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Rethinking Literacy
June 13, 2008 4:49 PM   Subscribe

The Dark Side of Literacy - Indian education reform organization Shikshantar, who aims to encourage concepts of "Swaraj", or self-rule in local education, argues that current education and literacy models do not take into account local cultures and languages and gives too much credit to the Western alphabet. They also argue that there are many serious flaws in what they describe as UNESCO's campaign of "McEducation For All".
posted by divabat (46 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Schools demean individuals full potential, their diversity, creativities, intelligences, learning styles, knowledges, languages, etc. Nor can schooling guarantee employment in today’s cut-throat, competitive world. ... Schooling reinforces many of the oppressive structural aspects of society and generates dehumanizing fear and competition. ... Alternative schools still perpetuate the oppressive and selective model of Development and Progress.

So if we just stopped educating people the world would be a beautiful place. Right. I call for the batshitinsane tag.
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


This is... weird.

Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elabo­rated in the coming pages.

Woah. Ok. I'll keep reading and see how you justify this...

In the 196os, Marshall McLuhan proposed that a civilization’s principal means of communication molds it more than the content of that communication.

What - what? Did one of you head over to Toronto and hear him say this back then? or did you read about it in a book? Quoting academic scholars to back up your "no literacy" argument seems self-defeating.

Robert Logan, the author of The Alphabet Effect, expounded on this idea:...

etc.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was one of the very few scholars to challenge literacy’s worth.

“There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appear­ance of writing… is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consist­ing of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.”


What? So there wasn't any slavery in pre-literate societies? Presumably somebody wrote this down because how else would we... oh. nevermind.

Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

So I'll skip being glib: correlation is not causation. This is a straight post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Anyway, it's interesting that there are people who believe this stuff, but it seems pretty hollow to me. They rail against education and say how bad it is but they never propose an alternative. Sure, school isn't that great. I'm sold. What's the alternative? No school? Just wandering around and doing stuff? If school is no guarantee of a job I think no school is about the same. They never spell out exactly what they think school-age children should be doing. Arguing against a position only takes you so far.
posted by GuyZero at 5:30 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Alternative schools still perpetuate the oppressive and selective model of Development and Progress.

Huh, I missed that part. Other articles on the site advocate for alternative schools that hold a less Western-centric and more holistic form of education, saying that they work better in terms of providing education while still maintaining student rights and interests.
posted by divabat at 5:32 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


In the 196os, Marshall McLuhan proposed that a civilization’s principal means of communication molds it more than the content of that communication.

A misinterpretation of "the medium is the message, perhaps?

...argues that current education and literacy models do not take into account local cultures and languages and gives too much credit to the Western alphabet.

Well -- for better or for worse -- on a short list of the fastest ways to dig yourself out of abject poverty, learning the Western alphabet is probably close to the top,
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:38 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


...and if I could get the hang of punctuation, I'd probably earn more, too.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:55 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Being somewhat familiar with the entire spectrum of language and cultural literacy arguments, I think the more moderate perspective of "the dark side of literacy" is that in certain periods of time and in certain cultures, literacy education has operated somewhat like a re-education camp for colonial powers in a way that destroys pre-existing cultures and languages (sometimes purposefully so). This still does not speak as to whether those being "educated" are better or worse off...obviously things are gained as well as lost.

Personally, I wish literacy researchers would be a little more responsible with their publications...it would do the rest of us a favor.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Appears to be people unhappy with loss of their culture. Progress in some areas = loss in others unfortunately. Or what mrmojoflying said.
posted by batou_ at 6:57 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


What? So there wasn't any slavery in pre-literate societies?

I think the Levi-Strauss point is a little more nuanced than that. The basic claim is that literacy and writing are instruments of power that are used to construct hierarchical societies. Now to take this point to mean that literacy must be abolished to avoid inequality might be excessive, but consider that literacy campaigns are billed as means of distributing a specific form of equality. So that claim obviously acknowledges that literacy is a significant factor in enforcing difference and inequality. One approach to this is the hope that illiteracy can be abolished. Another is the assertion that literacy and its institutions are responsible for that inequality so the solution is abandoning it altogether. To understand this position, consider that societies and institutions that rely on literacy must be exclusive and involve hierarchies even on the level at which education occurs. Even education systems that strive for universal literacy remain unequal, especially in places with as much wealth and class disparity as India. By now it is perhaps becoming obvious that the position taken represents more than a challenge against literacy and education but one against civil society altogether. The Levi-Strauss point relates to how civil society relies on hierarchical structures and institutions, as well as the degree to which literacy is instrumental in erecting those structures and maintaining its inequalities. Civil society has depended on literacy so if civil society is something one hopes to challenge or its ideals things one wishes to reject, literacy is a useful place to begin the revolution. Now most of sitting here posting on MetaFilter are pretty happy with civil society and our position in it, but the same might not be the case for a polity on whom civil society and its ideals have a different history and also different results.

