Paulo Friere did not have to read the abridged children’s version of Les Miserables from his school text books. He was brought up in one of the extremely impoverished neighbourhoods in Recife, Brazil, and poverty was his childhood friend. He belonged to the “wretched of the earth”, in strikingly miserable ways. Unsurprisingly, the fight against hunger and its causes – oppression being diagonised as the major one – occupied his mind as the supreme theme of his life and the central axis of his social outlook.
He theorised that ignorance and lethargy of the poor directly resulted from a whole system of oppression – social, political and economical. He published his legendary work Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968 and it deeply influenced the discourses not only on education, but all kinds of social and political issues related to it. In his unequivocal solidarity with the dispossessed, he alleged that the whole education system is being used as the main instrument of maintaining a “culture of silence” among the victims. He believed in the radicalisation of society through creating encounters with the contradictions in social and personal realities and through equipping people with critical thought by using various means. Rejecting the paternalist teacher role, he promoted a situation where people can “educate each other through the meditation of the world”. These processes, he said, would lead to new awareness of self that would cause liberation. The revolutionary potential of his educational thoughts were recognised by his nation’s military, as being dangerous and, immediately after a coup, they jailed and exiled him. The Latin American Church recognised his theory in the positive sense as they put them into practice rather successfully. His thoughts on education are too complex and deep to summarise.
Instead of a painstaking project of reforming schools, which almost every educationist was arguing about, Ivan Illich shocked the world in 1971 by asking to discard the very institution of school and to de-school children and society. Obviously, he was more radical than any previous educationist and his thoughts more revolutionising. Illich, in his provocative criticism of the western style education system, rightly diagnosed its thoroughly de-humanising role and denounced the dangers of its forcefully consumerist and non-creative packages. He stood for de-institutionalising education and thereby de-institutionalising society, which may sound utopian in some sense. He was, however, not against convivial institutions replacing the authoritative and autocratic ones. Questioning the idea that learning is a result of teaching, he campaigned for recapturing life-long learning experiences through learning webs, i.e. "the autonomous assembly of resources under the personal control of each learner". Like many of his contemporary radical thinkers in the field including Paulo Friere, he was totally against the undemocratic dominating nature of teachers over pupils in interactions. He thought it impossible to emerge democratically and creatively spirited human beings out of such compulsory and oppressive schooling systems. He detected the predators in the persuasion industry – individually or in a larger nexus – who continuously cash in on text books, curricula and examinations and, through packaged education and by giving awards for successful consumption of those packages, eventually prepare children to become loyal citizens in an endlessly consumer society.
This game of conditioning towards persuasion and consumption does not occur merely on a commercial basis, but rather more dangerously, it operates in a political and ideological realm, too. He was strongly sceptical and uncompromisingly critical of the schools’ innate tendency to legitimise hierarchy, “progress” and consumption. Schools demanded obedience; to the teacher, to the status quo, to the State and to the system. His concrete suggestions to decentralise the use of technology in manners that are convivial rather than institutional and manipulative offer alternatives to an increasingly corporatised culture of technology used for control and profit.
Undoubtedly, Ivan Illich’s critique of modern education system is captivating, brilliant and insightful. It neatly sums up the dangers of dehumanising people and reducing their identity to being shallow consumers of ideas, rules and other market packages. However, in the level of praxis, one is perplexed at not being able to devise an action strategy in order to implement the ideas he passionately argued. Dismantling schools in one’s locality or stopping children sending there is an impractical idea, which Illich also doesn’t sound asking to do. How the practical experience of human love and “conviviality” could be brought to those ghastly institutions? Perhaps, in the technical sense, they require a larger level of implementation, like that from the governmental side, which would be too paradoxical to expect.
A thorough revision, revolutionary reform, ideological radicalisation is needed; but, there is no point in waiting for a saviour. Anyway, while scanning and experiencing the current educational endeavours, no sensible human being would disagree that the mainstream education system is fundamentally flawed. Historically and ideologically, it is more or less aimed at mass-scale manufacturing of minds and brains for the smooth running of the status quo. It is about thought-control by the state; about preventing ideas from outgrowing the system; and about blocking all beautiful revolutions to come, by poisoning their seeds. It fails to address human beings holistically. It doesn’t bother to understand the world around us profoundly. It has no worries about humans essentially as being spiritual creatures with ethical dilemmas of what is to be done and not to be done. It feeds on information, not wisdom. It is not concerned that you will die one day and you need peace and pleasure profoundly, on a daily basis, in a non-material sense. There is too much stress on pupils, who are inevitably treated as a raw material “to be hammered and shaped” into somebody else’s vision and strategy.
On the other side, the major problem with alternative education is that it is far too romantic. At least in India, parents often complain that there is too much “play”. One might even accuse that it has lost direction apart from being alternative. Where will it take the future of children is not an unfair question. One of the major concerns that the parents share – when they are sending their children to alternative and experimental schools – is that they are worried if their kids would be able to cope up with the children from mainstream schools where competitiveness is inbuilt. Will our children be “academically challenged”, they tend to ask, though it is far from being so. However, due to the over concern about the “results” in such schools, even “enlightened” and “differently thinking” parents prefer their children leaving experimental places after the initial years. Their children soon end up in typical oppressive schools where unending tests and assessments and grades and marks dominantly decide everything.
An important failure of vision in most of the alternative endeavours in education, it sounds, is that it is reactionary. Its arguments are often founded on the simplistic idea about the inhumanly heavy burden that the children in mainstream schools bear with. Though this observation is unobjectionably fair, a negligence to lacking a philosophical and ideological backing for alternative attempts cant be overlooked. Just as education is not about carrying heavy loads of tasks and assignments, it is also not just about sitting relaxed with no particular orientations. The trouble lies, apparently, with the lack of a holistic understanding of human being as an essentially spiritual being, in both places – the mainstream and the alternative.
What we need is a holistic synthesis of all alternative ideas and the progressive humane elements even from the mainstream system. The human future largely relies on our ability and willingness to honestly and dedicatedly invest ourselves in continuously developing and making a sustainable non-mainstream educational model, or series of models, combining Friere, Illich, now mainstreamised Maria Montessori and Syed Naquib Al Atas. All of them, and many other geniuses along with them, are to be critically evaluated, too, as their fundamental vision has always been to be critical and creative.
However, between 'the romantic utopia' of alternative education and the surrealist dystopia of mainstream schooling, one finds it difficult not to be confused.