Featured image courtesy BBC

I preface this piece by acknowledging my own discomfort as an educator in addressing sticky issues of equity and justice in education. I was motivated to write this piece in view of recent events, particularly the rejection of the 6-year old boy (assumed to have AIDS), from public school. The point of this article is not to offer definitive conclusions concerning the issue that arose, rather it is an attempt to make visible complex socio-cultural realities that account for the processes which underlie unjust outcomes as experienced by this boy and his mother. To that extent this write-up is by no means a thorough analysis of the events surrounding this case; rather, I use this case as platform to draw attention to what might be are larger problem not only in how we “do” education, but perhaps more importantly, how we conduct the daily affairs of society.

There was much activity in taking up the plight of this young boy and to a lesser extent his mother, which I think is unfortunate. Here, I specifically target those who were outraged by the injustice caused as a means of expanding our understanding as we negotiate the sticky issues of social justice. While there is much to be appreciated in terms of how this event opened public debate on how issues of equality are taken up, what seemed to have gone unnoticed is the subtle under text that to me is worth troubling. The injustice which this boy and his mother were subjected to was attributed mostly to the lack of AIDS awareness, our flawed education system and the “ignorance” of the people in Kuliyapitiya. I argue, that the rejection of the boy and his mother calls for a nuanced analysis of the many factors that contributed to this turn of events. I seek to point out that the grave injustice imposed upon this boy and his mother is indicative of a far greater problem. The problem of how discourses of exclusion and rejection pervade our society and often go unnoticed unless it causes some kind of catastrophe. Sri Lanka has a long list of such cataclysms, which invoke significant backlash from those of us who consider ourselves, let’s say progressive (if an undertone of sarcasm is sensed, consider it intentional). However, this backlash at times lacks substance as we pay little or no attention to the actual practices and processes that generate them.

Primarily, I argue that this boy’s rejection is symptom of a larger culture of exclusion we maintain in our schools and communities. Therefore, any analysis that does not consider this culture of exclusion, obscures the conditions of many adults and children who live in the margins of our society who have to contend with rejection on a daily basis. These groups include individuals with disabilities, urban and rural poor, certain ethnic “others”, women and many more who find themselves at these intersections. Furthermore, in an attempt to deal with my own discomfort regarding the way events unfolded for this boy and his mother, I draw attention to the dangers of the ways in which we position groups of people. Positioning orders our social relationships both politically and otherwise which contributes to rejection as experienced by this boy and his mother.

Recognising reciprocity

The harshest criticisms were leveled at the prevailing education system and its leaders, which is largely justified. Yet the critique failed in the sense that it looked at the school system as if it was an independent bounded entity that existed outside of society. Meaning, it did not consider the symbiotic relationship between the education system and the society in which it is situated. This injustice, therefore, was not only a consequence how we “do” school, but it is also a consequence of how we “do” society. Further, these criticism make a problematic assumption, that if education got its act together, our society would do better. In other words, the supposition is that the state of our society is a direct reflection of how we conduct schools. I problematize this common notion for it is too simplistic, as it points to a one-sided cause and effect relationship between school and society. This assumption is reductive as it elides the complexity of how schools and society work as complex integrated systems. I argue that schools are microcosms of society, and as such maintain a reciprocal relationship with the society in which it is situated by exchanging values, beliefs, ideologies, practices etc. This reciprocity comes with multiple affordances and constraints, determining how school and society work. Thus any criticism of the education system implicates the society as well.

Undoubtedly, this culture of exclusion and rejection is evident in schools, as in society. This leads to processes which reject students, actively impeding access, participation, opportunity and achievement. Students are tracked based on their ability where low performers and students with disabilities are segregated both physically and otherwise. Even when they share a physical space, it does not take long for an outsider to figure who the rejects are. One only needs to pay attention to where they’re seated in class, the comments teachers and peers make or their general derelict demeanor. Unfortunately, these oppressive practices are institutionally sanctioned thus visible in school systems. How society manifests this culture may look different, yet none can deny its prevalence in our society.

This culture of rejection and exclusion that justifies the oppressive treatment of some children, just as the community endorses the rejection of some people groups. In schools, like in society the justification for rejection often take the form of locating a deficit or deviance within the person, his/her family or the community regardless of structural inequalities that pervade their lived realities. This culture of rejection and exclusion comes easily to us as we are both products and perpetuators of this culture. Whom the school rejects is inextricably linked to whom society rejects and vice versa. Consider in this case individuals with a condition such as AIDS. This culture of exclusion and rejection which is present in society and schools mutually feed off each other perpetuating ever increasing exclusionary practices that reject individuals and people groups.

