Education, Development, and Change
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Education and Social Awareness

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 23 Nov, 2009



If the schools are convinced that junk food is not good for the students they should not house such outlets on campus.—File

One of the goals of education is social awareness: a better understanding of society and the knowledge of available alternatives.
The notion of development usually linked to education should, according to Amartya Sen, promise different kinds of freedoms including the freedom of choice.
A prerequisite to this freedom is awareness of the alternatives and a sceptical attitude to that which is taken for granted. I’ll focus here on the inability of our educational institutions to create social awareness about the culture of fast food which is being resisted in various countries including India.
In Pakistan the fast food culture is not very old. In the last decade some multinational food chains have opened up their outlets in all the big cities of Pakistan. These chains sell a variety of burgers, fries and desserts.
A number of research studies suggest that fast food has hazardous effects on the human body, with obesity leading to serious illnesses. Similarly there are soft drinks that are injurious to health.
According to Vandana Shiva, a famous environmentalist from India, the society that shifted to fast food culture has developed health problems. She suggests that ‘Singapore is having to set up new obesity clinics, Japan has had a 70 per cent increase in food-related illnesses.’
Similarly the popular soft drinks patronised by multinational companies have artificial colouring and taste and additives which are not good for health and frequent use of them can lead to serious health problems.
Apart from the other harmful components of fast food mentioned by some research studies, another consequence highlighted by researchers is addiction. Fast food eaters do not find any taste in pure food items.
The majority of people who fall prey to the fast food culture are youngsters. Even very young children are addicted to soft drinks and processed milk available in packs. They find pure milk smelly and tasteless.
This impression is further enhanced by the onslaught of the print and electronic media where pure milk is linked with bad smell, dirt and disease. Some adverts aim at convincing customers through fear.
One ad of a certain brand of milk paints a threatening scenario and then offers itself as a saviour. These ads are run so frequently that young children’s and their mothers’ opinions are formed by these ads.
The excessive media campaign replaces individual choice with corporate logic in a subtle way. This is done so skillfully that a stage comes when people start considering their own food as inferior and accept the imposed food as their own choice.
This state of mind can be explained through the Gramscian notion of ‘cultural hegemony’ through ‘spontaneous consent’. Food is an important item of culture. Thus fast food items are not only impacting the health and local economy in a negative manner but are removing people from their own soil and society and ultimately their own identity.
The fast food culture, which in Third World countries is linked with the elite class, represents the so-called elite culture. Thus a section of our population goes to multinational food chains as they symbolise a certain elite culture and by sitting at those places there is a hidden desire to be part of that class.
An interesting but meaningful term that has been coined in Pakistan for elite families is ‘burger families’. Such terms and attitudes are a direct outcome of the fast food culture.
All this is made possible through the media power that plays a vital role in the construction of a certain kind of social reality that favours the interest of the corporation. Each corporation has many funds for media campaigns.
The sad part of it, however, is that with the help of the media pure food items are denigrated and artificially processed items are offered as the only alternative.
Multinational food chains are exploiting indigenous resources, changing the eating habits of the local people, impacting the local economy negatively and maximising their own profits.
The role of educational institutions in creating awareness among their students is not satisfactory. A number of big educational institutions are in fact advocating and promoting fast food items by housing the outlets of these items on campus.
In return they get monetary benefits in the shape of a building facility or provision of furniture, etc. In this way these fast food items and beverages get the validation of another social institution, the school/college/university. This validation is important as it further legitimises the social reality already constructed by the media.
The role of schools in creating awareness about food and eating habits is very important. It should be a part of the educational agenda of social awareness. If the schools are convinced that junk food is not good for the students they should not house such outlets on campus.
The schools need to organise seminars to share with the students the impact of different fast food items that contain harmful ingredients.
The students should also be told about pure food items and their impact on the body. These seminars could be conducted by doctors, nutritionists or environmentalists. Such awareness campaigns should be a part of the school curriculum as education is not just about getting a certificate but also creating greater social awareness and enhanced freedom of choice.
The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.
shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com