Anyway, it's interesting that there are people who believe this stuff, but it seems pretty hollow to me. They rail against education and say how bad it is but they never propose an alternative. Sure, school isn't that great. I'm sold. What's the alternative? No school? Just wandering around and doing stuff? If school is no guarantee of a job I think no school is about the same. They never spell out exactly what they think school-age children should be doing. Arguing against a position only takes you so far.

It was your point about the lack of a specific solution with which to replace the current system that got me thinking about the arguments in such a way. Few revolutions outline a programme or ideal very clearly, but history still realizes their political content. Of course arguing against a position only takes you so far. It's a good place to begin.
posted by Shakeer at 7:17 PM on June 13, 2008 [9 favorites]


Schools demean individuals full potential, their diversity, creativities, intelligences, learning styles, knowledges, languages, etc. Nor can schooling guarantee employment in today’s cut-throat, competitive world.

Funny, languagehat, that I seem to repeatedly find myself at loggerheads with you. Because I agree that school destroys the aspects of human potential named above. It did when I was in it and it does now for my daughter. And it does not at all prepare students for "today's cut-throat competitive world." It prepares them to be obedient factory workers. Do you not see this? I'm honestly curious.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:31 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's a good place to begin.

It's irresponsible and dangerous if it's as far as you're interested or capable of going.

While I see your point I still think it is post hoc thinking. Limited literacy certainly contributes to a hierarchical society but universal literacy seeks to undo that.

Even education systems that strive for universal literacy remain unequal, especially in places with as much wealth and class disparity as India.

No one claims literacy is a panacea. Again, I fail to see how rejecting literacy increases equality except perhaps to prevent anyone from improving their lives and impoverishing everyone. I'm sympathetic to people who don't want their culture disrupted but it's not a strict dichotomy between (small-a) aboriginal culture and literacy.

the same might not be the case for a polity on whom civil society and its ideals have a different history and also different results.

Seeking to avoid some sort of colonial-style enforced education into a foreign culture is a reasonable stance. Certainly there have been some abject failures of forced "education" system that were hardly more than attempts at genocide, e.g. Canada's residential school system and the Prime Minister's recent apology for it. I find this an odd stance to take in India though where literacy and education are one of the few engines of economic growth in a relatively poor country.

By now it is perhaps becoming obvious that the position taken represents more than a challenge against literacy and education but one against civil society altogether.

Again, in favour of what? People reject all sorts of elements of society but most of them have some idea of what they'd rather have. For otherwise well-written essays they lack an ultimate thesis. All that antithesis doesn't go anywhere. In the colloquial: there's no there there.
posted by GuyZero at 7:38 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because I agree that school destroys the aspects of human potential named above. It did when I was in it and it does now for my daughter.

So what do you think your daughter should be doing? What would guarantee her employment and not demean her?
posted by GuyZero at 7:39 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry, omitted the languagehat money quote:

So if we just stopped educating people the world would be a beautiful place. Right. I call for the batshitinsane tag.


Right, lh. Criticism of the current model of education == a revolutionary call to stop educating people. Please, you're better than that.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:40 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nor can schooling guarantee employment in today’s cut-throat, competitive world.

Well, they are correct in saying this, at least. Schooling certainly cannot guarantee employment.

But it sure as hell helps. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's a necessary condition for "employment in today's cut-throat, competitive world." It's not a sufficient condition, but it's clearly necessary.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:42 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Criticism of the current model of education == a revolutionary call to stop educating people.

Did you read the essays? They are quite literally a call to stop educating people. They're a call to stop using written knowledge altogether.
posted by GuyZero at 7:42 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Sorry, just RTFA's and this is totally stupid. My apologies to languagehat for the mean personal attack and to all for wasting bandwidth. Too much beer, turtle go to bed now.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:43 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dude, this thread is a total drag man. I'd be way happier if I wasn't able to... you know... reeeeeead it man.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:17 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


And [school] does not at all prepare students for "today's cut-throat competitive world." It prepares them to be obedient factory workers.

You were right on that point, TATWD, but yeah, that's not really on topic.
posted by rokusan at 9:25 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's the "Roman alphabet": Greek people are Westerners too.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:31 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I thought the points about not commoditizing education were good. Education should not be a one size fits all model, not even within one school system, let alone across the world.

And it does not at all prepare students for "today's cut-throat competitive world." It prepares them to be obedient factory workers.

That is what the modern state school system was designed for.
posted by jb at 9:47 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read somewhere that near-sightedness averages about 3% in preliterate cultures, and it is of course much higher than that in the literate; I saw a figure of >50% for Japan, for example-- and even heard claims that there are before and afters that make a good case that reading really is the culprit.

Without making an explicit connection to literacy, this page, "Published by University of Illinois Eye & Ear Infirmary Physicians" says

� Myopia recently worsened as a problem, as stated by Lin et al.96: "In Taiwan, myopia was not a problem some 50 years ago"; today about 15% of the population have over - 7.0 D.

� 50 to 60 % of the Japanese are said to be myopic, but only 2 % of the people in South America are myopic97. The author of this publication hints at a substantial difference with respect to spontaneity between these two populations.

