In the midst of the raging #FeesMustFall campaign, the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy Steven Friedman, who wrote Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe and the Radical Critique of Apartheid, reflected on the myth of education as a cure for all of South Africa’s problems.
“Just about everyone agrees that education is a solution to most of our — and everyone else’s — economic problems. Sadly, just about everyone is probably wrong,” Friedman writes in a recent Business Day column, which he shared as a post on his Facebook page, explaining why there are no miraculous powers hidden in education. He notes that this is not only a local myth but also popular abroad, as seen for example in British prime minister Tony Blair’s call for “education education education”.
“Not only is education not a miracle cure, but the fixation with its supposed healing powers may be diverting us from tackling our problems,” the political scientist says.
Read Friedman’s reflection for a completely different take on the current debate around education:
Education is not the cure-all it is made out to be
JUST about everyone agrees that education is a solution to most of our — and everyone else’s — economic problems. Sadly, just about everyone is probably wrong.
A week in which university students are resisting fee increases is a good time to reflect on a constant theme in our national debate — the wondrous healing powers of education.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that whenever South Africans debate a problem someone will insist, to agreeing nods, that the solution is more and better education.
Nor is this response peculiarly South African: the former British prime minister Tony Blair once claimed that “education, education, education” would solve his country’s problems.
Visiting French economist Thomas Piketty also told us recently of education’s role in reducing inequality here.
Surely this is obvious?
Well, no. Not only is education not a miracle cure, but the fixation with its supposed healing powers may be diverting us from tackling our problems.
Before the accusations begin, the benefits of an education are obvious, particularly to those of us lucky enough to have one. But education is not the cure-all solution it is meant to be.
Recently, Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister and academic economist who is no wild-eyed radical, published an article showing that education is not on its own an engine of economic growth. His numbers show that huge growth in education levels over the past 50 years have not translated into equivalent growth in the economy.
Hausmann pointed out that China’s educational progress lags behind that of Tunisia, Mexico, Kenya and Iran — yet it grew much faster than any of them. He added that if education on its own produced growth, Albania, Armenia and Sri Lanka would not be poverty stricken: “Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.”
Nor does evidence necessarily show that education is a fix for inequality: recent research by the Brookings Institution in the US shows that while, not surprisingly, poor people improve their situation if they receive an education, this does not reduce overall inequality.
It is also clear that education often produces inequality — the well-off attend the best schools and universities, while the poor make do with the education system’s crumbs. So it may well be that equality is needed to fix education, not that education is needed to fix inequality.
More than 20 years ago, sociologist Harold Wolpe argued against the idea that education alone could erode inequality if other measures were not taken to attend to the problem. The evidence supports him.
There are many debates about the link between education, on the one hand, and poverty and inequality on the other.
But what is clear is that it is simply not true that education on its own solves these problems — at the very least, other remedies are needed.
This is why harping on education can hold us back — by diverting our attention from other problems that need attention.
A frequent problem is that the education argument becomes a handy excuse for those who are doing well and do not want anything to change.
For them, the argument that “education is the answer” really means that “they” should stop complaining about “us”. Instead, “they” should realise that “we” are doing well because we know much more than them — if “they” want to be like “us”, they should learn how.
The handy thing about this argument is that it places all the blame on people at the bottom and requires no change at all from those at the top. Like the claim that voters need “education” whenever they behave in a way that elites dislike, this is more about making people at the top feel better than about solving problems.
Even where the purpose is not to shift blame on to the poor, focusing on education at the expense of other priorities can worsen problems — an oft-cited example in our region is Zimbabwe, which made substantial gains in education after majority rule, but did not fix the other problems that needed attention if it was to prosper.
Inequality remains our deepest problem — far too deep to be solved by one “fix” alone. It requires a range of solutions, all of which need to be negotiated among the major economic actors and all of which require all to change the way they do things and to give up some of what they have in the interests of a future that can work for all. Education may feature in that process — but it is no substitute for it.
On Friday, the day which saw masses gather at the Union Building in Pretoria to hear president Zuma announce a zero percent increase in tertiary education fees, Friedman spoke to CapeTalk’s John Maytham, saying he believes the campaign won’t hurt the ANC government.
With regards to the #FeesMustFall campaign, Friedman says, “It is important, but it is not as significant as many people think”.
Listen to the podcast to find out why he says so: