Interrogating the Notion of Inequality in Education

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya 


The interface between the discourse of equality and educational thinking occurs in three distinct areas. First, there are debatable issues in respect of certain inequalities which may be ‘given’, e.g. inequalities of learning ability, intelligence quotient, mental proclivity to particular forms of knowledge and practice, etc. Second, there is inequality derived from social and institutional factors such as class, gender, caste, etc. external to the domain of education but impinging on it. Third, a distinctly different set of inequalities is produced internally by the education process itself, interacting with the other two categories of inequality, and adding to or subtracting from the consequences of those inequalities. It is presumed that the two latter categories of inequality are being addressed at the present conference.

A basic question to be raised is the status of equality as an objective. Is it, as John Rawls (A Theory of Social Justice, 1971) suggests, a rational decision among contracting parties in social cooperation that the worse-off section of people should obtain benefits which would make them better off than they are.  Although in almost all societies distributive inequality is a reality, Rawls would have us believe that an ideal of correcting that inequality is at work as a part of social contract. Is that a credible theory or is the alternative view more acceptable – the view that what works is not this kind of rationality, but a faith in equality as a value in itself. Is Martha Nussbaum, a prominent spokesman of that view, wrong in dismissing the Rawlsian calculus of reason? The second question arises from the characteristic of our society where, as I have argued elsewhere,   there is convergence of privileges and disprivileges in terms of class and caste as well as gender That is to  say, the educationally disprivileged are likely to be located in the lower end of the social scale in both caste hierarchy and class status, while gender discrimination further compounds disprivileges. This “privilege convergence” not only raises the question of prioritization, but also the intractable issue of correction of one kind of inequality causing the exacerbation of inequality of another kind. An obvious example is what has been called ‘the creamy layer’ on top of an underprivileged castes and tribes. Thirdly, there is a question of different order altogether: to what extent is it possible to address within the limited domain of education, the wide-ranging problem of social inequality? While there can be no question about the movement towards equality being an objective, the question remains: what are the limits of a socially transformative role education can perform?  Pessimism in answering that question must not be an excuse for inaction, but we must bear in mind those limits so that an agenda of social transformation beyond the educational domain remains before us.