Enlightened Self-Interest


Posted on August 2, 2011 by Faisal Bari

Also on the blog:

http://pakistanpolicyideas.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/enlightened-self-interest/Dr Faisal Bari

The argument for enlightened self-interest is about the public good and positive externality expected from having an educated populace and citizenry. This public mindedness is definitely and quite significantly missing in Pakistan

Last week, I mentioned that at a recent gathering, some politicians had said that they did not receive a lot of demand for reforms in the public school system. This is surprising considering that: a) demand for education is strong, b) despite sizable exit, an odd 60 percent of school-going children are still going to public schools in Pakistan and c) we know the public sector is not delivering, by and large, acceptable quality education. I had posited that there seemed to be a ‘paradox’ of sorts here: why are parents and communities not demanding reforms in the public sector education system and holding elected representatives, at all levels of government, responsible, or at least approaching them with this demand? It seems that demand articulation and aggregation has a break somewhere in the democratic process. I had argued that we need to dig deeper here and understand why this was happening to see if we can fix it.

A friend and colleague, also working in the education sector, commented on the article and mentioned some very important further considerations. He said, and I am paraphrasing what I understood to be his points, that in a lot of countries, the case and argument for mass and quality education was spearheaded by the ‘elites’ and not by the mass of parents or citizens. The elites thought that if they did not educate the masses, they would be very hard to control and manage, would not have the skills needed for work and would create political problems for the smooth running of governments. It was ‘enlightened self-interest’ on the part of the elites that led to the case for mass education to be provided for by the state. This seems to be a strong and well-articulated argument in the US — and there is plenty of evidence in the education debates at the time when mass education was being discussed — for the importance of educating all, for purposes of control and management, apart from arguments for imparting literacy and skills.

In other countries too, similar arguments have been found to have some sway. In East Asian culture, coming from Buddhism and/or Confucianism is supposed to create a disposition towards mass education so that when the elites decided to expand education to all children, they found significant support for doing so.

The point that my colleague was making was that my emphasis on parents and communities had put the ‘blame’ squarely on their shoulders and had let the elites of the country get off the hook too easily. If parents are, for whatever reason, not able to demand better education from public schools and are not able to, individually or collectively, hold elected representatives responsible for the limitations in public education, why do the political leaders, realising the importance of education for our collective survival, not take the lead and make it an important, if not the most important, issue on their agenda? What stops the elite of the country, from politicians to bureaucrats, businessmen to civil society members, from making education a top priority? And it should be clear, irrespective of some rhetoric on the part of these players, that education is not a high enough priority: the resources we put in the area, the attention that public schools get, the attention that reform issues get, and on the basis of every other indicator that we can think of, education and education reform remain low priorities for governments and the elite in the country.

Around 35-40 percent of school-going children in Pakistan go to private schools. Most in the elite circle send their children to private schools. For them, the engagement with quality of education being provided for by the public sector is clearly not relevant from a private point of view. But the argument for elite involvement in the demand for quality education for all does not rest on personal stakes. The argument for enlightened self-interest is about the public good and positive externality expected from having an educated populace and citizenry. This public mindedness is definitely and quite significantly missing in Pakistan.

Albert Hirschman wrote an interesting essay on why people move between private interests and public action, ‘Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action’, where he argued that when people are disappointed with the results from pursuing private interests, they are more liable to look to public action. In the case of Pakistan, the move to the private sphere, for a lot of elite, happened over the 1980s and 1990s, so it might be a while before they realise that just pursuing private interests is not going to give all the rewards that are expected from being part of a polity and nation. But be that as it may, since there has not been focus on education throughout Pakistan’s 64-year history, it is unlikely that any such shifts will hit the education sector.

So, the question boils down to this: are the elites not creating the demand for reform due to lack of enlightened self-interest or the lack of realising that education is a basic right now? The parents and communities are unable to do so either through holding elected representatives responsible. How do we move forward in these conditions? Creating more information on the performance of children in all schools, making that information more available to parents and local communities and working with local communities (and here civil society and the media have a large role) to make this information a basis for demands and for rewards/punishments in the electoral process seems to be the only way forward. Civil society, using the media, can try to work on the elite too, but given our very entrenched elitist political economy in Pakistan, I am less optimistic about the success of this venture. Although a partnership between like minded people — including some from the elite (the elite are treated as a monolith though clearly it is not so), civil society, media representatives, parents and community members — using legal remedies, informational tools and spaces available in the democratic setup could make interesting inroads in this area. I have not studied the movement of educational rights in India in detail, but it does seem that it had all of the elements above, and was not just a case of the elite or movement from below forcing the system to accept legitimate demands for access to quality education for all children. Even in India the struggle for implementation is still on, but in many ways the battle, at the conceptual level, has been won.

From The Daily Times, Pakistan, Wednesday, 3rd August.

