By: Ali Mehdi Zaidi
Inequality of education is a process on a spectrum. There are the entirely excluded. Individuals who, either because the vile uncle does not like women educated or because even the desire for education struggles to survive on an empty stomach, remain outside the classroom. There are the excluded classrooms. Not all classrooms are built equally. Some are centers of learning, nurture, discovery. Some are merely torture chambers; sites for lowly men and lonely men to feel less lowly and lonely. There are the partially excluded. Individuals who end up in the classroom – a good one – only to realize that entry into the classroom is only one of many hoops that have to be jumped before one is pushed out as educated. There are worlds one has to know before education does its thing. Often these changes are not benign, they are violent. They demand the fundamental reshaping of how the tongue moves, how the body sits. It is a little like being pushed through a cut out of the average capitalist worker. Not everyone comes quite right the other side.
As much as inequities of education are a consequence of the inequities of capital proper, they are at the same time consequences of inequities of social and cultural capital. The proverbial Catch-22 of the educational system is an admission form that to educate, demands at least some prior access to education. For the admission form has to be read, has to be understood, has to be signed. For many students the issue as much as it is about the inability to enter an educational institution is equally about what one does there. Or after. Because information itself moves through social networks, being in the right one can mean access to scholarships, opportunities, ways of moving ahead. Being in the wrong one can mean being outside to the educational system even while standing within it.
Historically, the left has dealt with many of these different kinds of educational inequalities. Demands for reduction in fees, better housing facilities, protection against sexual harassment etc are all different ways of ensuring someone is able to stay at school; and preferably, comfortably. But not all work for educational equality has to be a battle with the admin or the government. Some of it is the meditative process of guiding colleagues and juniors through their careers. Because as much as one can critique the system, condemn it for being illegitimate, those doing the critiquing nevertheless have mouths to feed, money to make. There is an old question with many answers. Why are Jamatis, Jamatis? And while answers range from false consciousness to rightist propaganda to state suppression, the simple answer to it is that to be a Jamati pays. Need career advice; talk to a Jamati. Need a job; talk to a Jamati. Need a small loan; talk to a Jamati.
At its best, counselling is the meditative process of the excluded helping each other be less excluded. And it is not that this process is not already underway. But that it is underway in haphazard, unstructured, personalized ways. Inevitably, as things stand, access to information is a question of who you know. It does not however have to be this way. It is possible to create a forum, a platform, a virtual location where people meet specifically for the purposes of educational counselling. To be clear, the work of the protester for educational equality and the work of a volunteer counselor is at heart, the same. They are both guided by the ethic of making life slightly easier for more than just themselves. There is more than one way to address structural inequalities. It is a truism that nevertheless needs to be said; a progressive works better when well fed.
I see a portal with multiple FAQs; for Fulbright and other scholarships, for CSS, for undergraduate admissions, for degrees in humanities and social sciences. I see topic specific discussion forums where individuals guide each other about how to fill a form, how to select a major, how to apply to colleges, how to approach professors, how to write. I see multiple workshops a year conducted by said portal about undergrad and graduate school admissions, CVs, application forms, research proposals, standardized tests. I see a front end with a Google form where individuals fill out their details; what do you want to apply to, where have you been, where do you want to go. And I see a back-end of volunteers sifting through the database created to identify people they can guide. Inevitably, I see a rotating door; former advice seekers becoming advice givers.
For many thinkers, the work of building a community IS the work of radical politics. Capitalism relies on separating us out as individuals when we belong together as collectives. In our moment as students and teachers, there is no better way of building that community than opening doors for each other. To help each other out in moments where an unfair system judges us. The experience of education is this constant moment of judgement. Where we are constantly brought before an unfair tribunal and our worth decided. We can help each other through this process.