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“Three Models of Education”, by I. Robeyns

maggio 18, 2011

The theme of education, subject of this article, is here considered in the light of three different approaches, illustrated and compared by the author. It‘s important treat them separately because, depending on the perspective of analysis, policies in the field of action will be different.

The first approach is the pure economic-instrumental one, according to which education could be intended as human capital. Nowadays this thesis is an integral part of the economic theory, and it regards education as important as it creates skills and plays an investment role in a person’s productivity: the worker is like any other factor of production. And being an economistic approach also allows to estimate the return on investment made in education.

This interpretive model obviously has its pros and cons.

Regarding the first ones, it creates problems beacuse it’s just economistic, and the only benefits are considered in terms of economic returns of an investment or increased productivity and remuneration. Which implies, for example, the inability to explain why some disciplines are studied despite they will not give output in economic results: no increase in productivity, or in wage, no return of the initial investment that could justify its expense. According to the prevalent economic logic, people act like rational actors leaded only by economic motivations, and considering them just like that we can’t understand the causes below some behaviour in the education field, which have no relation with neoclassical economic theories but do have a lot of implications with non economic role that education can play.

Moreover, it’s completely instrumental: and in spite of there is nothing wrong with measuring the economic return of the education, it would be interesting evaluating the non economic one, and this is missing.

In the end, the meaning of this approach has different consequences for different groups of people: the rate of return is not the same for anybody. And this could be dependant on a personal problem, like fisic or mental handicaps; or externally induced, of social and cultural nature, like gender discriminations. The last ones, in fact, obvious or hidden, occurring in developing or post industrialized countries, lead to accept that the female gender is the one that takes much care of the children and works not payed jobs in the household: in this light, according to the human capital approach, an investment in the education of male children is the one with the higher economic return, and in case of poverty this implies the reduction of the female children possibilities to be educated and formed in order to conduct a more dignitous life.

This is a dangerous point of view, because it doesn’t consider the instrinsic importance of the education, nor the personal nor the collective type, and can conduct to injustified discriminations, just on the basis of mere economic assesments that don’t take care of intangible effects of some investment projects. And this would be for the public as the private sector, that will assess economic feasibility of different projects, comparing the education costs to whatever else item of expenditure, not keeping in mind that they are not omogeneous so not comparable.

This doesn’t mean that the human capital approach should be rejected, but surely supported by other themes.

The second model is the one focused on the right to education to be universally granted.

This is the prevailing point of view at the NGOs which deals with childhood and education: every human being, and in whatever condition, must be able to achieve an adequate level of studies just for their intrinsic value, not depending on how much it could repay him in economic terms. That’s the pro of this approach, which was missing in the previous: the fact that the people are at the same level and are the moral and political objective of the issue, and not just an economic input.

But cons don’t lack. This approach fails in practice: it’s the prevailing one in the international organizations and theorically guaranteed by the official governments, but actually children not acceding to education are still millions, so it’s clearly difficult to translate it in the real world. Talking about this, it remains unspecified what it practically implies and who are the subjects involved, and the result is that the right isn’t actually and universally guaranteed. In this field, furthermore, the distinction between legal or moral right is relevant: they can theorically coexist, and the difference is never clear in the political debate, but it’s relative to the actor which should grant the realization of the right. In the first case, in fact, it’s about something stated as  “right” by an istitution, while in the second one it deals with a “natural right”; if it’s so: the first will be protected by the authorities, the second by everybody recognizes his own moral obligation to actively participate to make them reality. And this point leads directly to another limitation of this second model, ie being focused on the State role: intending the right as “legal”, the State assumes the entire responsability, when the same responsabilities are also headed to individuals, families and community as a whole.

The third argument against this model is about the limit due to the fact that, even if a government states the universal right to education, and takes the necessary measures it can take to guarantee it, this doesn’t mean that everybody is actually educated. Here als come the constriction factors, an accurated analisys of which should be considered for deciding an education policy: these factors reduce the possibility of the children to be adequately educated, as much as the lack of infrastructures and means that the State, instead, provides.

The last model presented is the Sen’s capability approach: being educated is a basic capability to aspire to, beacuse it’s significantly important in itself and also instrumentally useful in improving other capabilites and increasing the opportunitiy of one’s life. And the education should be a high quality one, leading to develop the human being in its entireness and also compulsory. And this because, even if a just society shouldn’t push its citizens to a functioning inspite of one another, the education is different for the fact that a child isn’t yet able to choose the best for his future.

