Perhaps the gravest misconception of the 20th century, one that has been politically taught in schools and universities, is the belief in an apolitical education and worldview.
It has been integrated into the public curriculum that being apolitical gives individuals and agencies an objective prerogative in their activities and thus prevents biased social action.
However, neutrality is often the assertion of benevolent naivety, or worse — the agenda of colonial administrations and overzealous “scientism” to conceal the power and politics behind supposed neutral agendas.
In individuals, it might be the consequence of internalized oppression.
For example, schools continue to be presumed neutral sites of learning; the World Bank is believed to be an objective organization for development loans; and Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced.”
Yet, the history of the 20th century clarifies that this stance is significantly flawed. The prerogative of any educational endeavor is to foster social purpose and relevant action, and the realization of social purposes relies upon collective decisionmaking — politics.
Among the greatest forums where this debate has taken place are national parliaments and international organizations such as the UN. And although it might be controversial to claim that the UN has been an integral site for the production of ideas that have inspired national parliaments and social movements to change the world, the creation of human rights standards is just one example.
Human rights spread in the 20th century, buttressed by the UN to which they are anchored, and they have been taught in educative spaces the world over.
All of this in spite of the absence of the presumption that the UN is an apolitical space.
So, if the educative power of the world body has been profound precisely because it is a space where ideas and agendas are allowed to confront each other — very much like a university — then it seems that education at all levels must become much more aware of its social and political purposes.
Advocates of this approach are not preaching propaganda — neither in universities nor public education. On the contrary, they are challenging the propaganda that exists now when authorities push the dangerous idea of “neutral” learning. So-called “neutral” education or political objectivism, in its extreme form, allows one group to push its values on another disinclined group and disables the latter from organized resistance.
Step back for a moment to take a look at academics and schooling rather than the traditional political public sphere and it becomes clear that the two fields overlap significantly. Both are concerned with four primary areas of inquiry: governance and development; comparative politics and education; international politics and education; and political and educational philosophy.
These areas of inquiry, in turn, rely on many common academics and research methodologies. It is not coincidental that this is the case. Consider that the 20th century might very well be remembered as a century of the expansion of formal education, when states began to rely on education as the mode and means of becoming modern. Modernity is a political exercise. And education, both public and private, is each person’s right — as is political action. Indeed, in many states, it is a responsibility to be politically active.
This sentiment resonates with many academics in higher education throughout the world, including at National Taiwan University; it is no accident that the leaders of social movements often emerge from higher education. Without withdrawing too far into academic jargon, the point being made is that education is a political endeavor and political activity has pedagogic purposes.
The emergence and spread of social movements the world over, such as the Sunflower movement or Hong Kong’s Umbrella revolution — which aim to raise consciousness and educate the public about democracy and rights — should make this clear. In addition, references to “schools of thought,” such as Milton Friedman’s Chicago school of economics or the Manchester school of politics, also reflect this.
The reality is that the seemingly innocuous standard of apolitical education constrains those coming from contexts where that education does not reflect their experiences and collective aspirations.
The power to dictate formalized education to promote a particular worldview — whether through the sciences or humanities — and the decision to do so are what constitute politics in and through education.
The question to be asked is not whether education is and should be political in nature, but rather whose political agenda enters into education and whose education provides entrance into and power to politics.
Kevin Kester is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. He is currently a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University’s political science department.
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