For centuries School Education has been granted the status of utmost good, the most benevolent task for humanity – to educate its children to continue the world. It is undeniable that children do grow to become the future of society, of humanity and of the planet. However, what are the parameters that we are setting for ourselves and for this education? What lens are we willing to use to measure the worthiness of the placement of the modern education system at the pinnacle of human good?
The word ‘education’ rings different bells for different age groups of people. And if one cares to ask those who are getting educated , one thing that would be clear is – it’s definitely not an enjoyable process. Maybe that’s one of the factors that have contributed to a generation of frustration and compulsiveness, feeding on mass produced opinions and judgement, losing everything that is human. What was to be an exploration leading to evolution, growth and mindful symbiosis has merely become a painful training process to yield lifeless consumers who can be put under formulae, assessed and controlled, thus becoming forever dependent on an external entity.
So as an organisation working towards building conscious spaces for self sustainable community learning, where learning is fun and empathy is more than a moral science topic, we consider it an immediate responsibility to uncover the face of existing education system and call out the sins it has committed on the human essence, one by one.
If you design a system with certain features to do certain things, don’t be surprised if it does it.
Large-scale public education did not exist before the 19th century, and it only came into existence with the purpose of supplying human labor for the industries that were coming up. Hence it is based on the principles of industrialism and conformity. So, are the rosters, ringing of the bells and uniforms, glaringly similar to a factory setup. Over the years with the exploding population and growing demand, the education system started inflating, so the governments all around strangled the same systems with standardized testing, which increased the competition and added a layer of horse blinders on both the teachers and the students, just to churn out the best results out of a misleading system.
Today we demand creativity and innovation in every aspect of our modern world, and these expectations have been backtracked and reached the schooling system. Today schools are expected to nurture creativity among children and lectures on innovation are given in every business management school. Well, in defense of schools these expectations are just unfair. Schools aren’t designed to nurture creativity, it was designed with the exact opposite values of compulsion, competition, monoculturization, and decontextualization of humans from their own environment.
Creativity in simple words can be defined as having new ideas of value. And when one acts upon these ideas to create something, we call it innovation. Creativity and innovation, like any other skill comes with practice, it’s a habit that one builds over the years to look at things differently, to think more often of different possibilities, by gaining knowledge from interdisciplinary fields, and by trying to build these different ideas into reality.
Schools not only do not nurture these skill sets, but restrict every strand of these muscles to grow within individuals by not giving them the space to think differently. Every student is supposed to study the exact same syllabus whether they like it or not, with the parents and teachers holding a hierarchy of subjects, where mathematics & sciences are on top, followed by languages & social studies and at the end comes humanities. On top of that, Individuals in schools are not allowed to make mistakes, as the one making mistakes is punished, shamed or asked to buckle up and perform in the manner that is expected by the education system.
In my personal experience of being and working with children, I have seen that children are already creative by themselves, they are not afraid to try out new things, they carry their own worldviews, and are wanting to create things that they would like to see for themselves. As Picasso once said – “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Schools play a fair share in causing this problem by restricting every individual from carving out a life for themselves as they might want to and by adding the weight of shame and fear which people carry all their lives. Well, sometimes the solution to the problem is not causing it and trying something different.
About the author
Muzamil approaches life with zest and with an innate need to explore different ideas. His beloved subject is himself and the people around him. Driven by freedom of choice he is working with Project DEFY, as a creator of self-designed learning spaces in different communities locally & internationally.
2019 has come to an end, and it has been an enriching experience for the DEFY team. We hope 2019 brought you joy, learning and strength, just as it did for us. We started 2019 with some hefty goals that we set out for ourselves. Many of those we have been able to achieve, and some that were just slightly beyond our grasp. This year has taught us many things, chief among which have been reliance – trusting each other to do our best, resilience – driving gracefully through all the brick-walls that obstruct our dreams and rebooting – standing up every time we fall down.