The pro of this model is the multidisciplinary caracter of its approach, which keeps in mind all the aspects influencing the lives of people involved, analisyng all the changes that a policies would bring in their set of opportunities.

The negative aspect is still this multidisciplinarity, because it runs into difficulties of the practical application.

There are differences in various aspects between the three models presented.

One is about the role of education.

We can here distinguish, first of all, by attributing to education an intrinsic or instrumental importance. In the first case, due to the rights-based model, being educated is fundamental in itself, regardless of any other implication.

To talk about the second case, more distinctions are necessary. Starting from the case described, the human capital model considers the instrumental economic role: receiving an education can be useful to the individual to find a job, to be better informed and so less vulnerable, and so on. It’s important for the people standard of living, because it contributes to maintein a qualitatively acceptable level of it. It’s also relevant at a collective level: an educated workforce will be a driving force for a better economic growth based on tecnological progress.

There also is the instrumental but non economic role: education improves people life, beacuse opens their minds, teaches to ask them questions and to do not accept what they have around them without investigate if alternatives that they could choose do exist. This also applies at the collective level: studying and being aware of the reality of things, multiplied for each member of the community, is the basis of a constructive civil participation which wants to improve its society. Regarding to the issue of gender, for example, that’s what can bring to a balanced division of duties and enjoyment of rights between men and women. The capability approach, unlike the other two and because of its multidimensional nature, has all these roles as a whole.

A second difference is about the nature of the models.

The human capital one is well embedded in the economic theory.

The rights-based one follows its legal and moral tradition.

The capability approach shows the necessity to draw from other theories specific of the issue analised, to translate in practice what it finds out with the theorical reasoning. For the gender issue stressed by the author, it would mean to make evident the gender inequality theories that are for granted when we talk about this kind of policies. The human capital model, for example, neglects the power differences and structural inequalities among men and women, that influence the decisions even more than the economic efficiency. Similarly, following the rights-based model, the State stops its duty to the formal guarantee of equal rights among men and women, beacuse in theory it’s like that, but it neglects the fact that in this way the enjoyment of the rights is not actually granted.

The last difference is referred to the notoriety of the models. The firs and the second are much diffused, while for the last one is not so.

In the end, the author shares the capability approach and concludes that what is really important is not just the proclamation of the right to be educated, but the commitment to give a good education to everybody.

I chose this reading beacuse it’s about a fundamental theme: as Sen says, education is a basic capability, for its relevance in itself and its instrumental role in relation to other capabilities and opportunities of people lives. Just for this reason, the policies that it interests should be carefully weighed, in order to avoid wrong measures in such a delicate field that could cause major and hardly curable disruptions.

Reading the article, the idea I’ve pointed out about the education different roles is that they are in a certain way complementary, and chronologically subsequent in the development path of a community.

In my opinion, the starting point is the recognition of the intrinsic value of education, and it happens, in a legal view, with the grant of the access to the study as a universal and inviolable right. For this, the international organisations in the developing countries must necessarily start from this theorical framework, beacuse they deal with contexts in which this value is not for granted, due to social and historic- cultural restrictions. This is the case, stressed by the author, of the gender discrimination of girls.

Then, comes the instrumental role of education as means to create knowledge and develop skills necessary to improve life condition of people, reduce their  eventual state of poverty and expand their possibilities for the future. And this is true in a pure economic view, or not; and it has value to a single person, and a fortiori for the community as a whole.

So that an education policy works, all the roles must be perfectly integrated one another, supporting each other and guaranteing that the theorical formulation corresponds also to a practical result, and that none of the approaches prevails on the others with its negative aspects.

In the FAO program that Mrs Gasperini introduced to us the different approaches are quite identifiable. The theorical reference is the rights-based model, with the objective to reach the primary universal education. The instrumental role is found in the will to extirpate the extreme poverty and the hunger thanks to the implementation of educational policies, and particularly those for the rural population: in fact, the seventy per cent of people suffering from hunger is of this type, and the correlation between illiteracy and undernourishment is demonstrated. Beside the individual difficulties, it aims at resolving the social ones, like gender inequality and environmental sustainability. And all of that is feasible if every subject interested is actively involved in the process, from the international organisations to individuals members of the community; if education goals are understandable by the people object of the policies; if education programs are the quality ones and that induce participation; if they keep in mind the socio-historical peculiarities of the community in its own, and try to meet the non traditional conditions of some groups of individuals.

In the final, I think an integrated approach is desirable, that each time takes into account the context which the policy has been designed for; starting from a multidisciplinary theory to translate in practice a process that can actively involve, and it could be changed for, the territory of application.

Francesca Parente

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