Joining the talk on Higher Education

SISYPHUS OR PROMETHEUS?
(AN ESSAY ON HIGHER EDUCATION)

Higher Education Means What?
Recently on old friend had finalised the marriage of his daughter. The boy was a software chap working in a top computer magazine; his parents were educated, well-off bankers; the boy and the girl were in love; everything was okay. Yet my friend was not truly happy. On my repeated questioning and after much hesitation, he blurted out the reason.

“The boy has not read, and will never read, even a shred of Darwin, or Shakespeare , or Marx. Somehow, this makes me wonder………”

I understood. If it were my daughter I too would have felt the same.

And this heartbreak is perhaps the best salient from which one can look at higher education. Setting aside for the moment the usual two-dimensional academic discourse on higher education, let us hold it aloft in an ideal gaze. If we were truly powerful gods, what kind of boys and girls would we want our children to become after getting higher education? If a metallurgist, would we not also want them to have a deep appreciation of Dickens and Darwin? If a scriptwriter, would we not also want them to have a sense of shifts in qualities of elements in the Periodic Table brought about by quantities of subatomic particle? Would we not want them to be familiar both with music and particle physics ? Should not every boy or girl, lucky enough to have got higher education in this bedraggled country and the world, be aware of “everything” mankind has learnt so far?

The answer is, obviously “yes, yes, if only it were possible!” Today’s state-of-art of wisdom on education says it is not possible.

To teach “everything”, think of the number of “disciplines” that would need to be taught! Physics, chemistry, mathematics, botany, zoology, anthropology, archeology, geography, history, economics, linguistics, sociology, music, commerce, cinema,… it is an ever increasing list. “Everything” is very large indeed.

Then, there will be the question of how many “textbooks” will be needed to teach “everything”. Then, each textbook will need to be broken down into how many chapters for each textbook. Then, there will be the question of how many classes each chapter would need to be transacted by the teacher. Then, how many exams, how many teachers, how many schools, how many years of education, and so on. Clearly, “everything” is impossible to be taught.

How did his impossible situation arise?

How Did We Get Here?
After the newly emerging educational needs unleashed by Europe’s global colonizing projects from 15th century AD onwards overwhelmed the capacities of the limited educational centres of the enclosed feudal fiefdoms in the form of Church’s seminaries and monasteries, the new and rapidly expanding needs of the burgeoning mercantile capitalism created new educational supply – centres in the form of “universities”. Suddenly Europe was needing and finding too much new knowledge, so much so that a new secular intellectual space was discovered in the same project in which Europe discovered the vast planetary sphere as also its own ancient forgotten past. Most of the European universities were started in this maelstorm, and their “departments” increased rapidly and haphazardly, driven by needs of the chaotic “New Age”. Note the naiveté and audacity in using the word “universe” for its new educational centres !

Conversely, in the colonized societies like India’s with their own moribund feudal structures of social reproduction, including educational ones, clustered around their own courts and churches, the new elites created by colonizing mercantile interests imitated the colonizing powers and set up their own universities for the new, albeit colonized, needs suddenly discovered. The manner of this whole global upheaval was of suddenness and rapidity of the change; and the keynote was: ‘voyages of discovery’ – geographical, scientific, and artistic.

The Eurocentric vision of human history named it “renaissance”, although now with a truly global historiography being at hand it can be seen as European “naissance” mediated by Islamic Arab expansion into Europe. The colonized “old world” of Asia, Africa and Latin America, in turn, was dislocated from its own autonomous march of history and converted into dependant mulatto societies – racially, economically, and culturally.

In this whole transition of 500 years two important changes took place: one was the tearing apart of the centuries-old closed, “complete”, world-view of the religions vision into a jumble of new, partial, and expanding glimpses of reality; and the other was the origin of new classes of people deployed in the work of the new disciplines of education – classes freed from traditional limited agriculture of feudal times.

The newly launched New Age had barely paused for its first breath, and it was further thrust forward by the industrial revolution of maturing capitalism in the 19th century. The scale of social changes became a thousand – fold vaster, deeper, faster. Vast masses were uprooted from agriculture of the countryside and forced to migrate into industrial cities; international trade not national needs, started deciding the economies of nations; new wealth, new needs and new products were now made available – with the whole planet becoming both a resource base as also a market. All this was for the dominant European societies. The colonized old world with its mulattoeised generations became large enough markets in themselves in the 20th century to produce their own nationalist impulses imitating Europe; its elites worked for, and got, national “independence” from colonial masters while staying within the new global embrace of mature capitalism of the 20th century.

