The Counterpoint of Change: Writers Bloc Afterword
Posted by Hugh McLean on 14/1/12
Hugh McLean of Open Society Foundations highlights the importance of education in challenging conflict and exclusion.This essay is the afterword to Writers Bloc, a collection of essays by writers about education around the world.
Words speak louder than facts. This is a problem for policy, academic research and law; it is an opportunity for literature. The problem for fact-based disciplines is that insight and evidence are often estranged, and when they are not people believe whatever they will. Insight is crucial in literature but evidence can be replaced by trope, intimation or imagination. This freedom, ironically, transmits a reality people are more likely to recognise and understand.
An education system rafts on a river of facts: exam scores, pass rates, pupil-teacher ratios, school rankings. Such evidence provides an essential, if contested, buoyancy for policy, but without guaranteeing any insights into important basic questions such as how to improve learning or how to motivate teachers, for example. The policy language that must convey and interpret these facts for actionable policies is necessarily technical but shot through with jargon, the flotsam of leading ideas – not reading for the faint hearted. Zadie Smith is right that the non-professional language in this collection has rejuvenating force; it also has a clarity that recalls the emotional intensity of first-hand experience. But while these essays may help us understand more deeply, they do not yet show us what to do to improve an education system or the learning it must give; they provide insight without policy.
The essays in this collection hold a lot in common with qualitative research: yet, without a broadly comparative framework or a set of research questions and common instruments, and even though they required dedicated research for their writing, they do not count as qualitative research. Their value lies in their passion of thought, their fresh language, their independent and random insights.
For activists and educational professionals, these essays will be an occasion for reflection and pleasure. They alternately confirm and surprise, touching and shaping many of the prevailing themes that preoccupy us. This Afterword reflects on these intersections in the hope that a taste of the particular delights in this collection of essays will have left the reader with an appetite for the wider concerns facing education policy globally.
Education and conflict
All of the countries in this collection are profoundly affected by conflict. India and Nigeria are more like continents where unrelenting conflicts in some states have not left their neighbours unscarred. These countries enjoy rates of annual growth that Western countries envy, yet they are mostly still very poor. Chimamande Adichie does not find the devastation she expects at the public school in Lagos state to which she arrives “at the wrong time.” She finds instead a cooling fan, sometimes electricity, a hostile principle, a dedicated teacher, a single text book ping-ponged between at least two teachers, school uniforms, seventy students in one functioning classroom. She’s pleasantly surprised. She records the Lagos governor is “resoundingly popular” and considered to be “making a real effort” since he came into power. Seemingly, the 2011 gubernatorial elections prompted both the progress in Lagos state and the violence that still sees hundreds die and thousands lose their homes across eight northern states. Hardeep Singh Kohli visits the India of his heritage to find a nascent education revolution; one that will deepen disparities even as it offers innovation and investment. He contrasts the poorer children who are abandoned to the occasional tutelage of charities with the one thousand percent increased investment in technical colleges by a government eager to feed a rampant capitalism. At Ekal Vidalya, a single teacher school in Wageh Wala in Rural Punjab, which has a tree for a classroom and offers evening lessons, the teacher, perhaps the children too, works the fields by day. South Africa, like Nigeria and India, has a rate of growth persistently higher than Western Europe and America but is sullied still by its apartheid past. For Zukisa Wanner, education is the greatest failing of the new democracy that was born in 1994. Education in South Africa is every bit as unequal as it was in 1976 when the Soweto and then national uprisinging started on June 16. Actually, South African education remains as unequal as intended by the Apartheid education act of 1953, half a century ago. Henrik Verwoerd, perhaps the main architect of apartheid, said at the time: “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live."Bad policy endures.
