Falling for the popular
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The textbook case for succumbing to popular opinion is slaves and plebeians being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome. In fact, this was so popular that thousands would gather to see the gory spectacle. Closer home, the barbaric sentences pronounced by some khap panchayats have popular sanction of the community. Does popular opinion justify these brutal actions? Cultural relativists may explain these things, but even they would agree that these actions are morally and ethically wrong.
If the popular vote were to elect Donald Trump to the office of the president of the US, would it be good for the US and the world? This issue may not be as clear cut, but it does swing heavily on one side. Without even a hint of comparison to Trump, we cannot forget that Hitler was carried to power by popular vote.
According to the vastly popular view and practice in the 1970s, propitiating the goddess Shitala Mata was the cure for smallpox. If that majority view had guided our actions, this horror would not have been eradicated. Unsurprisingly, popular opinion has not been sought on how to cure and contain Ebola or Zika.
The simple point is that the majority view on what actions we must take is not always right, nor is it always for the good. Popular views or aggregated individual choices are quite inadequate in situations with three basic dynamics: requiring moral reasoning, requiring substantial knowledge and expertise and requiring assessment of how to serve the collective public good. This basic matter is one of the most discussed in moral and political philosophy, and in economics. To be sure, in many cases, it is simply the practical issue of uninformed popular opinion and desires in conflict with required expertise. This is a rough sketch of a complex matter; let’s consider its examples in education.
The majority view among parents and teachers is that a little bit of corporal punishment for children is all for the good. Many admit this candidly, and many would hide their views, knowing that corporal punishment is illegal. So, should education give in and sanction mild corporal punishment? The understanding from psychology and neurosciences is quite clear—violence and fear harm learning in children, aside from other kinds of harms. And violence of any kind, certainly physical violence with children, is morally abhorrent.
Charged by the social and economic empowerment that English seems to bestow on its speakers, there is a widespread view that English should be used as the medium of instruction in schools. This is often cited as the main reason when parents choose to send their children to private schools (however bad they are). So should we use English as the medium of instruction in all our schools? The reality is that the child’s own language is most effective as the medium of instruction in early grades. This is also the prevalent policy. This doesn’t mean that English cannot be learnt as a language from grade one. It only means that irrespective of the popular desire, using the child’s own language as the medium of instruction is better.
Similarly, it appears that the popular view among parents, administrators and many teachers is to scrap the no-detention policy (NDP) and revert to the examination-driven pass-or-fail method. The NDP and its associated method of assessment, called continuous and comprehensive evaluation, is educationally better in all respects. I have written about this before. Yet, driven by a misunderstanding of how children learn, administrative convenience and a propensity to choose the easier method versus the one that requires more effort (and is more effective), there is a clamour for reintroducing examinations.
So, should we revert to something educationally unsound and psychologically traumatizing for children because of this popular view? The popular view is such on this matter that the totally false claim that NDP is impacting quality detrimentally is being accepted, while the truth is exactly the opposite.
The field of education is especially prone to this conflict between the popular and the right (and the good), because it has all the three basic dynamics for such conflict.
One, education is a field requiring deep expertise, but that is often not recognized. People believe that since they have been educated, they know how to conduct education, much like believing that since someone has gone through a heart surgery, they know how to be a heart surgeon. Two, education is about the individual but it is equally about achieving the collective public good. Three, at its core, education is an ethical-moral endeavour. Every step in education is an ethical-moral choice, often unapparent, and so, more difficult.
However imperfect, through institutionalized political processes, a society must discover its collective will for what it wants from education; that is, what must be the role and aim of education. After that, the conduct of education must be handed over to those people and institutions who have the expertise and the attention to make reasoned, knowledgeable and morally sound choices. This would be the wise thing to do.
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.
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