By Fred M’membe
I belong to a generation that was extremely luck when it comes to education. We were the first children of this country to start school in an independent Zambia in January 1965. Before independence on October 24, 1964, there was no free education – all had to pay for everything.
We didn’t have to pay anything at any level of our education. We were given free uniforms, exercise and text books. We went to school not only to learn but also to eat. We were given milk and milk biscuits at school.
Humble workers and peasants’ children went to same schools as the children of our leaders, including the children of our president – Dr Kenneth Kaunda.
Today it is almost impossible for humble workers and peasants’ children to be in the same class, sleep in same dormitory, eat in the same dining hall with children of ministers, presidents.
In those days, even children from rural schools could easily make it to the University of Zambia. The best Cambridge ‘O’ Level student in 1976 was my classmate, Charles Malata, from St Francis Secondary School, Malole, Kasama – a son of a humble mine worker from Luanshya. Today Charles, based in Cambridge, is Professor Mister Malata, one of the world’s best plastic surgeons. The best student in geography that year for the whole Commonwealth came from Kalabo Secondly School – Dr Cosmas Musumali, the general secretary of the Socialist Party. Two years later Cosmas got a scholarship to study in West Germany where he obtained his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in economics.
This is what equal access to education could do! Can a son of a humble worker or peasant achieve this in today’s Zambia?
There are millions of working class people who agree that free education, despite all its problems, was a historic gain that must be brought back and defended.
But the question that arises now is what kind of free education system is actually needed. So while stating clearly what we are against, we also need to define what we are for.
In our opinion, providing a truly rounded education for working class children, in fact for anybody, is not possible under our current neo-liberal capitalist order.
Of course, this is not to deny the enormously beneficial impact on young people of the hard work done by the thousands of dedicated teachers in this country. But at the same time our education system is inevitably deeply marked by the class divisions of a neoliberal capitalist society. The needs of the market will always deform education.
We therefore must fight for every real progressive reform, no matter how limited, which could make our schools better while articulating the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism, for an economic system based on the needs of society rather than the profits of a few.
Evidence shows that the highest performing education systems are those that combine quality with equity. By equity in education we mean that personal or social circumstances such as family background, should not be obstacles to achieving educational potential and that all individuals reach at least a basic minimum level of skills.
By educational equity we also mean an educational and learning environment in which individuals can consider options and make choices throughout their lives based on their abilities and talents, not on the basis of stereotypes, biased expectations or discrimination.
In his essay, Anti-Dühring (1877), Frederick Engels talks of equality as one of the fundamental human rights, which transcends national boundaries. “It was a matter of course that the demand for equality should assume a general character reaching out beyond the individual state, that freedom and equality should be proclaimed human rights” (Engels).
There is a common misconception that equity and equality mean the same thing – and that they can be used interchangeably, especially when talking about education. But the truth is they do not – and cannot. Yes, the two words are similar, but the difference between them is crucial. What’s the difference? Should per student funding at every school be exactly the same? That’s a question of equality. But should students who come from less get more in order to ensure that they can catch up? That’s a question of equity.
Making sure all students have equal access to resources is an important goal. All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there. Here’s where equity comes in. The students who are furthest behind — most often low-income students — require more of those resources to catch up, succeed, and eventually, close the achievement gap. Giving students who come to school lagging academically, because of factors outside of a school’s control, the exact same resources as students in higher income schools alone will not close the achievement gap. But making sure that low-income students have access to exceptional teachers and that their schools have the funding to provide them with the kind of high-quality education they need to succeed will continue us on the path toward narrowing that gap.
Equality has become synonymous with “leveling the playing field.” So let’s make equity synonymous with “more for those who need it.”
Ensuring the educational rights of working people’s children is the main task of our socialist education agenda. And this must be achieved without sacrificing quality of education and depriving the non-working classes of their educational rights.
The purpose and educational objectives in general secondary schools must comply with the principles of thorough improvement to guarantee that young generations gain all-round maturity in intellectual, moral and physical arenas.
All our young people must be educated so that each gains the necessary knowledge to be full citizens of our nation.
Education is one of the important ways to realize the maximum potential of individuals.
And to Karl Marx, it is in society’s best interests to provide “an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings”.
Engels also observes that “education will enable young people quickly to familiarize themselves with the whole system of production and to pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations. It will, therefore, free them from the one-sided character, which the present-day division of labor impresses upon every individual”.
Learning as interpreted through the socialist lens is the acquiring of either skills or knowledge that better either oneself or, more ideally, the whole of society.
Education is a process that is social in the broadest sense. With all the highly complex world of ambient activity, the child enters into an infinite number of relationships, each of which constantly develops, interweaves with other relationships and is compounded by the child’s own physical and moral growth.
As a devout socialist, Lenin proposed bold changes: transforming the very purpose of education as it had been preached for centuries. No longer was education’s purpose to educate the loyal subjects of one particular government on the duties of citizenship – rather, Lenin envisioned education as a key tool in creating a workers’ paradise.
“We say that our work in the sphere of education is part of the struggle for overthrowing the bourgeoisie. We publicly declare that education divorced from life and politics is lies and hypocrisy” (Lenin).
Education is one of the component parts of the struggle we are now waging. We can counter hypocrisy and lies with the complete and honest truth.
