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It’s Time to Make India’s Education Good Enough for All

The COVID-19 pandemic has detrimentally impacted education systems worldwide. Of the 1.2 billion children that the coronavirus has thrown out of classrooms, at least one-third have no access to remote learning and hence no access to education. The UN estimates that 24 million children will not return to school due to the fallout from the pandemic. Solving the education crisis needs to be a priority for governments.


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This issue is of particular significance in India, where the pandemic has steeply, and perhaps irreversibly, increased education inequality. Over 1.5 million schools have closed down, depriving 6 million children of basic education. The government has been preoccupied with issues such as the pandemic, the migrant crisis, the farmer protests and state elections. It has failed to focus on education.

Exacerbated Negatives

Even as capitalist a country as the United States provides its populace with free public schooling. In contrast, a supposedly socialist India is unable to educate its children. India, currently in its youth-bulge phase, has 600 million citizens under the age of 25. The education of these young people can and should be India’s catalyst for economic, social and political growth. 

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The socioeconomic benefits of education outweigh its costs. For example, the pervasiveness of child marriage among girls with no education is 30.8% versus 2.4% for girls who have received higher education. Bearing in mind the fact that more than one out of four Indian child brides become teenage mothers, providing girls with education could help solve the problem of child marriage, which would subsequently combat teenage pregnancy and high infant mortality rates. Education could also reduce the rampancy of child labor while also reducing rates of preventable diseases. 

Unfortunately, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE) and India’s new education policy have no provision for dealing with the current crisis. Its Constitution declares India to be a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.” Many politicians claim to be socialists. Yet the pandemic has proven that socialism is merely an empty slogan in India. Health and education are highly privatized. Citizens have to pay for basic treatments and for half-decent schools.

The education system had many issues long before COVID-19 made matters worse. The pandemic has only exacerbated the negatives. The RTE had noble intentions but mixed results. India needs a modern education system that expands both the minds of the young and the arc of their opportunities. The pandemic has been terrible for students, but it provides a great opportunity for reform. It remains to be seen if the government will grasp the opportunity.

Legislating Education

Under the current legislation, both the central government in Delhi and the state governments individually can pass laws concerning education. Generally, schools are administered by the state departments of education, while the central government dictates overall guidelines and policy. The Ministry of Human Resource Development oversees the education and literacy of the entire country, conducted in three types of schools: private unaided, private aided, and government-funded and government-run public schools. According to data from the Indian Education Ministry, 75% of all schools are government-owned, responsible for the education of approximately 65% of all school students, or 113 million, across 20 states.  

According to Oxfam India, 80% of students in government schools have received no education since the pandemic began. Furthermore, despite the government broadcasting certain classes on television, many students have been unable to access them because they lack basic infrastructure at home. Over 200 million Indians do not own a television, phone or radio. Additionally, this method of teaching and learning is not interactive, with students finding it difficult to grasp the material.

While poor government schools remain closed, private schools have adapted to virtual learning. However, only 23% of all Indian households have access to a computer. This figure drops to only 4% among the rural population. Rural areas in particular are struggling with the fallout from the pandemic such as the migrant crisis and rampant unemployment, so education ranks low on local governments’ priority lists.

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To make matters worse, the closing of schools in early 2020 translated to the effective cancellation of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme that provided 116 million schoolchildren with hot meals. The central government has drafted guidelines for states and union territories to supply cooked meals or food-security allowances to schoolchildren. However, it is clear that various municipalities have failed to implement these guidelines. For instance, Bihar took 44.6 million tons of grains from the central government in 2019 to feed schoolchildren; in 2020, this figure dropped to zero. Children are not only missing out on education but also on nutrients. This is reversing years of progress that India had made in combating malnutrition. It is well known that malnutrition hinders intellectual development and can lead to poor academic performance, disease and even death. Children in poor families now face an increased risk of malnutrition as the gap between them and their more prosperous counterparts increases by the day.

But even children from more affluent families are struggling to cope with online learning. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. In India, board examinations — the final set of tests for students graduating from high school — have been canceled. This has left millions of students worrying about their future. 

Misguided Provisions

One of the key problems with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act is that it is poorly drafted. It is unclear and repetitive. According to the District Information System of Education, as of 2016, only 13% of all Indian schools achieved compliance with RTE norms. As a national act, the RTE establishes certain parameters, procedures and standards for both private and public schools to follow. It places a primary emphasis on the idea of education for all by dictating that every child between the ages of six and 14 must be eligible to receive free education. However, Indian children are still struggling to obtain the education promised to them.

The most adversely affected are the children living in rural areas who make up 73% of Indian youth. About 90% of the facilities in these districts are government-run public schools that struggle with untrained teachers and poor infrastructure, failing to meet the standards set by the RTE. Schools that do not follow these standards are forced to shut down. In many cases, these schools are the only option available.

According to the India School Closure Report published by Centre for Civil Society in India, between April 2015 to March 2018, 2,469 schools were closed in 14 states due to RTE non-compliance, while 4,482 were threatened with closure and a further 13,546 were served closure notices. In line with Luis Miranda’s analysis for Forbes India, if we assume an average of 200 students per institution in Punjab, the closure of 1,170 schools there as of August 2015 amounted to 234,000 students being unable to attend a school of their choice or to receive an education at all in just one state.

For several states, data on the extent of school closures remain missing. As of 2016, total enrolment in public schools was only 1% higher for elementary schools and 2% higher for secondary schools compared to 2000. Data from 2016 reveal that enrolment decreased in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal.

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The RTE has misguided provisions that may be well-meaning but are highly damaging. The act mandates a 25% quota to be reserved at the entry-level of educational institutions for students from economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups. The law states that the central government must reimburse schools for the costs incurred due to the quota by either paying schools’ per-child expenses or the fees charged, whichever is lower.

However, this provision has been implemented unevenly. In 2013-14, Madhya Pradesh filled 88.2% of the 25% quota and Rajasthan filled 69.3%, while states like Uttar Pradesh managed only 3.62% and Andhra Pradesh just 0.21%. Furthermore, corruption under the quota provision is also rampant. Parents often issue fraudulent income certificates to qualify under the quota, and schools do not oppose bribery as they favor students from affluent families. When wealthy private schools try to integrate economically weaker students, existing students often withdraw their admission due to a broad physical, infrastructural and cultural chasm between the classes. In India, there is still a stigma around studying with someone from a vastly differing economic background. 

Adding Insult to Injury

There is another problem with the quota system for economically underprivileged children. The central government is supposed to reimburse state governments who fund schools for filling their quota. Unfortunately, there is no methodology for this. The central government decides on an ad hoc basis what any state is supposed to get. For example, in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, expenditure per child per year is 3,064 rupees, or approximately $41. However, the central government gives this state of 236 million people only 450 rupees, or around $6, for every poor child. Naturally, schools have little incentive to fill their quota for economically underprivileged children, meaning that a mere 3.62% of the seats are filled. 

More significantly, the RTE has failed to address the fundamental issue of the lack of quality in Indian education. According to the 2018 “Annual Status of Education Report,” 55% of fifth graders in public schools could not read a second-grade textbook. The quality of teachers tends to be poor. Their pedagogies are almost invariably outdated. Teachers often lack motivation and training. In 2015-16, 512,000 teachers — or one in six — in elementary government schools were untrained.

One nationwide survey revealed a teacher absentee rate of 23.6% in rural areas. In states like Uttar Pradesh, teachers are hired by paying bribes. Often, they are barely literate. When teachers are qualified, they often run private coaching businesses instead of teaching in the schools. 

To add insult to injury, untrained teachers use curricula that have little relevance to the lives of poor schoolchildren. They champion rote-based learning and, more often than not, destroy creativity. Many schools lack proper buildings, decent roofs and proper toilet facilities, especially for girls. Blackboards, basic learning aids and even chalk can run short. In 2018-19, only 28% of all government schools had computers and only 12% had an internet connection. Despite the government campaigning for a digital India, it has done little to provide computers and internet connectivity to schools across the country.

Time for Reform

As of 2020, India spent just 3.1% of its GDP on education. Importantly, every national policy since 1968 has recommended a figure of 6%. Other developing countries such as South Africa and Brazil spend 6.5% and 6.3% respectively. The government of India could start with emulating its BRICS counterparts in increasing the amount it spends on rearing the next generation.

Even the little amount India spends on education often does not reach schoolchildren, the intended beneficiaries of the system. Like all aspects of Indian life, corruption causes much harm to the most vulnerable of the country’s citizens. The upper and middle classes almost invariably send their children to private schools, as do officials in charge of drafting India’s education policy. It is only the children of the poor who end up in government education, with parents having little knowledge or influence to demand either accountability or quality.

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Officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) preside over all ministries in India from finance and industry to culture and education. These IAS officers have little if any experience in education. These officers often spend their time trying to get postings to departments with more power and greater opportunities for corruption. They have little incentive to reform the broken system either at the level of the state or national government. Politicians see little gain from focusing on education either. They are always too busy with the next election.

India’s citizens have to demand better use of their taxpayer money. The best use of that money in the long term is investment in education, not only in as funding but also good policymaking. Politicians must entrust this policy to educationists, not IAS officers. In the past, India’s great institutions were set up by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, not faceless bureaucrats.

India needs educational reform now more than ever. The pandemic has been devastating for hundreds of millions of students. If the government fails to act now, India will become an even more unequal and divided nation than it is today. Without high-quality mass education, the country will never have the skill or the knowledge base to be a truly dynamic economy. India’s government schools need to be good enough for the children of top politicians, not just for its poor downtrodden masses. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Can Dyslexia Be an Asset?

I’m a nationally syndicated columnist, author of several books and a speaker on global business, labor and economic trends. I’m also a beneficiary, not a victim, of dyslexia, a learning disability characterized by reading, writing and decoding difficulties. Why do I say beneficiary? Read on. 

As a child, I experienced the difficulties of dyslexia firsthand. Growing up, I often felt dumb, lacked confidence and had low self-esteem. I couldn’t read until much later than my classmates, albeit slowly, and continue to have difficulties with math. When paying bills, for example, I still say each number out loud, highlight each digit and review it several times before I hit send on my laptop.

To this day, I still have stomach aches weekday mornings Monday through Friday, but not Saturday or Sunday. This was caused by the anxiety I felt waiting for the school bus and knowing that when I arrived at school, I would not be able to complete tasks, somehow embarrass myself and feel stupid.


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Before the Christmas vacation in first grade, I recall being very excited hearing bells ringing in the hallway. Our teacher told us it was Santa’s elves putting candy in our boots. We all darted out of the classroom into the hallway. I was shocked to find sticks in my boots. Was I a bad kid? My teacher, not being familiar with dyslexia, probably thought I was lazy.

Needless to say, I failed first grade. However, I was fortunate to repeat it at a nearby school that had an excellent special education teacher. Her instruction, along with support from my family and friends, helped me cope, build much-needed confidence and self-esteem. My father repeatedly told me that I could achieve anything I wanted if I was willing to work hard. He also told me that if it took me twice as long as other students to complete my homework or study for tests, that’s what I had to do.

Other dyslexics are not as fortunate as I was and don’t have the educational assistance, emotional support or encouragement I received as a child. Consequently, it’s estimated — and is no surprise — that dyslexics include over 30% of high school dropouts, 50% of all adolescents involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and nearly half of all those incarcerated in the United States.

The brains of dyslexics are wired differently. On the upside, dyslexics think outside the box in a non-linear way, in pictures, not words. Research indicates dyslexics are highly creative, insightful and intuitive, and are able to identify complex patterns much more easily than the average person. I credit this characteristic, which I identify as big-picture thinking, for my ability to connect the dots in seemingly unrelated economic trends and other factors.

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In the United States, it’s estimated that dyslexics, who may represent as much as 10% to 20% of the population, comprise approximately 35% of entrepreneurs, 40% of all self-made millionaires, and 50% of rocket scientists at NASA. Dyslexia is so common at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s called “the MIT disease.” Interestingly, years ago, the American Astronomical Society noted that astrophysicists with dyslexia at times outperformed their non-dyslexic colleagues in identifying the distinctive characteristics of black holes.

Many of the world’s most famous and successful people are dyslexics. This reportedly includes Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo DaVinci, Bill Gates, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Charles Schwab. Their genius didn’t occur in spite of dyslexia but, more likely, because of it.

