The Politics of Education | Dr Shahid Siddiqui

The conservative paradigm of education believes in the fixity of knowledge and focuses on its transmission from one generation to the next generation. The major assumption underlying this paradigm is that the learners are just clean slates or empty vessels and the teacher’s job is to write on these ‘clean slates’ and fill the ‘empty vessels’ with the fixed body of knowledge.

The learners’ role in this paradigm is passive. Whatever information they receive in the classroom they reproduce in the examination papers and get good grades. The problem with this conservative paradigm, however, is that students are not required to think critically. Paulo Freire calls this a ‘banking concept of education’ where students become depositories and the teachers act as depositors. The role of students in this paradigm is confined to “receiving, filling, and storing the deposits” without using any thinking skills.

The schools perform three major functions in this paradigm. First, they are involved in the construction of stereotypes that favour certain dominant groups. Second, they are engaged in perpetuating those stereotypes by transmitting them to the young generation. Third, being an important social institution, they validate and legitimise those stereotypes. In most of the developing countries the conservative paradigm is prevalent in the mainstream educational institutions where memory or recall-based assessment system influence and determine the pedagogical practices. This paradigm thus views education as passive and apolitical.

Is education a passive and neutral phenomenon? Is it apolitical? Antonio Gramsci in his seminal book, ‘Prison Notebooks’, debunks the stereotypical view of education as a passive, neutral, fixed, and apolitical entity. While discussing the concept of hegemony, he elaborates on the powerful role of civil society, including educational institutions, suggesting that education is a vibrant, highly political, and ever-changing phenomenon. Education as a tool of civil society could be instrumental in constructing identities and controlling the minds.

How are identities constructed with the help of discourse? Foucault explains this by identifying the triangular relationship between power, discourse, and social reality. According to him, powerful groups construct, legitimise and popularise certain discourse which leads to a certain kind of social reality that justifies all the actions of powerful groups. This seems true for education as well. Powerful groups advocate a certain educational system that validates their beliefs, values, and actions.

Postman, in his article ‘Politics of Reading’ proposed that all educational practices are profoundly political in the sense that they are designed to produce one sort of human being rather than another. According to Postman, in some societies the sole purpose of literacy is to produce people who can follow rules, instructions, or orders to further strengthen the agenda of the more powerful. In such kind of literacy, thinking skills are not required and thus not encouraged.

It is important to note that almost all imperialist powers used education as one of the tools for taking and sustaining control of other nations. This suggested that discursive approach to hegemony is not less effective than coercive approach. In some cases the discursive approach is more effective as social realities are constructed through discourse.

Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ gives a detailed account of how the Occident (West) constructed the Orient (East) with its own biases. This was done through discourse. It is important to note that through discourse the imperialist powers glorify themselves and stigmatise ‘others’. It is this ‘positional superiority’ that makes powerful groups believe that their way of living, their language, their literature, and their system of education are superior to those of marginalised groups.

Ivan Illich (1971) in his classical work, ‘Deschooling Society’, laments educational institutions with their stereotypical programmes. He criticises the transmission based teaching that turns a society into a “schooled society” where critical thinking does not find its space. Michal Apple in his book, ‘Curriculum and Ideology’, considers schools as centres of reproducing inequalities in the society. He highlights the politics of education by suggesting that educational institutions not only control the students but also control the meaning.

A number of educationists in critical paradigm reviewed education as a highly vibrant phenomenon linked with power and politics. The essence of education in critical paradigm is change. This change is for the betterment of individuals and improving practices in society. Education in this paradigm aims at development. The notion of development is not confined to economic wellbeing only. As Amartya Sen explained, development should be understood in terms of freedoms – freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice. To achieve such outcomes we need to revisit the conservative definition of education that hinges around transmission. We need to redefine education as a tool for transformation.

To realise the objective of education that focuses on transformation of individual lives and society, we have to move away from the transmission mode of teaching and towards the use of critical pedagogy. This means a more active role for students and teachers, encouraging them to co-construct knowledge that is linked with our life and is beneficial to humanity at large.

This is possible if we develop an evaluation system that encourages critical thinking and analytical skills. Only then can we look for an educational system that produces students not just to fit into the slots of society but at times to challenge some of society’s taboos.

The writer is an educationist.



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