Education as a Political Issue? (1)


The apathy of the Pakistani political elite [and public] toward education is increasingly coming under scrutiny.  A few posts on this blog have also commented on this issue. (See, for example, Enlightened Self Interest).  This post extends this conversation with reference to the work of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. Dreze and Sen, in their book  ‘India, Economic Development and Social Opportunity,’ suggest that education has not been enough of a political issue in post-independence India and this, they think, has been the main obstacle in universalising access to basic education.  This may be changing in India now, but it still rings true for contemporary Pakistan.

Before independence, however, there was no lack of enthusiasm for education. The Indian intellectual and political elite kept education central to the pre-independence social and political movements.  As Dreze and Sen put it:

The relationship between education and social change was also well understood by many social leaders during the independence movement. Gokhale, for instance, was a strong advocate of the promotion of basic education, and, as soon as the Indian Councils Act of 1909 made it possible for Indians to propose legislative reforms, he formulated a pioneering Elementary Education Bill (later rejected by the British administration) which would have empowered local authorities to introduce compulsory education. Dr Ambedkar, whose own scholarship helped him to overcome the stigma of low caste (indeed ‘untouchability’), saw education as a cornerstone of his strategy for the liberation of oppressed castes — a strategy which has been put to good effect in some parts of India. Education was also of paramount concern to Rammohan Roy, Maharshi Karve, Pandita Ramabai, Swami Vivekananda, Jotirao Phule, Pabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jayaprakash Narayan, and numerous other social reformers and political figures of the pre-independence period. (p.110)

And then the puzzle over why it is that post-independence scene is filled with apathy toward education:

The empowerment value of basic education is so obvious that there is something puzzling in the fact that the promotion of education has received so little attention from social and political leaders in the post-independence period. One aspect of this neglect is the flagrant inadequacy of government policy in the field of elementary education; we will return to that in section 6.3. But lack of attention to education has not been confined to government circles. It has also been a common attitude of political parties, trade unions, revolutionary organizations, and other social movements. (P.110)

Dreze and Sen argue that education is not a sufficiently political issue, and the most immediate question is how to turn it into one. In their words:

Ultimately, the expansion of basic education in India depends a great deal on these political factors. There is no question that, even in a country as poor as India, means can be found to ensure universal attainment of literacy and other basic educational achievements, at least in the younger age groups. There are important strategic questions to consider in implementing that social commitment, but the primary challenge is to make it a more compelling political issue.” (P.139)

While the value of education toward empowerment of people is fully acknowledged by Dreze and Sen, they ultimately see the solution not in supply and demand, but in political terms.  What seems to be missing from the scene is a robust politics of, and political champions for, education.   When shunned from the political sphere, education seems to find its way into the sphere of market to respond to the individual need for social mobility.  Of course, when this happens the education is not necessarily expected to serve the needs of the society for ‘citizens.’ Citizens do not emerge from wombs but are constructed by a process of education that specifically seeks to produce them. Education has been a political issue in societies which have taken the production of citizenry seriously.

The current growth of the private sector schools and the more recent arguments for vouchers need to be understood in this context [absence of education from the political sphere].

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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

6 Responses to “Education as a Political Issue? (1)”

  1. Absolutely correct. John Strachey, the British socialist leader, and Harold Laski, the political scientist, very categorically observed that there can be no democracy in the true sense of the word without education. Do any of our leaders — including politicians — want democracy in the country. The oligarchy that we have at present serves their interest. They are afraid of education. Remember education is not simply teaching the three Rs to students as we try to do. It is important what you teach that really empowers the people.

    Even the private sector doesn’t want mass education. It is happy if education remains confined to a limited class. To ensure that private sector commercialises education to ensure that it remains restricted.