In addition to its advantages, dyslexics also often learn to cope with difficulties and deal with failure, which is part of any successful process. I suspect many of my early achievements were motivated by my need to prove I wasn’t a failure.

The advantages of dyslexia are extensive, but they often remain untapped if dyslexic students don’t have access to quality special education services. Although mandated by US federal law, students don’t always get an adequate individualized education plan or the help they need.

According to Annual Performance Reports from the US Department of Education, the cost of schooling a child receiving a special education can be more than twice the average. Since poorer school districts are not as well financed as wealthier ones, and teachers are not always sufficiently trained, many children with dyslexia fall through the cracks, as the numbers above make obvious. This needs to change.

Just as important, the advantages of dyslexia will not be obtained if the child has a negative attitude or a poor opinion of themselves. I’m reminded of the wise words from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t … you’re right.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Stop Treating Teachers as Cheap Labor

When it comes to teaching, there is a common saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This perception of the profession in the United States makes it a rather unattractive field. This might explain why public schools have been haunted by staffing problems for decades.

US schools have suffered from a continued loss of teachers. Every year, 8% of public school teachers leave the profession entirely and another 8% of them move between schools, according to Learning Policy Institute. Teachers leaving their jobs is detrimental to staff quality at schools and, ultimately, to the academic performance of students.

But why is there a high turnover rate at public schools? According to a study by Geoffrey D. Borman and N. Maritza Dowling, teachers often quit due to dissatisfaction with policies that affect how they do their jobs, low salaries and working conditions.


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In 2001, the US Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on “individual student achievement and overall school performance.” Since then, test-based accountability reform has tried to hold teachers responsible for the performance of students in exams. Under pressure to achieve proficiency benchmarks, teachers have reported experiencing burnout and test stress, leading to many quitting their jobs. In low-performing urban schools, where students tend to score lower grades, the teacher turnover rate is higher than in suburban institutions.

Low salaries, which often fail to match the cost of living in urban areas, exacerbate the problem. In Singapore, where the turnover rate is six times lower than in the United States, teacher salaries were 30% higher than the national wage average, as of 2019. In the US, this figure stood at 17%.

As a result, many low-paid teachers in the United States do part-time jobs to make ends meet. Taking on heavy school duties and a second or even third job can lead to fatigue. A tired and distracted teacher is less likely to deliver quality lessons. They may not have extra time to assist underperforming students or communicate well with parents. Such working conditions result in an inequitable distribution of teacher quality. In turn, the achievements of students who require additional assistance in their learning are affected.

The CAN Approach

The high turnover rate needs tackling. To do so, an approach that focuses on compensation, appraisal and networking (CAN) would lead to more teachers staying in the profession.

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First, when teachers with marketable skills are unhappy about low salaries that do not fairly compensate for their job stress, it is natural for them to quit. The simple way to fix this is to raise teacher salaries. It is not hard to understand that teachers who are paid a meager amount and are forced to bear test performance responsibilities have intentions to resign.

It is ironic that federal and state governments call for high-quality education but are unwilling to invest in hiring high-quality teachers. The argument against doing so is that there is a lack of available funding. Yet this is not the case. The money is available but has been misplaced. As of 2017, school districts spent an average of $10,000 to $26,500 to fill vacancies left by each departing teacher. If this cash is instead invested in providing better salaries, teachers would think twice about leaving in the first place. If a tap is dripping, it is wiser to fix the problem rather than let more water go down the drain.

Second, standardized testing only partially examines the knowledge students obtain at school. Test scores are highly volatile and can be affected by a student’s socioeconomic background, English proficiency and even mood on exam days. Using the one-time performance of students is not a suitable way of measuring the quality of teaching. Holding teachers accountable for various factors that could influence grades is unfair.

A more comprehensive appraisal system for teachers is the order of the day. The current model that focuses on test scores needs to be replaced by one that also looks at other important goals. Aside from grades, education helps to equip students with social-emotional learning skills. It is essential for children to understand their own emotions, cope with negative ones and develop empathy with their teacher’s assistance. These life skills are often not tested or even measured, but they make a huge difference in a student’s future. Such an approach would better reflect the effectiveness of teaching.

Third, newly-qualified teachers have the highest turnover rate. Mentoring programs, especially those that match both experienced and novice teachers in the same subject field, are particularly important. Such programs provide networking opportunities to help new teachers integrate into school culture and acclimate to teaching protocols.

Teachers matter for a child’s education. Children spend a considerable amount of time in schools during their formative years. Teaching quality not only affects a student’s academic achievements but also heavily influences their life outcomes. It is time to stop treating teachers as high-quality cheap labor. High-quality labor is not cheap, and cheap labor is not high quality.

*[Updated on June 6, 2021, at 17:00 GMT.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Is Bill Gates a Danger to Humanity?

Bill Gates had his first extended moment in history at the end of the 20th century. He regularly appeared as the richest, but also the nerdiest, man on earth. His rarely eclipsed top ranking lasted for at least two decades. Perhaps bored by the idea of holding wealth, he eventually decided to leave the management of Microsoft — the source of his ever-growing fortune — to others as he carved out for himself a different place in history, a far nobler one.

This new role, nevertheless, depended on him being one of the richest men on earth. He now wanted to be seen as the most virtuous wealthy man on earth, the one who only thought about what his money and wisdom might produce for other people. After shamefully neglecting philanthropy for the first 20 years of his professional rise to the top, Gates suddenly embraced it. You could say he took possession of it, just as, when he was still CEO of Microsoft, he would sometimes take possession of companies with competing products to drive them out of the market.

Thinking about what he could do for others and giving them the means to meet their needs or achieve their ambitions clearly wasn’t enough. Gates would not be a passive philanthropist. His contribution would consist of telling people what they must do and how they must do it. Although to some, such as Anand Girardharadas or the Daily Devil’s Dictionary itself, it has been evident for some time, acute observers are just beginning to understand the extent of the damage produced by Gates’ commitment to spending billions of dollars for our collective health, education and welfare.


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In yesterday’s column, we cited Alexander Zaitchik’s detective work in his New Republic article with the title “How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines.” Gates would probably argue that without the prospect of earning untold billions in the future thanks to their control of intellectual property rights, the incentive consisting of being paid generously to develop a global solution in the interest of humankind would simply fail to motivate the pharmaceutical giants who control the marketplace of critical drugs and vaccines.

Gates tried his hand at education and failed miserably. His role in defining the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 vaccine program produced a fiasco that could have been avoided. Gates is now focusing on agriculture, becoming, as a member of the Sioux nation, Nick Estes, reports in The Guardian, the “largest private owner of farmland in the US.” Gates is now particularly active in India’s agriculture, which is currently undergoing a major crisis

In all these cases, Gates steps in with cash and convinces others, especially public authorities, to support his projects with government funding that will be used to fulfil his, rather than the public’s, agenda. He runs his experiments, always designed as top-down management ventures. He then watches them fail and walks away, presumably a wiser man. Worse, the public only remembers that he put up the cash, not that he played Dr. Frankenstein or the sorcerer’s apprentice. The devastation he creates remains. In the best cases, the damage is local. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, it has been global.

Dr. Joseph Mercola on The Defender, a website dedicated to “Children’s health defense,” interviewed the Indian scientist and ecological warrior, Vandana Shiva (a Fair Observer contributor) concerning Gates’ foray into Indian agriculture. In his summary of Shiva’s points, Mercola cites this one: “Through his company, Gates Ag One, Gates is pushing for one type of agriculture for the whole world, organized top, down. This includes digital farming, in which farmers are surveilled and mined for their agricultural data, which is then repackaged and sold back to them.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Digital farming:

The transformation of an essential human activity aimed at feeding humans into a profitable activity aimed primarily at feeding the bank accounts of shareholders in agribusiness monopolies.

Contextual Note

Shiva and Mercola advocate for an intelligent, ecologically sound return to the human culture of farming. This implies more than following the mechanical rules of industrial processes. Like all cultures, it is a bottom-up creation that grows from human experience. It includes not only the respect for natural techniques and processes but also the maintenance and development of traditional relationships that imply human rather than purely technological control of farming.

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Without denying science — Shiva has a PhD in quantum physics — she understands the very real cost of dehumanizing agriculture. India’s Green Revolution permitted a rational leap forward after the disorder of colonial rule, but it also set the stage for a disastrous transformation of the environment, which, if pursued, will transform India’s breadbasket into a desert.  

Should we listen to Shiva rather than Gates on the relationship between science and farming? After all, she is the scientist; Gates is an industrial promoter. Shiva justifiably exclaims: “My god, what kind of stage has the world reached that absolute nonsense can pass the science?” Historians may end up calling that stage in our economic and cultural history the “financialization of everything.”

Shiva seeks to counter the crushing weight of corporate power and monetary might in a hyper-industrialized, artificially intelligent economy that reduces human activity to the management of mechanized assets. The corporate powerhouses and sainted post-industrial gurus like Bill Gates definitely have data on their side. They live and breathe data. Data is literally their wealth and the only thing they seriously believe in. To prove that their policies are right, whether while manipulating the media or giving a TED Talk, it is data that they cite, not human accomplishment.

Their monetary wealth now focuses on monopolizing data and codifying it as intellectual property, which in turn inevitably extends their existing wealth. Data is, after all, an asset with low overheads and infinite capacity for duplication. That is the unique, nasty secret to the historical success of Microsoft. Bill Gates and the corporate world of which he has become the emblem represent the concentrated wealth with the power to influence governments and dictate policy.

Historical Note

Mercola compares Gates to John D. Rockefeller. Though he doesn’t mention their names, he remembers the maestros who founded the art of public relations: Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Those two men were called in to successfully transform Rockefeller’s public image from a grasping, evil robber baron to that of a munificent benefactor of humanity. Lee and Bernays did more than save Rockefeller’s tattered reputation. They inserted the meaning that was missing from the myth of capitalist acquisitiveness. Capitalism is not just about producing goods that become available to the mass of consumers. Thanks to philanthropy, it’s also a system designed to encourage a new type of virtuous behavior.

Rockefeller’s, JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie’s capitalism developed unhindered through the late 19th century until a few political actors — two of them named Roosevelt — looked for largely imperfect but nevertheless reasonably effective ways of reining them in. That was a period in which manufacturing sat at the core of the economy, set the tone for the management of prosperity and produced the wealth that spread through the growing consumer economy.

At that point in capitalist culture, through most of the 20th century, what counted tended to be tangibly material. In recent decades, financial games have overtaken all other forms of economic thinking. Bankers, industrialists and politicians depend on it for its so-called “productivity” — producing profits out of thin air. There may still be a tenuous link with the real economy since financialization seeks to establish and control monopolistic production and distribution. But the logic behind the production no longer has anything to do with human needs and even less with human culture.

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Bill Gates is not alone, but more than any other public figure he has successfully positioned himself as the man who knows what everyone else needs and has the money to write the rules of the game on a global scale. Does this make him the new Satan? In one sense, Gates is simply the product of his times. Better than the visionary inventors — Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — Gates has always known how to appeal to the idea of pragmatic seriousness. MS-DOS, not Macintosh, conquered the world of business in the 1980s. But it has become increasingly obvious that thanks to his money, the world has become a poorer place.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Welcome to The Economist’s Technological Idealism

Every publication has a worldview. Each cultivates a style of thought, ideology or philosophy designed to comfort the expectations of its readers and to confirm a shared way of perceiving the world around them. Even Fair Observer has a worldview, in which, thanks to the diversity of its contributors, every topic deserves to be made visible from multiple angles. Rather than emphasizing ideology, such a worldview places a quintessential value on human perception and experience.

Traditional media companies profile their readership and pitch their offering to their target market’s preferences. This often becomes its central activity. Reporting the news and informing the public becomes secondary to using news reporting to validate a worldview that may not be explicitly declared. Some media outlets reveal their bias, while others masquerade it and claim to be objective. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has frequently highlighted the bias of newspapers like The New York Times that claim to be objective but consistently impose their worldview. In contrast, The Economist, founded in 1843, has, throughout its history, prominently put its liberal — and now neoliberal — worldview on public display


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Many of The Economist’s articles are designed to influence both public opinion and public policy. One that appeared at the end of last week exemplifies the practice, advertising its worldview. It could be labeled “liberal technological optimism.” The title of the article sets the tone: “The new era of innovation — Why a dawn of technological optimism is breaking.” The byline indicates the author: Admin. In other words, this is a direct expression of the journal’s worldview.

