A Decolonial Perspective on the True Intrinsic Value of Education
Author: Taskeen Adam
Over the past few months I have been involved in many discussions on skills development in Africa, particularly 21st century skills. These discussions have been strongly focused on what skills industry and economies need from their employees in order to grow, and focus very little on the personal growth and development of the student. Whilst skills for employment are necessary, it is not the be all and end all of education, thus I wanted to reflect further on the intrinsic value of education, how crucial it is in the process of decolonisation, and to the liberation of our minds.
The argument between education being for instrumental or intrinsic value has been longstanding. Education for its intrinsic value, commonly understood as ‘to know for the sake of knowing’, is often seen as inconsequential. The instrumental value, loosely speaking, is the ability for it to provide enhanced functionality, which in my framing here is employability. In particular, when we speak about education in a developing country context, we talk about its need to provide skills that allow for better job opportunities. For this, emphasis has been put on STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) subjects as these are more ‘practical’ and have tangible outcomes. Intelligence is defined by excelling in scientific clusters. Art, philosophy, and social sciences are viewed as secondary, especially if you want to ‘progress’ in this world. (The reason I use inverted commas here is that when we view education in this light only, we automatically buy into the capitalistic drivers for education, i.e. a more educated nation equals more economic growth for the country.) This is especially noticeable in online learning which tends to offer shorter courses that can improve one’s employability, but forget about all the other aspects of a holistic education system, that is, its combined intrinsic and instrumental value. When we look at education this way, we reduce ourselves to a cog in a well-oiled industrial-era machine that has convinced us that this is purpose for educating ourselves.
When I talk about instrumental education, I am not only alluding to just ‘textbook’ knowledge and formal education. On the contrary, it also includes agricultural know-how, indigenous understanding, environmental awareness and life skills. It includes a mother teaching her daughter about which ingredients cure which illnesses, or a child teaching a grandparent how to use a smartphone. These are all valid forms of knowledge and deserve to be acknowledged as such. However, these are all still forms of instrumental education as they have practical and tangible use.
Now let us go back to the intrinsic value of education that is treated as a caveat; a “nice to have but not necessary”. When I speak of intrinsic education I mean the type of knowledge that is hard to measure or quantify. You can’t grade it or calculate its statistical likelihood to give you a salary increase. It’s psychological. I am even not talking about buzzwords such as problem solving, soft skills, and communication skills, which, whilst important, are instrumental skills for employability. The intrinsic value of education I am speaking about is the expansion of one’s consciousness. It forms your idea of self-worth, your identity, your positionality, and your aspirations. It forms your idea of where you fit in the world, and how fixed you are in that placing.
It is for these reasons that one’s learning environment, and learning methods, might be more important than the content itself, particularly in the conversation of decolonisation. Fanon (1961, p 159) envisioned this when he spoke of education as “opening their minds, awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence”. Freire (1970, p. 35) called this a “critical consciousness”. For example, when we look back at Bantu education of Apartheid in South Africa, one way to look at it would be the limitation in the skills one could acquire (i.e. the instrumental limitations). However, the much greater damage was in the psychological dimensions; the “normalisation of the violence of education” (Dei & Simmons, 2010, p. 8) . A liberated mind is much more dangerous to the hegemony than an engineering degree.
When we speak of decolonising our education, we often focus on the need to rewrite knowledge from a more pluralistic point of view, to include the marginalised voices. However, when I speak about this intrinsic nature of education, what I am concerned with is what was never written down, thus it is much harder to rewrite and recontextualise. Such intrinsic effects of education involved the colonisation of the mind to make one feel inferior through the normalisation of the violence of education. For example, when parts of one’s culture and identity is taught to be uncultured or uncivilised. These unwritten parts of education can lead to a loss of dignity and self-worth. This is where the intrinsic nature of education plays a big role….it is the immeasurable parts of our educational systems, and the part that needs to be decolonised the most. It is not something taught and assessed, but rather experienced and ingrained. Dei and Simmons (2010, p. 16) talk about this intrinsic nature of education when they emphasis the need to decolonise spaces in classrooms such that they deal with the “spiritual and emotional harm” that schooling can cause on the oppressed through the negation and “amputation” of parts of themselves. This intrinsic nature of education is responsible for our dreams and our imagination, and consequently the limitations of them. Fanon insisted that by not resisting and confronting the violence against oneself, it reinforces and internalises the violence, thus contributing to victimisation of oneself (Dei & Simmons, 2010).
In order to move forward, our view of the purpose of education needs to change and this needs to nurture the intrinsic value of education that serves to create that “critical consciousness”. So when we fight for the right to access to education, remember that we are not fighting for our right to become a cog in the system through mere skills development, but the right to liberate our minds and souls…this is the true value of education.
Dei, G. J. S., & Simmons, M. (2010). Fanon & Education: Thinking Through Pedagogical Possibilities. Peter Lang.
Fanon, F. (1961). The wretched of the earth. London: MacGibbon & Kee.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Taskeen Adam is a Cambridge-Africa scholar pursuing doctoral research at the Centre for Development Studies, Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS).
Her research interest is on educational technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on the role of African Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in helping the most marginalized. Her MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development thesis focused on the Sustainable Implementation of the One Laptop per Child project in Rwanda.