Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Education as Power

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 02 Aug, 2010

THE important link between education and power was first theorised by the Italian thinker Gramsci whose book Prison Notebooks contains lucid thoughts on education. According to his view of civil society, schools occupy an important place leading to the ‘spontaneous consent’ of marginalised groups.

How does this happen? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explained the process by using the term ‘symbolic violence’. According to him, it is through symbolic power that dominant groups impose their thoughts, choices and preferences on marginalised groups. Schools, as Bourdieu hypothesised, create ‘habitus’ or socially approved norms that are acquired by students in the form of ‘official knowledge’. Since official knowledge is constructed by dominant groups, it is always biased in favour of their interests.

Schooling controls minds and is instrumental in developing a mono-cultural society where a certain mode of thinking is considered the supreme form of knowledge. Diversity and variety, in such a society, is discouraged and an artificially constructed hierarchical knowledge system is developed. It was this impact of schooling on society that received the scathing criticism of Ivan Illich in his classic 1971 book Deschooling Society. The manifestation of power finds its way in the form of school buildings, the social class associated with the school, faculty and language. It is important to note how education imparted by different schools is instrumental in constructing and perpetuating unequal relationships of power.

The relationship between the powerful and powerless defines the notion of power. Thus education is engaged in the highly political act of constructing the unequal nature of the relationship between dominant and disadvantaged groups. It is important to note that power is not just about having more money; other dimensions of power go beyond material capital. Some of these dimensions are referred to by Bourdieu in the form of cultural, social and symbolic capital. Education plays a significant role in cultural capital as it deals with different forms of knowledge and leads to different educational outcomes.

Similarly, good education from a good school may lead to the acquisition of social capital that is essentially networking. ‘Symbolic capital’ refers to the resources available to a person on the basis of his or her position. All these are different constituents as well as manifestations of power. Education also has an important share in the construction of social, cultural and symbolic capital. It is in this context that quality education becomes crucial as it enhances one’s chances of acquiring the capital that is linked to power.

A related question is: who has greater chances of acquiring quality education? An obvious answer is that those who already have cultural, social and symbolic capital are more likely to have access to quality education. In other words, the rich, the influential and dominant societal groups have access to quality education that in turn perpetuates the unequal social relationships between the haves and have-nots.

In Pakistan, most attempts to view and interpret education were based on the quantitative paradigm where enhanced numbers, in terms of schools, students and teachers were considered the only criterion of quality education. This approach to education focused only on number-crunching and evaded the essential political aspect of education that deals with power. The oft-trumpeted slogan ‘education for all’ becomes meaningless as it is not just education but the quality of education that is important. For instance, having a similar degree from two qualitatively different schools would mean a huge difference in terms of the promise of better life chances for the student.

The emphasis should thus not be only on an expansionist approach to education. The question ‘what kind of education?’ is more important, as all variety of education does not equally pave the way for socio-economic development or promise individual freedom. In Pakistan, most of the public-sector schools are deprived of state patronage. The result is the perpetuation of the same old pedagogical practices that emanate from a behaviouristic paradigm, where the emphasis is on the transmission of knowledge, culture and values. Most of these schools constitute perfect examples of how ‘taken-for-granted knowledge’ is imposed on the young generation through a powerful social institution. It is this process of imprinting the dominant version of knowledge that is referred to as ‘symbolic violence’.

The question then is: how can education emerge as an effective tool for resistance, development and emancipation? The answer lies not in the quantitative expansion of education only. There is a need to revisit the pedagogical practices and infuse the spirit of enquiry and reflection among students. This is only possible when we empower our teachers socially, economically and academically. Teacher-training institutions can play an important role in this, but unfortunately, most of Pakistan’s teacher-training departments and institutions are engaged in merely churning out large numbers of trained teachers every year.

Such teacher-trainings programmes/courses are usually based on stereotypical courses taught through conservative pedagogical methods. There is no conscious effort to create a link between theory and practice. The majority of these programmes make little room for critical thinking or reflective practice. Their only objective seems to be a passport to get a job. A substantive change is required in the curriculum and pedagogy of teacher-training programmes.

Only thinking teachers can develop thinking human beings in their classrooms. It is classroom interaction that is closely linked with quality education — the kind of education that is likely to enhance the chances of acquiring cultural, social and symbolic capital.

The writer is a professor and the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.


  1. An excellent article. Iam also working on the development of an alternate paradigm for religious education.
    Professor Dr. Muhammad Akhtar saeed Siddiqi

  2. Thanks for publishing such a thought provoking article and raising one of the highly crucial and critical questions 'what kind of education'...however, i have always been cynical towards those who try to offer an attractive answer to this sis question. In my opinion, the real issue is that everyone of us is trying to answer the question on behalf of those marginalized bu the actual people never have been able or at considered able to come forward and offer an answer...

  3. Thanks Akhtar Saeed sahib for your comment. Good luck with your efforts.

  4. Thanks Karim for your comments. The question is how the knowledge and wisdom of marginalized groups get validated. The inherent problem is that validating bodies are in the possession of dominant groups. The answer lies somewhere between the two way relationship of education and power.