Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Deschooling Society

School has become a fuzzy entity today. It is confused not only with education, which is a key mistake but also proposed as a solution to a wide spectrum of problems – vandalism, lack of 'culture', backwardness, an ability to read, write and count, lack of a sufficiently 'developed' personality, exploitation and poverty. It is invoked positively by a wide spectrum of people –  on the Left as well as those on the Right, social reformers and university professors, the middle-classes and the corporates and even – sometimes most fanatically – by the poor (or more often, those who claim to speak on the behalf of the poor). Of some people, we say, “Oh! He's basically a good person”. School is like that – it is “basically good” and therefore, infinitely improvable. We need better teachers, better buildings, better books, a better curriculum, regular attendance, more money, more discipline, no, more freedom, more Science, easier English, less pressure. But school is good at heart.

To discuss school critically then, we must move away from all the meanings it has come to have and try to define it. Ivan Illich's definition of school as “the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum”[1] will do for now. The definition itself raises questions: Why only children? Is learning (at that age) a result of teaching? What is the effect of full-time attendance on students? Is one obligatory curriculum suitable for everybody?

Childhood appears natural to us now, it is even seen as a something of a right. Shantha Sinha, the chair-person of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights set up in 2007 has repeatedly said in her talks, essays and interviews while working for the now well-known MV Foundation (www.mvfindia.in) that all work is hazardous and harms the child. To quote:

The MVF model...regards every form of work done by children as child labour. It also asserts that in the rural Indian context there is no such thing as an idle non-school going child. Any child not in school will sooner than later is [sic] put to work. In this model there are thus only two categories of children, those who go to work viz. Child labourers and those who go to full time formal day school. This is the genesis of the MVF ‘non-negotiable’ that every child out of school is a child labourer.

MVF believes that every child has a right to childhood and an opportunity to develop to his/her full potential and that every form of work done by a child interferes with this right. Coupled with the understanding that only children who are full time students can be kept away from work it believes that the only way the child’s right to childhood can be fulfilled is by making the child a full time student. In the MVF model therefore, securing to a child his/her right to childhood, elimination of child labour and universalization of education are all a part of the same process.

George-Bush style, Sinha divides us into two camps – with her, or with the child exploiters. She does not even distinguish between work that may be useful, a “learning experience” as fashion has it and child labour. But whatever moral stands Sinha and her ilk may take, childhood like other institutions, has a history.  And one that is closely intertwined with the emergence of capitalism, as Philippe Aries points out in Centuries of Childhood. It is in the increasingly industrial society of the last two centuries that the mass production of 'childhood' became feasible and came within the reach of the masses. This has led to a situation where people whose children do not get their 'right' to childhood feel short-changed; while those who have this 'right' also have the 'duty' to go to school (where they have none of the rights that adults have).

But the central question is: Is learning the result of teaching? This is the axiom of school and institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, most of us, including those who went to elite schools, know that we learnt little from our classes. Yet, because school is “basically good” (or because there seems to be no alternative), its near universal failure in achieving its aims is attributed to one or the other of the common excuses mentioned above.

In fact, even as “knowledge” is regularly invoked, both parents and children know that school has little to do with scholarship. Yet, the question of knowledge or scholarship must be faced. The argument is that in earlier times, there was less knowledge; now, there is so much. Surely, a child needs to be guided through this knowledge. Such a view either criticises the curriculum or the teachers. And yes, we must acknowledge that perhaps scholarship is not possible without some formal structuring; and it is true that universities are now, to some extent, the seats of scholarship even if they are inefficient and unequal. But like other institutions, the school and the university also have a history which, like childhood, is intimately linked with the advance of capitalism. The present form of the school and university in England (the form that India has adopted after independence), the United States and Germany is only some two centuries old.

In a society with greater community and less mobility, the skills that were required to perform a task were virtually unchanged from generation to generation; children learnt them from their parents in the course of their daily activities. There were “great inequalities in wealth, political power and other aspects of status but differences in the degree of autonomy in work were relatively minor, particularly when compared with what was to come”[2].

The school did not have much political power – either it prepared children for the still inconsequential civil service or for a career in the university. But as Illich points out, “...the university protected an individual's freedom of speech, but did not automatically convert his knowledge into wealth. To be a scholar in the Middle Ages meant to be poor, even a beggar.” The extension of capitalist production, particularly the factory system, undermined the role of the community as the major unit of both socialisation and production.