� The incidence of myopia in Japan was increasing from 15% in 1920 to 36% in 1940 to between 50 and 60% in 198597.

� Sherpa and Tibetan children in Nepal have the same ancestry and genetic history, but the prevalence of myopia is 2.7% for Sherpa children and 21.7% for Tibetan children98. This difference was attributed to more rigorous schooling and higher advanced technology in Tibet.


That visual acuity could seem like a lot to give up to an illiterate parent who had had no direct experience of the benefits of civilization, I'd think, not that anyone ever has been or will be offered an opportunity to choose on those terms.

For me, learning to read years after the next slowest kid in my school was the crucial event which allowed me to able to control myself well enough to avoid special residential schooling (my parents had already moved districts once to stave off a strong move in that direction), and it wasn't just because of my still marginal success in the classroom. Reading made a basic change in my personality. A layer of contemplation formed between me and my actions which had never existed before, but through that layer colors were dimmer than they had been. Everything was muted. I was safer and so was everybody else, but something was lost.
posted by jamjam at 10:10 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Schooling reinforces many of the oppressive structural aspects of society and generates dehumanizing fear and competition.

So if we just stopped educating people the world would be a beautiful place. Right. I call for the batshitinsane tag. -LH


No, the world will be a better place when we stop educating people wrong. Stop being so willfully dense. You'd think someone who was in the education business would come to a debate with an open mind rather than dismissive hand waving... you read all those links in 33 minutes, LH, or was it just so obvious after a brief skim that these ideas weren't worth your time? And if they aren't worth your time, how about you have a little portion of STFU while you go read something with sufficient gravitas, by somebody important?
posted by Meatbomb at 10:18 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


For me, learning to read years after the next slowest kid in my school was the crucial event which allowed me to able to control myself well enough to avoid special residential schooling (my parents had already moved districts once to stave off a strong move in that direction), and it wasn't just because of my still marginal success in the classroom. Reading made a basic change in my personality. A layer of contemplation formed between me and my actions which had never existed before, but through that layer colors were dimmer than they had been. Everything was muted. I was safer and so was everybody else, but something was lost.

This is an incredible sentiment. Do you mean that the acquisition of written language somehow dimmed your sensual perception?
posted by phrontist at 10:43 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's almost a given (and has been since the '40s) that culture has intrinsic value and should be studied and preserved to the best of our abilities.

That said, about ten million kids die every year from preventable diseases, many of which could be solved with two things: exclusive breastfeeding for six months and education, especially for girls. The latter requires the immediate ramping up of educational infrastructure and when that many lives are on the line, when that much poverty can be averted, I feel that cultural sensitivity has to take a back seat.

Even for higher education, until systems start pumping out enough docs, nurses, and engineers to meet the needs of these countries (and find some way to avoid the brain drain) preemptive calls of neo-colonialism oughta be taken with a grain of salt. I have little patience for those who would favor rewriting engineering texts for cultural sensitivity when there are wells to be drilled and bridges to be built NOW.

Shikshantar's a great group, but these "no literacy" campaigners are so preoccupied with preserving cultural diversity that they miss the more pressing needs of their respective countries. Folks would have much more agency getting educated now and choosing their identity later. So many babies, so much bathwater.
posted by The White Hat at 10:45 PM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


he basic claim is that literacy and writing are instruments of power that are used to construct hierarchical societies

Except anyone who's even remotely familiar with the non-literate Polynesian and Melanesian societies that avoided European contact until relatively late in the game would know that they were strongly hierarchial, usually patriachal, and practised slavery, so they'd know the arugment is wishful-thinking horseshit that can only be made from a point of willful ignorance.

That is what the modern state school system was designed for.

Um, no:

This view was echoed by Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser in 1939, when he stated that 'every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers'.

Schools were expected to 'offer courses that are as rich and varied as the needs and abilities of the children who enter them'.


Don't let the facts get in the way. You might learn something.
posted by rodgerd at 1:13 AM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think people want literacy, mostly, and for many it comes almost as naturally as speech. Since writing is a relatively recent invention, not something which can have affected human evolution, this is rather remarkable, but it is so. So while we can legitimately argue about the form and delivery and priority of literacy, arguments about the desirability of the thing in itself seem almost as pointless in practical terms as wondering whether babies would be happier if we never taught them to speak.
posted by Phanx at 2:44 AM on June 14, 2008


This is some reactionary bullshit. If you are stuck in some backwards ass little town, your only options of getting out is literacy and education. Espiecially for all the freaks and weirdos - the interesting people. Without education you are pretty much stuck where you are and are at the mercies of the local equivelents of jocks, principals and various other small town small minded crap.
posted by afu at 3:40 AM on June 14, 2008


jamjam writes 'I read somewhere that near-sightedness averages about 3% in preliterate cultures, and it is of course much higher than that in the literate;'

I'm very sceptical of the suggestion that literacy itself could be responsible for myopia, rather than the technological changes that go alongside developing literacy in a society (such as exposure to artificial light, for one that springs to mind). I know I was short-sighted before I could read, and I've seen babies wearing glasses - they even have eye-charts with shapes for pre-literate testing.

