In 1985, I wrote “Education and Freedom” in order to inveigh against the Tri-Cameral Parliament and the Department of Indian Education and expose their subservience to the apartheid regime. I began by explaining my understanding of education as the exploration and nurturing of the individual’s interests and capabilities. I still believed then that this could happen in the kind of schools we had and still have and I blamed apartheid for preventing it from happening. I realise now that I had an idealistic notion of school.
Schools, as we know them, are factories based on the principles of the conveyer belt and mass production. And for a time that form of schooling served its purpose. But in today’s world, in which there is a demand for greater specialisation, education as mass production is no longer the answer. The generalised education to which students are still being subjected leads nowhere. When students leave school, they are either forced into more consumption of education at universities or they must find jobs. And there are no jobs for people who have no specialised skills. As machines provide the specialised skills needed in factories and other industries, which used to absorb great numbers of workers, students leaving school today are worse off than people who dropped out of school and apprenticed themselves in various trades where they learnt skills that allow them to earn a living.
People still fight shy of specialisation as they believe it forces one into a fixed slot in society. People still have romantic notions about a rounded education that gives rise to Renaissance Men and Women. But knowledge has increased exponentially and unless one is a genius, the chances of becoming a master of all trades are very slim. Most of us master only one. It is through specialization that one earns the designation of expert. If one studies the lives of the great geniuses of the world, one will find that many of them began to specialise at very early ages, some when they were about six years old. And their genius in many cases did not need school but was stimulated by the environment in which they grew up; their parents were often the catalysts of their exceptional development. Bernard Shaw is credited with saying that the only time his education was interrupted was when he attended school.
As long as schools operate like factories, they cannot prepare children for life in today’s world. We are sitting with huge numbers of young people unemployed and begging for any kind of job on street corners. Unemployment among the youth continues to grow worldwide. Now that Tunisia and Egypt have begun the revolution against what I believe is irrelevant education, the unemployed youth of the world have been alerted. Whatever/whoever generated the uprisings in the Middle East, found fertile soil in young people who saw no future for themselves in their countries. And the unrest has spread and destabilised several Middle Eastern countries. Unemployment is not just a problem in the Middle East, it is a problem in most countries in the world and governments that continue to provide irrelevant education must be prepared to face similar uprisings.
The problem with the factory mode of schooling is that children are treated as if they are all the same and not individuals with differing interests and talents. The school puts them on a conveyer belt and processes them as if they are all the same. This is done in the name of equality. But individuals are individuals, that is, not the same. Some people, dissatisfied with the education system, have resorted to home schooling but this is not the answer. Home schooling simply perpetuates in a more friendly environment the same practices because they are ruled by curricula created for a factory system of schooling.
What we need are specialist schools. These should be available to children as soon as they have mastered the basic three R’s. There should be no division of learning into years and no prescription of learning according to age groups. The word “groups” indicates the need to commodify. Children are not commodities and should not be treated as if they are all the same with the same interests and capabilities and requirements and therefore to be ‘processed’ in the same way. That is what standardised curricula and syllabi attempt to do.
Children should not be dragooned according to age groups and required to remain for a year at a time in the same class/standard/form. Their learning should not be placed along a conveyer belt system that allows them to move on only when forty others are ready to move on. Some children may need just six months; others may need eighteen months. Children should feel free to take as much time they need to master knowledge and skills and a child who is ready to move on at an early age should not be hindered from doing so.
In the first years, the emphasis has to be on mastery of the three R’s and this should be through an integrated studies approach to learning. This will introduce children to a variety of fields that will allow the individual child to identify for her/himself areas that are of particular interest. And children should be encouraged to follow their interests and not be forced into a generalised syllabus that caters for the group rather than the individual. Most people, if they are honest, will admit that school included many and long periods of boredom because so much of what they were being forced to learn was irrelevant to their needs and interests. If children have no idea of their interests, they can be put through aptitude tests and advised of the best choices for them.
Once children arrive at specialist schools, the basic three R’s must continue but in the areas in which the children are specialising. Specialist schools should not force training into timetables but should offer courses and training sessions in the way that universities do. These should be spread out throughout the day and into the early evening so that individuals of all ages have access. In other words school should not be exclusively for children but also for those who wish to catch up on what they missed or explore new avenues of knowledge.
Most important of all, schooling should not be compulsory. Children who wish to pick up a trade, craft, or continue in the family business should be respected for their choices.
All learning should be focussed not only on providing knowledge and skills but also on making the learner aware of real career and entrepreneurial opportunities.
We tend to assume that when we have a democratic constitution, we also have democracy. The vote, however, does not ensure democracy. The vote simply gives us a chance to elect people to a parliament. Government, however, is in the hands of the governors and they set up institutions through which they administer the welfare of the country.
These institutions are bureaucratic and are run like the military, through a chain of command. So what we experience is not democracy but bureaucracy. Anyone who has had to apply for an identity document is treated like a cipher and has to wait for hours in long queues and is processed like a commodity on a conveyer belt. And civil servants are not civil; they are like teachers with canes.
School is just such a bureaucratic institution. In school, one cannot learn about democracy; it is an institution in which all are prescribed to. It is built on the factory principle and subscribes to mass production. Democracy, however, is about freedom of choice and expression. One cannot learn about democracy in an institution that circumscribes freedom of choice and expression. The chances of learning about democracy in a supermarket are much greater; there you have freedom of choice and expression.
In a specialised school, a student would have to face up to the responsibilities of the choices that s/he makes. And s/he would, as a result, learn about those other aspects of democracy that most people ignore – responsibility and accountability. Freedom without responsibility and accountability is no freedom.