Sunday 15 May 2011

Ibn Khaldun and Educational Economy

Ibn Khaldun was a remarkable 15th century social theorist and early economist whose ideas foreshadow those of Durkheim, Marx, Bourdieu and Giddens. His work was based on a close examination of desert societies in the 15th century, highlighting the processes of development of rich and poor. Khaldun has been on my mind following my return from Ras Al Khaimah. His concept of Asabiyyah describes the emergent processes of social transformation following invasion by nomadic groups, and the gradual assimilation of the dominant 'culture'.

Whilst there are don't appear to be any immediate parallels between a medieval context of frequent invasion and decay of civilisations, the processes Khaldun describes have modern counterparts in terms of social capital and social networks. But what I am part of (and practically every other UK and US university at the moment) is some sort of incursion (although of course, welcomed!) into Arab culture with a European model of education. How might Khaldun see this?

Education is welcomed into the culture as a way of diversifying an economy: as a service industry, education is big business. Students for foreign universities are spread between the native populations and migrant workers (or offspring from them). There are more native students for more prestigious universities, whereas for less prestigious institutions, there are more migrants. There are often significant differences in political power between migrant workers and natives: but the power imbalances can often serve as a motivator which drives individuals towards increased capability and education. Foreign educational institutions similarly find themselves as migrant institutions with fewer rights to property and disadvantaged legal status.

Bearing in mind the contrast between these different social groups, the distinctions that Khaldun draws on to highlight the relationship between urban civilisation (kingdoms) and Bedouin civilisation (nomadic) may be a useful starting point. One of the principal questions is to examine the viability of this situation, and the viability of 'nomadic' educational businesses. Political imbalance and injustice acts to adjust the distribution of risks in society, and the anxiety that results focuses on education to manage it. The principle political inequalities are often not inequalities of wealth, but of risk. This suggests a more general point that increasing wealth in a super-rich country does not bring increasing political power or more even distribution of risk.

In a society of unequal risk distribution, education is attractive because only education and the capability that can arise from it can give increased flexibility in response to managing risk. Increases in capital in terms of property are less possible (housing, for example, is only available for rent): what counts is the increase in social capital - particularly the ability to influence the ruling power; this depends on property relations to ideas and skills.

However, there's a catch here. Good education depends on good teaching. If teachers do not have sufficient educational capital to maintain their own wellbeing and flexibility in an unequal society, they will not be happy: and it's rare for an unhappy teacher teach well. The status of migrant teachers is the same as for other migrant workers. In this way, what appears as education might not be able to deliver in terms of the increase in personal and social capital. I suspect this is the case for most educational incursions in unequal societies, however prestigious.

This is not insoluble. It requires a rethink as to how education might be organised. The fundamental issue is to treat the doctor at the same time as the patient. To do this, I think that learning activities, particularly those involving overseas contacts (from more equal societies) can work magic. Activity constrains communications; but it does so to enable them. Global coordination of activity is now possible.  It means organising education around tools and scenarios rather than curricula. With this, a viable future for nomadic educational  incursions
might be a possibility.

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