What Malala Tells Us About Education

Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl who has become a world spokesperson for girls’ education, was recently shot by Taliban gunmen for refusing to give up going to school; they threaten to try again should she recover from this shooting, which has shocked even the Pakistani power elite into visible condemnation of her attackers.  That the Taliban are against education for girls tells us all we need to know about them and why their attempts to gain power in Pakistan and regain it in Afghanistan must be thwarted.

Their hostility to education also tells us something dire about the totalitarian mind.  A populace without education is a nation of slaves.  Educated people are free people.  The focus has been on the education of girls, and rightly so, as no nation can be free if half its population is in bondage; but the Taliban also do not wish to educate boys.  The “education” at Taliban sponsored madrassas is indoctrination, not education, and its goal is to produce mindless puppets to serve the Taliban leadership and its goals for power; an miseducated boy is a potential suicide bomber or brutal “soldier”, not a free man.

Totalitarians everywhere of every stripe understand that education makes people free, and they seek either to deny education to the servile masses or to manipulate education in such a way as to clone “workers” incapable of questioning the directives of those in power.  Thus a nation can have an educational system, even a highly developed one, without in fact educating.  If the educational system merely trains specialized workers it is in fact not an educational system at all.  As the Taliban illustrate in their selective “education” of boys and denial of education to girls, totalitarians often select a certain slice of the demographic for indoctrination while preventing the rest of the population from access even to that; what Malala illustrates is that the rejected may very well choose to educate themselves, and thus challenge totalitarian power.

In the United States today, we have an extensive educational system, but there are elements in our society who are trying to wrest control of that system from the people and reshape it (they use the term “reform”) to serve their own purposes.  The increasing pressure for test results, the decreasing status of teachers, the punitive hostility to students, and the emphasis on the acquisition of “skill sets” for careers even as the core of real education, the humanities and liberal arts, are undermined, ridiculed, and underfunded, indicates that education is precisely what these ideologues do not want.  This “reform” movement is often cloaked in patriotic garb: we must train better workers to remain “competitive” and to thwart the rise of China.  But it’s really about perpetuating the inequities of our social system.

That such hostility exists is exemplified by recent developments in my home state of Arizona, where right-wing state level politicians have forced the local school board of Tucson to discontinue its high school Mexican-American studies program, despite its proven positive test results (so much, then, for the idea that it’s the tests that measure outcomes).  Why?  Because the program instilled pride and motivation in students whom these politicians would rather see, proverbially, as “barefoot and pregnant,” i.e., as undereducated drones who will have no choice but to take the lowest-level, most despised jobs and be grateful for them.

The idea in much of the country is to underfund education, undermine teachers both in morale and pay, have these disenfranchised teachers then train “by the book” so that the system spews out unthinking clones, and thereby create a mass of no-longer-citizens who will not be capable of understanding that they are being exploited.  As the Taliban illustrate, those who would enslave a population need not be a majority, nor even a large minority, as long as they have the means and the willingness to intimidate.

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