Liberia and Haiti suffer levels of devastation hard to contemplate from downtown Abuja, leafy northern Johannesburg or the colonnaded buildings of New Delhi’s central business district. Liberia, for Zadie Smith, is a “country of disconnection”, where things did not fall apart but were blown apart by civil war and even now held together somewhat tenuously by an UN peace-keeping force of 15,000 men and probably as many extraordinary Liberian women, two of whom won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012: the president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Lemah Gbowee, community worker and Liberian Lysistrata. Haiti may not have had an all-out war for 10 years, but what its internal bloody conflicts did not destroy was demolished by successive floods and landslides caused by hurricanes and a 7.0 earthquake that took over 200,000 lives and left ten times that amount homeless – the return of the vengeful God of Exodus and the ten great plagues. Natalie Handal points to the 1960s, when many teachers left Haiti for Canada and the Congo for political reasons, as “an important moment for the decline of education in Haiti.” This exodus of trained teachers to promised lands continues even today. These are countries where progress and hope struggle to keep up.
“That is now long gone”, the deputy headmistress says wistfully at Alfred Beit Upper Secondary in Zimbabwe when Petina Gappah asks her about the drama classes she enjoyed as a child at the school. Decline is everywhere in countries still torn by conflict. Zimbabwe, for Petina Gappah, like Liberia, is a country of dislocation, where even good schools look back on their future rather than their past. The war “crushed common life” in Alexander Hemon’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now children are segregated at the only school in Stolac, where seventeen classes of Bosnian children share nine classrooms even though there is ample space for them in the Croat side of the school. Deda Mraz can’t get into a Bosnian kindergarten to bestow gifts at New Year as he could before the war. Palestine, like Zimbabwe and Bosnia and Herzegovina, suffers an uneasy, undecided peace founded on decided differences; it also endures cultural subjugation and military occupation. At the Café La Vie in Ramallah, Rachel Holmes presides over a conversation of passion, hope and social critique that would not have been possible had she been sitting in a school. The students she talks to complain of a Palestinian education curriculum filled with “stuffed subjects” that detach learning from the real world. It provides little that is contemporary or relevant and produces only “starved brains”.
As Palestine hopes for statehood, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal reveal that statehood brings no automatic solutions. Kamila Shamsie encounters a curriculum in regular Pakistani government schools that attempts to herd young minds into a nationalist and religious pen, priming them for apocalypse, or jihad. This curriculum was originally conceived to ensure a readiness for war against India; it segued nicely into defensiveness against the feared advent of an all-consuming, anti-Islamic secularism coming from the West. Forty years since the Bangladeshi liberation war and the attempted purge of its intellectuals by West Pakistan and local collaborators, Tahmima Anam tracks the wraith of radicalism in Quomi and Alia girls’ madrassas in Bangladesh trying to gauge and come to terms with the threat of extremism. Her quest is political and personal. She finds the real threat to come instead from poverty, and discovers her own solidarity with the madrassas that respond to this plight. Nepal’s conflict is seared in more recent memory. Nick Laird thinks that the “poverty and boredom” of rural youth proved ignescent in the civil war; for them the Maoist cause was an attractive proposition. He meets protagonists of the conflict: brave Janga Bahadur, who offers himself up for abduction to the Maoists instead of the children in his school; Tirtha Shrestha, disabled from polio as a child, who clears the bullets and shell casings from the school yard after a two-week battle and carries on teaching; and the head of the Maoist teachers union, Gunaraj Lohani, whose policy dreams are to professionalize the army and abolish private schools.
The stories of education in these conflicts make it easy to understand why subsequent education policy is often decided more on emotional and ideological considerations than evidence of greatest need. Education plays as many roles before, after and during a war: the victim, the weapon, the armour.
If a country is serious about peace, national growth and prosperity for its people, the demands on education policy, when policy is again possible, will be profound. Education policy will need to work out how, on meager resources, to catch up the missing years for child soldiers and other children whose schooling was disrupted. It will need to foresee and provide for the demands of economic recovery, teach how to avoid future conflict, understand the past, and give young people the confidence, ability and will to build a strong civil democracy. It will fail in almost all of these things.