An ideal preparation for factory work was found in the social relations of school – in its emphasis on discipline, punctuality, acceptance of authority outside the family/community and accountability for one's work. The social relations of the school would replicate the social relations of the workplace and help young people adapt to the social division of labour. Moreover, because schooling was ostensibly open to all, one's position in society could be attributed to a lack of talent or application, instead of birth. This is not to say that the connection between mass education and capitalism is as simple portrayed here; nor to say that schools serve exactly the same functions now but simply to show that the modern school-university system comes more out of the needs of capitalism than to facilitate scholarship. The school and university in India today serve various functions – from indoctrination, to incarceration, to providing the middle-classes a justification for their own position and a ladder to climb just a little higher, a provider of ready labour for the corporates (though they are bad at this, as Ivar Berg pointed out even forty years ago; the corporates also regularly moan about the disconnect between the university and the industry), and here and there, more in print than in person now, as a place for the exchange of ideas and scholarship.

So, we question the very axiom on which school rests – that learning is the result of teaching. We must also see that scholarship exists in spite of the usual functioning of the university today and that the connection between schools and scholarship is tenuous.

But the axiom itself is a myth – the modern myth of unending consumption (that is, the more we consume, the better it is and there is no end to this consumption), that process inevitable produces something of value. School teaches us that instruction produces learning; the self-taught man or woman is discredited and non-professional activity is rendered suspect. All our activities then take the shape of client relationships to specialised institutions. We accept service in place of value. To quote Illich again, “medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety...the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of schools, hospitals and other agencies in question.” We can only demand our rights, not question them.  The quantification of values means that we can only be short-changed, never betrayed.


[1]    All quotes from Illich refer to Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich

[2]    'Unequal Education and the Reproduction of the Social Division of Labour' by Samuel Bowles

On the Worker’ Strike at RICO, Gurgaon

A pamphlet by Correspondence.

Ajit Kumar Yadav, a worker in Rico Auto, Gurgaon was murdered by goons of the management. Four other workers were shot at and sixty others sustained injuries.

The management had been evading the workers’ demand to form a union for long. A month back sixteen workers were expelled in this regard and others (all 4,800 of them) were prohibited from working for engaging in ‘illegal activities’. Meanwhile, the management hired around 1,000 goons to prevent workers from coming back to work. In addition to this, the management’s goons, with the supervision of the police, brought around 300 workers from the unorganised sector to resume work in the factory. It should be noted here that these workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the factory and there are reports of torture by the goons. The workers sat in peaceful protest outside the main gate, demanding work and their unionisation. On 19th October the goons attacked the protesting workers and murdered Ajit, shot at four others and injured sixty. In response to this, more than 1,00,000 workers from more than 150 factories in Gurgaon participated in the strike on 20th October.

The Hindu reported the incident on the 19th as ‘a clash between two groups of workers’. Such an explanation begs the question: Why should there be such solidarity amongst the workers if it was a ‘clash between two groups’? Furthermore, both The Hindu and The Times of India have lamented the fact that production has been affected. Whether it is the Maoist question or the incident at Rico, the media turns to the establishment to create a narrative. To understand this aspect of the media we need to locate its position as an industry in the capitalist system. There is a unity of logic that binds the media to the capitalist state. In times of need, notwithstanding their contradictions, all organs of the capitalist state come together as a whole.

This is nothing new. Workers have time and again asserted their right to determine their conditions of work. Workers’ agitation at the Honda factory in 2005 is not a separate incident. It comes from the same strain for self-determination. In Coimbatore, Pricol workers’ demand for the recognition of their unions is met with pressure from the management to withdraw from the road of struggle and sever ties with ‘Marxist-Leninist’/’Maoist’ forces. The unfortunate death of the Vice President of the Human Resources Development of Pricol Ltd in the workers’ agitation has led employers and sections of the corporate media to demand a ban on trade union struggles and advocate labour reforms to give employers a free hand. A single day’s tragic incident is now being deliberately sought to be used to prejudice public opinion against the Pricol workers and suppress the truth of the nearly one thousand days of their united and determined struggle. Similarly, in Gorakhpur three activists and one journalist have been arrested for participation in workers’ demands for implementing labour laws.

When we condemn the war against the Maoists, or express solidarity with people’s struggles anywhere, we see things through the prism of geo-political distance that separates us from them. True solidarity however will not exist unless we realize that though there is a distance separating us, and the forms of struggles that others engage in are not relevant to our own context, the larger questions raised are the same. The struggle for self-determination and true democracy is one of which all of us are a part. A tribal in Chattisgarh faces the state in its most brutal forms, and as we see here, so does the factory worker. And to push it further, the student confronts the same state, may be in a seemingly milder form. Even as the above mentioned events were unfolding elsewhere, a multi-party meeting was organized on 20th October in North Campus to take up the issue of fee-hike in colleges. The struggle is to ensure that we have a say in the decisions that affect us and to make sure that no decision that goes against the students’ interests goes unchallenged. All these are moments of contradictions when the facade of equality and democracy that the state covers itself with is exposed as a facade and nothing more. At these moments it is our task to make sure that the state does not go unchallenged, and that we recognize that each challenge to the state is part of our own larger struggle.