In the case of this boy and his mother, one could easily test this claim even among those who recognized the injustice if in case the young boy did have AIDS. I do not wish to make light of the complexities that arise with including a student with AIDS in a school system, rather my point is that regardless of what criteria is used, any difference makes individuals and their people groups susceptible to rejection. The rejection of this boy and his mother depicts the pernicious interaction between the school and its community’s values and ideologies that effectively push out the most vulnerable in our communities to the margins of society. Thus, all 179 students evacuating the school is reflection of this reality.

These practices have gone unquestioned by our society and educational personnel, accepted as the norm and resulted in the blind belief that schools and society are neutral spaces that reward hard work while day in and day our schools and communities discard scores of people who are deemed different, deficient or deviant. The highlighting of the reciprocity of education systems of society does not avail the education system of the country from its responsibility in addressing inequitable practices. Rather, this points to the fact that if educational system is to lead with a posture of equity, it must recognize its relationship with the larger community and actively work toward disrupting inequality and inequity. The larger community in turn must recognize its contribution to inequitable practices and use its symbiotic relationship with the school to bring about meaningful change.

Shaped thinking

Education and the education system are not neutral institutions that disseminate “knowledge”. Education, more precisely “educating”, is essentially a political activity which takes place in contested terrains of pluralistic societies. School is but one such context within society, whereby formalized education advances a societies’ values and ideologies. An ideology that is pervasive in our schooling system is one that draws numerous boundaries that seeks to exclude. This ideology leads to a culture that promotes and justifies exclusion and rejection on many grounds. For instance, consider the ways in which our public schools are organized. Schools are divided by ethnic-language, gender, religion, class, ability or any number of intersections based on these identity markers. Schools are not inclusive spaces, rather they are spaces that reify difference and exclusionary practices based on differences. Consider for a moment the scores of students whom our education systems spits out based on exam based achievement, offering ever decreasing opportunities for social and economic mobility to those discarded early on in the educational trajectory (i.e 5th grade scholarship exam). Sri Lanka boasts of a 99.5% enrollment rate of students who complete 9th grade in public school which is commendable, yet does not consider that enrollment rates in grade 12 and 13 is a dismal 2.9% ( Annual School Census, 2010)

In addition, schools are spaces where many types of “educating” occur. One is the dissemination of content related information (which we are all familiar with, yet disagree if this constitutes learning). The other is the process of socialization. Here, values, beliefs and ideologies espoused by the socio-cultural specificities are disseminated. Understanding the work of “educating” as encompassing both these elements is critical in terms of understanding the conditions that pervade our schools and society. For example, the most prevalent accusation leveled at our education system is that it produces individuals who are unable to think. These Clichés obscure the fact that how we are taught and what we are taught are results of decisions made by individuals at every level of the education system. The learning that occurs based on these decisions shape the way we think, construct our identities and how we act based on them. Therefor the criticism that our problem is the inability to think is unfounded. The criticism more accurately is that our thinking is shaped by our education and society in specific ways. They are shaped in ways that does not afford thinking critically. To this extent, if our thinking is parochial, this is a consequence of a learning environment that promotes such thinking. If our thinking is racist, classist, sexist, ableist, then these thoughts are products the shaping that occurs in schools and outside schools. While I do not want to over extend this fact by stating that is shaping is intentional, I do assert that this type of thinking is extremely beneficial to groups that wield power and priviledge in our society.

Recognising resistance

Schools and every unit in our society is implicated in the processes that shape our thinking; thinking which may result oppressive practices. Thus the rejection of this boy and his mother is a consequence of the way education and society shapes our thinking in specific ways. It is important at this point that I acknowledge the role of human agency and resistance in challenging normative ideologies, values and beliefs. The mother’s protest in sitting outside the school gate with her son was both resistance to a collective decision made by other parents, but also resistance to dominant but oppressive thinking patterns that caused the rejection of her son. The photograph of her sitting outside the school with her son evoked much sympathy. This diminished the most valuable part of her act, which in my opinion must be recognized and appreciated much broadly as an act of resistance to oppression. As demonstrated by this mother, our ability resist actions that are shaped by our specific ways of thinking might be one out of many ways that may help us escape this culture of rejection and exclusion, far more than any educational reform could achieve

Schools as transformative spaces?

The assumption that schools are transformative spaces must be troubled. I and many others like myself pursue our vocation as educators optimistic that schools can change the world. I argue that schools have the potential to be transformative places, but we are not there yet. The oppressive processes and practices I see in my work, particularly in schools located in under resourced communities is disturbing. Lack of resources, corporeal punishment, and poor instruction are but a few such practices that have both immediate and long term consequences.