In the social sphere all this was in the form of enormous migrations and uprooting, destruction of traditional communities and faiths, and genocidal wars on a planetary scale – “world” wars – never imagined before in history.

All these changes demanded unprecedented services from the educational systems of nations. The district – level school systems and the universities established by most nations during European naissance were quickly overrun by the exploding demands of the 19th century. The proliferating economic forces demanded a similarly attuned system of production of knowledge and also its quick and thorough transmission into society; in other words, the patterns of research and teaching had to be radically changed. The leisurely happy coincidence of Galileo’s inventions and the needs of his municipal govt was no longer a workable model! So, parallel to the school systems, national networks of polytechnics/gymnasiums were set up for the newly emerging working classes needed by mechanized industries, but which were not destined for “higher” education of the universities. The demise of the hope of universal education (with the possibility of education of “everything that there is to know”) – the hope generated by European naissance – had clearly begun. Surely polytechnics could not waste time teaching Shakespeare!

So, how to proceed? The matter was posed as the generalist versus specialist streams of education after the world war II at the basis of which was the C.P. Snow-F.R. Levis debate. Snow was the pointman for specialist worldview while Leavis batted for the liberal or the generalist vision. The debate was never resolved – as a debate , but it was resolved in action and in an unspoken education policy by the dominant white Anglo-Saxon society. The policy simply divided the society into a segment which will be given the liberal generalist education and other strata to be imparted specialist education.

There are three new dimensions to the just described process as we enter the 21st century – also called “modernization project” of Europe and its adjunct colonized world – which are yet to be well appreciated.

Inner Character of the World Today
First, all these stupendous social, economic and cultural processes, which actually gave birth to the idea and then reality of nations as societal forms, were in the main driven by military actions on an historically unprecedented scale. Military manoeuvres, machines, and men deployed were unimaginably huge, so much so that since the onset of the 20th century the global economy indeed rests on the fundamental substratum of military-based industries -other industries have a supportive or subsidiary position. Global GDP is military driven.

Second, since the Marshal Plan of redevelopment of Europe in general, and the Vietnam war ending in 1975 in particular, the global economy has been seeing a rapid process of amalgamations and mergers among large transnational companies in all sectors; so much so that in 21st century in most important sectors of economy such as food, petroleum, electricity, automobiles, aviation, electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and media the global business is controlled by oligarchies or cartels of no more than half-dozen companies in each sector, mostly based in USA. Such monopolies were unimaginable only half a century ago. And, interestingly, the average capacity utilization of each of such half-dozen companies, in most sectors, is not more than 33% – 35%. In other words, today the global economy, no longer competitive, is in the grip of gigantic monopolistic concentrations while their productive capacity is barely utilized because of poor purchasing power of mankind it seeks to serve. A shocking denouement to human progress indeed!

Third, there has been a fundamental sea-change in the character of global financial system, particularly after USA delinked US dollar from gold in 1971. In human history so far nations needed currency of another nation in order to buy goods from that nation – in other words, for global trade, as our good old textbooks taught us. Global trade included trade in currencies themselves, because different currencies had different purchasing powers being backed by different national economic strengths. But since 1971 global currencies are backed by nothing, and yet trade in foreign exchange has expanded many thousand-fold to a situation where only 1% – 2% of forex trade is related to import-export of goods and services – the rest of 98% is pure speculation. A similar thing has happened to shares/debentures, real-estate, metals-minerals, and commodities, including food. This overwhelmingly speculative character of global financial system, variously called “casino finance”, “soufflé finance”, etc, which smothers the “real economy” and which demands and gets complete autonomy from all national financial systems and authorities today determines the continuance or collapse of the world’s economic linkages. A “crash” today would dwarf the “great depression” of 1920s many thousand times. In this system today only about 10% of world population has the fruits of civilization (in G-8 nations), the rest, struggle to just survive each day.

This condensed reality check was, alas, necessary because most of the academic discourse on education usually leaves it out and ponders solely on syllabi, pedagogy, etc as if these existed in some Arcadian pure space, like Kant’s things in-themselves or Plato’s pure ideas. That is why we have had much irrelevant education. Let us recall the long laments about “unemployed and unemployable graduates”!