The article begins by citing what it assesses as the trend of pessimism that has dominated the economy over the past decade. The text quickly focuses on the optimism announced in the title. And this isn’t just any optimism, but an extreme form of joyous optimism that reflects a Whiggish neoliberal worldview. The “dawn” cliché makes it clear that it is all about the hope of emerging from a dark, ominous night into the cheer of a bright morning with the promise of technological bliss. Central to the rhetoric is the idea of a break with the past, which takes form in sentences such as this one: “Eventually, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and robotics could upend how almost everything is done.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Upend:

As used by most people: knock over, impede progress, halt a person’s or an object’s stability.

As used by The Economist: to move forward, to embody progress.

Contextual Note

In recent decades, the notion of “disruptive innovation” has been elevated to the status of the highest ideal of modern capitalism. Formerly, disruption had a purely negative connotation as a factor of risk. Now it has become the obligatory goal of dynamic entrepreneurs. Upending was something to be avoided. Now it is actively pursued as the key to success. Let “synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and robotics” do their worst as they disrupt the habits and lifestyles of human beings, The Economist seems to be saying the more upending they entrepreneurs manage to do, the more their profits will grow.

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In the neoliberal scheme of things, high profit margins resulting from the automatic monopoly of disruptive innovation will put more money in the hands of those who know how to use it — the entrepreneurs. Once they have settled the conditions for mooring their yachts in Monte Carlo, they may have time to think about creating new jobs, the one thing non-entrepreneurial humans continue to need and crave.

For ordinary people, the new jobs may mean working alongside armies of artificially intelligent robots, though in what capacity nobody seems to know. In all likelihood, disruptive thinkers will eventually have to imagine a whole new set of “bullshit jobs” to replace the ones that have been upended. The language throughout the article radiates an astonishingly buoyant worldview at a moment of history in which humanity is struggling to survive the effects of an aggressive pandemic, to say nothing of the collapse of the planet’s biosphere, itself attributable to the unbridled assault of disruptive technology over the past 200 years.

What The Economist wants us to believe is that the next round of disruption will be a positive one, mitigating the effects of the previous round that produced, alongside fabulous financial prosperity, a series of increasingly dire negative consequences.

The article’s onslaught of rhetoric begins with the development of the cliché present in the title telling us that “a dawn of technological optimism is breaking.” The authors scatter an impressive series of positively resonating ideas through the body of the text: “speed,” “prominent breakthroughs,” “investment boom,” “new era of progress,” “optimists,” “giddily predict,” “advances,” “new era of innovation,” “lift living standards,” “new technologies to flourish,” “transformative potential,” “science continues to empower medicine,” “bend biology to their will,” “impressive progress,” “green investments,” “investors’ enthusiasm,” “easing the constraints,” “boost long-term growth,” “a fresh wave of innovation” and “economic dynamism.”

The optimism sometimes takes a surprising twist. The authors forecast that in the race for technological disruption, “competition between America and China could spur further bold steps.” Political commentators in the US increasingly see conflict with China. Politicians are pressured to get tough on China. John Mearsheimer notably insists on the necessity of hegemonic domination by the US. Why? Because liberal capitalism must conquer, not cooperate. But in the rosy world foreseen by The Economist, friendship will take the day.

Historical Note

We at the Daily Devil’s Dictionary believe the world would be a better place if schools offered courses on how to decipher the media. That is unlikely to happen any time soon because today’s schools are institutions that function along the same lines as the media. They have been saddled with the task of disseminating an official worldview designed to support the political and economic system that supports them. 

Official worldviews always begin with a particular reading of history. Some well-known examples show how nations design their history, the shared narrative of the past, to mold an attitude about the future. In the US, the narrative of the war that led to the founding of the nation established the cultural idea of the moral validity associated with declaring independence, establishing individual rights and justifying rebellion against unjust authority. Recent events in Washington, DC, demonstrate how that instilled belief, when assimilated uncritically, can lead to acts aiming at upending both society and government.

In France, the ideas associated with the French Revolution, a traumatically upending event, spawned a different type of belief in individual rights. For the French, it must be expressed collectively through organized actions of protest on any issue. US individualism, founded on the frontier ideal of self-reliance, easily turns protestation into vigilante justice by the mob. In France, protests take the form of strikes and citizen movements.

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The British retain the memory of multiple historical invasions of their island by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and more recent attempts by Napoleon and Hitler. The British people have always found ways of resisting. This habit led enough of them to see the European Union as an invader to vote for Brexit.

The Italian Renaissance blossomed in the brilliant courts and local governments of its multiple city-states. Although Italy was unified in 1870, its citizens have never fully felt they belonged to a modern nation-state. The one serious but ultimately futile attempt was Mussolini’s fascism, which represented the opposite extreme of autonomous city-states.

The article in The Economist contains some examples of its reading of economic history. At the core of its argument is this reminder: “In the history of capitalism rapid technological advance has been the norm.” While asserting neoliberal “truths,” like that “Governments need to make sure that regulation and lobbying do not slow down disruption,” it grudgingly acknowledges that government plays a role in technological innovation. Still, the focus remains on what private companies do, even though it is common knowledge that most consumer technology originated in taxpayer-funded military research. 

Here is how The Economist defines the relationship: “Although the private sector will ultimately determine which innovations succeed or fail, governments also have an important role to play. They should shoulder the risks in more ‘moonshot’ projects.” The people assume the risks and the corporations skim off the profit. This is neoliberal ideology in a nutshell.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
Climate change news Coronavirus Education Environment Environmental news Global Change Insight World News

Will the Pandemic Revitalize Ideas of the Global Common Good?

Two decades into the 21st century, humanity is faced with a plethora of unprecedented global crises. After SARS-1, multiple novel avian influenza strains, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the current COVID-19 pandemic is by far the most severe and widespread public health crisis in at least a century.

Global climate change is finally being recognized as the single most severe threat to humanity and the planet. This century is also on track to become the era of natural disasters, unique in the history of humanity, with tropical storms, floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires rising exponentially in number. Pandemics, global warming and natural disasters are but three of the many large-scale crises at play, posing problems that are particularly challenging for policymaking at various levels.


A New Social Contract Amid a Crisis

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The 21st century is expected to produce even more and ever greater challenges for the global community. Biodiversity loss, water scarcity and desertification, food insecurity, refugee crises, failing states and more will affect many societies in intricate, complex ways. Termed “Grand Challenges” by the United Nations and various other institutions in an effort to generate data, knowledge and advice to decision-makers, the pressing problem centers around how we go about solving them.

Complexity, Uncertainty, Ambiguity

Phenomena like climate change, pandemics or the creeping collapse of democratic governance and the rule of law can be resolved neither by any individual country, let alone by populist and nationalist politics that defy multilateralism, nor by conventional policy design. Humanity will have to find a way to come together and develop novel and innovative concepts of governance of global public goods and commons, and of global crises, under 21st-century conditions.

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These are conditions of wickedness, ambiguity, non-linearity, multi-causality and multi-scalar occurrence at a planetary scale. Humanity and planet Earth, with all its living species, form a huge symbiosis, a socio-ecological system, much as depicted in James Cameron’s 2009 movie “Avatar.” There is no pristine natural space left untouched by human influence and no human remains untouched by at least one of the many disturbance regimes, such as climate change or the current pandemic, that are haunting us.

In our previous op-eds, we advocated that in the face of these mega crises, new or renewed social contracts are key and that social learning will provide for the vehicle to get us there. We argued that scientists play an important role if they become engaged citizens of their societies and that the self-serving politics of delusional populists and autocrats — whose global mushrooming coincides with the exponential rise of global crises — are to be replaced.

Future narratives that are necessary to guide collective action in the 21st century must be principled and must be about resilience and, sometimes, resistance, often through adaptive or transformative approaches and processes, as well as through education, learning, enlightenment, empowerment and responsible citizenship. Such narratives have to be global and universal, mirroring the scale and globality of the crises that are so daunting today.

The truth is simple: Solutions have to fit the scale and magnitude of the problems, as the pandemic has shown. Humanity must now overcome the comfort zones and confines of tribalism, nationalism and self-interest, or it will perish. In the face of a perfect storm of global mega crises, we must transcend the ideological concept of self-interest driven nation-states, of hegemony and of balance-of-power ideologies that date back from the 17th century but still drive much of our modern world. The 21st century poses brutal challenges to humanity but bears the potential for an evolutionary leap forward, toward true global citizenship and a global social contract.

Transforming Globalization

In less than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the very tenets of 50 years of globalization: the tyranny of international trade regimes, return on investment-oriented global supply chain management, carbon-intense industrial production, the brutal transnational labor market and related migration schemes and global air travel. The notoriously short-lived international capital flow and foreign direct investment came to a halt for a moment — something the 2007-09 financial crisis failed to achieve — and are now being questioned by unlikely sources.

Even die-hard Chicago School economists have started to explore the circular economy (better late than never). It appears that the pandemic and its fallout are a drastic eye-opener that forces us to realize, finally, that much of the “progress” that globalization has brought about is borrowed, if not stolen, from future generations, non-human species, ecosystems and the planet, divided as we are by equators of rich and poor, of winners and losers, of “developed’ and “underdeveloped.” It is simply not sustainable.

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COVID-19, climate change and many of the other “Grand Challenges” are of course correlated with the so-called Third Industrial Revolution and 50 years of neoliberal globalization and Wall Street finance capitalism. One does not have to be a socialist to understand this simple truth. Indeed, there is hope that the current global public health crisis will lead to a general reckoning, including of people in power, and that there will not be a mere continuation of business as usual after the pandemic.

Globalization and capitalism have to be transformed, enlightened, guided by mutuality and governed by wisdom and foresight based on the revitalized ideas of the global common good, of global citizenship and of a new global social contract. Think “Avatar.”

*[This article was submitted on behalf of the authors by the Hamad bin Khalifa University Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the university’s official stance.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
Culture Education Global Change Insight

How Do People Learn?

This week, Fair Observer featured an article with the title “Social Learning Can Help Transform Crisis Into Opportunity.” The authors, Deborah Brosnan, Andreas Rechkemmer and James Bohland make some important points related to the global crisis affecting education that the coronavirus pandemic has severely aggravated. They highlight a fundamental fact about humanity itself, that any crisis, and more particularly the kind of global crisis the world has been experiencing in 2020, presents an exceptional opportunity for learning.


A New Social Contract Amid a Crisis

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In an age in which, even without a pandemic, learning has been increasingly filtered through the impersonal medium of technology, the authors are also absolutely correct to insist on the social dimension of learning.

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Social learning:

Any learning that produces a result.

Synonyms: Broadening horizons, deepening understanding, respecting context, encouraging critical thinking, systemically coherent ideation.

Antonyms: Schooling, indoctrination, certification, asocial learning.

Contextual Note

To those who have delved into the question of how people learn, the idea that learning can be effective without being social is objectively a hard position to defend. But in today’s society, it is easy to justify. The idea that learning is a fundamentally individual process has become a dominant theme of modern ideology since at least the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. Our school systems have been built around the idea of individuals each seeking to outdo others thanks to their individual efforts.

Of course, individual learning experiences do occur and can have a significant influence on behavior. Someone wandering through the woods in the summer and happens to rub a bared shin against poison ivy will learn to look out for that plant and avoid it. They won’t require the assistance or the instruction of other people. But that kind of purely individual experience is only the first degree of learning — and it is fundamentally imperfect, as the proverb — once bitten, twice shy — demonstrates. Contact, communication, exchange and dialogue with other people add multiple dimensions to the learning experience, providing both breadth and depth of understanding, even for something as simple as avoiding a fundamentally mechanical or chemical risk.

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Thanks to the social dimension that inevitably surrounds that first accidental brush against aggressive vegetation, the victim of poison ivy will learn not only about that particular plant but also about poisonous plants in general and the precautions one should take when strolling in the woods. Such learners will also begin to construct a series of ideas about cutaneous affections and possible treatments.