In other news, the month your kid is born in has a strong impact on their chances of myopia - maybe technologically advanced societies are more likely to have summer babies?
posted by jacalata at 5:06 AM on June 14, 2008


Arguing against education are ultimately pointless. Even in preliterate societies, there is education that occurs. Call it cultural patterning, passing of traditions, whatever, it is still education.

Arguing about the content and goals of education, that seems a worthwhile subject to me.

Anecdote: When my son, who shall go unnamed (klangklangston) was starting 4th grade, the teacher asked the class what the purpose of school was, and the lad replied "a system of warehousing and babysitting children so that both parents can work, and in the capitalist system, that economic contribution is necessary to survive." Needless to say, he was beat up on the playground more than once.

I think that the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass goes some way to show the value of literacy. Obviously, many sins have occurred in the transmission of cultural constructs under the rubric of literacy education, but that does not argue for the eliminating the ends, but perhaps more open discussion about the means.

In a writing class, I have students read excerpts from Chomsky's Understanding Power (thanks, history is a weapon), which is often the first time (so they tell me) that they have been asked to consider their own education.

So, education, good. Cultural repression, bad.

But, in the end, we are all educated stupid.
posted by beelzbubba at 5:28 AM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't need your oppressive Western mathematics, maaaan. I got my own style, you dig? What if I want to decide 2 + 2 = 5? Are you gonna keep me down?

"Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture." - Ivory tower deconstructionist intellectuals with an agenda, since the 1950's providing money shot quotes so the right can help everyone else not take feminism seriously.

posted by adipocere at 6:09 AM on June 14, 2008


Oh god, Shikshantar. I had a friend who worked there for a while, she was very anti-establishment, into Daniel Quinn and all that, and she still came away thinking they were a weird bunch whose philosophy was basically irrelevant to the people they were working with. They do a lot of fun stuff, promoting traditional dance and music and things like that, but they've hardly managed to create a working model of alternative education.

The poverty of rural Rajasthan is tremendous, and the Mewari people they are purporting to serve and speak for really, desperately, need better access to "traditional" education. They need literacy, to read contracts they're bullied into signing, to protect themselves from unscrupulous landlords, bosses, policemen, who prey on the ignorance of the rural poor. Without basic education, they're isolated and vulnerable, unable to read bus and train timetables by themselves, unable to understand financial schemes peddled by scamsters. The uneducated poor in India are very vulnerable, and they're aware of their vulnerability, which makes them afraid to do things like travel, report a crime, leave an abusive marriage.

Yes, there are problems with systems of schooling, yes, school can be stifling: but for god's sake, don't ignore the enormous benefits enjoyed by those who have received it.
posted by bookish at 7:07 AM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because I agree that school destroys the aspects of human potential named above. It did when I was in it and it does now for my daughter. And it does not at all prepare students for "today's cut-throat competitive world." It prepares them to be obedient factory workers. Do you not see this? I'm honestly curious.

There was a time when I would have agreed with you. That time was before I had gotten my fill of new age creativity types telling me about holistic healing, homeopathy, crystals and pyramid power.

In order to think outside the box you need to be able to see and understand the box. Breaking the rules when you know the rules and their reasons is radical. Breaking the rules because you don't know them is just foolishness.

People who are anti-literacy should not be writing articles. They should be wandering around mumbling at people on the street hoping that they can get their message out via oral storytelling.
posted by srboisvert at 8:07 AM on June 14, 2008


So the lesson to be learned here is that primitivists are stupid fuckers even when they're not middle class white dipshits.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:31 AM on June 14, 2008


Adipocere:

Ivory tower deconstructionist intellectuals with an agenda


Whilst I completely share your contempt, your descriptors are utterly off-target and seem to have wandered in from another discussion.

The Alphabet and the Goddess crowd do have an agenda, self-serving and destructive though it is, but it is neither ivory-tower academic, nor remotely intellectual, nor at all deconstructionist. To take the last adjective alone, deconstructionists in fact take issue with the notion that speech is superior or more authoritative than writing, which is the position taken in The Alphabet and the Goddess.

Regardless: here [MS Word .doc file] is a debunking of Alphabet and the Goddess by an academic linguist.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:51 AM on June 14, 2008


That is what the modern state school system was designed for.

Um, no:


Um, yes, it was part of how the state system was developed, at least in Britain (which started state schools c1870), which had a huge effect on education elsewhere in the Commonwealth. It's nice that they started changing their ideas about education later, at least in New Zealand.

But state schools began by being streamed and state schools for working class children did not prepare them for higher education or critical thinking, but for the workforce. What you are quoting is a new educational philosophy from about 2 generations later (it's even under the title "A new educational philosophy").

