Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Project of 'Global Education'

One of my key interests is to study 'global education' and what impact it has on developing societies. Like my other projects, this is a conversation in progress, and therefore, much better covered, at least at this stage, as blog posts rather than in any other form. This interest also sits in the intersection of my work, which is about using the possibilities of technology to broaden access to education and to connect it to the needs of a modern service economy, and my political beliefs, which, being Indian, is of mixed feelings about modernity itself. 

The claim that globalising education, among other things, brings a greater capacity to think critically is of immense interest to me. The components of this claim itself are worth studying: That the Indian education is traditionally based on rote learning, and the Western scientific education is based on critical questioning of the world, is presented as an absolute starting point of this discussion - and by definition evades critical assessment - shows some contours of the nature of this debate. Through the prism of this definition, learning Upanishads, or Koran, or Budhdhist Texts, are rote, because one is engaging with a text and memorising it perhaps. On the other hand, learning the history of one's own country with reflections on authoritarian regimes of the past, such as Stalin and Hitler's, perhaps guards one against buying into the same authoritarian propaganda in one's own time. These examples are powerful, but evades questions such as, whether memorising Budhdhist texts s about knowing the words, or about reflecting and discovering the deep unity of the universe, and whether, despite the apparent otherworldly nature of that learning, this unity could be understood without connecting with everything else. Seen that way, anyone with even the rudimentary knowledge of those texts will know that they are not achieved through rote. On the other hand, one could perhaps see that the choice of examples of authoritarian evil is always quite deliberate: Stalin's collectivization and Mao's Great Leap Forward are always cited as great examples of cruelty and barbarism, but the deliberate diversion of food from Bengal by the British administration under Churchill's instructions or indiscriminate bombings of Vietnamese citizens are usually kept out of the discussion. Similarly, we may talk about Hitler or Polpot's massacres, but never that of Suharto or Pinochet. And, yet, it is critical consciousness that a global education brings, if only by claiming to bring it.

Someone indeed told me that the Critical Consciousness of the type I am talking about isn't necessary. All the people should care about is to find ways to solve their problems, and that limited use of critical 'reasoning' is what makes a better life. Yet, most people don't know what their problems are, and one of the key jobs of modern consumerism is to actually make people realise that they have a problem, to make them unhappy. One perhaps didn't know that one needs a BMW , nor that one's wife should have been more beautiful or smarter, before an alluring advertising was shown to him on telly. Identifying these false problems at least should be part of a person's repertoire in modern economies. Only focusing on critical engagement that helps solve a problem, which will basically depend on process-based evaluation of the options (may be it be of huge variety), which is exactly the kind of education one receives in a business school, structures a life lived on the command of others. And, indeed, those who claim that global education will bring critical consciousness to all the developing country learners never let it out that their agenda is really to trap the learners withing the 'cage' of modernity, forever solving the problems set by other people, within the options and parameters set by other people.

Yet, this is what global education is for, not to encourage resistance to modernity, but to create a framework of obedience based on presumed requirements of consumption, mostly of commodities and services coming out of the metropolitan centres of the world, or the commodities or services produced by near-slave labour based on designs, formats and ideas shaped at those metropolitan centres. This is about as much critical consciousness as an Indian worker will require to get a job that pays $500 a month (while that job may cost $5000 in the US) because now she can afford things which her parents could not; but this critical conscious should not go as far as to let her question why her time is one-tenth as valuable to that of the US worker (and by implication, her life is less valuable) and whether she should seek to challenge the rules, set by the system, and to change this. In fact, the 'global education' project can be seen as one massive scheme of bringing people to modern consumption and move them away from politics; at its core, the proposition of 'development', which is a formula based on growth in consumption and credit, and which must not be questioned on such grounds such as social or environmental impact. In a way, the project of 'global education' perfects General Suharto's 'Floating Mass' formulation, a body of people who must not spend time in politics of groups, but focus themselves on economic advancement.

The question that I pursue, however, is whether this will result in greater welfare, or even achievement of the promised goal. The 'globals', which is very much a legitimate label in studies by consultancies such as McKinsey, may actually not just destroying all opposition but even the ground they stand on. Buying into the neoliberal rhetoric, they are, at the same time, undermining and using the state: Their corrupt control is undermining the state authority, yet it is the state's authority the legitimacy of their ways, which is often quite violent and exploitative of all other groups, is based on. Besides, they are tending to cite the state as the problem, after the lessons taught in global schools, and yet their very existence is so precariously dependent on the state, as exemplified in countries such as Tunisia.  

So, to rephrase a very famous line - the project of global education seems full of triumphant calamity. My quest is to understand the dynamics of this in the Asian context.

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