The DEFY team expanded rapidly this year, almost like a dream that I personally almost prevented myself from seeing. A growing team had teething challenges, with new dependencies, big learning curves and finding individual identities within the collective one. I feel very proud of how we have been able to help each other find our own individual meaning for working at DEFY. A growing team also meant that we had to choose whether to go by the book or write our own ways of working together. We chose mostly the latter, decided to create our own work culture which, according to the popular opinion in the Team, feels different from all other places they have been a part of. We are proud not only of the work we do, but how we do it.
We also created this year the concept of Nook Hubs. Many of you may have seen updates from our pilot Nook Hub in Rwanda, that we created together with Dream Village. Nook Hubs are our way to decentralise DEFY itself. Each Nook Hub would become capable of running its own show in the geographical region, customised by the needs, interests and challenges locally. The Nooks in Rwanda will be created by people from Rwanda, and with the same hope we are creating new Nook Hubs in some more new geographies. You will hear about them soon.
Of course, it wasn’t all peaches in 2019. We designed a fantastic fellowship program – DARE (Design a Revolutionary Education). However, we underestimated the work it would take to gather resources for it. For those who are unaware of DARE, it is a fellowship for those who are frustrated with their own experiences with education and wish to challenge it by creating new ideas and alternatives. With a growing and learning team, improving processes and existing projects, we simply did not have the bandwidth to make DARE a reality in 2019. We hope however, it will happen in 2020. As aspirational as we are, we also hope to start another new program from DEFY in 2020 – r.a.g.e or Research on Alternative Global Education is an attempt at creating a community based research method and space, where some of the most complicated questions around education will be worked upon.
So much more is happening at DEFY that it is almost impossible to cover in one newsletter. We hope to begin Open Houses for community discussions at our Office in Bangalore. We do this already internally, but we hope to open it up for everyone and convert our Office into a Learning Environment.
Before I end my piece, I have the most important job to do, and that is to thank all of you. DEFY’s journey has not been easy. It has been full of disappointments, failures and mistakes, as one can expect from a founder who had no experience or plans to create an organisation. But we could survive and thrive because of our many advisors, well-wishers and critics. Your suggestions, support and questions have made the difference. We hope we can continue to count on your support and love in the coming years, as make new strides and new mistakes.
We wish you a happy season of rest, rejoice and love.
Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Three
What are the consequences of a model of education which, as we have discovered in the first two parts of the blog, ignores most other ways of knowing-thinking-feeling-being? The penultimate part of ‘Unmasking the Myth of Schooling’ looks into how minorities are being further marginalised and students are being actively de-skilled.
A central element of modern education is that is relegates all experiences, knowledges and ways of life outside the world of mass-consumerism and capitalism to a place of non-existence. This is particularly visible when we look at the depiction of Adivasis and their lifeworlds: “the representation of Adivasi in stereotypical negative terms as ‘backward’ people, outside the pale of progress, has meant that elementary education has only reinforced stereotypes and further marked the Adivasi in discriminatory terms (Veerbhadranaika et al. 2012, quoted in Ramachandran, 2018, p102). As Ramachandran further notes, “another site of alienation is the content of our textbooks, which give primary importance to urban-centred subjects and do not weave in the histories and cultures of the tribal people of India” (ibid.).
This stereotyping and marginalisation of Adivasis and their lifeworlds in the curriculum and in textbooks then continues in the schools themselves in both physical and psychological forms, where minorities, particularly Adivasis but also Dalits and others are continuously discriminated against by teachers and their upper-caste classmates, thus reinforcing rather than challenging and equalising the unequal societal structures. This results in what Sherpa and Rai (2016, p168) term as an in-built “Academic Brahmanism,” “the indication of a broader systemic discrimination faced by students coming from particular social background in their day-to-day academic life.”