In Britain, however, they continued streaming for a long time. Some kids would get into grammar schools, and be given an elite education; the rest would go to a secondary modern which did not prepare them for the possibility of tertiary education, but the workforce, mostly factories and shops. They tried to make it the selection appear meritocratic, with the introduction of the 11-plus exam, but that exam was a complete fraud (in that the guy who developed it faked his data), and famously excluded many people who would later (through a non-traditional route) go to university and do very well, including the inventor of the MRI. They only got rid of the 11+ in most of Britain because the children of the middle class were not getting into grammar schools.

In Canada, state schools were streamed right into the 1990s; one stream led to university, one to community college or a polytechnic, and one did not lead to any tertiary education. The lowest stream had become marginalised, though it remained a dumping ground for any students who struggled, regardless of the reason (they threw in developmentally disabled students with average students from bad home situations, didn't really care that their needs were not at all the same). But the other two streams continued strong, and your placement in that streaming was heavily affected by class. Middle class parents demanded that their children be placed in the higher stream, but working class and uneducated parents did not, and so mediocre middle class students received the pre-university education, while students of the same ability whose parents did not argue with the school system were pressured into the stream which did not allow you to go to university and which did not provide the same challenges or education as the upper stream.

But even today, as countries have passed away from streamed systems, there is a debate as to whether education should be for the workforce or not. Universities are under pressure to provide company or workforce specific training - no longer to produce good factory workers, but certainly to provide trained workers rather than educated people (and, incidentally, thus use government money to subsidize the training for specific industries, even sometimes specific companies).

My point was that state based education has always had a history of tension between education and training (which is different from education) - and the training side has fallen heaviest on lower status people. And there continue to be many aspects of state education which date back to the original philosophies which emphasised training over educational development.

I would love it if our education system were oriented around teaching critical thinking and learning skills. But in many ways it still is not, and in my experience this is more true the lower the status of those being educated.
posted by jb at 11:41 AM on June 14, 2008 [5 favorites]


rodgerd --

Except anyone who's even remotely familiar with the non-literate Polynesian and Melanesian societies that avoided European contact until relatively late in the game would know that they were strongly hierarchial, usually patriachal, and practised slavery, so they'd know the arugment is wishful-thinking horseshit that can only be made from a point of willful ignorance.

Okay I'm sorry, maybe I'm missing something. I don't see how your example of a situation in which oppression and hierarchical social organization existed aside from literacy renders my argument that 'literacy and writing are instruments of power that are used to construct hierarchical societies' into 'wishful-thinking horseshit'. My claim was that one leads to and is instrumental in the establishment of another, not that the latter CANNOT EXIST without the former. It was pretty cheap of you to twist my argument so.

Don't let the facts get in the way. You might learn something.

Well, I'm no expert on the history of state schooling in New Zealand but to me it seems that claims made by the Prime Minister hardly constitute 'the facts' of the different reasons for which a state school system is established any less than claims made by its staunchest opponents at the same moment would. Consider treating statements made by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq war as arguments against the claim that the case for war was faulty, misleading, and dishonorable. Do you treat all claims made by politicians as constitute of fact simply because of their having been formed by a figure of authority? I wonder how much of that tendency is shaped by state education.

I'm reminded of a crucial example of the state defining a specific form of literacy and imposing it with claims about its potential for establishing equality. The simplification of Chinese characters was promoted by the PRC as a means of boosting literacy. But its success can also be viewed as the state ensuring that all history and literature produced prior to simplification is further obscured, that the masses and eventually everyone else too, would no longer have access to it. By the way, would you take claims made by Chairman Mao about why simplification is essential and beneficial as the only 'facts' of the matter? Careful, you might not be learning something.

So here is a very obvious way in which the state renders itself the sole authority for determining which knowledge is accessible (understandable, in fact), and it obviously has a significant political affect. Perhaps the other means by which it would promote and obscure certain forms of knowledge and its reasons for doing so are becoming obvious. Now once again, in the West or at least certainly in America, the historical circumstances of our culture have been such that the promotion of literacy and especially English literacy makes sense. Obviously in China the promotion of simplified characters implies that there was room for some discourse about it, and history tells us which ideology prevailed. Perhaps the type of criticism made in this article opens up the possibility of exploring such a discourse in India.
posted by Shakeer at 12:03 PM on June 14, 2008


Do you mean that the acquisition of written language somehow dimmed your sensual perception?

Yes, absolutely. The world lost much of an electric sparkle and immediacy it had always had for me up until that point. My memories of things seen and felt are generally slightly grayer post reading.

When I am in a very quiet place and relax as much as I am capable of doing, I can always hear an internal fountain of sound dominated by speech, song, and music; I believe that fountain flows perpetually, and changes everything I hear. The muttering and singing I hear in white noise when I am exhausted is one manifestation of it, I think. (How often do schizophrenics report that the voices they hear are singing, by the way? I can't recall any such reports as I write, and I would say that would amount to a singular and significant deficit.)