In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced.
In reality money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realise this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.
Our approach to education, as socialists, is broadly constructivist, and emphasises activity, collaboration and critique, rather than passive absorption of knowledge, emulation of elders and conformism; it is student-centred rather than teacher centred, but recognises that education cannot transcend the problems and capabilities of the society in which it is located.
Karl Marx’s position about the ruling class was they have the power to control the working classes not with force but with ideas. These ideas justify their dominant position and conceal the true source of their power along with their exploitation of the subject class. Socialism is a belief that capitalism allows the owners of capital to exploit the workers and this causes conflict between the two classes, known as social-class conflict.
In Marx’s view this ruling class ideology is far more effective in controlling the subject classes than physical force, as it is hidden from the consciousness of the subject class – this is known as ‘false consciousness’. One example socialists might use is the role of meritocracy in education to control the working classes by getting the working classes used to being rewarded for being good and doing as you’re told.
The main role of education in a capitalist society is the reproduction of an efficient and obedient work force. And this is achieved through schools: transmitting the ideology that capitalism is just and reasonable, school teaches you to compete with your fellow pupils by trying to do better than them, train future workers to become submissive to authority, schools teachers you to accept as normal to do as you’re told, this way when your boss orders you what to do, it seems perfectly normal.
Ideology in capitalist society is fundamental to social control and education is instrumental in transmitting this ideology. Education is an ideological state apparatus which helps pass on ruling class ideology in order to justify the capitalist system.
Marx made it clear that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” and what he meant by life was actual living everyday material activity. Human thought or consciousness was rooted in human activity not the other way round as a number of philosophers felt at the time. What this meant was the way we went about our business, the way we were organised in our daily life was reflected in the way we thought about things and the sort of world we created. The institutions we built, the philosophies we adhered to, the prevailing ideas of the time, the culture of society, were all determined to some extent or another by the economic structure of society. This did not mean that they were totally determined but were quite clearly a spin-off from the economic base of society.
The political system, the legal system, the family, the press, the education system were all rooted, in the final analysis, to the class nature of society, which in turn was a reflection of the economic base. Marx maintained that the economic base or infrastructure generated or had built upon it a superstructure that kept it functioning. The education system, as part of the superstructure, therefore, was a reflection of the economic base and served to reproduce it. This did not mean that education and teaching was a sinister plot by the ruling class to ensure that it kept its privileges and its domination over the rest of the population. There were no conspirators hatching devious schemes. It simply meant that the institutions of society, like education, were reflections of the world created by human activity and that ideas arose from and reflected the material conditions and circumstances in which they were generated.
Of course, in a socialist Zambia, education will be made to serve working class interests and politics. And education will combine with production to make certain educated people develop their moral, intellectual and physical aspects, to become workers with working class consciousness and culture.
But education combined with production shouldn’t be misunderstood as education plus physical work. An overemphasis of physical work in the education system can lead to the systematic learning of knowledge being neglected, which can cause a serious decline in educational quality.
There’s need for us to create in our country an atmosphere of respect for knowledge and respect for trained people.
And when it comes to education, we have a lot to learn from the Cuban Revolution. The record of Cuban education is outstanding: universal school enrollment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed classrooms; equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban. In a recent regional study of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba ranked first in mathematics and science achievement, at all grade levels, among both males and females. In many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.
What has allowed Cuba’s education system to perform so well, even under the severe resource constraints of the past decade, is the continuity in its education strategies, sustained high levels of investments in education, and a comprehensive and carefully structured system, characterized by: quality basic education and universal access to primary and secondary school comprehensive early childhood education and student health programmes, established as part of the commitment to basic education; complementary educational programmes for those outside school-literacy, adult and non-formal education, again as part of the basic education commitment; mechanisms to foster community participation in management of schools; great attention to teachers, extensive pre-and in-service training, high status and morale, incentives, transparent system of accountability, strategies for developing a culture of professionalism, rewards for innovation; low-cost instructional materials of high quality; teacher and student initiative in adapting the national curriculum and developing instructional materials locally; carefully structured competition that enhances the system rather than the individual; explicit strategies to reach rural students and students with special needs; strategies to link school and work; and an emphasis on education for social cohesion.
The importance of these factors is affirmed by a growing body of school quality and effectiveness research carried out in other parts of the world, mostly subsequent to or at least independently of their adoption in Cuba. Thus, Cuba’s experience is instructive in several ways. It provides evidence of the importance of certain critical inputs, around which research consensus is growing. Though unlikely to be replicated in full, many of these inputs can be adopted-clear standards of accountability, provision of textbooks, attention to the professional development of teachers, and so on and so forth. Most importantly, perhaps, the Cuban case demonstrates that high quality education is not simply a function of national income but of how that income is mobilised. A highly-mobilised people can realise high quality education by ensuring the necessary inputs, paying attention to equity, setting and holding staff to high professional standards, and caring for the social roles of key stakeholders-teachers, community members, children.
The challenges have been daunting, but then who would have predicted that Cuba – after a decade of economic turmoil – would have built the region’s, or indeed the world’s, highest-achieving schools?
The Author is a Zambia’s Socialist Party Presidential Candidate for the 2021 Elections