Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Education and Social Justice

by Dr. Shahid Siddiqui
South Asia Magazine,October, 2010
The notion of social justice has multiple interpretations. An oversimplification of the term is the execution of justice at societal level. A more radical interpretation would be a just society where people have equal opportunities to exercise their freedoms and where there is no discrimination in the provision of justice on the count of social class, gender, disability, ethnicity, color, and religion. The role of education in realizing the objective of social justice is vital. It is education that empowers human beings to achieve the goals of socio-economic development, emancipation, and social justice. Unfortunately education, instead of minimizing the socio-economic disparities, is further widening the disparities. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu education is instrumental in perpetuating the social structures ridden with inequalities.
One of the important objectives of education is to reduce the economic differences in a society. This can be realized through appropriate provision of resources to diffident strata of life. The social justice approach recommends that disadvantaged groups should be provided with more resources to compensate for their past deprivations. If we look at the situation in South Asia we see a staggering number of stratifications in the domain of education. Realizing the potent linkage between education and life chances the dominant groups in society always tried to deprive the marginalized groups of education. Historically education as a right was denied to the groups on the pretexts of race, gender, class and religion. For a very long time, for instance, Blacks were not entitled to get education. This deprivation from education led to their economic poverty and impacted negatively their image in the society. It is important to note that the impact of education is not just confined to the individual's job, but it affects one's recognition, status, respect, and ultimately influence in a society. Thus less economic resources may lead to educational marginalization which in turn leads to less life chances.

Educational marginalization is not just confined to cast and color. We see a clear educational apartheid on gender basis. This can be understood from our South Asian experience where women were not supposed to go to schools only a few decades before. Their role, as was confined to home keeping. The early initiatives in women education paved the way for primary education for women. For a long time it was considered appropriate that women should not go beyond primary education. Now that we have come a long way in terms of expansion in women education we still find that women, even after getting higher education, cannot make use of education for personal and societal development in terms of economy. A large number of women in Pakistan still cannot take up or sustain their jobs under the pressure of their husbands or in laws.

Another factor that becomes the basis of educational inequality is the social class. The elite class has their own schools whose fees and related expenses are phenomenal and poor people cannot even think of sending their children to such schools. The stratification is much varied and broad. There are posh elite English medium schools, public schools, forces schools, cadet colleges, madrassahs etc. The difference is not just in nomenclature but they are segregated in many important ways, e.g., infrastructure, curriculum, textbooks, faculty, physical facilities, etc. The buildings of posh rich schools are purpose built and well maintained, there are appropriate arrangements of cooling and heating in summer and winter, the faculty members are well qualified, the curriculum is very competitive, the textbooks are well written and printed in an attractive layout with quality paper. These schools select students after detailed interviews of students and parents. Thus students who get into such schools are already advantaged as they come from a strong socio-economic background. The other extreme is the mainstream public schools where physical facilities are lacking, curricula are outdated, textbooks are boring and are printed in an unattractive manner on poor quality paper. The faculty members are underpaid and thus demotivated. The classes are overcrowded. Most of the students who come to public schools come from modest socio-economic backgrounds. One can find a huge difference in the quality of education between public schools and elite schools. Thus our schools are engaged in not only preserving the socio-political power structures, based on inequalities, but they are further widening the chasm between the haves and have nots.SpecialReport3-2

We see a lot of discussion about quality in education but generally quality has been confined to ivory towers of elite schools where only a selected few can send their children. If education is a basic human right each individual should be entitled to get quality education. According to World Bank report, "By equity we mean that individuals should have equal opportunities to pursue a life of their choosing and be spared from extreme deprivation in outcomes. "

The notion of social justice is ironically synchronized with the terms efficiency, productivity, globalization, monitoring and accountability. Since these terms come from powerful organization, they are considered as undeniable truths and education system, in order to achieve the corporate version of social justice, is producing mono-culture minds through its offering of certain subjects, mechanical pedagogy, insensitive assessment practices and highly quantitative evaluation system. Let me briefly explain these points. At national level it is considered that showing enhanced literacy numbers is the panacea for all educational ills. The decision makers tend to forget that their notion of literacy is based on purely functional aspects of literacy where reflection and critical thinking have no space to exist.

Such education can produce efficient and productive workers but not thinking human beings. Consequently our schools, instead of reducing the gaps of economic disparity and social injustice are further widening the gaps. Education which should be a precursor to emancipation, freedom, and social justice is engaged in further stratification of society. The rich/poor divide is becoming sharper and more obvious in terms of access. The ‘quality education' seems to be out of the reach of the poor. The state seems to have given up and has passed the buck to the private sector. The contemporary education imparted in mainstream schools is perpetuating the existing power structures and the dream of social justice is becoming more distant. This dream, however, could be realized through an educational system which is live, vibrant, and relevant, prepares its students, not merely as efficient and productive technicians, but as thinking and responsible citizens of the society. Such educational system is based on equal opportunities, mutual respect, and recognition of each individual.

In the current educational scenario where the rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming poorer it is important that we should be focusing on the question of equality. There is a need to work for reducing the physical and academic differences between the elite schools and mainstream public schools. Enhanced funding, more physical facilities, better management, and effective accountability are some areas that need attention of public schools. Since education, like health, is the responsibility of state, our education policy, which is due this month, should be addressing the issue of the provision of equal educational opportunities. This also means giving extra help, facilities, and encouragement to the down trodden to enhance their life chances. It is only through quality education that the have nots can get recognition, respect, and power to influence decision making. SA

The writer is Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics 
E-mail: shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com