Education and exclusion
Prejudices outlive the conflicts they find themselves in, emerging unscathed or more deeply entrenched. Dusad is shoeless and in rags, he sells coconut slices to the proudly uniformed pupils of New West Point private school in Beni, Nepal. “He has never been to school” writes Nick Laird. Hardeep Singh Kohli is perhaps too optimistic that the “caste system is slowly becoming a thing of the past” when he reports that half of dalit children are forced to sit at the back of the classroom, eat separately and suffer bullying by other pupils and teachers. For seventy three per cent of dalit children secondary school is untouchable. In rural Haiti, Nathalie Handal meets Frantzo who walks six hours to school every day, from Fondwa to Jeantengué and back, in the hope that learning will lift him and his family from the cesspit of poverty. Alexander Hemon describes a replenished ethnic and religious discrimination in Bosnia, also a boy who wanders the school corridors rather than attends a religion class placed so deliberately in the middle of the school day. At Alija Nametak, the elementary school in Bjelave, Sarajevo, there is no help for Faruk, who is unable sit still for any seconds, or the other special needs kids. And in the Blind School on the remote outskirts of Monrovia, Zadie Smith is taken aback by the total lack of resources and by the pupils with their urgent stories to tell. Not one of them hopes one day to be a doctor, a pilot, a basket maker – they know that nothing that awaits them.
Kamila Shamsie notes the preference in parts of rural Pakistan for educating boys over girls. The girls are likely to be pulled out of school to be married by grade seven. Her companion, the schools outreach project worker, Sana, is disheartened by how little the school girls she talks to “feel they can ask for from the world”, despite their desperately wanting to learn. We encounter girls with the same yearn to learn in the madrasas for girls from poor families in Bangladesh and in the elite girls’ school, Sainte Rose de Lima, in Port-au-Prince – either whose excellent social connections or strong school foundations saved from earth’s deathly shrug in January 2010. Zukisa Wanner writes of girls in South African schools who resort to swapping sex for basic necessities and who are so poor they will get pregnant to access a social security grant.
Tahmima Anam tells of the policy success in Bangladesh founded on a rare convergence of evidence and insight that has led to ten consecutive years of government investment in girls’ education. In a decade, Bangladesh achieved near parity for boys and girls in primary school. Yet there remain roughly half-a-million Bangladeshi children who are expected never to enrol in school. A few brief comparisons illustrate the significance of this policy success nevertheless. Over two thirds of girls from the poorest Pakistani families will never go to school; neither will twelve million girls in Sub Saharan Africa; ninety seven per cent of Hausa girls in Nigeria have less than two years of education.
Children with special needs due to disability, learning difficulties, social disadvantage or as a result of discrimination do not need to be in the cross fire of a recognised conflict for violence to find them; their violence is often a simple consequence of the normal functioning of daily life. The political function of policy, at its crudest, is to appease those who sustain power: this can be the majority, it can also be a powerful and privileged minority; it will not be the meek who will not inherit the earth. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to think of a national education policy document that puts this plainly. In the education policy discourse, the war of words is resoundingly won by the call to action around Education for All. Most national policies now aspire to achieving, at least, universal primary education and parity in the attendance of boys and girls. While national governments embrace a commitment to Education for All goals, their national education policies are usually unspecific on how to advance inclusion for the most vulnerable children. There would seem to be an unwritten consensus that special needs children have to wait for an education reforms to be well underway before their needs can even be considered. By contrast, the inclusion movement in education policy is both passionate and articulate, its activists point to the importance of building a commitment to addressing special needs into the bedrock of education policy reform and puts forward compelling arguments as to why this early investment is good for the whole of society.