Learning to read seems to have given rise to a subliminal, flickering, not quite transparent screen of words (and the inseparable meaning they carry with them)-- very similar to the fountain of sound with hearing-- which overlays my vision whenever I look at things, biasing what I see, as well as the meaning of what I see, and imposing a subtle emotional reserve on my relations with the world.
posted by jamjam at 12:12 PM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Jantantra yo nee hai ke janta shashakaan nai chun sakay. Jantantra to woh hai ke janta shikshikan nai chun sakay."

"The basis of real democracy is not in people choosing their rulers. Real democracy is when people can choose their teachers."

- Dayal Chandra Soni, Shikshanjali, 1992


the fourth link was the one i spent my time on, and not withstanding the other articles, i am crying, "hear, hear!" to the idea that school basically causes brain damage. when i have uttered this provocative statement to a classroom of students, i have yet to find anyone who argues otherwise with anything resembling conviction. mostly, they get very quiet. and nod their heads.

Sure, school isn't that great. I'm sold. What's the alternative? No school?

surely you have an imagination. the point is that it is the compulsory, punished-if-you-opt-out nature of modern schooling that has destroyed the love of learning in multiple generations of children, leading them to the belief that learning is drudgery, pain and suffering. you probably believe it yourself. but have you ever taken it upon yourself to learn something new? something you wanted to know? suddenly, there is no pain. mental exertion, if voluntary, is a joy!

if you remove the compulsory nature of modern education, then suddenly teachers can teach what they choose and have enthusiasm for, and learners can pursue their interests. (such a revolution!) the above implication that somehow no one would learn to read what they're signing, or would revert to drooling incompetence is just absurd and elitist. people, given real freedom to learn, will pursue any number of occupations or activities. given that it is in one's interest to be able to read (in one's own language, and eventually, that of one's oppressor), people will read. they have been teaching themselves and each other to do it long before we thought of the idea of incarcerating children who develop interests in non-schooly things. (John Holt, i confess, is my hero. i'm in a tribe with a whole lot of unschoolers there. and this is often where thoughtful homeschoolers end up.)

it is the coercion inherent in modern schooling that has destroyed any education value it attempted to bring to the table.

learning, and the love of learning, is deeply ingrained in human nature. you will never believe the shock i get sometimes when i tell a student this. "what? how can i love being forced to be somewhere, learning on some administrator's schedule, and in an order and structure i find mind-numbing??" well, no shit. that isn't learning--that's *education*. it is letting one's education get in the way that has led us down this stifling path, and i'm heartened to know that it is being addressed from another angle. the Mewari theorists quoted in that article seem to have a far better handle on it than people i run into on a daily basis.

what it looks like, as i and a lot of others see it, is this:

learners, from infancy, have the right to learn in the manner and location of their choice. they can remain at home, and pursue learning from neighbors, family members and their own explorations. there are neighborhood learning centers, where one can go and use all the latest technology to communicate with the "World Brain/internets", use the library and sports equipment, and be free to explore the use of all kinds of tools for one's personal edification and enjoyment. at this learning center, one can freely join or quit classes on various subjects, at all times of year. one can join sports teams, and meet with friends, and as long as one is being a good citizen--not interfering with or threatening the safety of others--one is welcome to leave or stay on one's own recognizance. one can be both learner and teacher, depending on one's expertise or interest.

teachers and learning centers both acquire reputations, and learners are freely able to exchange their opinions on both in a public forum available to all, with no inappropriate consequences to their status as learners. credentialing is portfolio-based, and employers can dictate the requirements for their employees, with learners given full opportunity to meet them. learning is lifelong, and is not seen to end at arbitrary ages and years. and of course, it would all be free.

yes, yes. i'm crazy. or batshitinsane. but without this transformation, or something very like it, we will never progress into the next stage of human evolution. we must free learning from the education we have confined it into, or we're fucking doomed. that is all.
posted by RedEmma at 5:42 PM on June 14, 2008


also--the point that is made about literacy, i think, is that one should, at any age, be able to choose it or not. being carted off to a school whether one wills it or no is not the answer to improving society.

given a choice, very very few people would choose to be illiterate. but it should not be up to anyone but the learner to decide when and where to learn to read. this simple choice will stop, IMO, a whole lot of "learning disabilities" that have their basis in the coercion towards literacy and its resulting anxiety. all learners must have full agency.
posted by RedEmma at 5:46 PM on June 14, 2008


What beelzbubba said ... and

I'm sorry, but some of these comments about the stifling nature of traditional education, and being able to choose literacy or not are nuts (and don't you see the irony of these comments coming from educated people well-off enough to have a computer and an internet connection?!)

To function in society, one must be educated in the values of that society, and part of that, in the modern world, involves being literate enough to participate in your society (and question it if need be). Yes, a lot of traditional education can be boring, and I had my share of bad teachers and bad experiences, but I did not let that blind me to the worlds and freedoms of mind available to the literate, especially to women, who often suffer from repression, both familial and societal.

