In Plato’s seminal work Republic, the discussion around the idea of justice invariable gets down to the question of education and its quality, where Socrates says that it is pointless to worry over specific laws, since proper education ensures lawful behaviour and poor education causes lawlessness. Scholar Fiona Wilson lays it out in the modern context when she says that the school is a site where children are taught to become citizens and are encouraged to establish a relationship with the nation-state.
Education is a public good, a fundamental right and an entitlement, which is not just imperative for a citizen’s self-development but also has positive externalities and spins-offs for society and is, thereby, instrumental in a nation’s development. Public education ensures a level playing field—for the economically as well as the socially backward sections —which is also enshrined in our Constitution, with the ideas of equity, inclusivity and social justice at its heart.
“The central aim of national education is to strengthen the powers of the human mind and evoke the will and the ability to use knowledge, character, and culture,’’ Sri Aurobindo has said.
So, if a government offers subsidised education to its citizens, it isn’t doing them a favour. It is strengthening the country by building an informed, sensitised and dutiful citizenry through creation of a rewarding social and human capital and contributing to its skilled labour force.
It is, therefore, the state which is obliged to ensure that quality education (primary, secondary and even higher education) is accessible, affordable and open to all. The very act of the provision of public education then is the greatest public service.
Father of the Indian Constitution BR Ambedkar saw education as “the political path to emancipation, liberation and freedom from oppression’’.
Let us assume a scenario where there is no subsidised education. In the absence of government-run schools and institutions, more than 70% of Indians will have nowhere to go. Millions of parents struggling to make ends meet will be disincentivised to send their children to school following their inability to afford commoditised and privatised education. They would have to let their children succumb to ills of child labour, unemployment, crime, radicalisation and whatnot.
Now let us look at a popular belief that the recipients of public education must commit themselves to public service. Going back to Rousseau’s 1762 treatise The Social Contract, citizens are free because they forfeit the same number of rights and impose the same duties on all. Yet, the act of coercion by the state is seen as that of wielding illegitimate power, to which there is no rightful duty to submit.
The answer lies not in making public service compulsory, but to instil a set of values and virtues through education—irrespective of whether it is publicly or privately funded— that impassions the citizens to serve their country and the world in their own unique ways, through social, political, national, international or economic expressions of “public service”.
India’s philosopher-president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan professed this view when he said, “The students should not only be intellectually competent and technically skilled but also civilized in their emotions and refined in their purpose because their worth as members of society desires for devotion to a great cause”.
The task of inculcating morality and normativity in society finds its entry point into a pupil through education. For Vivekananda, at a more self-reflexive level, education was the manifestation of perfection that was already in man. “The larger and nobler aim of education would be ‘life-building, man-making, character-making and assimilation of ideas’,” he said.
One must establish links between education and society; acknowledge how it is not an apolitical exercise and is laden with diverse ideological underpinnings and unequal power relations.
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore summed it well when he said, “Modern education is relevant only to turning out clerks, lawyers, doctors, magistrates and policemen… It has not reached the farmer, the oil grinder, or the potter.’’
Mahatma Gandhi favoured a more rounded approach. “Boys and girls should be encouraged to value manual labour. In fact, carpentry, spinning and other crafts may be used as a means of stimulating the intellect”. He wanted students across social backgrounds to experience the work largely undertaken by the weaker sections of society, seeing in it the potential for social transformation.
One of the biggest virtues of education–unfettered and unconditional growth of an individual–is likely to get hindered if the state or society were to decide the occupation a student should take up after receiving public (or private) education.
Thus, the project of education is necessarily a political one, which must inherently aim at instilling values of justice, personal freedoms as well as that what we call “public service”, not as a necessary condition, but as a natural outcome.