“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler
Illiteracy-in the sense of un- or under-education-requires a context against which the absence of the capacity to convey or understand meaning is measured. An individual can be illiterate in one respect, yet learned in another. In fact, people excel in certain areas and neglect many others-such is the way of the world. But surely it’s more than this. We in Britain consider, for example, in our fast-paced, driven and modern (Western) world, that economic knowledge is power; it is a language and literacy that can lead to both wealth and success. In policy fora and the halls of government, this is the language most resonant with the ruling élite. In other parts of the world, in other communities, a different form or type of knowledge may be privileged. Certain indigenous communities may emphasise values of culture and spirituality above scientific and economic knowledge.
An important corollary to this idea of different literacies and competencies is the idea of education. What do we mean by education? To many it is a panacea. For instance, feminism advocates a form of consciousness-raising with the intention of showing previously illiterate communities the error of their understandings. Another is the observation of Amartya Sen that good education policy in the Indian state of Kerala has led to falls in fertility rates, which may provide the answer to the perils of overpopulation. The clarion call is heard so very frequently: if only they could be shown the error of their ways; if only they knew. Education on this understanding is a motor of change.
To me it is a remarkably empty concept. Education in what, exactly? True, the idea of education has a vaguely positive connotation, but it is peculiarly difficult to attribute to the notion any objective meaning. I would suggest rather that when we speak of ‘education’, we mean to append a subconscious qualification: ‘education in…’
Much of our learning is received wisdom and common narratives, used to make sense of and provide order to the world. Typically, we will privilege what we consider to be worthy knowledge. We learn our shared histories, cultures and traditions, all from a decidedly parochial perspective. While our intellectual histories may be the result of the confluence of myriad influences-from Orient to Occident-they are now noticeably Western in type. They are recognised as such by the Others of the world. By way of example, east Asia-especially China-disavows the imposition of Western learning; to be specific, our grand narratives of human rights, and civil and political freedom in particular, are considered Western constructs unsuited to their Confucian traditions. In the race to ‘catch up’ to the West through (economic) development, China has argued that civil-political freedoms should come after growth. Certain theorists have given the lie to this historical observation, recognising that Confucius did lend credence to the individualist ideals of civil-political liberty. However, the point stands that certain types of knowledge are more easily attributable to certain cultures.
Now with the onslaught of globalisation in many and diverse areas of life, the claim to the universality of recognisably Western learning is at issue. In March 2004, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair said:
The best defence of our security lies in the spread of our values. But we cannot advance these values except within a framework that recognises their universality.
What Mr Blair meant by this was twofold. One facet was of political security. He could not contemplate seeking to advance British values other than within a framework that recognised their universal validity. He could not be seen to be imposing values; those values must be apparently a priori. The second is more ideological. It was thought by Mr Blair, and by innumerable others, that British, American or Western values should be universally valid.
It is this second aspect to the quotation that brings me to the crux of the argument. This is that education-in its abstract and unreal sense-should place precedence on critique and natural cynicism. I mean to refer to cynicism here in a socially useful sense and it is in no way intended to be pejorative. A reflexive awareness of the hegemonic claims of one’s system of learning should be one of the great hallmarks of education. One must be able to accept that one might be wrong; that there may be a better understanding elsewhere. Or, at the least, one should be able to appreciate that there exist alternative understandings of the world, each of which has the same basic right to acceptance. This brilliant epistemological diversity is one of the singular reasons for advocating a cosmopolitan approach to education; that is, an approach that recognises diversity, accepts partiality, and welcomes learning, unlearning and re-learning.
In this light, it is not at all clear to me that the Western approach to, amongst other things, development, is desirable or sustainable. Development suffers from an extraordinary bias. Created, in its current form, in the inaugural address of President Truman in January 1949, it posits the Western mode of living as the model for the rest. The (culturally, socially, economically, politically) underdeveloped world, caught in a phase of traditionalism, pre-civilisation and pre-modernity, seeks to ‘catch up’ with the modern and sophisticated developed nations. The great taxonomy of development is presented as value-neutral. The Western world, in development, is emplaced as a benevolent guide, as missionary and moderniser. What is hidden within this language is the notion of a remaking of the world in the image of the West; exporting ostensibly Western values and learning into previously non-Western cultures and backgrounds. This is a process profoundly threatened by the perception of imperialism.
But one must always question whether this is desirable. Whether the West does have a monopoly on the ‘best’ way of living. Whether the creation of a global middle class and the rolling out of capitalistic production worldwide is as beneficent and sustainable as dictated by the development discourse. Whether a world of fully-developed, industrialised nation-states is one that we either can or ought to contemplate. Whether present levels of unfettered consumption and production can continue indefinitely. Whether learning can be objective and universally valid. Or whether, notwithstanding that there might-and probably do-exist some forms of transcultural, transcendental certainties, we are right to question received truths.