But it doesn’t even stop there. They will relate this unconsciously to everything else they learn about the relationship between humans and the wilderness. It will serve as a small but significant component in a lifetime of discovering the logic of the multiple, both predictable and unpredictable interactions that define the physical and moral universe, including notions relating to nourishment, growth, environmental adaptation and collective defense.

The idea that learning is fundamentally holistic, resulting from the multiple dimensions of human experience and dialogue, implies that everything we learn is a stage in a progressively structured, or “constructed,” system of relationships and understanding. That system integrates personal experience, intellectual appreciation, networks of ideational and emotional associations and social exchange. Each of these dimensions remains dependent on or at least linked to the others. Accordingly, everything we feel we know is a function of the multiple contexts in which what we know can be true — and sometimes false when the context changes. This general approach to the psychology of learning has been historically called constructivism.

Behaviorists, who reject the constructivist approach as unscientific and unpragmatic, prefer to reduce learning to the Pavlovian simplicity of a reflex, or sets of reflexes, acquired through repeated experience and resulting in simple associations that permit the acquisition of reflexes. 

This approach impoverished the very idea of learning, but it appealed even to academics, who sensed that it could simplify the problem of teaching. It also fit perfectly into a model of social and economic organization that focused on efficiency and profit, and depended on the science, or at least the practice, of accounting. Anything that is simplified and isolated can be accounted for. Anything that depends on its relationship to a system escapes accountability. That may explain why, in our prevailing political morality, individuals may sometimes be held accountable but never the system that has “constructed” those individuals.

Historical Note

The school of psychology known as behaviorism achieved dominance in the ideology of the 20th century. It served the purposes of an industrial civilization intent on building and perfecting the model we call consumer society. It reinforced the idea that schooling was fundamentally about conditioning young people to live in a two-dimensional world, in which every individual was alternately a producer and a consumer. Success in society thus becomes measurable by income and accumulated wealth, not by the quality of interaction with the rest of society. Success in education itself is measured by grades, diplomas and certification. In other words, something that can be printed on a piece of paper and serves as a criterion for classification and judgment.

In the West, principally in the course of the 19th century, the idea of utilitarianism as the basis of ethics emerged to challenge traditional systems of morality, which utilitarians accused of being arbitrary and ill-equipped to calculate mathematical accountability. Traditional morality was vague because it depended on the perception of norms related to some kind of shared worldview. Most often a key component was provided by the community’s dominant religion. But more fundamentally, the pragmatic, everyday ethics of any human community was constructed through a mix of legal and cultural factors that were more or less consistent with whatever religious influences prevailed.

Pleading the cause of social learning as the means not just of solving a crisis, but of using the crisis to achieve something more important, the authors of the Fair Observer article affirm that social learning “engages all parties as citizens working toward a common good.” They call it a “transformative process.” This is another way of describing a constructionist view not just of the learning process of individuals, but of society itself.

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At one point, the authors observe that little evidence exists to support the idea “that information per se leads to any transformational social change.” Their analysis of a social problem at the macro level applies equally to the micro-level of an individual’s schooling. Bombarding children with “information per se” on which they will be subsequently tested — eventually leading to grades, diplomas or certification — fails to lead to any transformational change. And yet, most people suppose that education should be about transformational change. Every child is subjected to random experiences through play, interaction and adventure. Education should serve the purpose of mobilizing those resources to help the child become an adult with a steady and stable, but also creative and adaptive, relationship with the world. 

Education should, therefore, be linking the play, interaction and adventure which all children experience with both science, which is not just information, but research, and the less definable cultural heritage of “wisdom,” which may come from the arts and traditions of serious thinking. STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — is simply not enough.

The authors cite “the principles of truth, equality, shared responsibility, solidarity and legitimacy,” which they pertinently call “the ‘glue’ that binds nations and societies together.” None of these can be easily defined and taught, least of all by applying behaviorist principles. “Shared responsibility” stands, in some ways, as the opposite of accountability, and yet it includes a more subtle reading of accountability as a moral concept. Coupling “solidarity” and “legitimacy” recalls the subtle link between social norms and legal systems.

The authors focus on the problem of the credibility of science. This happens to be one important dimension of a much vaster issue concerning the direction of a civilization that has never disposed of a greater range of material means while at the same time demonstrating its incapacity to address any of the problems it has begun to acknowledge. There are of course structural reasons for this dilemma, which is why a truly constructionist approach based on social learning might just be the one that is called for.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
American News Coronavirus Economics Education Global Change Global inequality news Inequality news Insight North America US news World News

“Human Work” Is the Key to Ending Income Inequality

A new report from the International Monetary Fund says that COVID-19 will increase income inequality in emerging markets and developing countries, “further widening the gap between rich and poor” and increasing the urgency for “investment in retraining and reskilling programs [that] can boost reemployment prospects for adaptable workers whose job duties may see long-term changes as a result of the pandemic.” For many years, these countries have been challenged by disaffected youth along with “wide inequality in education, and large gaps remaining in economic opportunities for women.”


Global Pandemic Exposes Gender Inequality

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The report further warns that “COVID-19 is expected to make inequality even worse than past crises since measures to contain the pandemic have had disproportionate effects on vulnerable workers and women.” Even before the pandemic, growing income inequality had become a stubborn feature of global economies, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it — or the social devastation it’s likely to cause.

Tragic Rise in Inequality

The rise in inequality isn’t just tragic for the millions who are directly affected. We see it reflected in the growing allure of authoritarianism, in the fearmongering directed at lower-income groups, and in the despair and hopelessness of those who feel left out and left behind. The accelerating increase in inequality is dangerous for the future of societies and for the planet.

Ironically, the two groups who have fared best in recent decades are the very poor and the very rich.  The global decline in extreme poverty is one of the most important developments of recent times. Between 1990 to 2015, the extreme poverty rate dropped from nearly 36% to 10%. At the other extreme, the very rich have done quite well. In the last 10 years, the number of billionaires around the world has nearly doubled. In 2018, the 26 richest people in the world held as much wealth as did the entire bottom half of the global population — some 3.8 billion people. More to the point, from 1990 to 2015, the share of income going to the top 1% increased in four out of five countries around the world.

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This massive redistribution of wealth means that the world can no longer be neatly sorted into “developed” and “developing” countries. The global distribution of wealth is now more of a continuum. But the good news ends there, and the trend is inescapably clear: Wealth inequality is growing around the world. In the United States, it’s rising not just because the rich are getting richer, but because since 2000, incomes at the lower end of the scale have stagnated or fallen. Inequality in the US is the highest among the G7 countries, and the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. Between 2007 and 2018, median income in black households fell from 63% to 61% of median white household income.

COVID-19 has worsened things considerably. The pandemic has hit poor countries particularly hard, with experts estimating that as many as 115 million people could fall back into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. Unemployment in most countries has risen the most for people in lower-paid jobs. In the US, unemployment among those with less than a high school diploma reached 21.2% in April, while for those with a postsecondary degree it peaked at 8.4%. According to the World Economic Forum, the impact of COVID-19 on workers with lower levels of education will be even worse than the global financial crisis of 2008.

Human Work

While COVID-19 has accelerated the shift, the transformation of work — especially the automation of a much wider array of tasks through the use of artificial intelligence — is a major driver of inequality. For decades, as low-skill jobs were automated, we have seen an increase in the knowledge and skills demanded of workers. Of course, this is reflected in the rising demand for higher learning and the credentials that represent such learning.

This long-term shift reflects the emergence of human work — work that demands uniquely human traits and capabilities. A human worker takes traits such as compassion, empathy, and ethics, combines them with developed capabilities such as critical analysis, interpersonal communication, and creativity, and then applies them, often in highly interactive settings. Much human work involves helping and serving others, using technology and other resources to understand and help solve people’s problems.

Today, and even more so in the future, holding a good job and doing meaningful work depends on people’s ability — and opportunity — to prepare themselves for human work. Sadly, these opportunities are unavailable to many, which means inequality will continue to increase. But we can change that — first, by changing our approach to education, training and employment.

To begin with, we must abandon the outmoded idea that education, training and employment are different activities that occur in discrete systems. We still see learning and work as separate and sequential: People go to college or technical school, and then they go to work, maintaining their skills through experience and occasional training on the job. This approach has been obsolete for a long time, yet it is still how most education and training systems are designed, certainly those in the US.

But in reality, “student” and “worker” are no longer two different kinds of people, if they ever were. In most cases today, people play both roles simultaneously. Learning and working are done concurrently and continuously, and both are necessary throughout one’s career. For today’s economy, and even more for tomorrow’s, the concept of “once and done” education is dead. In an era when people can be thrown out of the labor market suddenly with little chance to prepare, all workers need opportunities to keep learning throughout their lives and careers. And all of that learning, however and wherever it is obtained, needs to be recognized to count toward credentials that open the door to meaningful work. 

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The true tragedy of the rise in inequality is that it reflects a society coming apart at the seams. But changing the trajectory of inequality to build a more just and open society isn’t an insurmountable challenge. Indeed, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that massive change can come very quickly. Now is the time to work toward such change. We can do that by applying the three interrelated aspects of human work — learning, earning and service to others — toward reducing economic and social inequality. Indeed, our only way to eliminate these inequities is to ensure that everyone has the capacity and opportunity to do human work.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
360° Analysis Central & South Asia Coronavirus Education India News Indian politics news World News

India’s New Education Policy: Not Paying Attention

It was instructive that probably the most consequential event in the life of the Indian Republic merited nothing more than three pro-forma single-sentence references to “epidemics and pandemics” in the recently-adopted National Education Policy 2020. The policy must have been discussed and agreed by the Union Cabinet wearing masks, a clear and present reminder of how much has changed. Yet the document approved acknowledges COVID-19 only to exhort higher education institutions to undertake epidemiological research and advocate greater use of technology in delivery mechanisms.


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That is a pity. COVID-19 has brought lessons in its wake that we will ignore at our peril. In a societal sense, the pandemic has laid bare the fragile and counterproductive assumptions that underpin the way we have organized ourselves. Education, as the primary mechanism that drives long-term change in a society, must respond in a way that protects and strengthens children today and the nation tomorrow.

Institutionalisation of Education

Three important mechanisms of social organization that have been taken for granted in education during recent decades are institutionalization, urbanization and globalization. If COVID-19 is not a one-off event — and there is no reason to assume that it is given how exploitative our engagement with our environment continues to be — each one of them must be reassessed for worth, especially for how they affect the future of our children.

Institutionalization has promoted the idea that the only learning worth our children’s time and our money is the one that is provided in schools, colleges and universities. Across most of the world, this has made learning information-centric and uncritical. It has packed children into rows and columns in classrooms and made them unfamiliar with their surroundings. It has taken them away from the productive use of their hands and bodies, and valorized “brain work,” creating an artificial crisis of periodic unemployment even before the unimaginable destruction of employment caused by COVID-19.

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It has snapped children’s’ connections with their land, their environment, their culture and their communities, replacing them with words in ink on paper or typeface on a computer screen. In India, a mindless pedagogy has further ensured that institutionalization fails even in its own objectives as student achievement in “learning metrics,” mainly focused on literacy, numeracy and data, has kept falling.

With pre-school centers closed, COVID-19 has brought attention squarely to the role of parents in the holistic development of their young children. (We started Sajag, a program for coaching caregivers in nurturing care in April 2020. It now reaches over 1.5 million families and is set to expand further. Many others have started similar programs.) By forcing the closure of schools and colleges, COVID-19 presents us with the opportunity to explore what exactly is being lost when schools close. It also creates the possibility that we will discover how much there is to learn in communities, on land, in relationships and in discovery and invention, outside the school. It has the promise of suggesting a radical overhaul of what we value in education.

Urbanization of Communities

Urbanization has caused us to believe that ghettoization of people in cities is inevitable as we “develop.” With economic and social policies in most countries oriented toward this shibboleth, we have seen unhygienic conditions grow exponentially in cities, even as rural communities have been devastated by the loss of populations. Mental health challenges in urban communities have become alarming, accentuated simply by the inhuman stresses that accompany urban living. For our young, it has meant few physical spaces for wholesome growth and play, little opportunity for meaningful community engagement, and a social landscape tragically barren of nurturing experiences.

