It is believed that the 19th century French poet, novelist and dramatist, Victor Hugo (1802-1885), once opined: “he who opens a school door, closes a prison”. In his well-known text, Les misérables, Hugo also wrote that to “destroy the cavern [of] Ignorance” is to “destroy the lair [of] Crime”. Considered together, these statements carry three inter-related meanings. First, they suggest that the arch-enemy of humanity is ‘crime’. Second, the primary cause of crime is considered to be ‘ignorance’. And lastly, ‘the school’ is presented as the panacea to ignorance, crime and prisons in modern societies. What remains mysterious are the very circumstances under which ‘ignorant criminals’ take root in society – no matter whether such a society is school-based or not. This is the gap I consider in this essay.
However, can we say that Hugo innocently considered schools to be the final solution to modern social problems? On the contrary, he was noticeably aware of the limits of schooling in a school-based society. For instance, as much as he took “ignorance” to be the only thing that barricades a common human identity, he warned that “in certain cases”, school-based “education and enlightenment” can “serve to eke out evil”. In a postcolonial setting, one only needs to follow debates on “decolonizing education” to appreciate the truth in Hugo’s warning. But if Victor Hugo made his remarks in a 19th century French or Western European context; of what relevance are they for us in 21st century societies? This is the question at the heart of this essay.
The contemporary universality of schools and prisons implies a possibility to draw insights from Hugo’s statement abstractly. But this does not diminish the power of context, and one way to underscore context-based experience is through human stories, stories of ‘everyday people’. Hence the story I tell of a thirty-year-old Ugandan, named Ziruma, serves to shed light on our world of schools and prisons from a Ugandan vantage point. From this, I advance the following thesis: whether school-based or non-school-based, society will harbour crime, and as a result prisons, depending on the logic of its politics, its socio-political organisation.
I fortuitously met Ziruma in 2016 during my research trip to South-Western Uganda. He was among a group of prisoners who had been hired by a coffee farmer I was visiting that day. I interacted with Ziruma and he told me his story, which I think is relevant to our subject. Ziruma revealed to me that he was serving a life prison sentence for murdering his own child, hoping to lift a curse that had supposedly kept him in misery. In Uganda, cases of this nature are marginal but on the rise, and many point fingers to the unbearable levels of economic misery and ignorance.
Tragedy befell Ziruma’s life at an early age. His father did not survive the last war, while his mother succumbed to lung cancer when he was seven years old. Ziruma grew up with his paternal grandmother. This system where relatives take care of orphans and children of crippled family members is an age-old one in many Ugandan communities, though ‘modernity’, with its peculiar forms of impoverishment, has weakened it without necessarily replacing it.
At the age of seven, Ziruma started school in a kindergarten located in a nearby village. A year later, he joined a public school located a couple of kilometres from their home. This was a time when government had introduced Universal Primary Education. However, the school was not “free” as it was claimed. Ziruma’s grandmother had to buy uniforms and other scholastic materials, as well as paying for school lunch. Initially she could afford these from the sale of excess food harvest. However, the introduction of more charges made it difficult for parents like her. Hence a year before completing primary seven, Ziruma dropped out of school. Yet this ever-increasing inability of many parents to pay charges in public schools dubbed “free” was just one tendency. The other was the deteriorating standards in these schools. Low government expenditure on public schools was accompanied by delayed teachers’ salaries to cause a massive catastrophe for children from impoverished families. To the general public, Bonna Basome (“let all learn”) became Bonna Bakone (“let all stunt”). The private school became the school, yet it stood on a hill protected from the impoverished.
In a society where access to the most gainful socioeconomic activities requires a form of school education, life prospects of the low and unschooled dwindle even further. Ziruma was no exception. After dropping out of school, he spent some time with his grandmother, subsisting on a piece of land they had. At the age of sixteen, he left for the nearest town to find some manual work, which he found and did for some time. At some point, Ziruma had a child with a young woman, and he “was compelled to take her as a wife”. They rented a small room in this town, and dragged on with life. When the situation did not improve, he was advised to try in a city. Ziruma left for Kampala, leaving his family behind. Moving to Kampala made his life even more miserable. Close friends told him that perhaps he had a curse that could be lifted by a traditional specialist. It is at this point that Ziruma went to a certain ‘witch’ who approved his friends’ suspicion, adding that only Ziruma’s “blood” could lift the curse. Ziruma had tasted the depths of human misery. It seems he had reached what Victor Hugo would call “the limit breathable by man”, beyond which the “beginning of monsters is possible”. He sacrificed his son, a crime that sent him deeper into the tunnels of human society.
Save for miracles, there is real possibility of Ziruma living a life of confinement. Looking back into his life, he saw no place for people like him in the only society they call “home”. At this point, Ziruma sounded like Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, who “had never seen anything of [human society] save that angry face which it calls Justice, and which it shows to those whom it strikes.” With all the misery, Valjean “gradually arrived at the conviction that life is a war; and that in this war he was the conquered. He had no other weapon than his hate”. Of course, not all Ziruma’s counterparts would resort to his route as a way out of misery. Yet in important ways, his life resonates with that of many others. Theirs was a society that gradually relaxed its role in citizens’ school education, while strengthening its grip on prisons. If schools locked out the poor, prisons welcomed them with open arms!
From the above we can make a couple of propositions.
To begin with, both school-based and non-school-based societies can harbour crime, and as a result prisons, depending on the logic through which these societies are structurally organised. It is possible to have a crime-and-prison-free non-school-based society, provided such a society guarantees to all its members the ability to live a ‘dignified life’ – ‘dignified’ in accordance with the social standards of that society. Where a school is the basis upon which ‘a good life’ can be imagined, there is no doubt school-based education enhances one’s capabilities to live a dignified life. In other contexts, a school might not possess such social powers, which is why Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” must always be thought of in context.
Similarly, schools in a school-based society can offer life possibilities to those who can access these schools. We cannot glorify schooling in a society where schools only exist as dreams for a great majority of members. Before such dreams become realities in their lives, only the well-off will have access to school education and all its promises – better jobs, access to information, access to political power, and so on. A school in such a society will only serve to entrench social inequities as well as deepening unequal power relations. As such, any new school might not lead to any prison closure. Perhaps many new prisons might be opened. I insist that a school-based society will have its own ‘criminals’, its prisons, depending on the logic of its politics, its socio-political organisation. The challenge cannot be one of building more schools hoping to close down prisons. Rather, it is to organise societies in such a way that iniquitous social circumstances are minimised as much as possible. The ‘magic’ is not the school in itself, but society’s efforts to reduce social inequities to as low as possible, such that even the modern school in its entirety, the basis upon which our societies are built, is not a preserve for particular social classes, but freely accessible to all. Which is to say that the promises of modern schooling are also open to all.
Les misérables, 1862, Phoenix Edition, Trans. By Isabel F. Hapgood; Volume III, Marius; Book VII, Patron Minette; Chapter II, The Lowest Depths.
 Les misérables, pp. 754
Les misérables, pp. 93f
Name has been changed to protect identity.
“Bonna Basome” (let all learn) is a Luganda slogan which accompanied the two Universal School Education Programmes in Primary and Secondary Schools in Uganda – Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE).
Les misérables, pp.751
Les misérables, pp.93
Sen, A.K., 2001. Development as freedom. Oxford University Press.