I can tell you, that my family, on both sides, has always looked on education as the road to freedom and more opportunities, especially for the girls, and considered literacy to be valuable for its own sake. My illiterate great grandfather, the Civil War vet, learned to read only after the Civil War, started a successful business, and made sure he educated his 4 daughters, which meant my grandmother graduated from college circa 1900. A great grandmother reread the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare every year, even when she was largely confined to a bed after multiple strokes. My immigrant grandfather always regretted having to leave school at 13 to go to work, and made sure his daughters were educated, despite the fact that they were struggling immigrants to the U.S..

You might also pay attention to this article about womens' colleges in the developing world, and I quote: "Ahmed believes aid organizations and the World Bank have harmed developing countries by focusing too much on early education. That may get more citizens into factory jobs but it doesn't produce enough leaders. Ramping up higher education for women, Ahmed said, is the best way to have a broad impact — even on people who won't attend the college but see others succeed.

"The signaling effect is when you're a 12- or 13-year-old girl in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Bangladesh nobody really tells you you're going to go anywhere," he said."
posted by gudrun at 8:58 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


To function in society, one must be educated in the values of that society,

to function in *your* society. the argument made from the point of view of the Mewari is that they have their own society, and their own forms of education. why should you or any other government agency have the right to impose their system on an already functioning system?

and part of that, in the modern world, involves being literate enough to participate in your society (and question it if need be).

i think it is undeniably useful to be literate. however, it should not be forced upon anyone, at any age. and the argument mostly made from what i read here was that one should be literate in *one's own language*, and taught in one's own language--that literacy in, in this case, Hindi or English is something that should be fully voluntary and not from entry into school. you believe in the idea, which is prevalent in India, of beating students who refuse to study? or, in the Western world, in school detention, or worse? jail for the parent who opts out?

what the articles i read are advocating is a true democratic involvement and full choice in education and learning. i fail to understand what is so good about governmental imposition of mediocrity and systems that don't value individuality or independence.

Yes, a lot of traditional education can be boring, and I had my share of bad teachers and bad experiences, but I did not let that blind me to the worlds and freedoms of mind available to the literate, especially to women, who often suffer from repression, both familial and societal.

the argument isn't against *literacy* so much as it is against its legal mandate for children--how, when, where and in what language children must become literate. people want to read, for the most part. if they aren't forced to, i imagine there will be far more willingness.

and BTW, one of the binding points you make is that your family members *wanted* the education they took upon themselves. they were fully in charge of making it happen. the argument here is not against schooling/education so much as it is *for* the idea of alternatives, choices, and the agency of learners to make those choices. it is the compulsory nature of one-size-fits-all education that has made it a problem.
posted by RedEmma at 11:05 AM on June 15, 2008


Gudrun's right. Secondary and tertiary education, especially for women, is the only sustainable way for nations to advance. The issue here is that postsecondary education is extremely resource-intensive. It costs a lot to train doctors and engineers whereas the cost per pupil is much lower at the level of primary education. The argument is not only are there considerably lower-hanging fruit to be picked, but also that most doctors and engineers will up and leave the third world for greener pastures.

The goal of McEducation is to lower the cost of post-secondary education by taking advantage of technology and economies of scale for the production of materials and delivery of instruction, and also to specialize degrees to decrease portability to other countries-- what's the use of training a nurse when there's a plane waiting to take her to the UK the day she graduates.

The trade-off here which makes RedEmma so angry is that as you make the tent bigger you sacrifice a lot of individuality and sometimes even stifle the creativity of certain mavericks. More individualized education would foster these mavericks, but its smaller scale would increase costs per pupil beyond the budget constraints of most low-income countries. Remember, these are places that can barely pay their police.

I'm all for some great transformation which will foster every growing mind on an individual basis, but the next, most economically-feasible step as regards education in the developing world is to make the tent bigger.

on preview: bigger and compulsory. A hole in your argument for choice, RedEmma, is your assumption that folks would be choosing between systemized education and self-motivated and directed study. Few people in the third world have such a luxury. Most of the time, the choice is between school and work. Most of the time, they choose work (though choice might not be the right word-- families often depend on the income generated by the youngest children). The beauty of compulsory education is that it keeps kids out of the mines and the sex trade by forcing them to be somewhere else.
posted by The White Hat at 11:40 AM on June 15, 2008


so what you're saying is that the impoverished of the world must have education imposed upon them from "above", because that's just the way it is? the Mewari argue otherwise. have they no agency? no rights? you're saying that they just don't know what they're talking about? judging from how well compulsory anglo education worked and continues to work for the Native American, i'd say that the people themselves should be able to choose how to go about teaching their own.

i'd argue also that "not being able to afford it" is a constant refrain in all societies, First and Third worlds alike. it's bullshit, and if one were to rid oneself of bureaucracy and the rampant corruption going on in school systems worldwide we would go a long way toward paying for what people need. corruption in Indian school systems is legendary. besides, we as a world can ill afford not to pursue alternatives. and as a privileged First Worlder, i advocate for any society skipping the nightmarish anti-intellectualism (not to mention the complete dearth of practical skills-learning) that is fostered by school systems as a matter of course. learn from others' experience--don't go the same route if it's obvious it doesn't work.