  2. I find it hard to accept that “citizens are constructed by a process of education that specifically seeks to produce them” especially in Pakistani context. What is meant by citizen or citizenry? Doesn’t a citizen mean a law abiding person who obeys the law and rules even when no one is watching, who is honest and pays tax, who does things that strengthen individuals and families and involved in volunteering and giving time to others and cares about common goods, who believes that patriotism is an important quality and does things that involve them in democratic process…to mention a few?

    Let us consider our so called good quality elite schools only. Are they producing good citizens who follow (any, few or all) principles of good citizenry? Not at large. Where in the curriculum these laws and principles of citizenry exist and are taught and practiced?
    On the other hand, there are poor, innocent, helpless and harmless people deprived of basic necessities. They are working hard to make both ends meet, who have never been to schools and nor their children. Are they exempt from any definition of citizenry?

    It is to say, finally, that western theories, ideologies philosophies and principles exist and rule better in their own context and should not be( and cannot be) highlighted as tool of social change in Pakistan or in any third world country .

  3. The entire Education system of Pakistan is based on social, moral, ethnic racial and, religious inequalities. It maintains unhealthy competition, self comparison with the others, hatred and urge for power. It does not teach and train people rule/respect of law. It rather enables illogical ideas and disables scientific evaluation of our cultural and social behavior.
    Someone has said right…”Ignorance is a blessing”.

    At least let the poor free from the plight of Education.

  4. Thanks for being here and leaving your query.

    I did not sufficiently clarify what I meant by the category of citizen. So let me do that now.

    I am not using the term for someone who is simply domiciled in a particular country and is also law-abiding.

    The notion of citizen is, yes, a western notion and is also theory, as much as it is practice, laden. It came to be defined in the midst of social and political changes over the last 300 years or so. And before Indian sub-continent became two independent countries, your and my ancestors were ‘subjects’ of British Empire, not ‘citizens’ of an independent country. Of course, many of them were ‘law abiding,’ but still not citizens. So being ‘law abiding’ does not qualify someone as a citizen. It is a legal entity and has a complex of ‘rights’ and ‘obligations,’ associated with it. Many of these rights and obligations associated with the ‘citizen’ did not automatically come into existence but are end products of long drawn political struggles. In Pakistan the term ‘citizen’ is, of course, used but it hasn’t arrived here at the end of similar struggles.

    You might like to translate ‘Riyaya’ or ‘Shehry’ in Urdu to ‘citizen’ in English. But if you step away from your translations and reflect on these words a bit, you might notice that these words are rooted in a totally different experience and have different roots than the English ‘citizenry’ and ‘citizen.’ Translations across cultures are just as difficult, as, like you say, the application of Western theories to social change in Pakistan. If you think a bit more about your usage of the term citizen you may find that you have been using it without thinking deeply about it. That it does not mean the same thing in some Western contexts than what it does here. Not just that, you will get into similar difficulties with translation even if you move from England to as near as France and Germany. Incidentally, I was only reading this today, so will just quote from this paper on the history of concepts:

    “Reinhart Koselleck argued that comparison of concepts would require a kind of neutral meta language (Koselleck 1991). He referred to the citizen example. If one translates the French citoyen into German the term is Staatsbürger. However, according to Koselleck, these two concepts cannot be compared to one another because they represent two very different histories. One could add on citizen and argue that citizen has a rather different history than both citoyen and Staatsbürger. If we add the corresponding terms in the Scandinavian and Finnish languages – medborgare and kansalainen – the complexity increases even more. Medborgare means literally co-citizen and connotes a link to the bürgerliche civil society whereas kansalainen is derived from a link to the state concept.”

    There were no citizens, in the contemporary sense of the term, before there was a nation state. It was this new form of government that required educating everyone–literally everyone, that is. No other civilisation and no other form of government have required that before the developments [collectively and loosely called modernity] in the 18th and 19th century. Educating all was not ‘required’ even by the Islamic civilisation, even when Islam was the cradle of civilisation and a great repository of knowledge and learning.