Settings for Education Today
We have gone into some detail of the European modernization in order to set out the web of real forces running and transforming our world, a web into which the web of education system has to be embedded. This is the real world we live in and this is the setting in which “everything” has to be imparted to our children!

Now let us turn to the question of how to reorder education in this real and daunting world as we have made it, keeping in mind our initial desire that every child of this world ought to be taught “everything”.

The first thing that is obvious to the simplest common sense is that against the face of stark inequalities in the global society and where these inequalities are growing starker, every child cannot be given equal education without reordering the world itself fundamentally. Here is our first and most basic challenge; a challenge to which we have so far conceded defeat – we have accepted the inevitability of some children getting “higher” education, some “in-between”, and most others “lower” education. So our initial premise of providing higher education immediately is shown up as an elite issue. The education for the poor, the less-poor, and the rich are given camouflage names variously, such as “elementary”, “secondary”, and “higher” educations, which fool nobody but work as a salve for the sensitive conscience of educationists.

Next comes the inevitable questions of syllabi, curriculum, and pedagogy. And here is our second, but equally profound casually. The poor will spend their lives eking out a living, frankly, so why burden them with Wordsworth? This argument seems to make sense. So goes overboard the ideal of providing common education to all children. And therefore are created differentiated educational systems, separately for the masses and for the elites, and some low-cost versions of elite system for the strata of “middle classes” – giving us in the process our government schools and public schools, with some bits of trust/missionary schools in between. Now in the great public schools of the world (Eton/Rugby in UK, Doon/ Sanawar in India, e.g.) the elite’s children are being indeed for a long time provided with very good education on “everything”, as is well known – these children today continue as before to grow up to provide the governmental or corporate “steel-frame” to their nations. Problem is , of course in the government schools. Most global governments have by the 21st century somehow acquired some or the other sort of democratic plumage, and like all governments in history so far they speak in the name of “nation” but actually work for the interests of the elites. Therefore the government school system for the classes continue to have shoddy syllabi, curriculums, teachers, school buildings, in short everything, despite the well-meaning efforts of many idealistic “education activists” who continue to dream of bypassing or, defeating the abiding curses of class-divisions by their “creative” or “innovative” modes of doing education. Therefore the first and also the foremost task is to rescue educational resources from the clutches of the elites and make them universal in reality. Daunting? Yes, but this is inescapable. Always was.

The second consequence of note in the prevailing situation is that research agendas of our societies are not only set by the military economic objectives , which was always the case , but their urgency and timing are sharply determined by the strategic military calculus of the national elites. Search for knowledge can no longer wait for the Newtonian apple to fall from the tree. This too is understandable, since the engines of social investment and reproduction are closely driven by elitist war needs. Be that as it may, but this has actually dealt the university system a death blow which is still being played out. Universities were supposed to be unified sites of research and teaching or, in other words the social mechanisms of creation and dissemination of necessary knowledge, and agendas of research were supposed to be set by the amorphous cognition of “universal” social necessities. But by the early decades of the 20th century this arrangement was being actively undermined by the urgent military impulses of colonization. It is worthwhile to remember that Einstein and Lenard discovered photo electricity for their Nobel Prize while working on military research on metal armour – plating. In the second half of that century which was notably blank for fundamental scientific discoveries (but that is another story) the only worthwhile milestone of discovery of double-helical structure of DNA molecule was done albeit within university systems but as a side byproduct of a research project on tobacco virus.

By the end of 20th century the military-industrial complexes of the world had outgrown the potentials of the university system, and most of the world’s frontier research work was being carried out in a parallel network of specialized “research institutes” or in university departments completely funded and controlled by it. By today the original idea of university research by agendas of social osmosis is either defunct or is devoted to secondary and derivative research agendas except in social sciences of no interest to military strategy. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. This is nothing but further articulation of the ongoing social division of labour started by Paleolithic man when he learnt to make tools from stones. For our present discussion the main consequence of this is that teachers are now expected to be disseminators of knowledge not its creators. There is no shame in this separation and reinterpretation of teacher’s role as a newer class of social labour. Individuals can of course shift back and forth between research and teaching, but this will be rare and exceptional now. This changed function is yet to seep in, and a new self-perception of universities` new role as purely teaching sites is yet to be imbibed universally. Sober and efficient and even creative realization of this changed role of higher education is yet to become policy.

