By the beginning of this decade a small but growing number of social critics were heard to proclaim that formal education was not a mixed blessing at all for Third World countries; it was a real obstacle to development. For Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and others who were at the vanguard of this movement, “development” had acquired a new definition. The measure of development was no longer an increased productivity and more dollars. National and individual wealth was now seen as secondary to a sense of power-the ability to make real choices and shape one’s own future. A certain level of national affluence is the condition for achieving this power, provided it does not lead to domination by the wealthy world powers.

Just as development means freedom from national impotence, it also implies liberation from powerlessness for all social groups within the country. The elimination of social inequality takes on special prominence in this concept of development. And here is where formal education, as embodied in the Western school, comes under severe attack. By sorting people out into categories of its own making (PhDs, ABs, high school graduates, dropouts), it leads to class stratification and actually promotes social inequality. Formal education systems, the critics charge, produce a sense of dependence and helplessness among those whom they purport to help. People learn to mistrust their own power to engage in meaningful learning outside of a school.

The Western school, Illich maintains, is as much the product of an industrialized society-and therefore just as inappropriate to many developing countries-as the skyscraper and the fast express train. His quarrel is not with education as such, but with the costly types of formal education that devour a large chunk of the national budget for the benefit of an elite representing only a tiny fraction of the national population. Others contend that the supposed economic gains from education are largely illusory. The consumption of the educated eventually outstrips their productivity, education being not the least expensive of the commodities they learn to consume. The result is a society outdoing itself to keep up with educational demands.


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