    So when the societies require that ‘everyone’ get an education, it is typically not out of moral imperatives or charity, but to construct a new kind of a human being–the citizen–which is required for the preservation, and reproduction of this new kind of state. It is in this sense that I have used the term citizen, not in the sense of being domiciled in a particular country.

    Now, whether the elite private schools produce citizens–for this, I will refer you to my post again: “Of course, when this happens the education is not necessarily expected to serve the needs of the society for ‘citizens.’” Here I was referring to private education. Why should a private school care to invest in citizenship? The private school is [presumably] governed by market forces and, therefore, by its very nature meant to respond to the demand of individual [consumer] and not the state. Notice, consumer is not the same thing as citizen–these are two very different positions to be. But this is not to say that some private schools won’t teach good citizenship. But we cannot hold them to account for not teaching citizenship. To this, you will say why not, the state can always intervene and tell private schools what to do. But look, the moment state intervenes in the workings of private schools and compels them to teach what it wants the children to learn, then, they become in part the producers of a public service, and, therefore, in a way agents of state [i.e., not fully private]. And there is nothing wrong with that if it can indeed happen. But as you know, state does not do a great job of regulating the private schools.

    Finally, you mentioned that “western theories, ideologies philosophies and principles exist and rule better in their own context and should not be (and cannot be) highlighted as tool of social change in Pakistan or in any third world country.” This, I think is not a comment on the contents of the post above. I am certainly not suggesting that third world countries should copy Western models.

    But this brings me to an altogether different point that I think is important to observe in this space. If you look backwards, it was in fact the Western nations that copied [or otherwise absorbed into their cultures of learning] a great deal from the world of Islam and beyond during the so-called renaissance. For example, they replaced their erstwhile and much loved Roman numeration system by the so-called Arabic numerals, simply because the latter were better and more efficient. By speaking of the so-called Western theories like this, I hope you are not closing your eyes and ears to their considered merits. ‘They’ did not do the same. Think about it!

  5. Roman numeration was replaced by the so called Arabic numerals, simply because the latter was better and more efficient….Very true. They used it and practiced it in their own context and found it useful and therefore adopted it. However problem definitely arrives when thoughtfulness is missing from the context and certain transformation of theories and ideas takes place without considering its merit and demerits on certain grounds.
    Let us take an example. Corporal punishment has been banned by law in several western countries. It really sounds good. Few years back, the idea was introduced in Pakistan under the slogan of ‘Maar Nahi Pyar’. That is, Government teachers were ordered not to use any sort of corporal punishment and deal students with ‘Pyar’ and not ‘Maar’. Now consider I am an over burdened government school teacher. I don’t have sufficient content knowledge and I am not trained well about how to teach. I have never come across cognitive learning theories in the classroom and role of positive/negative reinforcement in shaping certain behaviors. I have never learnt about efficient classroom management techniques. And if it is desirable to change the certain behavior of my students to make them attentive in my typical classroom environment, what else would I do except scolding and beating them up? Because this is the only tool available for me.

    In western countries children come from calm, peaceful, tolerant and prosperous societies. They are cared and loved by the people around. Mostly teachers are effectively trained and prepared to coop with all learning needs of children. Does our society make any such arrangements before sending children to schools? Here children come from the society which commonly experiences intolerance, torture and harassment. Mostly children are beaten up by their parents, sibling and friends. So what is wrong if I, as a teacher, also beat them up when it is highly desirous to make them learn in my own way?

    let us take another example. my children attend an Elite school which promotes Activity Based, Child centered learning (As its School Brochure claims). When children involve themselves in discussion and other activities, the teacher shouts and say her famous quote,” Stop this nonsense, Is this a FISH MARKET?”……My children told me.

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  1. Education as a political issue? (2) | Just questions! - 19/08/2011

    […] by Irfan 0 Comments This post continues the conversation started in a previous post on the topic of education as a political issue. In the last post, I had referred to Jean Drèze […]

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