October 18, 2020
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What's So Great About Universal Primary Schooling?

When, instead of independence and autonomy, what a child in a typical primary school learns are the virtues of obedience, discipline and routine, not the idea of actually making choices, or questioning the norm...

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What's So Great About Universal Primary Schooling?
What's So Great About Universal Primary Schooling?
In ordinary life, it is commonplace to assert that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It can result in incomplete information and attitudinal or behavioural changes that actually worsen a situation that the slightly educated person is trying to improve. But in the contemporary world of development policy, something as measly as universal primary education is viewed as the magic bullet for literally any kind of improvement in people’s lives. Not only is it supposed to drive power, reason and civilization, in the process it is also expected to reduce poverty, unemployment, fertility, mortality, child labour, social unrest, gender oppression, all the malaise of the contemporary world.

The excitement over this quick fix has generated a large body of research in the social sciences in general and population studies in particular. The consensus that has emerged most strongly seems to be on the matter of ‘whom’ to educate - girls and women now get overwhelming priority in all policy prescriptions related to education, not only because they have lagged behind males in education in all parts of the underdeveloped world, but even more so because a case can be made that female education contributes more to improvements in welfare than equivalent levels of male education.

On the question of ‘how much’ to educate the girls and women on whom educational resources are now being focussed, universal primary schooling has become the development mantra in a range of documents and resolutions supported by a range of national governments and international organizations. The Cairo Conference on Population and Development, for example, identified universal access to primary education as one of its key quantitative goals. This goal was also explicitly stated in The World Conference on Education for All of 1990; The World Education Forum of 2000, the Millennium Summit of 2000, and the United Nations Special Session on Children in 2002.

But how valid is a goal of primary education for social development? The answer seems to depend on the outcome variable that one is looking at. It also seems to depend on the socioeconomic and cultural context of the population being studied. It appears that there are many outcome variables and many socioeconomic situations that require higher levels of education before a change is observed. Educational levels need to climb to some threshold, whether in terms of percentage of the population covered, or in terms of the minimum levels of educational attainment by individuals, if results are to be significant and lasting. Providing just primary education may not be effective if one of the goals is, say, fertility reduction. Achieving lower fertility may require girls to have at least a middle school education. Indeed, below such minimum levels, not only may education not reduce fertility, it might in some cases even raise it.

There seems, however, to be no such awkward bump in the relationship between maternal education and child health and mortality. A variety of data sets find a uniformly linear inverse relationship with the risk of under-five survival falling by 2-5% for every additional year of maternal schooling. Moreover, the improvements in child survival are seen at the very beginning of female education, whatever the initial conditions - socioeconomic, cultural, public services - and however unsatisfactory the nature of the schooling experience. 

This linearity is so striking that exploring it is a good way to draw some general conclusions about what it is that primary education does to individuals. 


What is it that happens to the young woman with only a few years of school that leads her to become so much more adept at getting her children to survive the riskiest period of their lives? It is not connected with the most obvious correlate of education, income. Not does it have to do with a heightened knowledge of disease aetiology - certainly any such improved knowledge is not acquired in the school experience itself - that experience is too far removed in time from her child-rearing experience. The few empirical studies that have reported on this matter have not found any evidence to suggest that women with some schooling have very different views from uneducated women on the prevention, causes and treatment of illness. 

The second knowledge-related attribute of schooled women might be an increased ability to access information important for child survival. That is, while schooling does not itself teach child-rearing skills, it helps women to later in life know how to acquire these skills, how to work out disease aetiology for themselves. It makes them good at understanding decontextualized information, information that is provided by impersonal sources like the mass media and health workers 

This is a provocative hypothesis, but it fails to explain why the knowledge base of educated women is not much better than that of their uneducated sisters. If they have learnt how to access now forms of information, it is not clear why this information does not get revealed in quantitative and qualitative surveys on the subject. 

But the hypothesis is still useful because it suggests that there is something larger than the school curriculum that is at work here. The very fact of schooling seems to confer some new abilities on women, abilities that are so useful in protecting their young children from the constant threats to survival and well-being that confront the impoverished Third world family. And when one when looks at actual behaviour, as opposed to knowledge, it does appear that even slightly educated women are more likely to seek and obtain effective health care to treat the common childhood illnesses that account for much of child ill health and mortality. 

The question that then arises is, why does even a very small amount of schooling make women more able to access life-saving health care, both preventive and curative? The social science research on population and development issues has been keen to devise notions of ‘autonomy’ and ‘empowerment’ to explain this behaviour. 