By attacking densely-packed urban communities disproportionately, COVID-19 has laid bare the fallacy of organizing ourselves solely for economic efficiency. It asks us to reconsider how physical communities should be laid out, how large they should be, how they should harmonize into the surrounding landscape and how their cultural, economic and political sinews should function.

We have also been fed the inevitability of globalization, almost as a primal force. It is true that it promises economic efficiency, but we have, in the process, lost much. Diversity is the essence of risk reduction and long-term survival and thriving, whether at the level of an organization, a community, a nation or, indeed, evolution of life itself. In a few short decades, blinded by the promise of economic efficiency, we have traded diversity away for massive inequality and loss of local skills, trades, crafts, self-reliance, agency and autonomy. Our textbooks, the only source of information promoted by our policies, have consistently failed to ignite an examination of the underlying assumptions and the all too visible outcomes among our children.

COVID-19 has alerted us to the downsides of these Faustian bargains. Its dramatic spread is certainly a result of our way of life, with air travel being the primary vector. The heart-breaking spectacle of tens of millions of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometers and sleeping on asphalt roads in India’s scorching summer heat is another. They discovered that they had no means of support, no community, no fallback when their employment ceased. COVID-19 has also awakened us rudely to the reality that having the world’s fastest GDP growth rate is no protection against ending up with the world’s steepest fall in GDP and widespread misery.

Globalization of Society

The globalizing impulse has led to entire education systems being unmoored from authentic experience and unresponsive to local needs. As a result, it has fostered and valorized the creation of an alienating and alienated elite. The reaction to that is a distressing level of anti-intellectualism throughout the world. That, of course, creates the fodder for the assembly line that is perhaps the holy grail of the globalizing philosophy in the first place, but it also creates a dangerous level of instability and irrationality in society that can eventually only tear everything apart.

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To the extent that we continue to regard globalization as self-evidently good, we create the potential for damaging our children, inhibiting their learning and creating a world that is less fit for them. Time has come to drop the fiction that local wisdom is somehow inferior and to engage in a meaningful dialogue that hasn’t foreclosed on the alternatives.

To disregard such fundamental questions in an education policy adopted in the middle of the pandemic makes little sense. These should be the subject of widespread dialogue, including in our schools and colleges, before and after the adoption of the policy. The sensibilities that arise from such deliberations must inform our liberal education as well as the conduct of professions such as engineering, town planning, medicine, economics, sociology and, indeed, education. An education policy that doesn’t even consider the questions relevant to how our education system should be structured has surely not paid attention.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
360° Analysis Central & South Asia Education Global Change India News Indian politics news Politics World News

India’s New Education Policy Is Hodgepodge

The union cabinet of the government of India recently announced its 2020 National Education Policy (NEP). This is the first education policy developed by a non-Congress party government since independence. Coming 34 years after the last formulation of a fully-fledged education policy, Indians anticipated a significant pivot in the education system to leverage the country’s demographic dividend. India’s current political leadership claimed it wanted to make the country a “vishwa guru,” the Sanskrit word for a world teacher, and would dramatically reform its education. Therefore, great expectations from the NEP seemed natural.


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Prima facie, the NEP might make many Indians happy because it has something in it for everyone. However, a careful read reveals that the NEP does little to change the direction of our education. It largely promises cosmetic changes. In essence, the NEP is a collection of myriad aspirational expressions, not a coherent policy framework.

The ideologues of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may find the references to ancient wisdom of India heartening. It might lead to young Indians learning that Banabhatta outlined 64 forms of art or Sushruta pioneered glorious surgical techniques. However, it does little to prepare the young to shape the future.

Given my advocacy of long-term policymaking, I should have reasons to thank those who drafted the NEP. They have taken a 20-year view and set goals for 2040. Just as we plan over a 20-year timespan, not a five-year one, for our children, so should our national plans. Yet a bad 20-year plan is worse than its bad five-year counterpart, and that is my problem with the NEP.

What Are the Changes Proposed?

Let me pick on a key aspect of the plan. The NEP proposes the three-language formula. This means that, all over the country, students will learn three languages. These are Hindi, English and the regional language of the respective state. The government believes that it is abolishing language barriers in the country. Instead, this has triggered off a storm in non-Hindi speaking states. In Tamil Nadu, there has been long-standing opposition to Hindi as compulsory learning or administration. The three-language formula has been around since 1968 but failed to take off because parts of India resent the domination and imposition of Hindi.

There is another tiny little matter. Demand for learning in English has taken off around the country, including and especially in Hindi-speaking areas. Thanks to the legacy of colonization, the advent of globalization and a host of other factors, English has emerged as the language of success in India. The people do not care for the three-language formula one jot. Yet the BJP’s NEP is flogging a dead horse.

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Many have lauded the NEP for promoting multidisciplinary education. This has long been discussed. At far too young an age, Indians are cast into rigid silos of arts, science and commerce. As a result, they lose love for learning and end up at lower-productivity levels than their counterparts in Europe or East Asia. The NEP allows students to change disciplines more easily along the same lines as in the US. However, this flexibility will only benefit the country if quality education is offered in different disciplines. For instance, English and history are taught terribly in a rote-based manner in most schools. Shifting from science or commerce to study either subject might enable a student to pass more easily but would achieve little else.

The NEP offers greater flexibility in earning degrees either over a period of time or across subjects. Offering multiple entry and exit points in higher education is a good idea. It may help people find their true interests and give them second or third chances in life. However, the key logical next step is to unlink degrees from jobs, where academic degrees are immaterial. A new form of recruiting that is based on demonstrated merit and knowledge of the work itself is the way forward for the country. The NEP has missed that opportunity to curb India’s fixation with degrees and promote a culture of focus on work.

Supporters claim that the NEP is focusing on work by combining vocational education with school and college education. In due course of time, vocational education will be on par with other degree programs. A carpenter, a plumber or an electrician will command the same respect as someone with a master’s degree in literature, history or sociology. This argument is disingenuous. Increasing “respect” for vocational programs involves changes in social perceptions. It requires much deeper and drastic changes than those envisaged by the NEP.

Bad Thinking and Poor Drafting

In fact, the NEP is full of seemingly good ideas that have simply not been thought through. It has passing references to fostering creativity and instituting a 360-degree view in student report cards. It also throws in digital education, adult learning and lok-vidya (folk education) about local heritage and culture. Yet the NEP fails to tell anyone how these ideas will come into practice.

The drafters of the NEP forget that soundbites are not policy. Nor are tweaks. Turning a 5+3+2+2 system into a 10+2 or 5+3+3 one does not change the way students are taught or the way they learn. Similarly, giving a certificate after year one, a diploma after year two and a bachelor’s after year three does not change syllabi, pedagogy and learning. Yes, a student can drop out after a year with a certificate, but would that be worth the paper it was written on?

To change education, India must improve the quality and commitment of its teachers. Training them in institutions with new names or giving students multiple exits or entries in a four-year bachelor of education program offers flexibility in getting a degree but does not improve the quality of their instruction.

In comparison with earlier education policies, the National Education Policy is a poorly-drafted document. It is a testament to how India has regressed under the BJP. The demonetization policy was instituted by a hasty, poorly-drafted document. It seems that the government does not have the intellectual policymaking firepower of its predecessors.

One sentence in paragraph 4.13 on page 14 of the NEP captures drafting woes common to recent government documents when it proclaims: “In particular, students who wish to change one or more of the three languages they are studying may do so in Grade 6 or 7, as long as they are able to demonstrate basic proficiency in three languages (including one language of India at the literature level) by the end of secondary school.”

Does this mean that students can change the languages they are learning as long as they can travel into the future, i.e., Grade 12, and prove they are proficient in the new languages they choose? Or does it mean that students must be prepared to prove proficiency in the languages they choose in Grade 12? Sadly, the NEP is full of such unadulterated absolute nonsense.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
Education Global Change The Interview World News

Governments Must Recognize the Importance of the Youth

In 2015, world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly agreed to 17 goals for a better world. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the aim is to meet these objectives by the year 2030 in a bid to end poverty, achieve gender equality, ensure access to quality education, promote economic growth and do much more.

Today, there are 1.2 billion people aged 15 to 24 years, making up 16% of the world population. So, to achieve the SDGs, countries around the world probably need the support of young people. The youth can build on their creativity, dynamism and talents to make the world a better place to live and to tackle the challenges faced by the international community.

Young people would benefit from the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as the SDGs are officially known as. However, they are also active contributors in the development of the goals. The engagement of young people in sustainable development efforts is pivotal to achieving inclusive and stable societies.


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In September 2016, the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth introduced the first class of the Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals. Their mission is to advocate for the UN SDGs, promote creative ways of engaging youth in fulfilling the goals and working with different UN departments toward accomplishing the 2030 Agenda.

Kristeena Monteith, a young Jamaican, was one of the UN’s Young Leaders of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2018. She is also the creative producer of the Talk Up Radio show run by young people and broadcast nationally in Jamaica.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Monteith about the role of young people in the realization of the SDGs, the challenges ahead of democratic institutions and the media portrayal of youths.

The transcript has been edited for clarity. This interview took place in 2019 at the 3rd International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads in Changsha, China.

Kourosh Ziabari: What skills and abilities do you think young people need in order to be able to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?

Kristeena Monteith: We need to develop a sort of social awareness of the issues affecting the world. I feel like sometimes we are, even in our own societies, unaware of what is affecting the people, but then on a global level, we’re even less aware of the different issues.

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So, first of all, develop an appreciation for the fact that people deserve dignity, people deserve a level of quality of life right across the board — regardless of whether they are or they’re not like you — and then from there, you can start to really invest in understanding what exactly these people need. So, one thing that the Sustainable Development Goals give you is a framework within which to understand what quality of life could mean to people right across the board — whether it’s access to health services, access to quality education, or whether it’s on a bigger policy level being able to support themselves and their families and having financial stability in their countries.

All of these things matter because we’re trying to build a world where people feel comfortable, [and] feel like they can live to their best ability. So, once you pass the cultural understanding, then you need to be able to leverage your own skills, whether that is your writing or your talent as a business person. It’s about turning the things that interest you and the things that you are innately passionate about into putting them at the service of the world on a larger scale.

So, whatever skills it is, it doesn’t matter what exactly your skills are. It’s about framing a way to turn that into helping to build a more equal society and a world where everybody has the potential to live fully.

Ziabari: What organizations or entities do you think are responsible for giving young people these skills and capabilities in order to be able to work for the SDGs?

Monteith: That’s actually a very important question because you [need] to have support for developing this sort of mindset at every single level. So, every major institution in a young person’s life — whether it’s their family, school, church or religious institution — as you go along each and every one of these institutions, must have a sort of mindset of what we’re doing. [That is] building a better, more equal world for everyone. And so each and every one of them will put their power into different people from the standpoint of trying to embrace them and trying to help them to understand what skills they need to develop to contribute.

So, if it’s a multi-sectoral, multi-angle interest in creating that sort of sustainable future, then that’s where you’ll get the sustainability from because all of us are working towards a joint goal. So, at every single level, every stakeholder, every business, every church, every mosque, every synagogue, each and every one of us has to achieve if not all of the goals, [then] at least one you feel passionately about. Understanding how they interrelate with the other ones is all people really need to support young people along that journey.

Ziabari: Do you think that governments, especially in developing countries, are properly listening to young people and addressing their concerns on employment, education, social justice, health and wellbeing, equality and other similar concerns?

Monteith: I think there are some governments that are trying. I know for a fact that the government of Jamaica is trying. They’re trying to listen, they’re trying to balance this really politically diverse and complicated world that we live in and the region that we are in — with the global superpower, the USA — and the fact that we need money from China to build and to improve infrastructure. So, there’s a lot of tension going on.

Then, you have to balance that with being a sovereign nation, having to put your citizens just at the forefront of what you do. And so, you have very complex geopolitical issues that are playing out, and within that, you have a growing world population of young people who don’t necessarily know how they fit in the process of how much our issues should be prioritized — how much the things that we want and we need in order to live fully and to participate should be prioritized.

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And I think a lot of times, governments don’t recognize the power of the youth voice. If you’re building sustainability, the people who are going to be here [the] longest are the youth. So, you have to find ways to incorporate them into what you’re doing and to also facilitate them in developing a voice that, first of all, they can support you and your agenda. Because if you want sustainability, if you want longevity, if you want to produce policy that outlasts your administration, you have to invest in young people. That’s the only way to do that.

