Adani and the Purpose of Education

Photograph Source: Stephen Hass – CC BY 2.0

Recently, Survival International, the organization that campaigns with ‘tribal peoples,’ ran a story about the Indian conglomerate, Adani Group, setting up a Tribal Residential School for children in Bankishole, Baripada, in Mayurbhanj District in Odisha State – a region in Eastern India known for its tribal communities. Adani is best recognized internationally for its mining activities, particularly its recent struggle to get a mine authorized in coal-addicted Australia in the face of massive popular protests.

Tribal Residential Schools have come under scrutiny from Survival International in recent months. As Chairperson for the Adani Foundation, Dr Priti Adani said at the opening of the school, which is partnered with the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) – an organization that describes itself as ‘A Home for 30000 Indigenous Children’: “Education is the most powerful tool for social transformation.

It sure is! It creates wage slaves that know their place in society and who are then able to operate as functions in the exploitative hierarchy of capitalism. But, in their short video – which really does have to be seen to be believed and would be an inspiration for Jair Bolsonaro – KISS put their mission much more clearly: “transforming social liabilities into social assets… and converting tax consumers into tax payers: a unique educational initiative for social transformation and peace.”

But, as Survival International report, there are voices of Indigenous resistance. Local Indigenous activist, Soni Sori: “We resist this kind of education. Whoever it may come from – Adani or anyone. They give their kind of education because they want our children to hate jungles. They want our children to hate their own culture. They want to create distance between children and parents.”

The story of KISS and Adani is truly disconcerting, but there is a wider issue here too. The truth is that there can be no bridging between the educational systems of modern states and Indigenous ways of raising children. The only outcome of such an alliance is the eventual eradication of Indigenous ways of living.

We live globally within what could be called a Pedagogical Society. I would argue that pedagogy stands equally alongside exploitation and hierarchy as a defining characteristic and imperative of ‘Western,’ modern state, or capitalist society. The notion that ‘education’ is a good and necessary thing is so pervasive that very few people question it, yet there are signs all around us that education may not quite be what it appears to be.

One could start with its coercive aspect. There are only three sectors of society that are forcibly institutionalized: criminals; the insane (who may be a danger to themselves or others); and children. School is compulsory. Criminals and the insane are put away in order to keep society safe and to be rehabilitated. Children are put away, usually on a day-release scheme… to be ‘rehabilitated’ before they have even done anything wrong.

To get a clearer picture of what education really is it is useful to compare our pedagogical society with non-pedagogical societies. Indigenous societies, if they still have some independence, are not pedagogically oriented. They view learning as a process that must be initiated by the learner and that should proceed at the learner’s pace. I am talking broadly here of course but my arguments are derived from, and supported by, the work of anthropologists and educationalists such as Jean-Guy Goulet, Paul Nadasdy, Gustavo Esteva, Peter Gray, Ansgar Allen, Maurice Bloch, and my own involvement with Indigenous Australians.

The most basic expression of the pedagogy at the heart of our global state society is the school. Here the emphasis is, in reality, all on the teaching and the teacher, despite the amount of punishment that might be meted out on the students. This is the reason – since John Dewey at least – that well-intentioned educationalists have recurringly tried to make schooling ‘constructive’ and based on the learner. In a school situation ‘learners’ are rounded up and presented with an array of ideological techniques and physical mechanisms that are designed to keep them either engaged or undisruptive. The educationalist, William Glasser, for example, argued that classrooms should be places where students enjoy themselves so much that they do not even realize they are learning. This may sound a worthy endeavour, but there are two immediate problems here. Firstly, as several educationalists have written or implied affirmatively, the idea is to ‘trick’ children into learning. Secondly, as anyone who has seen the waves of educational initiatives wash over school systems year in year out – getting nowhere, even Finland is now falling behind – it is clear that all the work of ‘learning’ is placed upon the teacher. Students at whatever ‘ability level’ – it’s an open secret – do as little thinking as possible and the teacher does almost all the work. This situation leads to a war of attrition between teacher and student. Only the best and most hardworking teachers are able to maintain a happy atmosphere where grades are acceptable, though they do not usually last too long in the system – while bad and middling teachers carry on unaware of the mediocrity they perpetuate. Teachers could be compared to prison guards: it is better to have respectful and sensitive ones guarding you.

The anthropologist Jean-Guy Goulet in his work with the Dene Tha’ of Northern Alberta notes that their society has principles of ‘non-interference,’ and ‘non-intervention’ – which means that people will only be given help when they ask for it. To many of us this might seem awful. But what it means is that the autonomy of everyone is respected. In our society we don’t have time for such niceties. We will help the old man across the road before he even asks for help because we want the getting across the road to be done quickly. The Dene Tha’ might say that in what we perceive as our kindness there is only impatience and disrespect. Correspondingly with learning: children are not rounded up and given instruction. Learning is expected to occur at a time when the learner wants it, through observation. Later, as anthropologist Paul Nadasdy – in ‘Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon’ – explains: experts may refine the knowledge gained through observation and mimicry. But only when the learner requests it, through a gentle process of story-telling, correcting mistakes – practically and without a judgemental lecture – and humor.

Every society, naturally, works to reproduce itself, and how children are raised shows how a society views the people who make it up. In Indigenous societies children are trusted to reproduce society. They are given time to work out how things are done. In modern state society children are not trusted to reproduce society… and one wonders why that might be! Parents, education systems, and government are in a continual panic that children need to be trained to cooperate properly in our hierarchical and exploitative society. We don’t trust our children. What kind of sick society distrusts its children?

The rise of pedagogy is a reversal of traditional learning and it is a necessary consequence of ensuring that people are trained to work as functions in an exploitative society. It would be no good to let children run around all day in capitalism – they would reject the idea that they should become wage slaves in an inescapable hierarchy. And us adults wouldn’t be able to cope with hordes of kids wrecking all the signs and symbols – shops, parks, amenities, workplaces, cars, etc – of our slave condition.

And, to finish, the dissemination of the ethos of exploitation and hierarchy does not stop at the school level. As I wrote in ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control’: “The University is central to the process. The University sucks in radicality and spits out better ways to manage situations for the benefit of ‘progress.’ It is never a repository of innocent or objective knowledge. On the contrary, it is an action on the world, a one-way dialogue that disingenuously presents itself as epistemic and objective in the same way that all the aspects of ‘Western’ existence constitute a way of life. In Indigenous tradition there is no university and there is no school because such institutions are the markers and the standard bearers of a different way of living.”

Adani and the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences are right: those Indigenous kids need to be schooled.

(Since writing this piece a friend has informed me of the existence of this documentary from 2010, directed by Carol Black, which asks the question: “If you wanted to change a culture in a generation, how would you do it?” The film is well-worth viewing.)


Peter Harrison wrote, ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control’ – described in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Vol. 25, Issue 4, 2019), by reviewer David H. Price, as… “the most interesting anthropological work I’ve read in years, with some stunning passages that strike me as Sahlinsian… I found much to learn and think about in this brilliant treatise.” Harrison is also a co-author of ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.


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Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: contrahistorical@gmail.com 

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