Globalization, caste and its cognitive-social impact


Globalization as a conceptual category to explain various facets of change that this contemporary world defined by fractions, attritions, divisions  (and much of it violent)  is witnessing, emerges as a useful shorthand. Indeed the very bloody attritions and convulsions, widening social, economic, gender and cultural schisms and disparities themselves are undoubtedly aggravated, if not precipitated, by it. 

But then being a shorthand,  many of the actual and finer workings of globalization's negative impact is often missed and inadequately understood. I for one particularly feel that the educational consequences in general and globalization's cognitive impact has not been adequately and sufficiently recognized and understood.

That globalization with its determining attribute of single division of labour, not just in the context of the developed world like North America or Western Europe but even for a country like India, results in "white collarization" of our economy and society, even as it keeps many a societies in Africa or indeed many sizeable pockets in India itself in the domains of "primary" economy is a fact that is becoming evident.  Nevertheless I wonder to what extent it is being seen as such. Another aspect which is muted in much of the discourse on globalization is the impact which it has on people even in developed economies of North America and Western Europe, seen as the main force  propelling and unleashing this juggernaut. The widening  social schisms and disparities in the west, now so glaringly visible, are essentially triggered by the closure of many big and small industries. Jobs, more so the "blue collar" variety, consequently leave the temperate shores of North America to the tropical regions of India, China and South East Asia. Within India itself certain regions and across certain caste/class/linguistic demographies we see similar shifts. Some 20, 30 years back most of the domestic help in Delhi were from Tamil Nadu but now most of them happen to be from Bengal, Orissa and even Bangladesh.  On some cursory observation and enquiry I learn that Tamils now have "graduated" to  service, clerical chores and are hence seen to be more developed, benefiting from the developmental programmes of which schooling itself was seen to be an important component. Now in the service domain of clerks, call centres employees, sales representatives in malls and departmental stores, they earn more ( so we are made to believe) and importantly it is more dignified than labour intensive chores. 


Apart from such perceptible changes in the political economy of both America and India,  what is missed are the changes that has been wrought in the educational scenario in both these regions with more and more people seeking entry into college for employment as avenues in "blue collar" domains disappear. Hence  couple of decades back when in the US you could more than secure your existence as a truck driver with fair degree of comforts, presently to have the same level of material living you need to move up the value chain of education to secure jobs that will pay you more or rather to pay the same to maintain the existing levels of comfort enjoyed years back. The so called low end jobs of plumbers, carpenters, taxi drivers,  etc now is the domain of the immigrants mostly Hispanics and Asians, if not the traditionally marginalized and deprived African Americans, who work on subsistence wages. 

The result of all these is to promote a cultural economy which privileges and rewards a purely cerebral world where ability, success and in fact one's survival itself depends upon all your ability to abstract and figure out the world entirely in your head. It more concretely means  skills of accounting, coding, report writing (much of it workings occurring only in one's head) all so non-reflective and mechanistic, alone dominates, determines and defines learning.   


Literacy itself has been so reduced as a means of mere abstraction, a move towards making it purely instrumental, an adjunct, an enabler to sustain the techno-rationalist world that so dominates us. The enlightenment era defined notion of science and knowledge  continues to shape our trajectory of development and growth,  which schools, colleges and universities thoughtlessly and mechanistically facilitate and shape.  


This is of course not to suggest that literacy and schooling in itself have no significance. Literacy does suggest better abstract, de-contextualized thinking, 'liberating' one from mere memorization and rote as means to understand and learn (Jack Goody). But to make one's future, a future of hope, dignity and well-being entirely subject to ability to 'perform well' in 'studies', in school and college in my view unjust and unfair. Often our worthy  educationists, scholars and economists find fault with incompetency of teachers (more so government schools and government school teachers) in their failure to enable children/students to abstract thinking and their shoddy, poor skills in mathematics, science and language.  


In my view the 'reality' is far more complex. I would respond at two levels to this argument. Cognitive processes take their time to mature and the cognitive ability to abstract, interpolate, extrapolate and think beyond the concrete does not and need not emerge in the context of academia alone. (Howard Gardener) These qualities of cognitive abstraction, de-concretized thinking can also be seen in domains of cognition spurred by body-kinesthetics that inform our ability to manipulate objects, tools, instruments that have historically helped us in building and making things that add value to our existence and indeed sustain it. Included here would be the work of the farmers, weavers, potters, masons, carpenters etc. 


Secondly related to the above if learning (the way popularly defined, something the process of literacy and schooling is seen to provide)  therefore manifests itself in other domains as well, but by making an exclusive virtue of schooling and 'great' academic performance, prevents an individual from developing a mode of learning appropriate to her sense of well-being and personality. Modernity and globalization has further rendered all such professions and the intrinsic learning embedded in these practices redundant, injuring a person's confidence, self-respect and dignity. All forms of work, indeed learning, which evokes from investments in physical labour has been demoted as "inferior" , "inadequate" and indeed when someone hardly gets much returns after  staking her blood and sweat into a profession as vital as farming, (or say weaving or pottery)  it results in engendering a society fraught with tensions,  frustrations, angst, alienation which ultimately manifests in violence.  For the process of "white collarization", in itself an unrealistic and impractical proposition, becomes the only means of satisfying one's aspiration to lead a life of some creature comfort and happiness. And inability to achieve and succeed in "white collarizing" herself is stigmatized as a failure, shutting the possibility of a right to life with dignity without "doing well in studies".   (This aspect has been very well put across in the rivetting documentary on schooling titled 'Schooling the world') 


In the Indian context, the above process paradoxically is not new. For our caste system in many ways implied a similar mind-set privileging those with skills of reading, writing and marginalizing those who toiled with their hands and brawns. Only those who had all the scriptural, doctrinaire knowledge were deemed worthy of being richly rewarded and not those who sought to lead their existence in doing things of temporal and earthly significance. The insert of an advertisement (on the top) by the Indian Newspaper Society against the new wage board recommendation for people in the press which questions the wisdom of paying peons and drivers in several thousands, betrays this 'caste/abstraction alone matters' thinking that dominates the discursively constituted debates of democracy, equality, freedom and development. *


Gandhi, the visionary that he was,  rightly suggested the need for a curriculum in schools which does not undermine the value of labour and the intelligence as evidenced in  handicrafts and farming. Alas...our so called democratic agenda, our struggle for equality and indeed our modernity, has been entirely hijacked and colonized by such positivist epistemologies.  Informed by discourses that contend schools and colleges as the only true liberators placing us on course of rapid growth and development, any argument to the contrary would be seen as perverted, shallow, antediluvian "nonsense", to their own sacrosanctual "commonsense"!


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*Of course I also recognize that social movements in India steering many Dalit groups would on the contrary suggest such an argument as being Brahmanical and a thinly veiled attempt to ensure status-quo. Endowed with cultural capital it is perhaps all right of folks of my sorts to pontificate in such vein. And again would I accept my own children if they were "academic failures" and saw in them no "further ability" to be anything but a gardner? Well at some levels being a school teacher myself and not being in a position to do anything better empathetically and enjoy, I have myself been a victim of this cognitive-social shift.  Though teaching strictly speaking is indeed a very cerebral act but given the trivialization of schooling and "learning" itself , teaching  as Michael Apple and Henry Giroux repeatedly argue has been "blue collarized" and hence hardly of much value and significance.

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