Autonomy and empowerment represent the best possible outcomes of transformative educational processes and they probably account for at least some of the demographic and social effects of relatively high levels of schooling - past secondary level for instance. But from all that we know about the elementary schooling experience in the developing world, it does not seem very likely that children, and especially female children, come out of it greatly independent and empowered. 

Nevertheless, the idea is tempting and is worth following up. The literature in education and educational psychology is sparse on what it is that a mere few years of schooling imparts to students. But some relevant hints can be obtained from the vast literature on what has been called the ‘hidden curriculum’. This term is applied to a variety of experiences, not all school-related, in which what is transmitted explicitly is not all that is transmitted implicitly or even consciously. 

Put another way, the focus in this literature is on what is learned in school, as opposed to what is taught in school.This twist of perspective allows one to better search for the things that are picked up through schooling without being part of an explicit curriculum. In particular, the hidden curriculum is believed to impart certain ‘social values’ - like achievement and independence - which are often in conflict with the family oriented values that dominate the non-schooled child and that make the schooled child better able to deal with the modern world of citizenship and work. 

However, these things - achievement, independence - are concepts that good school is supposed to indirectly promote in principle. But all accounts of the primary school experience in developing countries suggest that it is these very attributes that the experience is quick to kill. For example, one of the few qualitative studies that we have on the primary schooling experience in India, the report prepared by PROBE, did not find much evidence of a hidden curriculum that transmitted the values of independence and autonomy. It concluded instead that what the child in a typical primary school learns are the virtues of obedience, discipline and routine. That is what the hidden curriculum inculcates, not the idea of actually making choices, or questioning the norm. 

The report identified several kinds of implicit values that the slightly schooled child gains. The first of these is the idea that certain members of society are rightly figures of authority, who are benign and know it all. This notion of benign authority figures is embodied, first of all, in the teacher, even when the teacher’s behaviour is far from benign. It then extends, through the nature of the lessons and (especially) illustrations in the classroom, to include all kinds of other people deserving of respect - from national leaders, to bureaucrats, to specialists in white coats, to the frequently exploitative village leaders.

From the acceptance of their authority, the primary schooled child moves naturally to the idea of obedience of this authority. What the teacher or the doctor or the village leader says is correct by definition, it is not to be challenged, openly or implicitly. He (it is generally a ‘he’) represents the best that the modern world of science and technology has to offer and doing his bidding is one way of belonging to this world oneself. 

The PROBE report went on to demonstrate the teaching and learning rules that strengthen the obedience mentality in primary schools. Most lessons are incomprehensible enough to be followed only through the routine of memorization and regurgitation; certainly there is very little understanding involved even when the lessons are taught in what is supposedly the child’s mother tongue. This routine and the discipline that this inculcates are reinforced by the entry into children’s lives of what the historian Sumit Sarkar has called ‘clock time’, the breaking up of one’s day into structured periods for different activities. 

All these things - the respect for authority, the obedience of authority figures, and the ability to follow a time table of routine - go a long way towards making the slightly educated woman more able to seek and follow the dictates of health care providers in later life. When a child is ill, she turns to the authority of the doctor or nurse; and then she obeys the instructions on timed medication that this figure dispenses. When such obedience does indeed lead to the resolution of illness in the child, faith can only be fortified. 

Viewed in this light, the hidden curriculum of primary school experience in the developing world is well suited to achieving several social and economic objectives.In addition to encouraging better childcare, it is also well suited to the work-force requirements of a developing country and it is not surprising that studies have concluded that for low income countries, primary education provides the best returns to investment. Naturally - workers with primary schooling are likely to have just the qualities of obedience and discipline that a developing economy depends upon. The trouble of course is that this obedience and discipline can be manipulated by larger fascist forces to promote mindless social conflict as easily as it can be exploited for assembly line work. We have enough urban examples of this in recent years. 

Indeed, if primary schooling did change in the direction of actually making learning a joyous experience and promoting a healthy scepticism of authority, we might need to re-evaluate some of our pious views about the economic and social effects of schooling. These views are based on cross-sectional data on adults - that is, on individuals who were educated in the past, when schooling was the autocratic, disciplinary experience just described. If newer generations of children experience something quite different, we might well find that these effects become much more ambiguous. 

This gloomy conclusion is by no means meant to put a damper on current policies to provide universal primary schooling, though it is embarrassing that after fifty years of development planning, that is as far as our national ambitions go. It is only to wonder if in the long run, the consequences of schooling will be far more impressive and far more sustainable if the ‘quality’ of schooling and the ‘length’ of schooling are both pushed upwards, so that they come to represent the true liberation of mind and body that words such as ‘autonomy’ are meant to capture.

Alaka M. Basu is Associate Professor of Demography, Department of Sociology, Cornell University, USA.

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