Ziabari: Right, that’s interesting. You are a [2018] young leader for the Sustainable Development Goals and have worked closely with different international organizations. Do you think the United Nations specifically as well as other international bodies are doing enough to make sure that the voices of the young people are heard? Can you give us examples?

Monteith: Well, I think with the UN at the moment, from what I’m seeing from my perspective, there’s a lot of capacity-building happening. So, they’re creating pathways for meaningful interaction. You have the SDG Young Leaders, you have Generation Unlimited, and they’re creating these pathways where empowered young people who are creative and passionate can have that sort of platform from which they can launch projects and they can call upon other young people in their societies.

But on the other hand, I feel like they have a very massive platform, and there are some ways in which it could be utilized even to a greater extent, whether it’s beyond just the SDGs or the UN youth strategy. I think we need to send a greater message to governments [and] to businesses of the power of the youth voice.

And we have a youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, whose platform is very important, She is in direct touch with the UN secretary-general, and I know she uses her platform very well. But I would love to see more than one UN youth envoy. I mean, she has a very much a global perspective [and] she has a whole team behind her informing her, but this is still one young person out of the population.

Then you look at the head of the UN and the heads of the UN [agencies]. They are always, without fail, very old people, and right across the board it’s always the case. And I know with age comes experience and they’ve built long careers of long service and very good service, but I feel like as we go along the lines, we have to be pulling young people up with us and helping them to develop capacity.

So, you need to see more visibility of young people at the decision-making levels at the top of some of these UN boards. I think it would send a greater message if we saw more young people there.

Ziabari: Please tell us more about your work on Talk Up Radio. I know you offer opportunities to young people to have conversations with governments, leaders and authorities and ask them questions. How have been the reactions on both sides? Have these conversations generated concrete results, including changes in government policies?

Monteith: What we’re trying to do is to bring government leaders and young people together in more tangible ways, beyond just voting. We need to create more avenues so young people can make their voice heard and also to access accurate, youth-friendly political information. Because as [I said] throughout the [2019] International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads in China, a lot of the times, communication that [comes] from the government is hugely in legal and political speak, and we don’t speak like that and don’t understand that language.

So, we’ve been trying to bridge that sort of gap, but also, we’ve been trying to get politicians to use social media more often to be more accessible on a one-to-one basis. So, even on Talk Up Radio, when we bring the ministers of government into the studio to talk to young people, it’s not just the four or five young people in the room. Usually, for the two weeks leading up to that event, we’ll be putting up calls on social media for young people to send in questions via WhatsApp, via Facebook, etc. So that we have a body of questions that have come from all over the island, and then we pose those questions in the room to the minister.

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Change at the political level is often a very long process. It’s never just, OK, this is a very good solution and let’s get it into parliament right now. Oftentimes, it has to be vetted and investigated and there needs to be some academic backing to it. But what we’ve seen is that, especially in the case of one minister in particular — i.e., the minister of health in Jamaica — he has changed his language in some sense in how he approaches issues. So since we spoke to him about issues like period poverty, we’ve seen period poverty enter the political landscape as a term.

And then you’ve heard from business leaders and people in society saying that they’re going to develop solutions to this — even from across the other parliamentary body, the PNP [People’s National Party], that’s the other party. They’ve actually different ministers and different opposition leaders that have come up with ideas as well. So, it’s that kind of change that we’re noticing where once an idea gets to the mainstream, then more people start to engage with it.

And I feel even that is a level of success. Obviously, we would love to see more tangible results, but we have to admit that political change is a very long process. And we’re hoping that as we go along and a new budget is stabled and new discussions are being held, these things would also come up and from this forum [in 2019]. I’m hoping to go back and have a conversation of that kind with the minister of culture, trying to get her into the studio to actually talk to young people about issues that were raised, like cultural preservation, incorporating young people and their energies and their creativity into cultural practice in a more tangible way. So, we would push the issue beyond, whether or not they bring it up.

Ziabari: Let’s get back to the SDGs. You may admit that the Sustainable Development Goals are not a priority for some or many governments, especially those with less-democratic and more repressive regimes. How do you think these countries should be involved in efforts to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals and make it a priority for the benefit of their own people?

Monteith: Well, you know, it’s a very complex, political situation because even as we [go] along, we recognize that nations are sovereign — they have all rights over what they do within their borders. Even if what they do will have negative repercussions for the globe, we still cannot impose our will on them. So, the best thing to do is really to sensitize the people of that country to what the SDGs are and why they’re important, and [then] hope that you can spark behavioral change. There is a level of respect and diplomacy that has to be maintained as we go along because we have to recognize state powers [as] that’s what they are. They were elected by the people — [though] sometimes not. But within those borders, we don’t really have jurisdiction over how the government behaves.

So, with people, you can reach out heart to heart, mind to mind and change them or sensitize them, give them the information in order to put pressure on their own government, and in that sense, you do empower them politically to advocate for the things that they want. Because if they see that the SDGs are important and their government doesn’t, it’s upon them now to rise upon perhaps and elect another government or to reach out to the world for help in more tangible ways.

There are structures in place, for example, when coups are happening or when countries are calling for liberation or that kind of thing. There are policies in place across the UN, across different bodies in order to support such movements. But especially in regimes that are less democratic, I feel like the real change will have to come from the people. They will have to be the ones that will lead it because we literally cannot impose any sort of power on them. So, it will have to come from the people.

Ziabari: What do you think, as a young leader, can be done to help young people affected by war and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa to regain their confidence, reassert their identity and become proactive, involved members of their societies, especially if they are suffering from trauma and distress?

Monteith: I have two ideas about this. First of all, I come from a small country in the Caribbean, and I see that we do not have any clue — especially the young people — about many things, including what’s happening in these regions because we’re so far removed and it’s so different from our reality that it almost doesn’t make sense to us. So, the first thing I think we need to do is to ensure that information is flowing from these areas and is accessible to youth.

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Young people in Jamaica need to understand what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, what’s happening in Egypt, what’s happening in Libya. We need to be aware of that because we’re global citizens. No longer [do] our people [live] in one area for their entire lives, and [no longer do] issues that are happening elsewhere [not] affect them. Increased migration to Europe comes with restrictions for who else can go there.

So, these issues will affect us, as these governments in Europe have to spend more on accommodating people from these areas, and they’ll have less in terms of international aid to send to our country. We need to understand the connections in terms of what’s happening and that issues happening in one place are not necessarily divorced from what we will experience in our place.

Let’s be honest: Anybody can enter war at any time. Conflict does not take much to kick off — it really is something that’s fragile. Peace is fragile. Peace has to be worked on constantly and being able to understand the issues that lead to the rise of certain instabilities in certain areas can only help us to make our own democracy safer and stronger.

But on another level, I think we need to be able to support people from these regions in telling their own stories. They need to be the ones that are leading how these stories are told, and we need to hear their authentic voices at the UN. At every level, we need to make space for them.

In our organizations, we have SDG young leaders who are from the Middle East. We need to ensure that we have that voice there so that we’re not getting an outside interpretation of the issue — so we’re getting the actual, accurate depiction from within. And I think that’s how you bridge the gap [and] that’s how you create the change that can be lasting.

Ziabari: Do you think the media are doing a good job when it comes to relaying information from the Middle East, North Africa, this part of world to the other parts of the planet and are making people aware of the realities of the region? Or do you think the coverage is distorted and is not helpful for young people across the world to understand what’s happening in conflict zones?

Monteith: In general, I think Western media are not paying enough attention to what I said before, which is to give people opportunities to tell their own stories. So, I think we have one understanding of how politics flows and we don’t necessarily give these people the opportunity to speak for themselves. So, even on Talk Up Radio, we’ve interviewed young people from Egypt, from Lebanon and what we did was just give them the opportunity to speak and tell their own stories and to interpret the conflicts and what’s happening from their own perspective.

So, in Western media, I don’t think we do a good enough job of doing that, and I don’t think we understand the importance of doing that. I remember being at a journalism conference in 2015, and the issue raised with the heads of CNN and BBC was that the news from outside of the dominant north tends to be one-sided — we only get reported on when we’re in conflict. We only get reported on when there are massacres and people are dying and there are natural disasters. I never hear in the news that Jamaica is doing financially well or something good has happened. I imagine that the same thing happens to different areas around the world, whether it’s the Middle East or Africa, for example, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

The media has an opportunity to set an agenda in terms of how people understand issues. When you don’t see something in the media, you tend to not think it’s important. I’m not seeing enough coverage of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, [and] I’m not seeing enough coverage of what’s happening right now on the ground and how people are feeling. The only place to get that information is [to] form our independent media, and you have to seek those sources because they don’t ascend to the mainstream. So, if you’re not, for example, a journalist, you might not be really interested in going to look for that information. And I think with social media, we do have some opportunities to do that, but I know it doesn’t have the same power — it doesn’t have the same reach or the same legitimacy as mainstream media.

Mainstream journalists have to do a better job, whether it’s bringing people from these areas into the actual platforms that they own or even going there and giving [the people] the voice. We have to do better.

Ziabari: There are many stereotypes and cliches attached to different cultures and countries, and there are many people who buy into such narratives. What do you think young people can do to bridge the gaps between cultures and civilizations, debunk the myths and make sure that stereotypes do not prevail?

Monteith: Let’s speak from my Jamaican perspective. We know what the world has said about us. We know how we’re perceived in a lot of places. I mean, governments make it quite clear in whether or not they give us visa-free access or how we’re treated in airports or the ways in which the media and movies and music depict us. To be honest, we do have a generally positive perception of our own world as fun and creative people, but there are some political issues to do with violence in our country and biased ways we’re perceived, and we have to counteract that with our own knowledge of who we are and being confident in who we are as we go throughout the world.

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And so you will find Jamaicans living in every single country you go to because we’re not afraid to venture beyond our borders and represent ourselves as a sovereign nation of power and history and legacy. But beyond that, we also have to advocate at every single level for the reassertion of our power as a country. It’s not enough for governments to simply be biased in how they deal with us or for media to be biased in how they treat us and for us to say nothing about it. No! Jamaicans will always be calling out when there’s been negative portrayals of us in media.

We have to actively fight that perception. So as young people in different regions, I think yes, you can use social media and put out a more nuanced, more accurate version of who you are as a people and your culture and your country. But when there has been negativity, when it’s been maligned by people, you have to call that out. You have to speak truth to power at every level. So do both: Try to reassert a positive image and be confident in who you are, but also when there’s negative and when there’s a slant, call it out, talk about it and really say to these media organizations that no, you’re doing a disservice to my culture when you do this.

Ziabari: Racism and racial discrimination are plagues that are affecting many modern societies currently. Can you think of practical ways to combat racism, and do you think there’s anything that young people can do in this fight?

Monteith: First of all, we have to understand racism. I think too often, racism is reduced to discrimination, it’s reduced to prejudice and it’s reduced to micro-aggressions. While those things are bad, they’re not necessarily racism. Racism is a system, it’s a structure, it’s an ideology. It’s a huge undertaking that is across societies, that is bigger than individual nations and it’s asserted in policy. It’s asserted in how we interrelate as countries. It’s asserted in this sort of hierarchy that we have with Europe at the top and Africa at the bottom. It’s asserted with white people, light-skinned people being portrayed in positive ways and then the darker you get, the worse off you are in every single society.

When I look at Myanmar and I look at the Rohingya people, they are darker-skinned a lot of the time. When I look across the world, wherever you go, you have dark-skinned people. They tend to be at the bottom of the totem pole. And I need for countries that may not necessarily have black people per se to understand how they are perpetuating racism when they create this class division between the lighter-skinned people, the fair-skinned people in their societies and the darker ones. The same thing happens in India — the same thing happens in a number of countries around the world. So, we have to understand the global flow of racism and the ways that we perpetuate it. To practically fight it, they are a number of ways.