Another aspect of the marginalisation of lifeworlds outside the consumerist ideology is that ironically, while children are supposed to learn how to become a ‘productive part’ of the world market, they are strongly discouraged and prevented from finding out about what’s going on in their own backyard, leading to an ever bigger disconnect with nature and a careless attitude on the exploitation of local, natural resources. As Manshi Asher (2018) puts it, “we talk highly of how the young today are so ‘aware’ about the environment because they learnt a chapter or even a class on ‘Environment education’ in school. We forget that when the real connections with nature, their own community, stand broken, what will the youth fight for?” What we can see today undoubtedly is that parallel to an ever-increasing access to education, we face ever-more, and not less, issues of environmental degradation. In this sense, turning away from modern education also is “about accepting [that] the ‘educated class’ have been the key promoters of the ‘extractivist’ and ‘utilitarian’ way of life which have harmed nature the most” (Asher, 2018).
Accompanying this alienation from nature is the marginalization of any kind of manual labour in most school curricula as well as the later focus on learning specific, highly specialized tasks rather than whole processes. Instead of seeing and understanding entire processes, and the causes and effects of and between these, children today merely see final products devoid of any inner value and meaning. As Jain (nd) thus argues,
students around the world are actively being de-skilled (particularly those from artisan, healing and farming backgrounds) and are being taught to despise and devalue physical labor – since labor is considered as non-intellectual work. (…) For the first 23 years of their lives, students are not encouraged to be meaningfully involved in productive activities related to their basic needs or their community’s needs which would encourage them to understand deep inter-connections or a sense of right relationship/limits vis a vis their natural resources (Jain, nd).
Schooling is also eroding any deep connections and ties that exist among and between human beings that might be utilised to overcome the hierarchy, injustice and inequality of the existing system in favour of other, new visions of a meaningful life based on cooperation, togetherness, mutual aid and solidarity. By keeping children in their most formative years locked in separate and enclosed concrete buildings and rooms for a good part of the day, five to six days a week (not included in this is preparation/ learning time, going for tuition classes, doing extra work/assignments, detention, homework, etc.), grouped together only with children of their same age, and most often of a similar socio-economic background, against which they need to compete for grades and other rewards by learning about people and things with usually no connection and relevance to their lives whatsoever, “school disconnects, as it was charged to do. (…) Children are divided from their families, their traditions, their communities, their religions, their natural allies – other children – their interests and on ad infinitum. They are (…) disconnected from the experiences of risk-taking and adventure in which the grand discoveries of history have been fashioned; young men and women emerge from school unable to do much of anything (…)” (Gatto, 2012, p149).
Paradoxically, then, the ‘skills’ increasingly taught in schools are not conceptualised as the means or basics required to independently create, build, enhance and expand one’s livelihood options, but they are seen as (and dictated by) current and always changing market demands that ‘help’ an individual to integrate him- or herself in the highly specialised, exploitative and uneven division of labour. Put differently, they contribute to a further de-skilling of people by making them even more dependent on the market and the acquiring of a range of narrow technical skills which might become obsolete again in no time.
This chasm is also reflected in the sea change from India’s formerly thriving, indigenous and informal education systems (for example the Gurukul education system) in the form of traditional apprenticeships which “often overlaps with socialisation processes” (Singh, 2013, p97) that help the apprentices to become skilled, independent human beings, to the introduction of formal, vocational training by the British colonisers. This new training and education “ceased to be a preparation for life; instead it came to be seen as a means to achieve the necessary qualification to earn a living in white-collar government jobs” (ibid.).
Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl
Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Two
How did the broad idea of education get reduced to a tool – as argued in the first part of this blog series – to ‘produce’ consumer-citizens that keep the market economy going, and what exactly does this look like? The second part of the blog illustrates this by looking in more detail into the now widely promoted and pushed ‘human capital’ approach to education.