Education and politics
Kanza Said says to Rachel Holmes: “They don’t teach you how to think, they teach you how they think.” This reflects more than the sometime arrogance of adults towards teenagers; it suggests a deliberate, and no doubt unwritten, policy to produce students who will not think any thoughts that rock the flotilla. “What kind of students do these educational policies seek to produce?” Rachel Holmes wants to know, “and what can young Palestinians expect from their existing education system?” Such questions are asked beyond Palestine too. “What is it we want and expect from education?” asks Alexander Hemon in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “What kind of students does a women's madrasa hope to produce?” worries Tahmima Aman in Bangladesh. And in Pakistan Kamila Shamsie states what, to her, is the obvious: “the fate of Pakistan is inextricably bound up with the state’s ability to impart education, and also the quality of that education.” Nick Laird reminds us of King Tribuvhan’s words when he opened the first public school in Nepal in the 1930s: “I have cut myself off at the knees.” Education is political; this is something we know instinctively.
Nathalie Handal writes of Haiti that “its young people ache to learn, and only education can liberate them.” That education liberates is also deeply instinctive, it promises the personal liberation we all hope for. The word liberation, though, lends its inherent tensions: liberation from what and for whom? Parents want it for their children; the liberation they hope for is one from poverty, from unhappiness, perhaps, or ignorance. Some parents believe their children need an edge over other children in a competitive world, liberation implies this for them. Governments sometimes only pretend they want liberation through education for the nation’s children: they want progress, they would like support from the population, they also want to hold on to power – these things do not always go together. Autocratic governments have a Tribhuvan complex and are afraid for their lower legs. Democratic governments may know that the degree to which education results in personal liberation and open society is a litmus test for their commitment to democracy.
Chimamande Adichie writes up her school notes in Nigeria with her usual dead pan humour, her merciless eye and ear missing nothing. Politics is everywhere. The interrogation she endures before she is allowed to observe classes at the government school in Lagos at election time reveals one of the school’s priority to not embarrass the governor! This is far more important than actual learning or knowing the names of the pupils, one of whom is slapped loudly on the cheek in front of her: the teacher either did not care what the visitor thought or believed a hard slap was sure to make a good impression. Public education, she tells us, is spoken of in “superlatives of badness” in Nigeria.
Her welcome at private schools is warmer, although everyone is still over keen to control the message. In these schools pupils are known by their names, they have a “knowing confidence,” they are smug, they are well-up on celebrity gossip and TV soaps from the United States of America. All of them hope to immigrate to Texas or the United Kingdom. They are educated for a “No-Mans-Land,” they will go abroad and if they return, it will be to lucrative jobs. Yet they will return as strangers: they will live in their country “without understanding it. Their gatemen and househelps will puzzle them. They will lack certain skills needed to survive in the parts of Nigeria that are not constantly air-conditioned.”
Disillusion with public education in Nigeria has lead to a flourishing of private schools and universities and a tug-of-war over education governance and delivery. The government would seem to be taking a pragmatic view: investing in state schools and regulating the private sector. But for now, government schools remain, Adichie points out, “a choice for the choiceless.”
The rapid rise of private schooling globally poses questions for the future of public education and has given rise to an intense policy debate. This can be laid out crudely as follows. Proponents of education privatisation herald choice and competition as a way to drive up education standards, they claim low fee private schools will help meet the Millennium Development Goals, the eight goals that all one- hundred-and-ninety-one UN member states have agreed to try to achieve by 2015. Detractors of education privatisation urge the need to maintain a central state role, eschewing marketization, they claim privatisation will benefit only the better off, that it will deepen inequalities and social division rendering the state less able to remedy these over the longer term.
Tahmima Anam writes that private Quomi madrasas in Bangladesh cater for one-and-a-half million students; this is significant even if three times as many students attend the publically-funded Alia madrasas. Quomi madrasas do not necessarily provide a better education; they are religiously conservative and provide neither the preparation in standard “secular” subjects such as science or English, nor the public accountability Alia madrasas provide through the Madrasa Education Board. This raises an interesting question for education policy: why do certain parents with means choose to pay to send their daughters to a school that is more religious but does not necessarily provide a better quality education? The answer requires more extensive research than Tahmima Anam was able to undertake.
