Sat, 06 Mar 1999

The limits of school education

By Bharat Jhunjhunwala

NEW DELHI (JP): Education has become a cliche. Not often is it realized that school education is often a liability. Ram Mohan, a young farmer in the Indian state of Rajasthan, refused to go to school. "My father wanted me to go to school, but I did not," he said.

"My elder brother has studied up to high school. He has not got a job for the last three years. He sits the whole day brooding or filling up forms. No one even offers him a cup of tea. His wife has left him and gone back to her parents. But I am working in the field. When I come back my mother quickly makes tea for me. I am well respected. Why should I go to school? I know enough to be able to read the expiry date on the pesticides. I know how to read the election manifesto of the political parties. I know to vote. I do not want education."

There are millions like Mohan's older brother across the world. Having been "educated", they have become disdainful toward their hereditary professions. And the global economy refuses to provide them the jobs for which they have been trained.

We fail to appreciate that formal education acquires its relevance and importance from technological change. A child can acquire most of the "useful" knowledge from his parents. This hereditary education fails in periods of technological change. As his father is a farmer, Mohan learnt how to operate the electric well, and other relevant skills, without having to go to school. School education would add little to his productivity. But if his father was a potter it might be different.

Technological change has eliminated the relevance of many hereditary occupations. The potter's profession has died out. Aluminum utensils and paper cups rule the day. A potter's son has little value for his fathers advice on making earthen cups on the wheel. He has to acquire some new training. And in this the school just might be helpful.

When Suzuki began to produce new generation cars in India with thermostat radiators and power windows, no mechanics were available to repair these new models. In the mid-80s Suzuki ran special courses for training the mechanics. No longer. Young lads of 10 begin working as apprentices. They make excellent mechanics often without any school education. The new technology of thermostat radiators has since been absorbed. It can now be passed to the next generation without requiring school education. all the boy needs is literacy, which he can acquire in an evening school while working.

It is nearly the same story with "vocational education". A vocation is best taught by one who practices it. And who in a better position to teach than one's own parents? Further training is justified only when some new technology is introduced. Once that is done, online training has the advantage.

If one were to compare two fields -- one belonging to an educated farmer and another uneducated -- the yield would be very similar, from my observations. The reason is that the skills of purchase, production and sales have all been acquired by the uneducated farmer from his parents. He does not need formal education to produce basmati rice or silk cocoons.

Children learn what they see, not what they are told. Their teachers live off their jobs. That is what children learn at school. And if those jobs are not available, they will be in the same situation as Mohan's brother.

This is not to denigrate all education. There indeed are many jobs that require intensive schooling. But a country will need only so many bankers, software engineers and the like. The rest of the youth need on-the-job training with their elders so that they can learn the tricks of surviving in the informal industries that dominate most developing countries.

In fact, the hype about school education comes not out of concern for the child's welfare but that of the self-interest of the education mafia of developing countries. A primary school teacher in India draws a salary of Rs 7,000 per month, while the wage for a clerk at a private company is only Rs 1,000. It is these government teachers who make a killing in the name of promoting education.

This is the lesson from countries like Sri Lanka and Costa Rica which boast high levels of education but poor growth rates. It is time for developing countries not to squander their scarce resources in promoting universal school education. Instead the money should be spent on promoting literacy and work experience for the youth. Let a farmer from India spend a month in the villages of Indonesia. He would learn more than from 10 years spent in a school.

The writer has a PhD in economics from the University of Florida and has taught at the Indian Institute of Management. He now works as a freelance columnist based in New Delhi)