24 January 2009

What is education for?

A friend sent this interesting link out - What is education for? By, David Orr

This article echoes many of things I have been feeling after my various visits to schools and interactions with children. A recent conversation made this more poignant. The lady in the conversation was a journalism graduate making her first foray into tv journalism. She was asked to cover an increase in rice prices and report how they were reducing sales in the local ration shops. I was curious and wanted to know more about her methodology. I was naive enough to assume that the normal process would be to get a large sample size of ration shops and return with the news. She shrugged, "No, that's not how it works. I called a few shops and reported the data from the shop that showed a (maximum) drop in sales." n = 1; that was her final sample size and this went on national news. If this kid wasn't getting ethical training while she was still in school I can hardly expect her to pick it up on the job? In my humble opinion her education has definitely failed. The article elaborates on the steps the author proposes to change the way we get educated because when you are done with school if you can't operate ethically, with a strong moral conscience that is well integrated with nature and the world around you, you have failed.

Looking back I have to admit that my education wasn't so fantastic on these counts. My world views now, are a synthesis of my experiences and differ greatly from the values I was taught. I am not as successful as my educators desired and definitely no where close to happiness as defined by the society I tend to orbit in. Yet I feel successful and happy.

Bringing this post back to to the article, I was trying to imagine how we can execute the principles suggested by the author into the schools I visited. On one hand, I do think it's important to inculcate these babies with a sense of responsibility to their environment and values that cherish contentment over material acquisition. But, on the other hand, they weren't born like me, with a silver spoon in my mouth and a roomful of books. It feels a bit hypocritical actually, to keep advocating a value based life over upward mobility, having got the opportunities I have had. After all, I did not spend my childhood working as a dishwasher or wondering if there would be food at the table that night. I wrestle with this type of dilemma often.

In another instance I was working with a project partner to support the education of children from the slums. We are supporting only a few kids from different families so it's a thorny issue for me that these kids have siblings who are not getting a similar opportunity. Life's lottery is one way to look at it. Anyway, I felt at least the parents shouldn't bring anymore siblings into the picture if these kids are getting a good education. Basically, I was asking that the parents practice birth control. Now, I really don't think I have a right to dictate these type of terms to anyone because ideally you want to help kids just because and I dislike a "strings attached" approach to these type of human projects. Yet, it didn't seem fair that the parents go ahead and have more babies when they weren't doing a good enough job with the babies they had already. Do you get the dilemma? I still don't know if I did the "right" thing by requesting the project partner to have the birth control talk with the parents. It haunts me.

This post started somewhere and ended somewhere else... but it helped get my thoughts out. I suppose I should have warned you to read at your own peril. :)


  1. I wrote a paper last semester for my Public Health Ethics class. I was researching reproductive choice and the role of government, if any, in driving it. It is highly unethical to foist birth control on anyone. It is so easy for privileged people to judge the poor for bringing babies into the world. It is one thing to provide free healthcare to those who can't afford it, and to offer contraceptive counseling as part of a wholesome package of public health services that include nutrition, education and vaccination. But to "have the birth control talk" is the worst form of paternalism.

    This is the one thing that is known to work time and again: educate girls and increase their socio-economic status, and the birth rate falls automatically, in the most humane way possible, because these girls finally have reproductive control and choice over their bodies.

  2. ...and it got me muddled.

  3. And to unmuddle myself, I quote, from the article, this:

    The plain fact is that the planet does not need more "successful" people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

  4. To Nupur~

    Having the birth control talk is not the worst form of paternalism!

    What are the chances that people from a low income background (assuming that they have not been exposed to the "sex education" which every other school going kid is taught as per their syllabus in high school)even know about the various forms of STD's let alone the preventive methods of unwanted conception?

    It is true that it's good to educate girls and uplift their socio economic background. But this just seems too idealistic, as this is solely a long term plan (which hopefully is implemented). What is required now is immediate action.

    And wives from a low income background having "choice over their bodies", NO WAY! Most of the money earned by the husband is generally spent at a local "watering hole", and the last thing a wife would need is to confront a drunk husband late in the night and have a one on one birth control talk. She loses both ways.

    It is also easy to quote ethics, but what about reality! Educators should spend time in down trodden areas to understand the realities in house holds of low income. What most women need is the support/understanding from their husbands. Because given a choice, most women would no doubt want to make use of the birth control methods.

    Education of birth control is required. Inculcate this knowledge amongst men.

    The worst form of paternalism would be in actually forcing people to snip their tubes (which has happened in India several times), or perhaps killing every second child born (as in China)!


  5. thank for all your comments.

    Nupur: Public ethics sounds like a great class. But its a class with numbers and statistics. My emotion comes from having visited the homes and seen that the kdis don't have a meal-a-day to eat let alone family support for an education. I do think broad policy decisions can be based from statiscal inferences of social studies but you cannot dictate choices on a personal level.

    I respect the dissent but I cannot see how I'm a good donor if my resources can only send one kid to school while the parents continue to bring in more kids with no resources to bring them up. I should have emphasized that this comment was made as a donor and not as a volunteer/ project steward.

    Tranquille Ame: I think there are several lenses and angles through which one can see this situation. I have to be honest though, my blog is more about my personal choices rather a policy I think people should adopt. It's a rare occassion for me to feel this much in dilemma about an action.