For Nick Laird, education privatisation in Nepal is a zero-sum game: as power, privilege and expediency combine to ensure the best results for private schools – public schools can only become demoralised and get worse. Zukisa Wanner observes that South Africa’s expensive private schools are “the sort of schools that the very Ministers who are leading Education probably send their children and grandchildren.” Whether this is true or not does not count outside a libel court, but the perception matters. Zukisa Wanner is conflicted too as a parent: should she continue to stay in the township and send her child to a private school; should she move to a former white neighbourhood and send her child to the local school, which may be better and cheaper than her other option? Petina Gappah will remind her that “successful schools are those where government interference is felt the least,” and advise her to send her child to a private school “untainted by government control.” That successful schools are those untainted by government control is another widely held perception, one not necessarily true of a South Africa where most primary-school-aged children are in school, where education remains hugely unequal and where parents now run the risk of paying more for what may turn out to be less.
The Haitian constitution states that education will be free until the sixth grade, but Haiti has none of South Africa’s resources nor its history of democratic struggle and has not made good on this promise. Eighty per cent of schools are private and a good proportion of government schools are run by the church. Nathalie Handal captures the economics of this system during her visit to the École Plein Soleil, a low fee private school: the market cannot produce or sustain quality education in the bargain-basement section of private schools without considerable outside help. Parents pay about $30 a year for fees and books; this excludes the very poorest children and still cannot cover the school’s running costs, meeting which relies on French donors and the energy of its charismatic founder, Michel Vaillaud. The Haitian government may simply continue in the belief that market forces will take care of its constitutional commitments, but half-a-century of untrammelled education privatisation in Haiti has not yet achieved universal education nor real choices for parents seeking schools and the hope an education can bring. Nor is it likely to. Education policy concerns the choices a government must make with the resources as its disposal to improve education for all a country’s children. This inevitably involves urgent strategies to bridge the huge gap between children whose families can afford to pay for education and the children whose families may be struggling simply to feed, clothe and house them. There could not be a clearer case of the need for an adequate public education system than Haiti; at some point the government will be compelled to take this seriously.
Education and pedagogy
Kamila Shamsie usefully reminds us that “what and how you learn is at least as important as the fact of learning itself.” Governments know this too, which is her point. In the Urdu children’s alphabet that gives her cause for concern in Pakistan, ‘Tay’ is for ‘takrau’ (crash), with its liminal messaging of a plane exploding into the World Trade Centre, shares a line-up with ‘Jeem’ is for ‘Jihad’ and ‘Hei’ is for ‘Hijab’. Nick Laird encounters a children’s alphabet in Nepal in which ‘G’ is for gun’, ‘A’ is for army, ‘R’ is for rifle, ‘H’ is for hammer, ‘S’ is for sickle. This is not subtle.
In Palestine, according to the free-thinking university students Rachel Holmes meets, critical thinking in education is curtailed by a rigid adherence to a “stuffed” curriculum and students are “starving from a lack of access to good books”. For her, this is a consequence of the cultural occupation of Palestine that, she believes with Wafa Darwish, “is more dangerous and important to resist than physical war.” The jealous controls over the education system in Palestine mean that “inflaming imaginations”, rather than being a teacher’s professional duty, is a task more safely attempted by a visiting group of international writers. Facts may be crammed into syllabi and examined minutely, but critical thinking, at least for older students, is found in the interstices of a curriculum, sometimes in spite of it, in the corners and cracks officialdom does not see into.
Education does not involve only free thinking as Huzoor Saleh, principal of an Alia madrasa in Bangladesh, knows; it must deliver something practical that has the potential to make a future for a child. His syllabus includes sciences, maths and fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. He is proud of how many of his madrasa graduates leave to enter good marriages, or find jobs at a university or colleges where they sometimes even become students. The Huzoor at the Quomi madrasa has the same idea, born of a pragmatism that understands “madrasa students need to be able to get jobs to operate in the larger social world” but accompanied by a complaint that “secular education does not have enough of an Islamic component.” Tahmima Anam remarks dryly: “whatever the Huzoor will teach, whatever his mix of Islamic and secular, the children in his charge will have little means to challenge it. After all, he’ll be feeding them three meals a day.” Yet, while she struggles with fact that the girls’ free thinking may be hostage to the view of the world from the inside of a madrasa, she realises poverty provides little choice and she takes comfort that she finds kindness in these institutions.
Young children are especially dependent on their teachers and are as affected by a teacher’s personality and world view as they are on her or his subject knowledge. Where a good teacher is found, even an over-stuffed syllabus or a drab school can be inspiring and alive. Fatka Brković, who Alexander Hemon finds in Bjelave, is a teacher “whose teacherness could not be supressed”, not by war, ethnic cleansing or disillusion in Bosnia. When she dreamed her class children were sad she “woke up and never went back to sleep.” Her fable of the coloured butterflies, each which prefers to stay with the others instead of saving itself from the storm, is about more than the value of diversity in a school, it message holds true for the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina: diversity is as beautiful and necessary as it is fragile, it will prevail only through solidarity.
We meet many wonderful teachers in these stories. Chimamande Adichie tells the English teacher with Yoruba plaits at the government school she visits in Lagos: “I wish I had a teacher like you when I was at school.” Sister Anne Marie Boisette in Port-au-Prince is loved and admired by all; Father Serge Larose, whose school was severely damaged in the catastrophe, struggles to rebuild and retain good teachers. The Headmaster at Kundai in Zimbabwe, is also a botanist whose “enthusiasm flourishes everywhere.” And we will remember the brave Tirtha Shretha and Janga Bahadur who were not cowed by Nepal’s civil war.
In just about every country, teachers and government schools are maligned by expedient politicians. These essays reveal a more honest and complex picture: good teachers are to be found everywhere, their work requires tireless dedication and they are deserving of respect.
Education and activism
These essays reveal a shared and stubborn belief that education has the power transform individuals and societies. Is it hope, perhaps? This is affirmed even as the exact opposite, education for conformity or subjugation, is so persistently described. “Education is a normalizing process,” Alexander Hemon tells us. “If you want to be yourself, you have to be one of us. If you are one of us, there are very few ways of being yourself.” It is true that Hardeep Singh Kohli describes an education revolution he sees unfolding in the India he has visited regularly for forty years, and which he hopes will see off the caste system. What he describes, however, betrays the fact that change does not always mean transformation: dalit children are discriminated against in the classroom and most of them drop out by secondary school. The role of education in the rejuvenation of India is of great importance not only for education policy but for national economic policy as well. The amount of expertise available to India through its many graduates is vast, even though this reflects the burnished abilities of a relatively small percentage of the population. National growth may have as much to do with the availability of cheap labour as with these intellectual resources . The need for a better skilled and more literate population, however, becomes all the more urgent as a country develops, India will need to draw on abundant resources to keep developing. The predominant discourse in education policy globally presents education as the developer of human capital that will drive this growth.. The human capital notion is not the Verwoerdian idea that “education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life”, which becomes fully Verwoerdian particularly when the “opportunities” are predetermined by a ruling clique. Many educators resist the reductionism implied in this term on the grounds that education needs to give far more to a society and to a culture than human capital to fuel its economic growth.
South Africa, perhaps more than any country, has had education at the heart of its social revolution. The slogan “Education for Liberation” still has resonance today, going on for forty years since the student uprisings of 1976 and despite the dull inertia that still dogs the education system. South Africa demonstrates the power of social mobilization to bring about change: school pupils and university students were at the forefront of these brave struggles. Yet the slogan “Pass One, Pass All” seemed to miss the point in the heat of battle. Yes, the massive exam failures among black students were evidence of profound injustice, but the point was not to pass, the point was to learn. South Africa has improved its record a little when it comes to passing students but its education system still does not provide the learning or liberation that the majority of students seek. Zimbabwe, tragically, has all but destroyed one of the best education systems Africa had, but then this system is so deprived of oxygen by the stranglehold of Zimbabwean politics over the last two decades it is a wonder there is any life in it at all.