The World Bank provides one of the most evident, but by far not the only, examples of the global agenda of Development actors to establish Education programmes as serving almost exclusively the (consumption) needs of the global market. Accordingly, the World Bank’s Education Strategy 2020, adopted in 2011 as one of the most recent and influential education policy-shaping tools, reflects the Bank’s “obsessive attachment to human capital theory” (Fine and Rose, 2003, p156), which “stresses education as a cause of economic growth and increased income” (Spring, 2018, p305):
Investments in quality education lead to more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development. Educated individuals are more employable, able to earn higher wages, cope better with economic shocks, and produce healthier children. (…) Learning for All means ensuring that all children and youth – not just the most privileged or the smartest – not only can go to school but also acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment” (World Bank, 2011, foreword).
This obsession with human capital finds its continuation in the current World Bank’s ‘Human Capital Project’ (HCP), which ultimately “should deliver progress toward a world in which all children (…) are able to enter the job market as healthy, skilled, and productive adults” (World Bank, 2018). Dr. Nandini Chatterjee of Delhi-based UNESCO MGIEP further describes the World Bank’s human capital approach as follows: “You acquire skills so that you can enhance the abilities of the human being in improving or contributing to financial capital. So technology, technical skills, which will allow you to make more money, catering to whatever the different requirements of the world are, is what has been the focus” (2017, own interview; emphasis added).
This shows that the human capital approach to education has a very particular idea of what makes a meaningful life, rooted firmly within the consumerist model of market society: “Human capital education promises students higher incomes that can be used to purchase more and more products” (Spring, 2018, p305). Schooling aims to transform independent, capable human beings into incapable, (market-)dependent consumers who keep the consumerist market economy going while, at the same time, reinforcing a consumerist way of life that is destroying nature and life on earth.
Put succinctly, a meaningful life is reduced to and equated with being able to perpetually consume goods and products. Today, people are more and more deprived of their skills to produce things on their own on one side, while on the other side they are more and more pressured and exploited in the workplace, assigned to complete meaningless, repetitive and often useless tasks. This is what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’:
Bullshit jobs are ones where the person doing them secretly believes that if the job (or even sometimes the entire industry) were to disappear, it would make no difference — or perhaps, as in the case of say telemarketers, lobbyists, or many corporate law firms, the world would be a better place. And that’s not all: think of all the people doing real work in support of bullshit jobs, cleaning their office buildings, doing security or pest control for them, looking after the psychological and social damage done to human beings by people all working too hard on nothing. I’m sure we could easily eliminate half the work we’re doing and that would have major positive effects on everything from art and culture to climate change (Graeber, 2018).
In a world full of bullshit jobs, it is therefore the task of the media-education-advertising complex to establish consumerism as a way of life which “captures the fantasy world of people with brand names and fashions that promise personal transformation, the vicarious thrill of imagining the glamorous lives of media celebrities, and the promise of escape from hard work through packaged travel and cruises to an envisioned paradise” (Spring, 2018, p306).
Ultimately, at the centre of schooling stands the belief that there is only one, the modern, individualist, consumerist, capitalist, way of life that is worthwhile and meaningful – just have a look at any school textbook, no matter in which country you are, and see which jobs and ways of life they feature and portray as desirable. This belief is of course what keeps the neoliberal-capitalist economy and, overall, the hierarchical order of ‘democratic’ market society, running. Accordingly, “we live in a culture that is based on the illusion – and schooling is central to the creation and perpetuation of this illusion – that happiness lies outside of us, and specifically in the hands of those who have power [i.e., money]” (Jensen, 2004, p6).
In turn, all other ways of life that diverge from the consumerist ideology are portrayed as an aberration, a deficiency that needs to be corrected and obliterated. This is why in today’s common-sense logic of schooling, farmers, peasants, indigenous people, forest dwellers, and anyone and everyone else pursuing other ways of life outside market society, usually the ones which are closer connected to nature and based on living in harmony with rather than exploiting nature, are seen as ‘uneducated’ and in need of education to finally be able to live their lives in meaningful ways as consumer-citizens.