And this brings us to the third consequence. As noted earlier the idea of universities originating in the freshly created secular space away from religious monasteries was in fact a practical expression of the scientific spirit born during European naissance. The later impetus of colonial conquests to sciences gave rise to merchantile global capitalism which was further transformed later into full-blown industrial capitalism in the 19th century. In all this, scientific temper and spirit had come to acquire the status of civilizational zeitgeist, and its central character has been taken for granted till the end of 20th century. But now this is changing decisively.

As noted earlier because of large installed capacities and suboptimal capacity – utilization most transnational corporations for last about 20 years have been incurring “operating losses”, i.e., loss from actual operations. To stay afloat, in many senses, since the 1980s they have created for themselves a global derivative casino world of real and virtual financial markets. From investments and disinvestments in this market of shares, currencies, commodities, and derivative mathematical instruments corresponding to each of these, “other incomes” are generated for their balance sheets. A whole new global professional class of asset-managers and investment accountants – comprising of even Nobel Laureates – has been created to manage these virtual profits. Okay. In this profoundly new scenario – unknown to most university professors of the world – science is no longer the main source of profit, speculation is, This is the underlying cause of “retreat from reason” noted by many commentators, of the recrudescence of medieval superstitions and crusaderisms; of positing of “civilizational conflicts” as national foreign policies; of serious attempts to pose divine “creationism” in the place of science; of racism; of fascism; of fundamentalism.

Many of us had forgotten that the home- base of scientific spirit is not in the classrooms or laboratories, but in the fields and factories of economic activities. So, what will our higher education systems teach? Mostly financial speculation, as may be seen by an increasingly large and sophisticated network of “management institutes” flourishing around the world – completely bypassing the universities . In short, the dethronement of scientific spirit by the regressive stage of capitalism, has profound implications for policy makers of higher education, even thinking about which is mindboggling today. The very idea of progress itself has now become upside down. How do we plan higher education for a retreating civilization?

The fourth consequence is the inversion of social philosophy and policy about who “pays” for education. During the last 25 years the continuous barrage of the bogus but reasonable-sounding phrase “user pays” has been the anthem of the economic gurus. Applied to private goods this principle makes eminent sense. But the corporate global oligarchy has been on the one hand cheaply appropriating in the name of “growth” public goods like land, water, air, education, healthcare for its private profits, while on the other hand has been propagating that its customers should pay up profitable “user-charges”. National governments have colluded in accepting this double-whammy. Who will point out that in the original idea of public goods, the central idea of “goods” was that water, air, education, health, etc are not items of private consumption but are actually socially productive collective investments- everybody benefits, not just the “consumer”.

This inversion of the sound idea of education – like health, water, air, etc – as a public good is sapping investment in it. This is why the Indian govt, for example, keeps dithering for years about the current Education Bill citing lack of money, while for the stock market crash of 2008 it comes up with a revival “package” of Rs. 60,000/- Crores within a week! This socially suicidal world-view of user-charges is the first citadel to be stormed by activists for education on the way to other battles.

And finally, let us pause and take a look at the state of the world today. What do we see? After 500 years of Enlightenment and Progress and Growth three fourths of the humanity does not have food, sanitation, housing, health, education, and employment. Capitalism, communism and other utopias have come and gone. Hope is nearly lost. Mankind is 6 billion people, of which 5 billion are whirling in a seething, roiling, turmoil every day. These are not tamed docile people of the feudal epoch, cowering in age old sadnesses and hymns. Now bombs are exploding, youth are drowned in drugs, crimes are national policies. Seething chaos is the character of everyday experience. This global and historically unprecedented tumult of hope and frustration is the real setting in which education, including higher education, is to happen. Let us therefore configure and layout education accordingly.

I go back to my friend I started with, and ask, “Is education possible at all?” He shrugs, with despair and wonder.

Our baggage is , despite everything , actually more than despair and wonder. It has become an overused platitude that the night is darkest before dawn. But, soberly speaking, it so happens that we somehow have managed the Mongols, the Plagues & Famines, and the Firangis. So we might come through yet. A thinker on education advocated a Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was right, of course. Now, eighty years later, he might well be calling for a Pedagogy of the Rebellious. This modest essay, albeit only in bold strokes, is an attempt to outline the reality – check settings for constructing such a pedagogy.

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About ctaposh

Cartoonist, poet, social activist, development banker, documentary filmmaker, reader of books and realities, ponderer of questions milling around.
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