North Africa, West Asia

Education: moving from indoctrination to liberation

Reforming educational curricula, especially where it pertains to values, is by necessity a matter of process and form as well as content.

Maha Bali
15 September 2014

As an educator, I notice that sometimes people talk about educational curricula as though they consisted mainly of content that we aim to relay to students. Occasionally, people talk about skills that will benefit students in the long term. It is much more rare, and yet much more important, I think, to talk about the process of education and the values which education promotes in learners.

Education can promote values in the overt curriculum, that which is expressed clearly in curriculum documents, written in textbooks, spoken by teachers in classrooms, and assessed in exams. But education also promotes values indirectly via the hidden curriculum of schooling.

Depending on your perspective, the hidden curriculum can be seen in a positive light, as a way of socializing children into the ways of the world. For example, the kinds of discipline imparted by school, and the competitiveness of most schooling, can be considered methods of indirectly teaching about the ways of the world. However, from another perspective, the way schools impose authority and control on learners can be viewed as a hegemonic tool to promote obedience in future citizens.

I am always concerned about overt discussions of the ways in which schools will promote things like character education, patriotism, or citizenship education. Such endeavors often appear noble, even necessary, but should also always be questioned and analysed more deeply.

When Edward Said was invited to re-design curricula in Palestine, they rejected his recommendations. They wanted a nationalistic curriculum, whereas he wanted to design a curriculum that maintained a healthy criticism within it. Shor and Freire talk about the importance of raising the consciousness of the oppressed, such that they study both the culture of the dominant groups in society (they need to, in order to survive economically), as well as their own culture - and to be able to critique both. Postcolonial societies need to know there is knowledge beyond what has been imparted by the colonizer, to value local culture(s), and yet maintain a healthy scepticism and criticism of both.

And so when I read about attempts at educating children or adolescents about character, patriotism, or citizenship (such as has recently been discussed in Egypt), I ask myself the following questions:

How are the key terms (character, patriotism, citizenship) defined to learners? If they are defined in one particular way, then I am sceptical. The role of education, in my view, should not be to prescribe a particular understanding of what it means to be a good patriot or citizen. While love of country should be a good thing, and seems uncontroversial to encourage, how one expresses that love can and should vary. Encouraging patriotism can vary widely: from blind obedience to a particular leader, to unquestioning support for war efforts, to jumping to voting booths, to participation in civil society, to resisting oppression, to violence against enemies.

How are the key values taught to learners? Nobody learns attitudes and values by being told, we learn values by living them. Whenever someone says that Egypt is/was not ready for democracy, I question how on earth Egyptians would become ready for democracy, without actually living through it. We learn to be moral people not by being told what is right and wrong, but by being placed in situations, controversial ones, where we need to make difficult decisions, and by doing so, discovering our own moral compass, and building our values.

Is there a contradiction between what is said and what is done? This is where a hidden curriculum can come into play. Do we say that we want to teach critical thinking? How are we teaching it? If we teach critical thinking by listing a set of rules of informal logic and a list of fallacies to watch out for, that’s memorizing, that’s not critical thinking. Do we teach critical thinking in the classroom, and then silence students who try to question the authority of the teacher? Then we are not teaching critical thinking. Do we allow criticism in the classroom, but discourage students from resisting practices they object to in the school? Then we are being hypocrites. Does our government say it encourages teaching of critical thinking in schools, but oppress individuals who critique it openly? The contradiction is not really hidden, in that case.

Does the curriculum privilege particular groups over others? This is a really big issue with moral education, for example. Although the most fundamental values of all the world’s major religions are similar, if the government’s curriculum focuses on one religion’s doctrines (in whatever subject is being taught) over others, then it privileges one group of citizens over others. It automatically implies that one culture has inherently more value than others.

I was once having a discussion with a group of student-teachers about this topic, about how parents feel about a school directly teaching morality to their kids. And one teacher went so far as to say, “is it even a parent’s right to teach morality to her kids?”. My first reaction to that question was shock. It was clear to me why I would not want a school to indoctrinate my child into thinking in a particular way, but surely I, as benevolent parent, who knows what’s best for my child, had the right to? But in hindsight, and thinking about children as they grow older (not the very young), sometimes parents try to direct their children’s thinking too much.

If a teacher or parent raises a child to believe that they derive their moral compass from them, the child learns that morality is something they derive from an authority figure. This makes it easier for future authority figures to brainwash them. However, if both parents and teachers promote a critical approach to morality in children, these children will grow into adolescents and adults who are capable of critically assessing their options and making informed decisions about their morality in future.

Surely this is what we would rather see in our future citizens? We should not aim to define morality for our youth, but equip them to think about morality and develop it; we should not teach them about values, but embody and model our own values, and create safe (and later, as they grow older, even risky) spaces for youth to experience situations to build values for themselves. Otherwise, if we are not careful, we will end up with a society of mostly indoctrinated citizens.

Some may develop the agency to resist the dominant mind-set, but they would be few, and the majority would likely silence them as rebels or even traitors. Others may be open to other views, but would accept them uncritically, possibly leading to violent resistance. But most dangerous of all, is a society of individuals who all think the same way, do not accept other ways of thinking, and therefore cannot critique the status quo, cope with change, nor initiate change when it is needed.

While writing this article, I remembered a funny story that happened to me. After the last elections in Egypt, I rode with a taxi driver who told me that in his household, one person voted for Sisi, one for Hamdeen, one nullified their vote, and one abstained. I thought that was exactly as it should be if freedom of speech existed in their household.

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