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4 Responses to “Enlightened Self-Interest”

  1. ‘Just Questions’ thanks Dr. Faisal Bari for posting his article on this blog. This also appeared on the PakistanPolicyIdeas blog as well as in the Daily Times and provoked a string of useful comments on the Facebook.

    Here I will post some of the comments that I wrote in response to this article in other spaces. I will also paraphrase some comments by other readers. I hope the other readers of just-questions will also share their thoughts here:

    In response to a comment on why should anything change for public if public does not itself take interest, Faisal argued that the issue is a hard one to crack in predictive terms. When the political economy gives very entrenched positions to established interests, as it does in Pakistan, change will not be easy. But it is the people, at large, who can…as we have seen and are seeing, though in the fits and starts we expected, across a number of countries in the Middle East right now.

    I also agree that it is a hard nut to crack. Faisal also mentioned the work of Asef Bayat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asef_Bayat) about the Arab street.

    In my comments, I focused on the role of elite in the early development of the mass education, chiefly because the development of the mass education happened in tandem with the development of modern nation state. The latter created a new elite and political vanguard. The need to educate everyone appears on the horizon in tandem with the developments that led to the creation of nation-states. My points of departure in this discussion were not as much the theory and practice of educational development as its history. I was unable to find instances where ‘public’ [and I do not know what this ambiguous term means in Pk context] was found to be knocking explicitly on the doors of the elites to bring them education, especially in the early days of mass education when there was a fierce political tug of war over the question of whether the state should finance and deliver mass education. The early push for mass education was necessitated due to ‘self interests’ of those [classes] who were propelled to the elite status by the forces of history. All of this happened under the shifts that led to the emergence of nation-state and the complex idea of ‘liberal democracy.’

    Notice, for example, the earlier monarchies in the Western Europe did not require mass education. There are still states, where somehow the ruling elites settle with the idea that they can continue to rule comfortably without mass education. So, it seems that mass education was necessitated through shifts in government, and not just on the basis of moral or economic imperatives [although these were also important ingredients in the mix].

    Can public demand for education be articulated in streets. This is a difficult question, and the answer to it may vary depending on the existing levels of literacy in different societies. The places that Asef Bayat uses to ground his theory, the middle eastern streets, do not have the same problem of literacy as say Pakistan. And I may be wrong here, but ‘Arab street eruption’ is perhaps exactly the kind of problem that early American education advocates may have been trying to prevent–literacy without mass education with a carefully crafted curriculum. Mass education was designed to tame [and create] a law abiding population. Literacy without a curriculum would be dangerous. It could potentially help pull folks out in the streets if they were exposed to reading ‘bad’ stuff. Arab revolts may be accounted for by the presence of mass literacy without X number of years of education in public schools, a kind of education that would have turned the ‘now revolutionary’ individuals into ‘law abiding’ citizens.

    One commentator mentioned the moral imperatives, and the imperatives for betterment as important basis for education. I would agree that there are many and mixed purposes for mass education. And there is certainly the moral and economical aspects. However, I am more concerned here with the political.

    I also thought that the moral and betterment arguments, had a continuity through the history of education, and were not specific to this modern impulse to educate everyone… For example, betterment was certainly the motive when, in the days gone by, a potential ‘pupil’ or a ‘chela’ used to go out looking for a great ‘teacher’ or guru.’ It still happens with PhD scholars looking for a tutor. Its always been betterment motivation of one sort or the other.

    But the arguments of the early advocates of education seem more driven by ‘enlightened self interest.’ Also the argument for mass education was made to the rich, the powerful, and the influential…the argument is not made to the ‘public.’ Notice the use of ‘we’ in the following quote from Horace Mann: “The mobs, the riots, the burnings, the lynching, perpetrated by the men of the present day, are perpetrated, because of their vicious or defective education, when children. We see, and feel, the havoc and the ravage of their tiger-passions, now, when they are full grown; but it was years ago that they were whelped and suckled. And so, too, if we are derelict from our duty, in this matter, our children, in their turn, will suffer. If we permit the vulture’s eggs to be incubated and hatched, it will then be too late to take care of the lambs.” (Horace Mann, lectures on education).

    The question is why should elite be interested in the education of other people’s children. Here, I think we need to recognise a circumstantial limitations on the possible role the elite can play. It is a fait accompli that my children [if there were any] won’t go to the schools called ‘public.’ We really need to recognize the full significance of this fait accompli. What motivation can there be on my part, if not either charity [a religious motivation] or an enlightened self-interest [a political motivation] to think about the education of other people’s children? There is enough, actually a lot, of the former, as exemplified by the foundations of many sorts in Pakistan—those that actually run the schools. The betterment, and moral imperatives operate with full force in this domain–though we could also say that some of the charity may be driven by the ‘enlightened self interest,’ of securing a plot in the paradise. But there is too little evidence of the latter motivation, as Faisal also pointed out in his article.

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