Not only are students affected by such oppressive practices but so are parents. Consider for a moment, how schools seek to control and direct parents by exercising their position of power. Many restrictions are placed on parents, particularly mothers, which include attire and decorum which determines their access to schools. None of the activities above display a sense of participation, mutual relationships or equal partnerships. Much like in spaces outside schools, these practices reify the divide between powerful decision makers and recipients of those decisions. This divide is evident if when we examine the school meeting conducted in Kuliyapitiya. On the elevated platform were the few experts and other authorities who had come to “educate” the “ignorant”. Thus from the outset, the meeting was not set up for meaningful participation and joint decision making. The failure of this forum in bringing justice to the boy and his mother, was not the eventual capitulation of authority to the power of the voices of allegedly “ignorant” people. Instead it was that neither group seemed to be familiar with participating as equals when it came to matters that impacted the school and community. I do not offer equal participation as a panacea to seemingly intractable problems. Rather, my point is that because equal participation is not valued, particularly the participation of the marginalised groups, it pits one power against another, be it the state or people. The irony of these shows of power is that even proponents of social justice have to resort to authoritative directives to ensure equitable outcomes. Power plays also entangle us in a far more pernicious process of deficit social positioning in order to validate our claims.

Deficit social positioning

The problem of deficit social positioning implicates us all. In this regard we are all susceptible to the Bossuet Paradox; we complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes. In this section, I problematise some of the narratives I picked up from responses of those who were outraged by the injustice committed toward this boy and his mother. Here, I focus on how the community in Kuliyapitiya was positioned. This community was labeled with many pejorative terms, as ignorant, uneducated and uncivilized. While the frustration with this community in terms of how they reacted to the issue of this boy and his mother is justified, what is difficult to justify is the derogatory positioning of the locals in this village.

In my view the failure of bringing justice to this boy and his mother had much to do with the inferior positioning of the people in Kuliyapitiya, by outsiders who do not live their realities. Instead of pointing out the injustice caused by unfounded concerns and contradictory claims made by the locals, the outsiders pointed fingers at the people, positioning them as deficient. This took away valuable opportunities to discuss the “problem” which in my opinion required difficult but necessary deliberations about the premise for rejection and exclusion. Deficit social positioning, limited the ability of the local community to participate as equals in the decision making process that had a direct impact on their wellbeing. The angry attack on sensibility displayed by the local community, seemed to me, more like a demonstration of frustration by people who were resisting their deficit positioning. In this regard the battle they were fighting was resistance to their derogatory positioning by outsiders. This unfortunately led to them to also reject claims of justice provided ironically by these same outsiders. Ultimately this did not change the reality of this boy and his mother, as they remain rejected and discarded by this community. In my view, when people in the margins of society are oppressed and denied a seat at the table where important decisions about their lives are made, they in turn oppress the most vulnerable within their group. One needs no elaborate thought experiment to understand how these events would have panned out if it was an affluent father from Kuliyapitiya with significant social and financial standing who was asking for justice, instead of the boy and his poor, recently widowed mother.

We as a nation have a troubled history with power and knowledge narratives that structure people groups as backward, uncivilized, and ignorant. In the least, its roots can be traced back to colonialism. When we position people or people groups as deficient, deviant or defective, we locate problem within their respective cultures, origins and or their relationship with the State. This by extension leads to the “problem” as situated within individuals in terms of moral weakness or flawed character. This type of positioning does not consider larger unjust social structures such as class, race, gender and ability within which people groups are located. When we position a group as inferior we perpetuate cycles inferiority thus the cycle of violence spirals downward creating more division among people. If those of us socialized in middle class norms or are well-educated professionals position those that are not us, as inferior, we are no different as we perpetuate the cycle that devalue people groups. How are we different from the local people in Kuliyapitiya who positioned this young boy and his mother as inferior that resulted in outright rejection? In positioning people and people groups as deficient we impede their ability to participate in decisions that have a direct impact on their wellbeing.

In this light I assert that the locals in Kuliyapitiya were not displaying their ignorance and or lack of civility in inflicting this grave injustice upon this boy and his mother. Rather they were displaying their unfamiliarity in participating in generative conversations that lead to decisions that impact their day to day lives. In my view the angry people of Kuliyapitiya were reacting to the nature of the relationship between powerful school authorities who have a tradition of making arbitrary decisions on behalf of the powerless. Resistance at the margins often looks incomprehensible to those of us who don’t live the realities of those margins. How do we expect such a community to assume a posture of equity when they themselves have never been recipients of such treatment?