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Education and Social Transition in the Third World

Education and Social Transition in the Third World

by Martin Carnoy, Joel Samoff

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Through a comparative analysis of educational theory and practice, this analytic overview illuminates the larger economic and political changes occurring in five peripheral countries--China, Cuba, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Nicaragua--commonly viewed as in transition to socialism. Current political patterns and leadership in these countries have emerged in the context


Through a comparative analysis of educational theory and practice, this analytic overview illuminates the larger economic and political changes occurring in five peripheral countries--China, Cuba, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Nicaragua--commonly viewed as in transition to socialism. Current political patterns and leadership in these countries have emerged in the context of predominantly agricultural, industrially underdeveloped economies. Each state has played a major role in social transformation, relying on the educational system to train, educate, and socialize its future citizens. Discussing the similarities and differences among these states, the authors show the primacy of politics and the interaction of material and ideological goals in the process of social transition, and how shifting policies reflect and are reflected in educational change. This collection first examines critical analyses of education in capitalist societies, both industrialized and peripheral, and explores the utility of those perspectives in the political and educational conditions of the countries under study. Together these essays offer the first systematic explanation of how and why education in socialist countries undergoing rapid change differs from education in developing capitalist countries. Contributions to the study were made by Mary Ann Burris, Anton Johnston, and Carlos Alberto Torres.

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"The impressive study by Martin Carnoy, Joel Samoff, and their collaborators is an invaluable theoretical and empirical analysis of educational policy and its role in the social transformation of Third World societies."Contemporary Sociology

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Education and Social Transition the Third World

By Martin Carnoy, Joel Samoff, Mary Ann Burris, Anton Johnston, Carlos Alberto Torres


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07822-9


The Search for Method

This is a study of education in five developing countries undergoing profound social, political, and economic change. Four have had revolutions. All have rejected capitalism as the basis of production relations in their economies, and all are attempting to construct the foundations of a new social system on a national scale.

Much has already been written about the social transformation process occurring in many Third World states, but that process is still not widely understood. Where understandings have emerged, they are usually clouded by ideological controversy. The more important goal of coming to terms with the nature of the transformation and what it helps us understand about change itself remains elusive.

We want to reexamine such transformations from both a theoretical perspective and in practice. We support the aspirations of these societies. Their leaders have committed themselves to broad-based social and economic development anchored in significant social structural change — a change that even many critics of these societies agree is desirable. And the development that has taken place, for all its problems, offers important insights into economic and social alternatives to capitalist development — alternatives that may be especially relevant in a Third World context.

Analyzing education, we believe, is an important way to understand larger economic and political change, or the lack of it. But our aim is also to compare educational change itself across societies, and to analyze whether and why education develops differently in societies that seek to make a transition from capitalism to socialism than in their Third World capitalist counterparts. The existence of significant differences in educational policy will tell us something about how political and economic policies differ in countries with different social organizations. The comparison will also help us understand the barriers to reforming education in capitalist societies. Is it possible, for example, to duplicate the main lines of educational change across societies without developing similar social and economic reforms? Conversely, is there something about each of the societies we study here that makes the way their educational systems developed unique to particular sociohistorical conditions?

We develop an analysis of change — including educational change — that focuses on the state and politics. It is the state, much more than the production system, we argue, that is the source of the dynamic of revolutionary societies, and politics, much more than relations in production, that drives their social development. The importance of the state and politics is not limited to the analysis of societies undergoing social transformation. We also make a case for increasing focus on the state and its relation to the economy in understanding how social structures in Third World capitalist societies remain relatively unchanged. But it is in the "transition" to new structures that the state and politics become dominant in understanding the nature of change.


The five states in our study are often referred to as marxist, socialist, communist, or "in the transition to socialism." But the definition of such terms has always been difficult and controversial: There exists no real world example of the kind of society to which they are in transition; their own divergent programs and histories obscure any single, clear picture of a "socialist" society; and defining idealistically in advance what the end product or the process of the transition ought to be is inconsistent with a dialectical or materialist approach.

We therefore do not refer to these societies as "socialist" or "transitional-to-socialist," and thus avoid assuming all the theoretical baggage inherent in those terms. Where the states we study do not refer explicitly to themselves as "constructing socialism" (which some do not), we use the terms "social transformation" and "transition" to describe the process of transforming one social structure into another.