we experience the same problem in the West--this idea that there are infinite cubicle jobs for the masses. what good does a college education do if you can't get a job? what happens to a society when no one knows how to farm a field by hand or use a beast of burden or preserve food--and oil becomes too expensive? are there schools for that? people learn from each other. that is humanity at its finest.
posted by RedEmma at 12:22 PM on June 15, 2008


i guess what i'm trying to say, at its root, is that it is immoral to impose an outmoded, largely dysfunctional education system on anyone who has other ideas, and governments should provide, instead, the funding for diversity and culturally relevant education from the roots up. it is in the world's diversity that we are strong, and the infinity of ideas behind how to get somewhere is what we should be encouraging rather than trying to stamp it out in favor of stodgy, we-went-through-it-and-damnitall-so-will-you kinds of thinking. we know schooling as it exists is seriously flawed, and anyone who says, "Whoa. I think we'll do it this way instead" should be lauded.
posted by RedEmma at 4:20 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


No RedEmma, you misread me, I'm an anthropologist, when I said "To function in society, one must be educated in the values of that society" I meant exactly that.

I did not mean that someone in another society must be educated in the values of *my* society *exclusively* (and you are making assumptions about what my "society" is that are not necessarily correct), I meant that the members of any particular society should be educated and literate, and for things to work properly, they should be educated in the values of that society - their own society. I fully agree that one should be literate in *one's own language*, first, if at all possible.

Note though that as The White Hat says, compulsory education helps ensure that kids do get educated, and not just sent off to work, and ensures that girls get educated. If it were not compulsory, it has been demonstrated that families often choose only to educate the boys. I was pointing out that my family was rather exceptional for educating their girls beyond what was compulsory and customary by sending them to college in an era where it was hardly common to do that.

I agree that in the best of all possible worlds "governments should provide ... the funding for diversity and culturally relevant education from the roots up".

However, I think it is most important to get some basic level of education and literacy for all the people, and then you eventually and hopefully get people able to work toward upgrading and reforming education to serve everyone better.

There are many types of knowledge of value, and not all valuable knowledge is exclusively based in the written word. However, like it or not, we live in a time where some basic level of literacy is essential.
posted by gudrun at 5:17 PM on June 15, 2008


Put simply, my point is that the poor in Mewar don't have any agency. Amartya Sen backs me up here. Poverty deprives people of choice more than education by about a dozen orders of magnitude. In Rajasthan (the state in which Mewar is located), the literacy rate for women is 20% (6% for the lowest caste [and just try to get their tribes to educate girls]), the poverty rate is 25%, and the average age of marriage is around 14 years (opposed to about 18 for India as a whole). There's one university or college for every 2 million of the population.*

The folks writing that website are decidedly not among the disadvantaged set. They have economic status which provides them the freedom to seek out and implement new methods of education. I have little problem with them. It's a mistake, though, to assume that entire populations all have the economic means or even the wisdom to write their own curricula. I don't even like the idea of Dover County PA's school board trying to restrict the teaching of evolutionary theory. Similar closed-mindedndess is almost guaranteed in Rajasthan. This is the other great thing about universal compulsory education: it allows unpopular ideas such as education for girls to propagate and take root.

These poor folks aren't being oppressed by the government's obtrusive provision of services; they're being oppressed by the lack of services and a lack of access to those being provided. Same goes for the American Indians you used as an example. AIHEC and the tribal college system are great ideas with lots of promise, but they're both "woefully underfunded," and this is in a country with a functional highway system and police force. India's making great strides now, trying to attract more girls and providing school lunches / other economic incentives. The systems are not fundamentally dysfunctional, as you say they are. Even as underfunded as they are, there are vast improvements being made in literacy and education, the results of which are having positive impacts on everything from economics to health.

Also, as a side-snark, many people learn farming at (government-funded) ag schools and have done so for about a century and a half.
posted by The White Hat at 9:01 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


i realize that my ideas about removing the compulsory piece of education will not happen in my world, probably not until my bones are long since dust. i do believe that it is the crux of what is wrong with what we do to children, and i acknowledge that we still live in a world where if schooling isn't compulsory, then something else perhaps less desirable will be.

i am, after all, a teacher and an idealist. these two things don't go well together, and have made me one of those wild-eyed people with a sledgehammer at the school walls.

only this, then: in my lifetime, i really hope we see that the *definition* of what schooling looks like will fundamentally change. hopefully the wide dissemination of Internet access will remove for the isolated and underfunded the necessity of school buildings and the woeful lack of qualified teachers. the "upward" curve toward quality education can get around these very tangible obstacles, and get to the real business of allowing people to learn.

if education/schooling must be compulsory, then lets diversify what it means to be educated, and what it means to "go to school."

i've found it inspiring to learn the definition of Swaraj, and the vision these particular Mewari have toward its fruition. thanks, divabat.
posted by RedEmma at 8:48 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


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