In the recent past, there has been a growing realisation regarding a definite need for the analysis and understanding of the phenomenon as well as the dynamics of education from a sociological perspective.
It is through this perspective that we can hope to get a fuller view of education which is essentially a social phenomenon. It is also important to understand that educational practices do not take place in isolation but are influenced, shaped and, in some cases, determined by certain ideologies. Thus, to bring a qualitative change in educational practices, it is essential to recognise the relationship between ideology and education and the vital role ideology plays in the conceptualisation and execution of education.
Before we analyse the role of ideology in the construction of social practices it is pertinent to unravel this term. ‘Ideology’ is an elusive term which has been used in different periods with different connotations. In the past, the term had negative connotations, but in contemporary times it is considered akin to ‘philosophy’.
‘Ideology’, in simple words, can be defined as a set of beliefs, usually entertained at group levels. Ideology at group levels can be contrasted with individual opinions in a society. A useful description is given by Eysenck who refers to three levels — specific opinion level, habitual opinion level and attitude level.
Ideology constructs the stereotypes that are legitimised and supported by certain social institutions. Thus, ideology that has the backing of powerful social institutions becomes dominant in a society and has the potential to capture the minds of marginalised groups. It is this subtle hegemony of ideas which was first focused and elaborated on by Italian scholar, Gramsci in Prison Notebooks.
Among other social institutions engaged in the process of socialisation, educational institutions play an important part in the construction and perpetuation of certain ideologies which generally serve the interests of the dominant groups of society.
If we look at the history of education in Pakistan we see how education has been used to propagate certain ideologies favoured by powerful rulers. In Ayub Khan’s era, the whole emphasis was on ‘economic development’ whereas social development was undermined. During Zia’s regime, educational institutions were used to ‘Islamise’ society, whereas Pervez Musharraf’s emphasis was on an imported brand of ‘moderate enlightenment’.
No ruler ever asked the masses for their choice or preference. They could make a decision on the part of others as they enjoyed power. The fact that every powerful ruler tried to use education to legitimise and promote a certain ideology suggests the significance of education and its two-way relationship with ideology.
Having deciphered the term ‘ideology’, let us briefly visit its relationship with education with special reference to Pakistan. We can do this by looking at ideologies linked with certain educational notions and practices. Knowledge in most mainstream educational institutions is viewed as static, predetermined and rigid.
This ideology of knowledge encourages a certain pedagogy the sole objective of which is to transmit or pass on pre-existing knowledge from one generation to another. This ideology of pedagogical practices does not encourage any innovation, creativity or reflection. The students are considered passive recipients and ‘mind-filling jobs’ are left to teachers.
The ideology of learning, encouraged by this kind of pedagogy, is that of cramming and recalling, which is rightly dubbed by Freire as the banking concept of knowledge. The ultimate aim of this learning is to cram pre-existing and fixed items of knowledge and reproduce them in examination papers. This ideology of learning is devoid of any critical thinking. Thus students find no motivation to reflect and reinterpret a phenomenon.
This process of dominant teaching and passive learning gets encouragement and reassurance by the ideology of the existing assessment system. Our prevailing assessment system is geared towards the piecemeal assessment of disjointed items where students are not required to understand and apply acquired knowledge. This prompts us to look at the ideology of a broader aim of the present educational system that is biased in favour of powerful groups. The kind of education, prevalent in most educational institutions, not only supports existing power structures but also widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Recently there have been calls for qualitative improvement in education. The required improvement cannot come from cosmetic changes. The problem is far deeper. We need to challenge ideologies associated with notions of education, pedagogy, learning, assessment and the aim.
Education has to move from transmission to transformation for which we have to revisit our definitions of knowledge. This would lead to more vibrant and interactive classroom dynamics where students are engaged in co-construction of knowledge. For this we need to challenge the ideology of an existing assessment system which is memory-based and is unable to tap thinking skills of a higher order.
We need to strive for an assessment system which requires students to think critically and apply knowledge in diverse contexts. For all these changes in learning, pedagogy and assessment, it is important that we revisit our ideology about the very aim of education. We need to challenge the transmission mode of education that supports existing power structures and move to the transformation mode where the main objective is to reduce socio-economic gaps in society and empower the underprivileged by maximising their life chances.
The writer is a director at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.