We do consider, however, that the dialectical approach to studying this process case by case is also a contribution to research on "socialism" — carried out by examining the practice of those who say they are constructing socialism. With such an approach, we can (1) identify what is common and what varies among the cases; and (2) use these similarities and differences as the essential elements for the development of the theory of the transition and the role of education within it.

In these states' political programs and practices we are able to distinguish various common features a priori. Some indicate what the states are against, and others identify elements of goals to which they are in transition.

A common initial distinguishing feature is that the states in our study have not come about from the set of circumstances predicted by Marx. (This is yet another reason to worry about the premature use of the term "socialism.") All these states have appeared historically in predominantly agricultural, industrially underdeveloped countries with a large peasantry, a weak national bourgeoisie, and a very small proletariat. We argue that it is in part the peripheral position of these countries in the world economic system that prevented the capitalist state from finding the political and economic resources necessary to maintain its hegemony. This helped create the conditions for the accession to state power of popular-based movements.

A second common feature of the new state's program is its noncapitalist or anticapitalist orientation. The new state stems from social movements organized to oppose the more extreme manifestations of peripheral capitalism — land expropriation, forced labor, tyrannical dictatorships, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Its problem is to replace the social system underlying these manifestations with one that guarantees that previous social relations and the institutions associated with them do not return. The new state therefore aligns itself against exploitation for individual gain and against those most intimately connected with economic and political power in the previous social structure. In doing so, it automatically comes into conflict with the interests of those industrialized countries that supported the previous regime. The result is that the new state often faces sanctions and even military confrontation as part of establishing and defining itself. Implementing a non- or anticapitalist program also means that the state has to rely for support on peasants and workers, and, initially, it directs much of its effort to the mobilization of mass participation in social change.

A third common feature is that these states seek to collectivize production through public rather than private ownership. The state seeks in collectivization the route to a nonexploitative, highly productive, and eventually classless society. The state's policies are not only collective, but also oriented toward a much more equal distribution of goods and services. This combination underlies the attempt to replace individual gain by equitable collective consumption — notably through social services, of which education is one of the most important. Building an equitable society also involves efforts to guarantee the right to work, a narrowing of wage differentials, and equal status in law and in employment for women and men. The expansion of public ownership binds the state ever tighter to direct dependence on economic success for its legitimacy. This relationship raises tensions, which come to play a central role in determining the future direction of development.

The coincidence of the hostility of powerful industrial economies toward the new state, the state's hostility to capitalism and dependence, and the program of collectivization and public ownership in the economy bring about another common series of features in the countries under study. The state tries to redefine its whole system of relations with the outside world, especially its relations with external military and economic systems. It seeks new trading partners and allies with similar collectivist goals, reducing previous dependencies (at the risk of further antagonizing capitalist powers and of incurring new forms of dependence). Particularly for the smaller economies (all but China in our study), an international approach to changing domestic social relations becomes a material necessity.

A fourth common feature of these states is the dominant role of the state in all spheres of social transformation and development — and with that role, a fundamental tension between the respective domains of central authority and local democracy. On one hand, the new state's legitimacy and its development program depend on its ability to mobilize and incorporate the citizenry. On the other hand, the new state — often permeated by the old state's bureaucrats, structures, methods, and philosophies — not only has a direct economic interest in steering the country's social transformation from the center but is impelled by outside aggression and internal resistance to intensify centralization and authoritarian practice. The result is that these states have always made significant large-scale efforts to develop new organs of popular democracy at various levels of the society, but have simultaneously developed a bureaucratic and authoritarian structure, which manages to undermine and circumvent people's power. The tension between these two forces simultaneously impedes and dynamizes the process of social transformation.

The events of the Beijing summer of 1989 — dramatic student-led protests and hunger strikes with mass popular mobilization and support, followed by heavy-handed political repression — highlight a fifth common characteristic of these states: a sense of hope. Like the student demonstrators and their working-class allies in Western Europe and the United States in the spring of 1968, Chinese protesters in 1989 shared an optimism about the possibility of change and about their potential role in the change process. They believed that citizen initiatives and mass mobilization could not only confront the awesome power of their authoritarian state but, indeed, transform it. Perhaps even more striking, they believed that China's army was a people's army, drawn from the citizenry and unwilling to raise arms against it. Contrast this sense of the possibility of change and the viability of citizen action with the widespread cynicism and depoliticization in the United States and Western Europe. Where in the North Atlantic do student protestors consider the citizenry their protectors, the workers their allies, and the army their ideological and perhaps even experiential comrades?

