those levels of well-being.

  5. I would like you to express your views on teaching young students in a foreign language. Do they absorb concepts and grasp abstract ideas as good as the students learning in their native language? How learning is affected if a student’s mother tongue is not a well structured language but a primitive means of communication(a “boli” for example)? Is there a corelation between the intelectual development(of a learner) and the capacity of the language(or boli) mainly used by the learner?

  6. Irfan I enjoyed the way you posit the argument but do remember Adam Smith and Sen’s take on what is seen as ‘decent’ or ‘indecent’ juxtaposed against choice as a notion with an absolute core and not relative.

    The issue is a wider one where we are not addressing the fundamental issue of the post industrial welfare state coming to the end of the road as it were. The inertia of society who had conferred the duties on the state for its welfare and happiness has now come full circle. The state in its current formations has become dysfunctional and hence the desire to push everything to the ‘market’ as the psuedo hand of the defunct state .. the PPPs are one form of it too. Remember this is not just the post industrial but now also the post cold war state floundering to seek meaning when infact the citizen in a global technological hyper communication age has come of age and is just not taking the next step. The citizen needs to pick up courage just like in greek classical times and dialogue on the new role of the state ‘what ought to be the new role’ and what is the role of the citizen ofcourse. The choice of schooling my dear needs to be sorted out along these dimensions. Tooley’s arguments are utilitarian and practical responding to the ‘need of the day’ in face of a collapsing state or sub-optimal services as are those who are arguing no matter what let us resurrect a defunct state whose genetic formations have outlived their lifespan and its walls are ossified to an extent that it is unable to redesign … so back to the citizens ..back to the classical dialogues…. not flogging the state and the citizen as they both stand dysfunctional in their current relationship .. after every 300 years some rules must change ..some genetic formulations must also change. Let us do just that .. it is a total equalizer for the developed and the developing world just as schooling is in trouble in UK, Pakistan, USA, India etc.. It boils to the citizen and the state in that order.


  7. Parents do constrained optimization, given the information they have, their ability to interpret the information….and other constraints that we all work under. Can they be mis informed…sure. Can they make mistakes…sure. But that is not the issue I think.

    The issues have to do with the choices they have, the information they have and the choices the society is making and citizens are making…as Baela also said.

    if the choice is between a poor public school, which has a poor reputation and so on…the parents choose the low fee private school….with maybe better rhetoric and marketing…but ‘better’ from that perspective. Are the parent and child ‘better-off’ from this choice. Maybe…at least in their perception. But maybe not…from a more objective perspective.

    But the point is not about choice and happiness….as concepts or in our conceptual framework…it is about what choices are we, as citizens, giving these children and parents. This is where the real battle has to be. Baela has framed it very well.


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