Home/ Opinion / Education is always political

Galileo was pronounced “vehemently suspect of heresy" by the Church in 1632 and lived the last nine years of his life under house arrest, for his espousal of heliocentrism. Curiously, Copernican heliocentrism had been used by Pope Gregory himself in 1582 to alter his eponymous calendar. This schizophrenic behaviour of the Church can be substantially explained by its assessment that Galileo’s espousal questioned the authority of the Church to decide what was true. This blow at the basis of the then political order had to be crushed—while Copernican calculations as a tool to change the calendar were perfectly acceptable.

Most certainly such heretical ideas had no place in schools and universities; the Church controlled that well. In fact, over the next two centuries, the Protestant and the Catholic churches and their institutions often vied for the claim of being more geocentric than the other. It’s only by the 19th century that geocentrism withered away from the curriculum in schools.

Let’s not fool ourselves that such things are memories of an “unscientific" past. As one example, all world maps that schools use (and Google uses) are wrong, and they feed Eurocentrism. The subtle nudge is in the choice of placing Europe at the centre of the world, but what is egregiously wrong is the relative proportions of the countries and continents. The geographies of “the North"—Europe and North America—are represented ludicrously bigger than they are; the 48 million sq km of “the North" is shown to be bigger than the 94 million square kilometer of “the South". Open a map and look at these remarkable distortions: in reality, South America is about twice the size of Europe but shown to be equal, Greenland looks bigger than China but is actually one-fourth, and the Nordic countries look bigger than India but are actually one-third.

Even matters of the physical world are learnt and taught in schools often on the basis of political values and choices. These may be very deliberate choices, like the Church on heliocentrism or unthinking espousal as in the case of the Eurocentrism in the maps.

Let’s take another example from economics. Textbooks in economics from the 1960s and ’70s in India would be full of the virtues of central planning and arcane details of the Mahalanobis model, which seems very strange today. Equally strange are today’s economics text books, which are influenced by market fundamentalism and dominated by the idealized rationality-individualism-equilibrium nexus, which exists only in these books; this stuff is as disconnected from reality as was the planning model. What must we know in economics to say that we know economics is a substantially political and not a purely epistemic issue?

The content of education in any society is politically influenced. This political influence operates at both levels: to accept what is “true knowledge" (for instance, the planning model versus market theory) and to choose “worthwhile knowledge" that finds place in the curriculum from the universal set of “knowledge". I have deliberately taken examples from areas which are not usually referred to when discussing how politics determines the content of education, while in certain subjects and areas, this issue is well-known—say, in the content of history and sociology, in the treatment of matters of gender and caste.

The processes and practices of education are as political as the content. What is the language of the medium of instruction? Who all do we include in education? If we want universal equitable education, how do we make it happen? Do we think “merit" takes precedence over affirmative action? Do the pedagogical approaches adequately factor for the diversity in the class? Every one of these questions, and many more which determine education, are political in nature.

Even more political than the content and processes of education are the aims of education. Education that aims to develop autonomous, critical thinking individuals and to help develop a just and democratic society is sharply political. And as sharply political would be education that aims to develop individuals who are not questioning but conforming to some existing order. In fact, the aims of education shape the processes and content of education, including significantly determining their political tilt.

Views from the extremes, both the left and the right, regarding the recent happenings in some university campuses, have been unsurprising. Ugly, unethical politics anywhere must be condemned. But what has been surprising is a view stated by some which amounts to “there must be no politics in educational institutions". This view reflects either a very naïve understanding of education or an insidiously political (even if unconscious) choice. And that choice is for education to aim to develop people who do not engage with the most important issues around them, do not question and do not think for themselves. This amounts to deep politics in education of a kind that must be rejected.

We need education that energizes our democracy and builds an India as envisioned in the Constitution by developing the abilities of students to think and contribute as autonomous individuals; this education is certainly political. One way or the other, all education is political.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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Updated: 17 Mar 2016, 12:19 AM IST
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