We often think of education as the means through which social problems and contradictions might be mitigated, if not resolved. But often the reverse is also true: The larger social structures constrict educational possibilities and the way in which we imagine the relationship between education and life. As another generation of school leavers enters college or the job market, we will console them with familiar platitudes. Do not place undue emphasis on marks. We need a greater supply of institutions of higher education so that competitive pressures for admissions decreases. Choose an educational pathway that you like, rather than conform to social pressure, and so on.
These are fine sentiments and make a good deal of sense. But even as we say these things, we know there is something hollow about them in our social context. The familiar tensions between the practical demands of navigating a pathway in a modern economy, and education for its own sake, will play out within each one of us. We will try and resolve these through our individual choices.
But it is worth thinking of the ways in which these sentiments run headlong against other deep social realities. Simply put, broader structures of inequality and unfreedom actually constrain educational choice. The freedom we urge upon our students runs into a world of necessity and constraint; and the promise that education will be the pathway to equality exposes them to a new kind of inequality.
Let us take the equality issue first. There is one familiar sense in which our education system is deeply inegalitarian. Inherited privilege of income, caste and parents’ education still deeply structures educational opportunity. Even success at many so-called objective measures of ability that we thought would create pathways to picking out talent turns out to be determined by inherited privilege. And for this the focus, rightly, has to be on access to education, and the easy availability of high-quality institutions.
But the inequality challenge is not just about access. It is about modes of valuation that are inherent in the way we think of the relationship between education and society. The philosopher, Thomas Nagel, once wrote: “When racial and sexual (and you might add, caste) injustice have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort.” It must be pointed out that “smart” and “dumb” are categories that are themselves the products of forms of social valuation. But to deny the fact that in our cultures there is a deep tension between the cult of individual achievement and the equal valuation of persons, would be to deny reality. You might argue that to acknowledge some particular achievement (good marks) is not necessarily to devalue persons who do not display that achievement. But the truth is that it is hard to sustain that distinction in practice. In aristocratic societies, trappings of wealth and social valuation go hand in hand. In our societies, manifest ability and social valuation go hand in hand; recognising accomplishment shades over into valuing persons differently.
But this mode of valuation is compounded by two other features of modern society. The first is meritocracy, the idea that your achievement is due to individual effort. Again, this is an understandable association. But its corollary is that failure is also an individual failing. In an aristocratic society you might be subordinate, but the psychic story is that this is just the nature of things. In our societies, the individual is devalued or blamed for the lack of achievement, there is a different kind of stress associated with falling behind. Valuing individual achievement is a great spur to ambition, but it is also a psychological disaster: In modern constructions of failure, you have no one to blame but yourself.
The second myth of modern society is this: You might not be able to do some things well, but there are other things you might do well. This is good advice. But the plausibility of this advice depends again upon modes of social valuation. In societies where the income and status gaps between different professions are inordinately high, the line between choosing your own thing and being condemned to social oblivion can be pretty thin. In societies where the social cost of not making it to the top five or 10 per cent are so high, it is also more difficult to make the argument in good faith to “do your own thing.” The life penalties associated with those choices can be much higher.
So as school leavers enter the real world of college and jobs, we often talk to them in bad faith. We say that individual achievement does not matter, when everything around us is structured around individual achievement. We say choose your interests. But the social and economic penalties associated with some professions and choices are so much greater than others. And there is no idiom in society that allows it to say that different professions are indeed valued, if not equally, between tolerable ranges. We say competition is not everything. The hard truth is that almost all the dominant institutions of our existence are structured around competition. And the sheer pressure of numbers is going to make the competition even more severe. We value freedom and encourage it. But freedom simply means the absence of formal constraints. This freedom runs headlong into the empire of necessity: The necessity to work based on dominant modes of social valuation.
Of course, education is still a pathway to empowerment. In its own way, it is still subverting many hierarchies. Knowledge is enchanting; as is the modes of self fashioning education provides. But faced with the annual spectacle of millions of young people arrayed on a commensurable grid of marks, we have to examine the stories we tell them about the world they face. We also have to think beyond individual pathologies. The culture of blame inscribed in our system, or the stigmatisation of parents who are often telling truths to their children about how the world works.
Naipaul once wrote: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” It is hard to imagine education as a free and equal space, unless broader society lifts the threat of oblivion from the heads of those who do not achieve by its lights.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2019, under the title ‘Dear school leavers’. The writer is vice-chancellor of Ashoka University. Views are personal