The Politics of Education
Everything is political. Even an apolitical stance actually makes a political statement — that you’re privileged or apathetic enough to take such a stance.
There is dictatorship in democracy. It is the invisible order that sustains our apparent freedoms.
— Slavoj Žižek
In this article I will extend this to the domain of education. I will provide examples of how the various components of the school system are political. I hope to show you that the system is designed in a way that ensures that the power structures and social hierarchies are maintained. That those without privilege always get the short end of the stick under the garb of “inclusion” and “equality”.
I will not talk about why the design is this way or what should be done to change it, if at all. I leave that unto the reader as an exercise.
Who gets representation in the textbooks and who doesn’t? Which topics get detailed descriptions and which ones only get a casual mention? What language are the books printed in? Do the books become available at the beginning of the school year or not?
- Most literature in textbooks is written by upper caste men, where are the women and lower caste folks? Did they never write anything worth including in a textbook?
- Are tribal languages not important enough for printing in? Why does a budget constraint magically appear when books have to be made available to marginalised communities?
Whose knowledge is considered worth teaching? What skills and attitudes get primacy? What social groups do the curriculum developers represent? Does the curriculum prepare the learner for the future or does it make “walking encyclopedias of outdated information” out of them?
- Why are only Greek philosophers talked about? Are Asian philosophers not good enough? Do African philosophers not exist?
- Why is learning how to write a letter to the editor more important than learning to fix simple plumbing issues?
What parts of the syllabus do the exams prioritise? What behaviours do they promote? How is mugging up information only to puke it on a sheet of paper going to help a student acquire “21st century skills”? Why does the exam never ask for the learner’s opinion? Why is the learner expected to memorise other people’s opinions only?
- In an exam-driven system, should the examination bodies be held responsible for causing mental distress?
- By holding an examination on a Friday afternoon, the authorities automatically create a disadvantage for Muslim students.
Who sits where? Who is allowed to speak (more)? Who gets called by casteist/ableist slurs? Whose actions are praised and whose are reprimanded?
- Why is the upper caste kid allowed to sit on the bench and the lower caste kid made to sit on the floor?
- When you don’t do the homework you get beaten up, but when the “smart kid” forgets to do it, s/he is forgiven because “mistakes happen” — double standards much?
What caste/ideology do they represent? Who gets more “awards” and who gets more student appreciation? Who rises to the top? Who gets to be part of the textbook writing committee?
- Over two-thirds of teachers are women, but nearly all supervisors and administrators are men — why?
- In administrative meetings, why does the one upper caste male get to speak more than the more experienced females?
The school infrastructure
Does the architecture cater to the needs of the disabled? Does it perpetuate a caste/class divide? Are there caste-based water points? What is the quality of the toilets? Do the infrastructural facilities change depending on the socio-economic setting of the school?
- Why does the urban school get a computer lab but a rural one does not? Why do they generally have better facilities than rural schools?
- Why is supporting disability always an afterthought in building construction and never the guiding norm?
Why is there never any equipment for left-handed students? This one is personal.
The employee norms
What employee norms are exclusionary in nature? Does the employer design the norms in a way so that the employees remain subservient? Why only maternity and no paternity leave? Why are delayed salaries and unpaid benefits “normal”?
- Why are teachers not allowed to unionise? Matter of fact, why isn’t anyone allowed to unionise?
- Why are teachers punished for the crimes of the administrators? How can a teacher be expected to cover 250 days of curriculum in only 180 days of actual school teaching?
The rules and expectations
What ‘normal’ expectations are actually exclusionary in nature? Is the design of the education system meant to create free-thinking individuals or unquestioning workers?
- Why are children expected to come to school everyday when it is imperative for them to help out at home or in the fields in order for their family to survive?
- Why should everyone get an education when it is the educated people who commit greater crimes than the uneducated ones? An uneducated street urchin would probably steal someone’s car but an educated investment banker will make millions of dollars by avoiding taxes using a shell company.
I am sure I missed a lot of things in this list. I particularly did not talk about the administrative/government end of things — that was on purpose.
Please do leave a comment or send me an email (contact at this domain) if you’ve got something to add! Or just say hi!
If you would like to read/watch more on this topic, I recommend the following resources. In order of recommendation –
- [Video] The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Žižek: Watch as Žižek illustrates the “unspoken order” of our apparent freedoms — ideology. It is only 5 minutes long and will quite possibly change how you view the world.
- [Book] The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India by G. N. Devy: This book is a distilled version of Devy’s epistemological ideas. Perfect for learning how ‘Whose Knowledge is Knowledge?’ plays out in India.
- [Book] Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner: “A no-holds-barred assault on outdated teaching methods — with dramatic & practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world.” This book was published in 1968 but unfortunately it is still relevant today. If you are involved in teaching in any form, read this.
- [Book] Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire: Absolute classic. It is a dense text and requires some background but should blow your mind every few paragraphs. Consider this quote – ‘to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.’
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