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What Education for Children?

July 18, 2012

Starting from the early 90s education came to occupy the centre stage in the development arena. Increased access to primary education as signaled by increased enrolment rates became one of the top priorities of international donors and, as a result, of countries who were recipients of aid. It was a time of much hope and enthusiasm about the role of education; so when it turned out that education and the increase in human capital of countries did not translate in any macro change such as economic growth the enthusiasm quickly turned into disappointment. People started asking why the status quo did not change despite the fact that more kids were going to school: was it that teachers were not qualified enough? Or was it that teachers did not just bother to show up at school? Was it that the education system was not able to accommodate the increased demand (after all if a classroom comprise 60 children they stand a slim chance to learn)? Or was it that some of the children drop out half the way before completion? In many countries it was a combination of all these factors. Yet, the underlying assumption was not shaken: education has the power to transform societies, to change the status quo for the better. After all more educated girls stand a better chance to exercise informed choices governing their lives (for example how many children they want) and better educated parents will be in a better position to take care of their children. As this line of thought stuck, the focus remained on how more kids were to get more education: very few asked the question of what education the children should get. To ask what schools are for is to ask what values and skills are to be transmitted to children. The answer to this question reveals that education, in some context, has the potential to transform as much as to preserve the status quo. Two examples illustrate this point:

In Ancient Rome education was an almost exclusive prerogative of the children of the aristocratic elite who were expected later on to govern the republic. For that purpose they were taught the art of rhetoric and most of all how they were to administer power in order to preserve the hierarchical order they superseded. Tim Whitmarsh in LRB states,

students absorbed the art of the grammatical and political imperative, the law of life that divides humans into those who command and those who obey. Children were taught the worth of disciplined labor so that as adults they could discipline others.

More poignantly Roman education processed children into adults capable of governance and of imparting orders: little room was left for individual self expression. The aim was “subordination not self-expression.” Whitmarsh recognizes that education also had the potential for social mobility given that high-level literacy was not limited to wealthy males. The fundamental point however remains: education is as much likely to prop up hierarchies as much as to weaken them. This ultimately is the decision of the society of which the education system is a mirror.

Another example is the education imparted to Arab Palestinians in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. The goal of that education was not to promote the social improvement of the individuals; rather it is to consolidate their status of second class citizens without an history. As Edward Said explains, “the Israeli government’s education policies for Arabs aim to produce loyalty to the state and an awareness underlying the isolation of the Arabs in Israel”. For this purpose the Arab history is depicted in negative terms as a succession of revolutions and feuds whereby the Jews history is glorious. From this perspective education serves the purpose to erase the past and the identity of the Arab Palestinian in Israel. It consolidates rather than shaking existing hierarchies.

For too long education has been narrowly defined as basic literacy and numeracy. As a result many were reflecting on how to get more kids to school. Very few asked what schools are for and what education should be imparted to children. Little attention was paid to soft skills such as self expression and individual creativity. However, without these skills children receiving education are likely to accept the existing order and not to contest; what they are taught in fact is how to fit into society and not how to transform it. From this standpoint societies can be preserved as much as transformed as more people get educated.

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