18 Dec Education: The Myth of the Market
By Anjum Altaf
Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English).
I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population.
I had argued in the article that Macaulay was wrong in equating the desire to learn English as a language for enhancing job prospects with its appropriateness as the medium of instruction for the education of Indians. This is an important distinction but I do not intend to revisit this issue here. Rather, I wish to discuss our attitude to the market and point to the perils of a perspective that might be unduly simplistic and uncritical.
We need to recognize that markets are not sacred or divinely ordained. All markets are man-made and contingent on a host of all-too-human decisions. The easiest way to appreciate this is to realize that the supply and demand of any commodity responds to its price and we are tinkering with prices all the time through subsidies and taxes. Subsidize any commodity or make it artificially attractive through policy incentives and its demand would shoot up. Instead of being mesmerized by the demand, it would behoove us to examine if the subsidy and incentive policies made any sense in the first place.
We can now go back to the case of education. I have witnessed the hiring practices of elementary schools in Pakistan where well-qualified teachers are rejected in favor of much less qualified repatriates from the US because the latter possess an American accent. Probe this a little and the principal will tell you that this is the demand of the parents who will not enroll their children in a school in which the teachers speak Indian-English. If the market pushes us to prefer an empty-headed American to a Tamil-speaking genius surely there must be something wrong with the market that should bear examination.
In Macaulay’s Stepchildren, I documented the fact that to their credit the British recognized the contingent nature of market demand in their 1904 review of education policy in India and noted the damage it was causing to those who were expressing the demand:
It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.
From the above we can take just one attribute that contributed to the demand for English, the fact that high school examinations were conducted in that language and a high school diploma meant a quantum jump in the prospects for better remunerations. But it should be equally obvious that there never was a divinely mandated ordinance that high school examinations be conducted in English. Change the language of examinations and the demand would shift accordingly.
Having made these arguments let me go back to the earlier article I mentioned in the opening paragraph in order to elaborate further on the contingent nature of markets and the need to be critical in our approach to them. The article was written in the context of a proposal I had made to revive classical music in Pakistan that was challenged on the grounds that the market had rejected classical music in favor of the pop version and there was no need indulge in quixotic attempts to fight the verdict of the market. I had responded to the argument, in part, as follows:
The point with regard to the market can be addressed at two levels. First, were I to be cynical, I would respond that neither does the market in Pakistan today reward honesty or good manners. But we disregard these market signals and continue to try and teach our children to be honest and well behaved. There are some things that we keep outside the purview of the market. We continue to learn languages and read literature even if there is no market return to such allocations of time and money. And, by the same token, we do not peddle opium even if there is a high return to that activity. An appreciation for good music falls in the same category, free of market considerations.
But let me not dismiss the market in such a cavalier fashion. First, the market does reward good music that does not trample on the basics of pitch and rhythm and exploits the knowledge of melodic scales. It is not for nothing that many of the old film songs composed by masters like SD Burman, Roshan and Khurshid Anwar and sung by Saigal, Lata and Noor Jehan remain unforgettable. Nor is it an accident that the memorable ghazals sung by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Fareeda Khanum are composed in popular ragas. It is another matter that the composers and singers have not been able to capture the economic rewards because of the absence of enforceable copyright laws in the music market.
Second, while market signals convey extremely useful information, their interpretation need not always be straightforward. Take the case of education. The market is signaling a very strong demand for private tuition. How should we interpret that signal? In my reckoning the demand is pointing towards a systemic problem in another part of the educational system, the progressive failure of schools to impart worthwhile knowledge. This failure is being compensated by the emergence of a supply of private tuition. Our response to the market signal should be an attempt to fix the schools and not to endorse a system of private tuition.
In a similar fashion, the rejection of classical music by the market might simply be a consequence of the arbitrary decision of some cultural czars to banish its projection on state-controlled media and suppress its teaching in public institutions of learning. If so, we should choose to struggle against such arbitrary rulings rather than take the verdict of the market at face value. It should be obvious that the market for books would be non-existent if we kept the entire population of the country illiterate. The verdict of the market in such a case would be nothing but a reflection of either our folly or our callousness. The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it.