Education success in plural societies should address the issues which drive social disintegration and enflame social distrust. (NSTP/SHARUL HAFIZ ZAM)

IN plural and ethnically diverse societies, the success of educational reform depends upon the extent to which the broader society can address the problems of communalism, social division and fragmentation.

A sense of inclusivity, what some may call much needed social integration or social cohesion, is needed to overcome the constant pull of sectional division in ethnically divided societies.

Given the seemingly interminable way in which racial and religious divisions impact on educational debates and the best efforts of reformers, social reintegration and cohesion are both laudable and necessary objectives if much needed educational reform in societies such as Malaysia is to succeed.

J.S. Furnivall, who is well known to historians and political scientists for his critique ‘Plural Society’, is arguably not as well known for his observations in regard to education.

Yet Furnivall’s observations with respect to education are worth pointing out since they point to an essential characteristic of the educational dilemma in plural societies that stares at us plainly and uncomfortably.

According to Furnivall, “Education, then, is the sum of all those processes which fit the youth for social life.”

Note that education here is not defined simply as instruction nor is it limited to what goes on in educational institutions such as schools and universities.

Furnivall argues in fact that there is “a tendency to confuse education with instruction”.

Education in Furnivall’s opinion is wider and more complex than the narrow confines of formal instruction in universities and schools although it obviously includes that.

In this observation, Furnivall appears to be in good company. Educational thinkers such as John Dewey, to cite just one example, point out that education properly understood is a broad process of growth and social development.

As Furnivall points out, if a society is utterly fragmented, lacking in social integration and cohesion, then this begs the question to what extent such societies can achieve their educational aims.

What does it mean to say one is educated in circumstances where social division distrust and animus crowd out efforts at understanding and social integration?

In extreme cases of communally divided societies where any reform or positive step is torn apart by sectional interests and division, it can be tempting to ask if a society understood in any normative and integrated sense exists at all.

Furnivall argues much the same when he points out regarding the legacy of colonialism that: “Everywhere in the Tropical Far East there has come into existence a Plural Society, held together not by tradition or religion but by little more than the steel framework of the law in a society in which distinct social orders live side by side but separately within the same political unit.

“In circumstances such as these, the social life within each community tends to be disintegrated, and there is, moreover, no all-embracing social life. In the strict sense of the word, there is no society. If, then, education is the sum of all the processes which fit the child as a member of society, how can he be educated where society does not exist?”

The problem of education in plural societies is thus according to Furnivall a problem closely connected to the way in which society is integrated and made cohesive.

Wider cultural social, political and economic dynamics inform what it is to be educated. These wider dynamics impact on the discourse of educational reform and instructional practices in diverse ways.

Some people may think that if only politics, social issues, economics and culture could be kept out of education, then educators could focus on the practical problems of instruction free from outside influence. This, however, is a pipe dream.

The problems of education have always been deeply cultural, economic and political. In plural societies, the problems of social division, distrust conflict and competition are never far from educational debate.

Rather than viewing such forces as somehow extraneous to education, as if we could somehow ignore them, we need to view them as a critical part of our educational problem.

Societies divided by sectional interests, ripped apart by racial and religious division, will necessarily view all educational reform and proposals through the prism of conflict and social competition.

In such societies the problem of education and the success of educational reform will ultimately rest on addressing the wider inequalities and divisions which result from the colonial inheritance of plural society.

Educational success in such societies is therefore not simply limited to how we advance practical instruction within schools, universities and other educational institutions. Rather, success in educational reform rests ultimately upon addressing the issues which drive social disintegration and enflame social distrust. These issues incessantly pose basic dilemmas for policy makers, educators and citizens alike and their resolution would greatly add to the success of educational reform.

Furnivall’s observations on these matters is still provocative and if his critique of the problems of plural society is still relevant to contemporary Malaysia, his thoughts on the problems of education in plural societies may also be of continued interest.

The writer is an independent writer and researcher based in Melbourne, Australia.

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