Need to de-school society

EducationWorld September 06 | EducationWorld

Dr. Parth Shah, president of the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society in his entertaining critique of Amartya Sen’s stand on government and State as educator of the masses, wrote that a government which cannot be trusted to produce food (by cultivating fields) surely can’t be trusted to produce education, which entails cultivation of minds. That’s why nobody is willing to pay bribes for admission into government schools. Some private schools extract donations and bribes because the licence-permit raj has blocked supply. Unshackle the enterprise of educationists, and there will be enough private education for all.

Socialists like Sen, who plead for a major role for the State or government in education, do so on two grounds: equity and standards. Both pleas are based on false premises. A state that spends hugely on higher education, leaving little for primary schooling, cannot be said to be serving equity. As predicted by public choice theory (which is still not taught at the ‘elite’ Delhi School of Economics), the education budget is hogged by the middle class and the rich, who consume higher education. The poor, whose children need just a little primary education to get going, get naught. So, the equity argument isn’t valid in the current Indian context.

Next we need to address the standardisation argument. Can you imagine anything worse for the minds of children than bureaucrats approving conditions for the promotion of schools and colleges and even universities, mandating courses and syllabuses, listing ‘approved’ textbooks, fixing tuition fees and doing all the other things standardisers advocate? Will this not lead to the politicisation of knowledge? Will we not create an Orwellian ministry of truth? Like ISO certification, the private sector is quite capable of setting standards, as the privately promoted computer education firm NIIT has proved. But NIIT is still not ‘recognised’ by the Central or state governments.

Contrary to official dogma, education is one area in which there should be experimentation. Young people learn music, sports, dance, art, cooking, driving and computers (outside school) from private entrepreneurs. Thus, there is widespread variety and choice and acceptable standards over which both students and parents have control. Therefore there is negligible teacher absenteeism in such courses.

This is the pointer to the future. If, as Rabindranath Tagore had dreamed, India becomes a country “where knowledge is free”, education would be a competitive enterprise over whose products consumers would exercise complete sovereignty. If poor parents want their children to learn English, as in fact most do, competitive entrepreneurs would sell them short courses, as many are already doing. If they seek other kinds of knowledge, the market economy will step in to provide it, either by studentship or apprenticeships. In such a market economy, a child from a poor family can choose a ‘calling’ and obtain knowledge relevant to that vocation. Specialised in this manner — as a beautician or tattoo artist, electrician, mason, plumber, motor mechanic, receptionist, chef or cartoonist — all poor children can seek honest survival in the urban market economy. They can be ‘rationally ignorant’ about everything else.

To understand ‘rational ignorance’, take for example, a musician. If he is adept at playing his chosen musical instrument, he has no need to learn anything else. If he wants a car, engineers build it for him, a chauffeur drives him around, and mechanics keep it in good repair. If he wants a grand house, architects design it for him, masons build it, and interior designers furnish it aesthetically. If he wants gourmet food, he hires a chef. And so on. As far as the musician is concerned, all he knows is how to play one musical instrument well. About everything else, he is rationally ignorant.

The notion of ‘rational ignorance’, which is the key to understanding how free markets use specialised knowledge, implies that children don’t need to spend long and boring years in school that mete out generalised knowledge. Armed with a pocket calculator and only two R’s, children from every household can begin to chase big dreams. We need to de-school society if we truly have the interests of poor children at heart. Instead, we have submitted, without even a murmur of protest, to the education cess: the state as the ‘cultivator of minds’.

A noted philosopher once remarked: “Whoever is the master of education is the master of mankind.” Our socialist state wants to be the master of education as a means to a much more sinister end — control of our minds.

The situation is critical. It demands that parents wake up to their own responsibilities. A video recording of Pink Floyd’s The Wall about how education is ‘thought control’, should be compulsory viewing. As for compulsory reading, I strongly recommend Prof. James Tooley’s The Enterprise of Education, a 38-page booklet from Liberty Institute, New Delhi, which analyses the Indian experience of state controlled education.

(Sauvik Chakraverti is a journalist and author of Antidote: Essays Against the Socialist Indian State, and its sequel, Antidote 2: For Liberal Governance, both published by Macmillan)

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