In the third part of the blog series, we will look more closely into how modern education marginalises these alternative ways of life and what the consequences of this are.
Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl
Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part One
This three-part blog series offers a critical introduction to the current education system and demonstrates how what we understand today as ‘education’ is a very subjective concept and practice that serves to uphold the unjust and exploitative capitalist system rather than providing everyone and anyone with equal opportunities.
The idea of compulsory schooling and modern education as the ultimate and most effective instrument for empowerment of the masses is deeply ingrained in society. As politicians, business leaders, Development actors, members of civil society, and ‘educators’ themselves keep repeating, the education that is imparted in schools, colleges and universities across the globe almost magically transforms what they often call ignorant, poor, backward people into ‘active citizens’ and ‘full human beings.’ This claim, however, is nothing more than a myth based on the idea that human beings are incapable of creating meaningful lives on their own, in solidarity alongside and with each other. Instead, they are seen to need the guidance of ‘enlightened elites’ in the form of teachers, politicians, economists, businessmen and -women, and other ‘experts’ who know better (and indeed best) what’s good for the masses.
At the root of this ideology is the imagination of human nature as being inherently dumb, savage and irrational. The idea that human beings are purely driven by mostly suppressed yet innate irrational, wild and violent instincts and desires has found much attention and followers through the work of Sigmund Freud and the spread of his views in the U.S. by Freud’s nephew, Edward Barnays. It implies that a nation built on democracy in which, at least on paper, every person has the same decision-making power, is highly susceptible to fall into violent chaos as soon as the brutish human nature of the masses comes to the forefront. Therefore, according to Freud’s logic and the ones who are following it, “it was necessary to re-think democracy. What was needed was a new elite that could manage (…) the bewildered herd” (Walter Lippman in the documentary The Century of the Self).
Having such a conception of human nature (in which an enlightened elite is, mysteriously, less violent and wiser than everyone else around them) is of course also an extremely convenient way to not only preserve but perpetuate the status quo which exactly benefits those elites and legitimises their rule that otherwise has no justification whatsoever. Everything that exceeds the visions and ideas of the elites of what makes a meaningful life, particularly of course what would challenge their superior status and privileges, then can also be declared and waved aside as irrational and dangerous fantasies of the barbaric masses that don’t know what’s good for them.
Out of this imagination of human nature and the fear of the rule of the masses, there was born the idea to inextricably link ‘democracy’ with the capitalist market economy and its key feature of consumerism in order to ‘tame’ the violent nature of human beings and divert the efforts of this ‘dangerous crowd’ into the pursuit of status symbols in the form of the amassment of mass-consumer products: “What was beginning to emerge in the 1920s was a new idea of how to run mass democracy. At its heart was the consuming self which not only made the economy work but was also happy and docile and so created a stable society” (from The Century of the Self).
The introduction of modern, compulsory education then stands at the heart of the venture of producing the ‘consuming self.’ As such, modern education has become reduced to a tool that serves the interests of political and business elites to reinforce the unequal, unjust neoliberal-capitalist economy and the hierarchical order of market society. It actively creates consumers by taking away people’s capacity to create their own livelihoods in solidarity with others and by making them dependent on and addicted to a certain kind of ‘modern’ lifestyle while devaluing any other ways of life.
The second part of the series will look in more detail how the so-called human capital approach to education is used to perpetuate the status quo and actively prevents the emergence of a broader, more holistic idea of education.
Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl
There is perhaps no other country which has had such a vast history of educational revolutions as India. This should not be surprising considering its diversity and open-mindedness towards knowledge.
If the history of this magnificent country is looked into closely, there is always a revolution looming in the background. People had always held an open-minded view towards knowledge; kings would often convert to a new religion in sight of new knowledge, this comes from a tradition that was not shameful in accepting ignorance which as we can see now is in decline… As Mark Twain once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Let us dig deeper into this rich history, because as open-minded as some rulers were, some saw knowledge as a threat. Much like the burning of the library in Alexandria, books were burned, scholars were killed, and knowledge was shunned.
Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya, is an ancient Indian saying which translates to, ‘lead me from darkness unto light’
Knowledge was always seen as light and ignorance as darkness. The goal of knowledge was simply to shed light on the darkness of ignorance. In the early Vedic ages education was open to all and was seen as a way to achieve enlightenment. It also exemplified equality of opportunity and freedom of thought. With the establishment of caste system, education also became structured in that way. The Brahmins learned about scriptures, religion and philosophy. Kshatriyas were taught politics, warfare and economics, Vaishyas studied commerce and lastly the Shudras were trained skills to carry out day to day jobs. This may have led to the eventual downfall of the early Vedic system as knowledge was imparted not on the basis of merit but on the basis of lineage. There are several accounts of great warriors who were shunned down and great philosophers discarded because of a lack of lineage.
This was followed by a liberal Buddhist era in many parts and a small shift in the thought process. The highlight of this era may be the inception of the famous Nalanda University, which produced some of the greatest scholars of the time, people from all around the world flocked to the University. It advanced and made great strides in the field of philosophy, grammar, medicine, logic and several other subjects. Naturally, as a by-product, it brought great growth and prosperity to the entire empire. Most of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of pilgrim monks from Asia who travelled to the University in the 7th century. Even during the Middle Ages which witnessed numerous invasions and wars, most kingdoms wholeheartedly promoted, enhanced and accepted the system. Various other Universities were established such as Takshashila and VIkramshila up north and Kanthalloorshala down south.
With the start of the Muslim rule, Brahmanic scripts and languages were replaced by Arabic and Persian texts. Although the earlier educational system in India was advanced, the Muslim system brought about the organization of learning into a proper system of schooling, comprising of primary and advanced levels of studies. Maktabs were established to impart Primary education, secondary and advanced language skills were taught in secondary schools known as madrasahs. Apart from basic skills like reading, writing and reciting the Quran, subjects like art, medicine, law and administration were also taught. Education flourished and reached its peak during the time of the Great King Akbar who was known to be an inclusive Emperor.
As Education flourished so did the Empire, this led to Western colonizers being attracted towards what is now India. First the Portuguese and French and then the British. They saw the lack of unity within the territory, although initially education was unaffected, eventually, it was used as a weapon against the people.
The colonizers saw education as largely unorganized and thus saw the massive opportunity to impart western ideals. As the British tightened their grip over India, they realized that to reign over the lands, they must reign over the minds of the people first and education presented itself as a great opportunity for them to do so. Classrooms were designed to create workers to suit the industrial revolution that was happening in the west. The already existing system was quickly uprooted and western ideals and propaganda were imposed from a primary level. Lord Macaulay, who was sent to review the system went so far as to say, “It is no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” Slowly people started forgetting the early periods and became largely ignorant to those times.
Our system is still largely inspired from these primitive western ways. After gaining independence, India has made giant strides to make its population literate, these efforts considering those circumstances are commendable. However, with the advent of technological revolutions we can clearly see yet another revolution in the background. Let us be prepared this time around. Understanding our roots and analysing the circumstances that led us here are important in the process.
In the coming weeks, we shall travel back in time and explore those philosophies, concepts and systems that have long been forgotten and left behind. We will dive deep into concepts like Nyaya Shastra and Arundathi Nyaya, explore the philosophies of existence in Vedanta and try to imbibe the concept of reality and consciousness as set forth by great scholars like Ashtavakra and Shankaracharya. Understand the importance of gatekeepers in the great Nalanda University. We shall also look closely into where the system went wrong, got corrupted in itself and led to grand scales of injustice. Furthermore, we will also discuss the future, the implications of Artificial Intelligence on Education and how redundancy will lead to realisation.
By Bharath Nair