For an extraordinary moment, when unarmed citizens defied the state and turned away the tanks, the Chinese demonstrators' optimism seemed founded. In the short term, however, state coercion overwhelmed their hopes, their organizations, and their bodies. At this writing it is impossible to assess fully either the impact of the protests or their longer-term durability. It would be politically naive and analytically superficial to romanticize what was necessarily a shaky coalition of diverse interests. As Mary Ann Burns stresses in her study of Chinese education, widespread economic reforms in China have thus far not been accompanied by similarly broad-gauged political reforms. At the same time, it is striking that while the popular mood in the liberal capitalist democracies is one of political cynicism and self-centered individualism, in the transitional states we study here, and indeed in the perestroika and glasnost of socialist Europe, we find high expectations about how the society ought to be organized, democratic political engagement, and optimism about change.

Why Education?

In studying such societies, why should we focus on education and not some other institution, such as factories, farms, or the health care system? The most important reason is that the leaders of these states themselves attribute great importance to education as part of the means of achieving social transformation. The same kind of optimism exists about the role of education in development that characterized international agencies in the early 1960s. However, the education in question is not just the same old education as before. Education itself is seen as having to be changed and renewed. The leadership in these societies does not just mouth rhetoric about changing and developing education. They expand it more rapidly and reach out to more people of all ages than in any previous efforts in history. They mobilize entire populations to achieve universal literacy over a short period and invent new ways to expand and deliver all levels of schooling to their citizenry.

Education is seen in such societies as a route to all things. It is expected to be the primary vehicle for developing and training skills to ensure that the next generation in the society is adequately prepared for the specific tasks that the society expects of it. It is expected to be the place where appropriate ideas, values, and worldviews will be developed so that from the process of schooling there emerges a new person — not simply someone with skills, but also someone with an understanding of his or her own role in the world and of what is important for that society. The schools are also expected to assume much of the responsibility for recruiting personnel for future leadership positions in these new societies. Religion, race, wealth, and gender are no longer to be the criteria for choosing the leadership. Rather, proven skills, social consciousness, and achievement are to be the mechanisms for determining who assumes power and holds positions of responsibility. How are those merits to be created and assessed? In and by the educational system. The redefinition of knowledge and schooling makes the school not only the place where cognition is developed but also the site of the pupil's first chance for organized participation in party activities, community work, and student government. The leadership believes that all these goals can be molded into the schools, and that the school can, and will, undertake the task of achieving them.

The schools are expected to have the same kind of responsibilities and perhaps even more than in societies where profound social transformation is not on the agenda. Moreover, in the countries we study here, the leadership counts on schools to achieve these transformations of social structure and consciousness in the immediate postrevolutionary (or, in the case of Tanzania, less a postrevolutionary than a postcolonial) transition period.

The analysis of education is therefore a logical point of entry into the analysis of the overall process of change in such societies. But where to start? There have been a number of studies of education in Third World revolutionary societies (for example, Lofstedt 1980; Carnoy and Werthein 1980; Amove 1986). Yet none of these studies develops a coherent framework for comparing the role of education in peripheral capitalist societies to education in the transition.

Here, we develop the theoretical basis for such an analysis by turning to theories of the state and directly to the experiences of the five Third World countries we studied. Our search for method, then, is rooted in previous theoretical approaches and the practice we observed in the case studies.

The State and Education

Notions of correspondence, cultural reproduction, and contradiction are important in developing an analysis of education's role in social transformation (see Bowles and Gintis 1976; Carnoy 1974; Apple 1982c; Giroux 1981). Yet even this insightful analysis of change in capitalist societies fails to develop a coherent theory of the relations among economy, ideology, and political system (the state) and, in turn, a theory of the relationship between the state and the educational system. We shall argue that a theory of the state is even more crucial in understanding present-day transition societies in the process of social transformation, for in them politics is the primary arena in which that transformation is played out.


Excerpted from Education and Social Transition the Third World by Martin Carnoy, Joel Samoff, Mary Ann Burris, Anton Johnston, Carlos Alberto Torres. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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