Educational Fallacies as Common Sense

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By Yuingam Jajo
I would like to consider couple of widely accepted educational fallacies which have entrenched themselves in public domain as common sense beliefs: firstly, the rate of educational achievement of economically poor students is lower compared to the students from economically better households; secondly, the division of ‘hard subjects’ (mathematics, physics) as the domain of male students and ‘soft subjects’ (home science, literature) as the domain of female students; and thirdly, tribal students and women are better in humanities, especially English, and non-tribal male students in science subjects. I term these as educational fallacies to mean ‘erroneous beliefs’ because of the lack of any convincingly established scientific bases or explanations to support such claims. Furthermore, it is important to debunk such beliefs so as to expose the underlying politics sustaining them. The first fallacy indirectly ties educational achievement to economic capabilities conveying the impression economic resources is the key to educational achievement; the second ‘gendered’ the disciplines and set up artificial boundaries hitherto non-existent and the third denies scientific temperament to a group of people and tends to romanticize their situations. All these fallacies functions as an ideology that obscure one from perceiving the social reality marked by inequality in terms of access to resources and its distribution in the society.

Poverty and educational achievement

That economically poor students perform less well is a well established belief in a developing country like India. This is perhaps the most comparatively non-fallacious of the three educational fallacies pointed out above. Several studies have been conducted which confirms the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement. The contention for it being an erroneous belief, however, lies on a different plane; that is, the question: What has poverty got do with academic achievement? Studies have confirmed that children of elite families have better chances of following the occupations of their parents via the existing educational system compared to the chances of economically poor children. Peirre Bourdeau would say it is because the cultural capital of the educational institutions and systems are the cultural capital of the economically better off class, they perform better compared to economically poor students. Thus, it can be rightly argued that content and evaluation processes followed in our educational systems are biased in favour of the economically more powerful sections of the society. After all it not just economics alone to be blamed. Economics only happens to be a smokescreen. Allow me to cite a very common example, which I used in order to convey the point across to students in my class – why is always ‘A for Apple’ when it can be ‘A for Aloo’ given the wider reach of aloo – transcending both the economic and geographical boundaries in the country. Moreover, the knowledge ‘A for Apple’ is silent on the fact that only few economically well off households in a developing country like India could afford to eat apple; majority of the people could not afford it. ‘A for Apple’ knowledge is class specific which is taught universally pointing to the power of certain section of the population to determine what pass off as legitimate knowledge through our educational system. That for the Andamani and Nicobari locals hunting and gathering in the tropical climate ‘A for Apple’ would be so alien that it would seem ridiculous to learn it. And even if by educational compulsions their children learns it, what possible use such knowing would have for them other than reminding them they are a deprived lot – those who could not afford apple. Damned by an apple!

Gendering: hard-soft subjects

That the divisions into ‘hard subjects’ as the domain of male students and ‘soft subjects’ as the domain of female students is not only unscientific and thereby erroneous but also reflects patriarchy at work. Knowledge and knowing become gendered. In this way, despite the shifts in the gender relationship in the social and political spheres with enactment of gender sensitive legislations as well as extension of privileges to women in the recent years, patriarchy continue to exercise its grip unnoticed, perhaps in a more less detectable manner. This blunts all the attempts to alleviate the position of women in the society leaving it with an unseen but nevertheless a formidable foe. ‘Hard’ subjects are presented as tough and manly, unsuitable for women, represented as timid and tamed; ‘soft’ subjects are portrayed as feminine, romantic and homely, kind of taboo for men; Organization of subject matters and the pedagogies for the gendered subjects are also structured along the patriarchy values of the society. Such gendered boundaries further prevents women from taking favourable advantage of the latest advancements and openings in the scientific and technology driven economy in the country as well as abroad, especially in terms of employment opportunities. Perhaps this may explain the continued predominance of educated women in those kinds of occupations where maximum time can be found to spare at home and hearth, if employed at all, even in the so-called liberated societies. Therefore, it is important to know that the gendering of subjects and setting up of boundaries like ‘soft-hard’ subjects has nothing to do with the epistemological bases of the subjects or the genetic make-up of the sexes but the societal interpretation of the epistemologies and sexes from a gendered position. The primary reason for doing so is the patriarchal obsession with control and domination of the weaker groups in the society, especially women. It naturalizes and makes the patriarchal domination scientific.

Anglican-izing tribal

To say tribal excel in English and non-tribal in physical sciences is erroneous, I would contend. To understand this contention one need to recall the historicity of western education in the colonies under the colonial rule. Initially, it needs to be reiterated, western education was introduced in India to basically produce a class of people ‘British in taste and intellect but Indian by birth and colour’ to help the colonial rulers effectively administer the colonial subjects. Against such a backdrop it was considered more than sufficient to impart elementary skills in the language of the colonial masters – just enough to help dispense the colonial rule. Education was never meant to promote enquiry or exploration of new and ever expanding universe of knowledge. Vestiges of this colonial agenda of western education are still evident in the present educational institutions and pursuits in most of the erstwhile colonies like India. Remarkably, the half-hearted measure underlining the introduction of western education is most evident in subjects like English hitherto packed with the Victorian prose and poetries; English mania or craze even today among the erstwhile colonial subjects and its elevated position vis-à-vis vernacular languages. But to continue to excel in the language of the colonial masters point to the deep-rooted subjugation which continue to exercise certain amount of control long after the heydays of colonialism are over. At the same time, it also hints at the stifled mindset or attitude which supposedly caused the tribal to lag behind or incapable of developing new modes of enquiry and exploration. Consequently, it reinforces the backward and the allegedly colonial induced subservient characteristics of the tribal vis-à-vis the non-tribal in the sub-continent. On the contrary, by making physical sciences as the area of expertise of the non-tribal, there is an implicit attempt to pass them off as the more advanced and developed group whose dominant position in the society needs to be accepted as justified and therefore legitimate.

Conclusion

Interrogating the three educational fallacies convince us that much more than pure ignorance or error in judgment is at play and therefore much more is at stake than merely being poor, women or tribal. Letting such educational fallacies pass off as common sense needs to be made problematic in order to understand the more subtle forces at play – like the patriarchal urge to dominate the women. Questions needs to be asked though answer may not be forthcoming to show that things would not be taken lying down anymore; the entrenched monopoly exercised by few powerful groups in the society needs to be challenged from a position of ‘situated-ness’ and relevance of knowledge for relating to the immediate environment and enabling the people to interpret the same. Knowing should help us to engage with our immediate situations leading us the lay bare the threads of connection between the local and the global, the seen and unseen cosmic world.

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