One, you have to think about media representation of people of darker skin. Too often we are villains. Too often we are stupid. Too often we have no agency, no power. Too often our countries are portrayed in ways that do not give us any agency and so you perpetuate racism, you perpetuate human indignity when you do that. We have to make it very apparent that these things are very violent. You know, when you portray people this way, you’re not just hurting their feelings, you’re doing actual violence against them — you’re sanctioning their murder sometimes. You have to do better. We have to call it what it is. Because a lot of times, we’re not talking enough about it and we’re not doing enough about it. We are brushing it under the rug.

And we need to do that on a larger scale. So, when companies have poor advertising campaigns, the backlash has to go beyond social media opprobrium. It has to go into them actually losing money because we as people stand for something greater than commercialism. We’re not going to support your business if you’re portraying black people and people of color in a bad way. We’re not going to patronize you at all. We’re not going to do anything with you because that kind of value is completely against what we stand for. So, we have to make a great stand in what we do. Sometimes, we talk a big game but we don’t actually take proper actions. And as young people, we have to do that because we are one of the largest economic blocs. We pay for a lot of things, we buy a lot of things. So, we have power in commercialism in that sense.

Ziabari: And a final question: We live in the age of social media and super-quick connections online. How can young people use these platforms to promote peace, understanding and intercultural dialogue?

Monteith: Talk to each other, first of all. Forums of this nature [the International Youth Forum] are very unique in that we meet a lot of people from a lot of different countries and then we get to add each other on Facebook and on Instagram, and so we get to understand how each person perceives their own nation and the issues that are happening. So, we need to take up the mandate of investigating what’s happening in these countries and consuming media from these countries in more tangible ways.

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Young people have the opportunity to even see, very literally, what’s happening in different countries right away. If you go on Instagram and if you search the hashtag for Kingston, you’ll see our culture, you’ll see our national heritage, you’ll see our natural environment, you’ll get a real perception of who we are. And that helps to break some of the barriers. That helps to break some of the stereotypes. So, we need to do that on a greater scale.

I feel like more of us need to understand the importance of international solidarity, of understanding what it means to be a global citizen, of understanding the fact that our countries are not far apart, they’re not so divorced from each other in terms of issues.

So, as we use social media to access that kind of content, we have to really internalize it as a way of living where we look at each other and we don’t see somebody from a foreign country who means nothing to me. We see people and we understand that the same wishes and wants, interests and passions that we have, those people have their own as well. Those people are experiencing a life in very similar ways sometimes. You know, they have similar passions, and as long as we can relate on a human-to-human level through social media, I think we’ll be slowly moving in the right direction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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360° Analysis Central & South Asia Culture Education Global Change India News World News

India’s Higher Education Must Be More Holistic

In 2020, exams for the 10th grade conducted by India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) led to impressive results. Of the 1.8 million students who took the exam, 10% scored over 90% and 2.23% scored over 95%. In 2019, a similar number wrote the exam with 13% scoring above 90% and 2.23% over 95%, comprising 220,000 and 56,000 students, respectively. If results were an indicator of the state of school education, India is doing quite well.


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Things could be getting even better. The government has announced the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 with much fanfare. It is a much-delayed and long-awaited review of the status quo. My daughter in the eighth grade is enthused by the choice that the NEP offers. Yet, like all policies, especially in India, much depends on its rollout and implementation.

Why Engineering Is a Big Deal

Like most other parents, I follow the news and try to keep abreast of what is happening to aid my child’s decisions about the future. The last three decades have demonstrated the great equalizing power of education. Globalization gave all those who had a certain level of education the opportunity to compete in a global labor market. They found employability around the world. Some did better than others. Today, those who studied engineering are running not only information technology companies but also hedge funds.

In the Indian context, those with engineering degrees run everything from marketing and finance in the private sector to intelligence and the ministry of culture in the government. This raises an important question: Why do those who study engineering dominate in most professions in India?

The answer is simple: India defines merit exceedingly narrowly. In a country where labor is plentiful and jobs are scarce, anyone with half-decent quantitative ability strives to get an engineering education. Since 1991, rapid economic growth led to more job creation in India, but most applicants lacked relevant skills. Clearly, higher education was not equipping students for the job market.

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Faced with such a situation, companies sought the most efficient way out. They focused on hiring students with a basic understanding of logic and proficiency in numbers. Other knowledge and skills were deemed superfluous. Companies assumed that logical and numerate candidates could always pick up other skills on the job. So, they focused on hiring engineering graduates for all sorts of positions. Others were deemed almost unemployable.

When I ask other parents about the educational choices they make for their children, their unequivocal answer is employability. These choices are based on personal experience. Parents want the best for their children. They want them to get jobs, not starve on the street. So, we send our children to coaching classes from the age of 9 or 10 to clear engineering entrance examinations.

Why Indians Study Abroad

We are not just spending on private coaching. We Indians are also spending $20 billion per year to send our children to universities in Anglo-Saxon lands. We do so because getting into top institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or Delhi University is difficult. The entrance exam for the IITs is the hardest in the world. Even the third cut off list for applicants to Delhi University requires candidates to have a minimum of 98%.

There is another reason we send our children abroad. Anglo-Saxon universities in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer higher quality education, better facilities and greater career opportunities. An education in Anglo-Saxon lands promises a better life for our children.

The decision to send children abroad does not happen after school. To study abroad, children study in schools that follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum instead of the CBSE one. While IB grades are preferred by Anglo-Saxon universities, they are not accepted by Indian institutions. So, parents have to make the choice of sending their children abroad at a rather early stage. It determines the schools they choose for their children.

In India, there are many school boards apart from CBSE. These follow different standards in their marking. Equalization committees have emerged to do the hazardous job of comparing apples to oranges. They do so by giving unearned marks to students who have written their exams for boards deemed to be tougher. This process is ridden with pitfalls and hundreds of thousands pay the price for this arbitrary equalization. It is little surprise that IB schools tempt Indian parents.

Higher education outside the elite schools in India is in a poor state. In 2018, 101 business schools applied to shut shop. Their student enrollments had dipped after their graduates had been unable to get jobs. The education these schools offer has few takers in the job market, leaving them with no option but to close.

To understand the hypercompetition for jobs in the country, it is important to remember that more than 600 million Indians, over 50% of the country, are under 25. Employment figures still run low despite past years of high growth. So, India’s young population has to compete ferociously to get “quality” education or good jobs. Not only jobs in medicine or engineering but also in sales or marketing are exceedingly difficult to come by. Hence, parents send children to Anglo-Saxon universities so that they acquire a good education and a decent job. It is for the same reason parents push children into engineering if they study in India.

Making everyone study engineering does not make sense, though. Recruiting most jobs from engineering schools is not a great idea either. The three “Rs” — reading, w(r)iting and a(r)ithmetic — cannot be the monopoly of engineering graduates. There must be space for young people in the labor market who have studied history or philosophy. We must come up with a more catholic concept that gives students a holistic education.

As a father, I hope fervently for reforms in this direction. I want my daughter to have more meaningful choices to study in India. I want her to be able to decide what to study as per her intrinsic interests, not the arbitrary dictates of an oppressive job market.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Getting an Education in the Age of COVID-19

In a matter of months, the novel coronavirus has swept across the globe and entirely up-ended our understanding of normality. Now, as the virus continues to rage and signs of a second surge are emerging even before the first has ended, we’re rethinking everything we’d assumed and hoped for at the start of the lockdowns. One of the bigger questions that educators, parents and students are having to face right now is how to return to school safely, if at all?

There’s a lot at stake behind the decision to return to classes this fall, especially if you are a college student hoping a degree would promise a better career. For many students, especially first-generation college students and those from immigrant families, a degree is a ticket to a better life. Having to put your education on hold simply may not be an option for those who are struggling to make ends meet and have limited resources, for whom a delay may easily become denial. Delays may mean that students won’t be able to find the resources to finance their degree at a later date or that life’s momentum will simply carry them further away from their dream of a college education. In fact, studies show that those who delay going to college by a year or more are 64% less likely to earn their degree.


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And that can mean not only a loss of education but also a loss of a career. Fair or not, in an increasingly competitive job market, those college credentials might be the determining factor in getting the job that opens the door to the rest of your professional life. For instance, those wanting to score big bucks and land a career where demand is only predicted to grow in the coming years may well end up in the tech industry. Some of the most lucrative and prestigious careers in technology require advanced master’s degrees.

But even at the entry level, they’re not just handing out tech jobs on the street corner. Even if you don’t complete a full undergraduate program, you’re still going to need, at the very least, a good deal of training and, better still, a certification or two in software development, network administration, cybersecurity or a related field just to get your foot in the door. What all this boils down to is that for a college student trying to weigh up the present health risks against hopes and dreams of a professional future, the question of whether or not to return to school this fall is far from straightforward.

A Question of Safety

As undeniably important as education is, health is even more so. After all, pursuing an education will mean very little if students contract the virus and have a bad outcome because of it. Studies are increasingly suggesting, for instance, that those who recover from more severe cases of COVID-19 may have significant long-term impacts, including cognitive and physical impairments that may linger or may even prove permanent. But because we simply don’t know what the lasting effects of the virus may be, we also don’t know how this might affect survivors’ future academic or professional life.

There’s no question that COVID-19 is a terrifying enemy. And the fear of the danger that it may pose to students, teachers and their families is leading many to wonder if campuses should continue to be shuttered, at least through the start of the fall session. However, we are learning rapidly about this new pathogen, including how to identify unexpected symptoms and what kind of hygiene, isolation and quarantine practices work best. When it comes to the question of school safety in the age of coronavirus, though many questions remain, we also have a lot of important answers.

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First, there are many actions that we know can help slow or even prevent the spread of the virus in schools and on college campuses. That includes reducing class sizes to enable social distancing. It also involves rigorous cleaning and sanitizing of school grounds and meticulous hygiene for anyone coming and going. This includes not only frequent and vigorous hand washing and sanitizing, but also wearing face masks when at least six feet (or two meters) of distance can’t be maintained.

That’s also going to mean that schools, colleges and universities will need to have a plan in place to trigger a lockdown and swift transition to online learning if infections escalate to unsafe levels in the community or region. Currently, some of the largest school districts in the US, particularly those in hard-hit areas such as Florida and New York, are beginning the fall semester online and plan to transition to in-person classes if and when infection rates fall.

This is in keeping with the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) guidelines, which recommend that districts base their decision to open, and to remain open, on rates of community spread or on the regulations that have been put into place by state governors. But online learning doesn’t mean learning less. It doesn’t even mean having to struggle more with your courses. For some students, it is possible to thrive if you’re studying remotely.

Overcoming Obstacles

For those who do struggle, the difficulties are significant, and it comes down, unfairly but likely not unsurprisingly, to socioeconomic factors. In Los Angeles, students in low-income districts may have been thriving pre-COVID, but once schools were shuttered and students went into quarantine, the lack of resources was immediately apparent. As documented in this Los Angeles Times story, Maria Viego did well in her classes, but once her campus closed, it took weeks for her to receive her district-issued computer. Once she did, the damage was already done. She was one of the children COVID-19 is leaving behind, although luckily not all districts in LA had the same experience.

Even the more affluent areas are finding it difficult to offer consistent access to online learning for students. In some cases, the sheer size of school districts leads to major technical issues. Server problems nationwide caused the online learning tool Blackboard to crash on the first day of distance learning for Idaho’s largest school district, West Ada. Idaho is a perfect example of how much access differs among districts in a state despite a lack of physical distance.

In some cases, supporting distance learning is difficult because a household is run by a single parent who provides for the entire family. There is no time during the day to help with homework. Districts are also becoming much more acutely aware of how little parents may be involved in their children’s schoolwork when they’re at home. In this new era of full-time distance learning, this is highlighting the chasms in education.

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To combat these issues and others, various education systems from around the world have adopted a number of models. Israel has created an online portal through which parents can access learning materials as well as data on their children. The national education system also broadcasts daily lessons for six hours a day in both Arabic and Hebrew. Estonian families receive all materials in both digital and hard copies, making it easier for families who struggle with tech or don’t have it at all to support their young learners.

Getting an education in the age of COVID-19 inevitably amps up the stress and anxiety in what is already a stressful process, but no virus should rob young people of the future they deserve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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American News Coronavirus Culture Education Insight North America US news World News

The Skies of Post-COVID Education Are Darkening

In an article on Al Jazeera published on September 1, Kathleen Siddell, a freelance writer and former teacher who lives in Southern California, made a compelling case concerning the question that many parents on the West Coast (and elsewhere) were concerned about at that moment of history. She sets the scene by evoking the atmosphere at the close of a “sundrenched pandemic summer” in the US. Siddell can be forgiven for not anticipating the sun-obscured skyscapes as a result of massive wildfires that only days later began to impose a foreboding darkness over much of the entire West Coast.

