The theme for this year's International Literacy Day, “Literacy and Skills Development”, speaks of a pressing issue of our time, as the rate of job creation in the country struggles to keep pace with the number of people joining the workforce every year. According to data from 2017, the unemployment rate in Bangladesh stands at 4.2 percentage (26 lakh). Add to that the number of those underemployed—people who work less than 40 hours a week or do not earn enough to meet basic needs or work at a lower tier compared to their skills and expertise—and the challenge of cashing in on the oft-quoted “demographic dividend” becomes all the more daunting. So the focus on education that imparts “skills”—defined by Unesco this year as “knowledge, skills and competencies required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills”—is understandable.
According to our Primary and Mass Education Minister, currently the literacy rate in Bangladesh is 72.9 percent. Our achievements in terms of increasing basic literacy (reading, writing and counting) and increasing access to education in the country have been phenomenal, true. But, literacy itself is a term which continues to evolve, and looking at it purely from a market perspective of access to jobs alone can come with its own problems, as the education sector of our country continues to show.
The “Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2006” published by Unesco states that the understanding of literacy has expanded from “a simple process of acquiring basic cognitive skills, to using these skills in ways to contribute to socio-economic development, to developing the capacity for social awareness and critical reflection as a basis for personal and social change.” The most common understanding of literacy as a set of “tangible skills”, the report points, can be a very limited view. But this has been the dominating conception that most national and international bodies have adopted. Critics of this approach have pointed out that literacy as a competence-based agenda, while focusing on outcomes such as access to jobs, leaves out fundamental issues central to education, such as development of critical citizenship.
Paole Freiri, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, quoting social philosopher Erich Fromm, defines the liberating role of education as the “Freedom to create and construct, to wonder and to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine.” Central to Freiri's argument is the importance of “bringing the learner's socio-cultural realities into the learning process and then using this learning process to challenge these social processes”—that is a “critical literacy.” In contrast to this knowledge creation and critical thinking based idea of education, Freiri mentions the mainstream form, which he calls “banking education” where “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits”—that is an education where students memorise and repeat. In the '70s Paolo Freiri's idea of education gained traction with the UN, especially in developing countries, and the Persepolis Declaration posited that “literacy must go beyond the process of learning the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, and contribute to the 'liberation of man' and to his full development.”
Our education system, from the ground upwards, is what Freiri calls “banking education”. Yes, our literacy rate has increased, but as the recent National Student Assessment shows, a significant portion of students in primary continue to perform at levels much below the standard when it came to language and mathematics. The ubiquity of coaching centres and guidebooks, aimed towards giving students shortcuts to good results, which would result in a GPA 5, and then, ideally, to an engineering or medical degree, is indicative of the way education is imparted. The focus, as educationists have been saying for a long time, has gone to rote learning, and parents, in their bid to get their children into good jobs, have created the demand for leaked question papers, at every level of education. Instead of improving quality of teaching-learning in the classroom, the focus has been on increasing the number of GPA 5s in the country.
Even if we keep aside the meagre output of our universities in creation of knowledge, even primary education—which should be general, inspire a love of learning and teach critical thinking—is now a matter of jobs. Freiri would probably argue that the corruption and other woes we, as a society and country, face today are intrinsically linked with the kind of education our system imparts.
But even in terms of universities, the debate between education for livelihood and education for knowledge continues globally. In 2015, the governor of Wisconsin tried to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin. He proposed to change the university's code from “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to “meet the state's workforce needs.” This generated intense criticism, and he eventually had to back off. Faced with the global economic competition and workforce demands, the ideal that education can and should have higher goals than getting a good job, is increasingly under challenge. Valerie Strauss, in an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2015 wrote, “Should young people become educated to get prepared to enter the workforce, or should the purpose of education be focused more on social, academic, cultural and intellectual development so that students can grow up to be engaged citizens?” She goes on to argue that it does not have to be an either-or situation in the first place, and to reduce inequity through access to jobs, one must focus on education for work, and for citizenship.
One might not agree that it is the role of education to create better human beings, and say that the adage, “Lekha pora kore jey, gari ghora chorey shey”, though problematic, remains true. But recent studies have highlighted that proponents for more trade schools and vocational training miss out on a major downside. “Vocational education, done right, helps workers find jobs when they are young. But as they age—and job requirements change—workers are often not well prepared for the changes,” wrote David Leonhardt in The New York Times in 2017. Pointing to research, he argues that imparting critical education alongside practical training, allows workers to adapt to changes in technology and new jobs in today's job market.
So, if not for the sake of knowledge and the higher ideals of education (as if the fundamental questions of existence are not relevant for the banker, or doctor, or car mechanic!) at least for decent and continued employment, we must start to think how we can make our education system into one that encourages critical thinking and knowledge generation. In the process, we can also create a citizenry which can add to the domain of human knowledge, challenge wrongs and take well-informed decisions in life and in work. Without these, our increasing literacy rates may give us more skilled workers and a lower unemployment rate, but not enlightened citizens.
Moyukh Mahtab is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.