The exceptional individuals we read of in these essays inspire the reader as they inspire the schools they lead and the pupils they teach. How do we get from the energy and success of superb individual effort to a system-wide reform that will benefit all children and transform society? This is the question policy must ask and then answer. The activist question is more than simply how to get from individual action to collective action: these essays show that to be insufficient. Activist parents in Bangladesh band together to build a conservative mosque, activist parents in Bosnia and Herzegovina corral their children in ethnically exclusive compounds. Nepal’s Maoists pressganged teachers and pupils into joining their ranks, they would now simply ban private schools without a clear idea of how to replace them or improve the state schools. The more critical activist question is: how to get from individual action to collective action around ideas that advance public interest and take society forward?
How do education systems change for the better? Does it happen as a consequence or cause of economic development, as could be asked of India? Does it require a powerful and popular governor as we see in Lagos state in Nigeria? Does it require a good idea and a determination by government to see it through as we witness with girls’ education in Bangladesh? It’s clear how education systems change for the worse: they collapse as a result of wars, such as in Liberia, Nepal, Bosnia and Herzegovina; they stagnate because of bad ideas and bad policy, South Africa, Palestine, Zimbabwe; they suffocate from poverty, Haiti, Bangladesh, Pakistan. Many countries, like Pakistan, manage to do all three, the perfect monsoon.
The counterpoint of change
Zadie Smith writes that “it’s not likely a government will listen to a bunch of writers, but a bunch of writers can bend many interested civilian ears.” A superficial reading of this line suggests that governments may listen to the many interested civilians who could force them either to implement or change policies or vote them out in the next elections. But this would be the easy lie of modern democracy: it may be true theoretically but, in reality, is not as simple as all that. Consider two potential snags: governments that do not want to listen may not be that easily dislodged in elections; or irrational and unfair policy positions could be supported by civilians as well as by governments. Zadie Smith points to a problem far more fundamental than what may be said and who may be listening, one to which we have become inured. This collection of essays describes education in conflict-affected countries as a catastrophe for so many children – entirely absent or substandard, deteriorating and disconnected, stifling and conforming, violent and discriminating, unequal and unfair – its consequences will be long and deep for all of society. Given also that many education systems are implicit in conflicts, crisis, clashes, the engendering of prejudices and so on, we need to talk about transforming education systems rather than simply changing them. The tasks facing this transformation are far too urgent to be left to policy experts, politicians, or market forces. This collection of essays conveys a reality that would “bend interested civilian ears”; Zadie Smith issues a call to action and everyone should be concerned.
An education system has a responsibility to deliver two essential things for a just society: an improving quality of learning – this is not the same as higher marks, better standards, or even the ability to find a job, it involves something far more emancipatory in a personal and societal sense – and a narrowing gap between students doing well and students doing badly. To achieve this requires sound policy ideas, strong institutions to deliver them, and social mobilization to ensure fairness and accountability and that promises are kept. Without institutions or social mobilization, policy, even though it may pretend otherwise, is mostly like the frightened and entranced children on the stage in Alexander Hemon’s story: “it will hurtle toward the next moment while entirely unsure what it might contain.”
This collection of essays on education does not have the same obligations that policy has, it roams free from the burden of proof, not needing to cost out a set of options or elucidate a program for action. It does not need to know what the next moment might contain. Its role is to take the discussion to a new place and to have it with new people.
Photographers (top to bottom): Velibor Bozovic, Adolphus Opara, Citzens Archive of Pakistan, Nathalie Handal, Snigdha Zaman.
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