Siddell formulated the concern by asking four questions: “What will school look like? How will we manage work and school? Will we survive? How is this changing us?” This is not a trivial issue. The same dilemma is taking place across the globe. Siddell frames the existential question facing parents and their children as a strategic quandary: “how to balance academics, social-emotional health and work.”


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With flames engulfing vast swaths of the land, including homes and schools, some of Siddell’s California neighbors may feel that wondering about the methods of education in a post-pandemic world has become irrelevant. There are more urgent matters to address.

Fires burn out, pandemics abate and the transformation of the Earth into a furnace by the year 2300, as Live Science reported last week, at least theoretically leaves us some time to think. For many reasons, remodeling education should be at the top of our list of priorities, even as a response to climate change. Knowledge and understanding theoretically lead to problem-solving. Ignorance comforts the status quo.

Political leaders in the US still focus on how to keep inflating the defense budget that fuels the US economy. President Donald Trump is the prime offender, but Joe Biden has consistently backed increased defense spending. Education spending, not so much. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, wants to make access to education easier but appears to have no ideas about how to make it better or even prevent its collapse. Trump, on the other hand, positively prefers people being uneducated.

As a mother and a former teacher, Siddell has some important things to say. At a moment of history in which the authority of every institution appears to have collapsed, education can play in defining society’s values and ideals. The fire of educational dysfunction has been raging for decades and the damage it has caused partially explains our institutional failures. But only a few have taken the valuable time in their competitive lives even to think about how that fire might be put out.

Siddell identifies one of the major problems that afflict society at its core: “As another season wanes and back-to-school approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus has not reminded us to slow down, it has amplified our collective anxiety about keeping up.” School, she tells us, is where that anxiety is born and nourished.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Keeping up:

The goal everyone in a competitive society is expected to adopt, which, when accepted, serves to produce collective anxiety based on the idea that there will always be some greater possession or higher position one must strive to attain simply because other people appear to have attained it

Contextual Note

If we make the wild supposition that civilization will not already have collapsed by the time the world achieves a coveted state of herd immunity to COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronaviruseducation may well be the one thing that requires our undivided attention. The mandatory lockdown and elaborate precautions now governing social interactions have already obliged most people to begin rethinking the three major issues that affect our daily lives: the nature of work, the source of stable revenue and education. 

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Many suppose the solutions for work will come from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Revenue can be solved with a universal basic income. But there’s no silver bullet in view for education, and certainly not distance learning on a screen, though it will be a prized component for access to content.

Siddell sums up what education has represented for most of the past century: “We have created an education system based on competition. We are teaching our kids how to become dutiful participants in the rat race.” The problem is that the rules that governed the 20th-century rat race economy have begun to change. Education hasn’t. The rat race alienated both adults and children from society and the world, isolating them in their competitive bubbles. Siddell complains that “the hyper-competitiveness of education seemed to be working directly against cultivating a genuine curiosity about the world and a love of learning. Students were burned out, stressed out and grade-obsessed.” She subversively suggests that “competition is counter-intuitive to learning” in a society where people have to learn to be competitive.

Our civilization must either rethink the role of education in society or simply confess its conviction that education has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with producing the collective anxiety caused when life itself is seen as a Darwinian fight for survival of the fittest (i.e., those with the best grades). 

Historical Note

2020 appears to be the year collective anxiety across the globe reached a fever pitch so intense that the masquerade of our society functioning as a rational system finally became visible to all. COVID-19 may appear in history as the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

For the first reality has found a way of overtaking the increasingly elaborate hyperreality our society has been patiently building since the start of the industrial revolution. For many decades, effective hyperreality, the key to political control, was built on the “science” of marketing, advertising and industrially produced entertainment. Democratic politics itself became a simple sector of the consumer economy to be managed by unelected professionals. Some of them had names visible to the public, like Roger Stone, James Carville and Steve Bannon. But the system was fueled by armies of what could be called anonymous electoral engineers.

More recently, the hyperreal system integrated the tools of hypermodernity: big data, AI, capitalism’s “creative destruction,” Silicon Valley’s “disruptive innovation” and of course the powerful, increasingly concentrated corporate media’s supreme commitment to conflating news and entertainment. Hyperreal globalized capitalism became an economic and cultural juggernaut that brooked no opposition, achieving imperial conquest when the still nominally Marxist People’s Republic of China completed its apprenticeship of the black arts dedicated to managing human impulses through the control of consumerist ambitions and desires.

The only avenue left for reality to overcome hyperreality was through global catastrophe, the revenge of nature itself, not of subversive movements led by fragile human beings. Most people aware of the force of hyperreality expected global warming to do the job. But its effects were too gradual to create anything resembling an awakening. Thanks to the coronavirus, 2020 turned out to be the year the underlying trends finally became visible. Even political leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker committed to sustaining the hyperreal system, at one point appeared to admit defeat.

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Kathleen Siddell believes that education should be less about grooming for competition and more about seeing the world as it is, which includes understanding the historical trends mentioned above. Perception and social exchange are the only legitimate starting point for learning. Instead, our reformers of education who have reacted to the crisis are proposing mechanical solutions.

Siddell complains that “the tutors and pods and micro-schools are just another reminder that none of these reforms has actually worked. In the American education game, it is still the richest who win.” She regrets that “we are staring at the pieces of a broken system and rushing to put it back exactly as it was before.” 

That commitment to stasis is clearly the intention of those who continue to run the hyperreal show. But for someone living in California in September 2020, it may be time to pay attention to the warnings of another author, the late James Baldwin, who in 1963 correctly anticipated a future he would not see. The “next time” is already here. In 2020, it’s the fire this time.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Categories
American News Culture Education Global Change Insight North America US news World News

Education’s Harsh Law of Classroom Supplies and Demand

Every good citizen should understand that education is the bedrock of civilization. At the very least, it keeps the children occupied while their parents are outside earning a living. Politicians claim that education is a top priority. But when cornered, they usually admit that budgeting education comes a little further down the list. 


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Funding, building and maintaining schools, paying administrators and teachers, all of that requires heavy investment in the nation’s youth. But because it concerns a population that will only be contributing to the economy in a distant future, there’s no urgency about addressing its real needs.

Material costs for the buildings and grounds cannot be compressed. The market sets the prices on these services. Achieving success means keeping expenses down. For the local authorities in the US that fund schools, the easiest path to success implies underpaying teachers, a policy most politicians generally approve. Administrators are often more munificently rewarded since they are saddled with the difficult task of preventing teachers from revolting.

Once the structure is in place, the question of the supplies required for classroom activities arises. That can easily be kept to a bureaucratic minimum by defining what is standard. But learning in a classroom guided by a competent teacher is complex and cannot be reduced to standards. Learning is too rich and complex a process to be reduced to the offering of a standard catalog.

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Teachers realize that to achieve their pedagogical goals, they need items that the school’s or the district’s standard policy has not foreseen. Effective teachers are not robots who spew canned knowledge according to a predefined syllabus but function as pedagogical managers of the learning process for varied groups of people. This consists as much, and indeed more, of psychology and managing meaningful social interaction as it does the presentation of knowledge.

To be effective, teachers must be managers. Their goal is to optimize the work of a group of people. Like a manager in a commercial company, they should benefit from discretionary budgets that allow them to purchase the tools they need to attain their goals. But of course, unlike corporate managers, they are unable to point to the profit margin that will pay for it. Consequently, in today’s society, and particularly in the US, teachers end up spending a significant portion of their minimal salaries on the classroom supplies they need to make their teaching effective. 

This week, Yahoo Lifestyle offered its readers the “uplifting” story of Courtney Jones, a Texas teacher who has single-handedly devised what the journalist, Kelly Matousek, presents as a creative solution to the problem. The article bears the title, “How a school teacher raised $1M for educators around the U.S. — with help from Khloe Kardashian, Lance Bass and Kamala Harris.”

Matousek reminds readers of the need teachers “have to dip into their own salaries to pay for classroom supplies, as it’s been estimated (pre-pandemic) that teachers spend an average of $479 per year out of pocket on their classrooms.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Classroom supplies:

Objects and equipment required for effective teaching, in the United States, considered — much like education itself — unworthy of even minimal budgeting by the local politicians who fund schools

Contextual Note

Here is the narrative in a nutshell. After spending $2,500 on supplies in her first year of teaching, Jones took the problem to social media. She created a community of teachers that blossomed quickly. She then realized “that there was a pervasive issue here across the country.” Her community rapidly morphed into a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to connect schools and teachers with corporations, organizations, and community members that are looking to contribute to the enhancement of learning opportunities for all students.”

The article tells the heartwarming story of a serendipitous quest resulting in the betterment of mankind through education. But it can also be read as a sad commentary on the failure of the nation’s political structures to cater to the needs of educators. And it highlights the depressing trend, in the face of any problem, of looking to celebrities and private corporations, whose focus is not on education but on branding. 

The final result is that Jones and her #ClearTheList movement become brands in their own right. What is sacrificed in the process is the hope of a public solution to a persistent societal issue. While building awareness of the issue itself, it ends up taking it off the public agenda by reassuringly promoting the idea that individual actions and private initiative can solve any profound imbalance in the social fabric.

The media typically love narratives like this one that allows them to avoid exploring the nature of the problem. An attractive and enterprising young blonde teacher from Texas proves that an energetic individual with a sense of social purpose can create a trend that attracts celebrities, thanks to whose support the venture can vaunt its success. 

One or more corporations may then notice the opportunity and use it to polish their brand in a show of supporting a worthy cause. In this case, in the midst of a pandemic in which disinfectants have become a permanent feature of everyone’s life, Clorox stepped up and offered to put in place a sweepstake for lucky winners. It thus turned a manifest failure of the political community to respond to the needs of education into a lottery promising a monetary reward. This tale of the combined impact of an enterprising individual, public celebrities and private corporations encapsulates the logic of the entire political and economic system of the US.

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When Jones read Kardashian’s tweet announcing that she had made a contribution, she was overwhelmed with emotion. “I cannot believe my small movement from Texas has made it to your hands,” she tweeted back in gratitude. This was the equivalent of “America’s Got Talent.” Jones had attained the summit of glory within the celebrity culture that, for Americans, represents an ideal far more respectable than excellence in education.

And, of course, Jones is delighted with what she perceives as the disinterested generosity of the corporate world. “They get the issue, they understand how pervasive it is,” she said in reference to Clorox. She finds it “so amazing to see a company understand it.” She may need to enroll in a marketing 101 course in the nearest business school to understand exactly what Clorox understands.

It gets better. Not only a glamorous celebrity and a well-known commercial brand pitched in. None other than the current vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, lent her political celebrity to the cause when she tweeted: “The average teacher spends nearly $500 of their own money on school supplies for their students. It doesn’t have to be like this. We should provide teachers the tools and resources they need to educate our kids.” Everyone in the public eye knows how to play the branding game.

Historical Note

In the land of Milton Friedman, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This also means that there’s no such thing as free education. For the past century, economists have been trying to work out a concept that makes sense of the idea of investing in education, but when studying the problem of inequities in funding, they can’t even agree on the principle that more funding beyond the basics serves any purpose at all. In 2002, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) concluded that “most of the studies reported by economists have involved serious methodological problems.”

For those who care about education, the real problem is not the one economists and politicians talk about. Their debates are always about amounts of money, but never about the quality of education. This leads to all kinds of acrimonious discussions but avoids the root problem: that developed nations consider education not as a crucial feature of their culture, but as a tool to stimulate the competitive spirit within an economy.

Politicians put a price tag on everything, including education. Then they compare the prices to increase efficiency and worry over whether their solution is perceived as equitable. That they fail is understandable, because figures lie. But more significantly, education has no monetary price. The role of education in any healthy society cannot be reduced to the idea of invoicing goods and services. But, as the American journalist Glenn Greenwald reminded us this past week, in very literal terms, this is not a healthy society. 

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.