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” 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”.
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.
 All quotes from Illich refer to Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
 'Unequal Education and the Reproduction of the Social Division of Labour' by Samuel Bowles