Education, Development, and Change
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Education and Social Justice

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 29 Mar, 2010 “…[E]fficient education is always in jeopardy either in the culture at large or with constituencies more dedicated to maintaining a status quo to fostering flexibility.”
— Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education

EDUCATION and society are considered to have an important relationship in which both inform, impact and transform each other. Education is viewed as a necessary condition for socio-economic development, emancipation and freedom; then there is its relationship with social justice.

Before delving further into this topic, it is important to understand the term ‘social justice’ since it has multiple meanings. An oversimplification of the term is to understand it as the execution of justice at the societal level. A more radical interpretation would have it refer to a just society where people have equal opportunities to exercise their freedoms and where there is no discrimination in the provision of justice on the basis of social class, gender, disability, ethnicity, colour and religion. So, what role does education play in realising the dream of social justice? Can an enhanced literacy rate guarantee social justice?

Before addressing these questions, it is important to look briefly at the place of education in society, for it has always been considered important in order to achieve certain objectives. These objectives were determined by different societies according to their priorities, which were in consonance with their times. Tracing the genesis of education we first come across religious education, focusing entirely on morality and leading one’s life on the straight and narrow. As society progressed, pragmatism took centre place but there still remained voices in favour of aesthetics, reflection and critical thinking.

During the last three decades, however, the pace of change accelerated at a phenomenal ratio and objectives at the personal and societal level also changed rapidly. It is interesting to note that the corporate culture, in order to sell new commodities, made us aware of ‘newfound needs’. With industrialisation and corporatisation, the expectation from education also changed and the objective became very specific: to produce efficient human beings to fit into the workforce required by society.

This objective continues to gain currency, and in contemporary times the major objective of education is to prepare an individual to find a job; ‘quality education’ is defined as education that prepares someone to find a better job with a better salary package.

This narrow objective had a strong impact on the nature, dynamics, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of education. Education emerged as a powerful industry where schools, emulating the factory model, were turned into massive production centres churning out hundreds and thousands of students destined to become efficient members of a country’s workforce.

With times thus changing, the notion of social justice also underwent a major change. According to Foucault, a French thinker, power and knowledge go together, with power in the better position to construct, advocate, perpetuate and validate a discourse. This discourse leads to a certain social reality or knowledge that justifies the action of power. It is through discourse that powerful groups in a society manage to gain hegemony over marginalised groups.

This is exactly what happened to the term ‘social justice’, which is now synchronised with the terms ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’, ‘globalisation’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘accountability’. Since these terms come from powerful organisation, they are considered undeniable truths and the education system, in order to achieve the corporate version of social justice, is producing mono-culture minds by offering only certain subjects, mechanical pedagogy, insensitive assessment practices and a highly quantitative system of evaluation.

Let me briefly explain these points. At the national level, it is considered that in enhanced literacy numbers lies the panacea for all educational ills. Decision-makers tend to forget that their notion of literacy is based on purely functional aspects of literacy, where reflection and critical thinking have no space to exist. Similarly, most educational institutions offer programmes in areas that are considered popular in the market. That is why the humanities and social sciences — which prepare an individual for social roles — are usually pushed to the back burner: the simple reason is that they are not considered market-oriented fields.

In addition to the choice of subjects, the actual pedagogical practices also play an important part in realising the objective of social justice. Interestingly, the teacher’s role is further straitjacketed since in some schools the lesson plan is prepared at a central place and then copies are distributed to different branches. Critical thinking, which is considered a core attribute of quality education, gets buried under teacher-fronted, lecture-based pedagogy where the emphasis is on transmission rather than transformation. Meanwhile, in the prevalent methods of assessment, memory and recall skills are tested but the application of knowledge is barely assessed.

Such education can produce efficient and productive workers but not thinking human beings. Consequently our schools are further widening rather than reducing the gaps of economic disparity and social injustice. Education should be a precursor to emancipation, freedom and social justice; instead, it is engaged in the further stratification of society. The rich-poor divide is becoming sharper and more obvious in terms of access: ‘quality education’ is out of the reach of the poor.

Meanwhile the state seems to have given up and passed the buck to the private sector. Contemporary education imparted in mainstream schools is perpetuating the existing power structures and the dream of social justice becomes ever more distant — even though it could be realised through an educational system that is lively and relevant, and prepares students as thinking and responsible members of society instead of as productive technicians. Such an educational system is based on equal opportunities, mutual respect and recognition of the individual.
The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan


  1. "Equal opportunities, mutual respect and recognition of the individual' are still not visible in our 'systems' in the first place. We need to have these traits and only them can hope for social justice in education. Sadly, this has not stated happening yet.

  2. Shirazi sahib. Thanks for your comments. I agree that the real society is ridden with disparities and social injustices. The role of education becomes even more important.