Thursday, May 27, 2010

Education and Freedom: An Alternative View

I write this primarily based on the conversations I had in India, but this holds true other 'developing' countries I know well; Like, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The story runs like this: The government is under pressure from a young, mobile population, who, empowered by the new technologies of communication, have started benchmarking themselves against their developed country cousins. They have started 'demanding' things much to the annoyance of grey haired policymakers who expect compliance above everything else. The most pressing political problem in these countries is the pressure of aspiration, expressed in the language and value system of hope and enterprise. This should be good news. However, this is creating a disjuncture in social policy, and in education provision more than in any other area.

In stark contrast to the past, when the governments were to provide a standard education to get a standard job, which earned a lifetime of keeps and a dignified retirement, the current adult education imperative is different. In fact, there are a number of competing objectives to be held in balance.

To start with, the government must keep this huge young population gainfully employed, for reasons of reaping the huge demographic dividend collectively but also to arrest crime and social unrest. With most governments concerned about their credit rating more than anything else, handing out meaningless jobs for meaningless salaries to these citizens is no longer an option.

So, while the citizens increasingly become aware of the possibilities and demand a better deal from their governments, governments need to tell their people, as politely as possible, that they are on their own. In fact, they are expected to contribute to the nation than the other way around. True, JFK is long dead and gone, but most governments in developing countries is still struggling to gather the courage to pronounce the 'Ask Not' proposition.

The obvious conduit of empowering the populace is obviously through a radical redesign of education. Let the people understand the true reasons for their plight and feel empowered to change their own circumstances. Allow critical thinking and questioning in the classroom, let education lock step with the possibilities of the time. That is a way to change, may be the only way, the whole dependency structure that is ailing the government finances.

But that will be too dangerous for the governments in power, who owe their existence mostly to a collusive arrangement between the global power elite. So, the truth is, the governments don't want to say 'Ask Not'. They want their citizens to be dependent, not ask too many questions and not try to find too many answers on their own. The job of the education policy maker, therefore, is to create entrepreneurial thinking without an appetite for risk, innovation without independence, the ability to deal with uncertainty without the need for exploration.

Many Western, particularly American, Educators may find this challenging, to say the least. But it may not be complicated. Education is well designed to serve the needs of compliance and social stability, and the emerging country governments are employing such techniques to the best extent possible.

I shall note that there are three key ways by which such limitations on imaginative inquiry can be effectively exercised, while giving selective access to power and privilege through the system and giving an impression of relative progress.

First, by creating the process of education as an alienable part of the power/ privilege system of the society. I am frequently told that Indian families spend disproportionately more on Children's education than the Western ones, but this is because the education is so closely integrated to the power structure of the society. If we use Foucault's descriptors of technologies of power and self, this is about merging the two as closely as possible. In fact, in most countries, the technologies of self is to be completely legislated out and the whole system of learning has been replaced by a system of symbols, degrees in this case. 'Engineer' is an honorific in Bangladesh, and most commonly, people who carry Masters degrees, write it on the address boards at their homes and on calling cards. Such 'Education By Degrees' incorporate the system of education completely in the fold of the existing power structure of the society.

Second, by keeping people longer in the education system in the quest of advanced degrees. This is achieved by making it easier to progress through the years while shifting the costs of maintaining the infrastructure to the student and their families. In a way, it may be seen as wellness business for the middle class soul, where the penitent father, confused by the new world and unable to offer the solace of mediocre life that he lived himself to his ward, seeks to redeem himself in debt to keep paying for 'Advance' degrees. But it is more: The advance degrees are designed to achieve nothing more than compliance to a stratified, pedigreed social system. It is not surprising that most advanced degrees granted as such are in the field of business administration, though the number of businesses to be administered have not grown in proportion with the manifold increases of the educated business administrators. However, the whole chimera of tertiary education and advanced degrees serve everyone so well: a few extra years to 'mould the spirit' for the government, a pedigree system among the learners, a social status system for the parents and finally, a neatly stratified system to keep everyone in a box, apart from opening up a whole industry sector for private businesses.

Third, by quickly filling the void left by the secularization of education with an alternative system of morality, albeit a global one. Globalization in Indian homes often arrive through the college-going kids humming Bollywood numbers shot in picturesque locales in the south of France; not just as a part of the popular culture or mating ritual, but an unavoidable part of academic life through the various 'extra-curricular' mandates and bonding exercises. The prescription of education is designed not just to incorporate the learner in a power system [by degree], and to reinforce the stratification [through longer stay], but also to imbibe the moral system of consumptive progress, which equates the possession of things as the possession of power, and the possession of power as the attainment of meaning in life.

One may say that there is nothing new and innovative about the model of education described above, which seemed to have been borrowed, for the most part, from the colonial education systems. However, this will be an unfair assertion. The similarities in policy may be many and not superficial, but this 'new education policy' is being put in place not to contain the consumptive aspirations of the local populace, which would have been the colonial objective, but to encourage it. This is a big difference in terms of objective: Though it eventually means an incorporation of a global power structure in the current setting, this seemingly minor variation is potent enough to start a dialectic process setting the technologies of power against the technologies of self. This will happen, as it always did in history, when local aspirations exceed their 'place' in the scheme of things, which, if one trusts the capacities of human consciousness, it eventually will. That is indeed the day when this whole education edifice will come down, and a true process of freedom will begin.

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