Is modern education moderated?

Last Updated : 09 January 2013, 21:08 IST
Last Updated : 09 January 2013, 21:08 IST

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Whitewashed Education  Yoginder Sikand explores the crisis of “modern” education as opined by Noam Chomsky in his book Chomsky On Mis-Education. It is almost routine these days to hear people bemoan what they term ‘the crisis in education’, berating schools and universities for doing little else than training youngsters for their future slots in the job market.

The ‘modern’ education system miserably fails to address issues vital to the human soul. But there’s much more to the crisis than that. The system is geared for definite political purposes that are far from benign—or so claims well-known American social scientist and astute political commentator Noam Chomsky, in his book Chomsky on Mis-Education.

Chomsky’s particular concern is with ‘modern’ educational systems in self-styled democratic countries, though of course many of his insights can be applied to other societies as well. Subjecting these systems to closer and critical examination, he points out that they are hardly ‘objective’ and ‘class-neutral’, contrary to what they are commonly made out to be.

Despite proclaiming the virtues of democracy to their students, they work to sanitise and bless elite rule, even simply by remaining silent on the phenomenon itself and by refusing to recognize it as a reality, leave alone labeling it as a problem. Often, Chomsky indicates, schools are used as major conduits of ultra-nationalism or national chauvinism, which deliberately downplay elite domination and ignore vital issues of internal class contradictions by hailing the myth of a monolithic nation. Obviously, this, too, works to the advantage of the ruling classes.

Moreover, Chomsky comments, schools rarely encourage students to engage in a realistic and critical evaluation of their societies for fear that this might encourage them to be ‘rebellious’. It is rare for teachers to talk about structures and systems of oppression in their own societies, while they might readily do so with regard to societies or countries that they regard as inimical to theirs. In all these ways, then, Chomsky reminds us, our schools and the entire ‘modern’, so-called ‘democratic’ educational system as such can hardly be said to be politically neutral.

Chomsky argues that schools tend to anesthetize their students by stifling their critical abilities and sensitivities and by drilling into their tender heads the ‘official truths’ dished out by the ruling classes. In doing so, they play a leading role in preventing the development of a critical comprehension of socio-political realities.

Structures of domination are further reproduced by ‘mainstream’ schools through their curricula, which are generally geared to fit in with the ethos and lifestyles of social, economic, political, ethnic and cultural elites.

They tend to whitewash the history and tradition, almost completely out of recognition, in order to justify continued elite domination. Generally, school curricula have little or no reference to marginalized groups, thus further contributing to the ‘invisiblisation’ of these people. Thus, here too, schools play a crucial, though not often recognized, political role.

Contrary to what is commonly imagined, modern schools aren’t simply institutions or spaces where information is imparted and skills are taught. In addition to these, schools also propagate certain values, some of which are key in sustaining elite domination, Chomsky tells us.

Thus, typically, even in countries which claim to be bastions of democracy, schools work as centres of political indoctrination. Mostly by stressing blind obedience and clamping down on and even punishing critical or independent thought among students.

Accordingly, students grow up unable to think for themselves and are more likely to become silent subjects and passive victims of elite domination and manipulation. In other words, such schools domesticate, rather than liberate, the minds of their students.

Schools, in general, do not value innovative thought, Chomsky stresses, and, instead, reward students for simply memorizing and repeating what their teachers and textbooks tell them. This is what examinations are almost all about. Carefully socialized or indoctrinated in this way, students are well on their way to becoming unthinking subjects as adults. In this regard, too, the hidden political role of schools is apparent.
 By being treated as empty vessels into which information must be poured by their teachers, who see themselves as all-knowing ‘experts’, students are being gradually transformed into robots or automatons. Automatons who will blindly and almost instinctively consent to be manipulated and driven by bosses in their future workplaces, and by politicians and corporate houses.

The present dominant system of education, Chomsky contends, fits perfectly with the demands of corporate houses. Unfortunately, it trains students for their future role as compliant workers, compulsive consumers and passive citizens.

By stressing fierce competition in periodic examinations as the way to ‘success’, modern educational institutions also engender and reinforce an extremely alienating individualism that can easily slip into morbid selfishness. As Chomsky sees it, such schools do nothing at all to enable students to become part of a community of common concern.

Whether or not you agree with Chomsky on this, you cannot deny that at least some of it does make sense.

Published 09 January 2013, 13:39 IST

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