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A question of autonomy


May 16, 2017

A movie titled ‘Educating Rita’ came out in 1983 as a profound attempt at understanding the nexus between education, gender and class in relation to freedom. The movie quite sophisticatedly touches on many different themes related to education and society. Teacher-student, student-family, student-student and student-friend are among the many relationships that the movie explores. In the end, the movie equates education with freedom – both internal and external.

Education plays an anchoring role in society. It can either increase or decrease inequalities in society. Inequalities in society can be of two kinds: vertical and horizontal. Vertical inequalities deal with income while horizontal inequalities are about the social groups like gender, sex, race and ethnicity. Different components of the education systems – the curriculum, teaching methods and evaluation techniques – can individually as well as collectively influence the inequalities, either positively or negatively.

In the movie ‘Educating Rita’, Rita comes from the working class. Also, being a woman, she is discriminated against and expected to fulfil her gender-specific roles to live up to the social norms and her family’s expectations of her ‘job’ as a woman to become a mother. However, as Rita herself says, ‘I want to sing a different song’. She sees education as her only option to break away from the class and gender-based inequalities. She seeks freedom. There are many studies that show a positive relationship between education and income as well as the link between greater tolerance, respect and openness to differences based on both nature and nurture.

Amartya Sen, in his book Development as Freedom, argues that freedom is not only the means of development but also an end of development too. Sen’s capabilities approach is primarily based on the notion of giving people freedom. He sees education as a strong influence of enhancing people’s capabilities and their choices which can, in turn, bring about social justices in the world by reducing inequalities. Therefore, scholarly research and movies like ‘Educating Rita’ show how education can hold an influence on class and gender-based inequalities.

However, neither the movie nor the research ends here. It is not just education that influences class and gender; class and gender influence education as well. The impact of class and gender on education can exist because of one’s own psychological perceptions as well as the societal attitudes. In terms of the psychological impact of class and gender on education, the way Rita admired other students, aspired to become like them and considered herself intellectually inferior as compared to them explains that she had preconceived notions about students who belonged to a different social class and that made her see herself as less intelligent and inferior.

In the beginning, this insecurity inspired her to study more and become intellectually capable. However, towards the middle of the movie, when she achieved a status where she could sit with these students and dominate the discussions, it turned her into an arrogant human and lowered her marginal learning. The Dunning-Kruger effect could explain this psychological impact of partial education.

Initially, when a person is completely unskilled and unaware, his or her confidence is also at zero. However, a small increase in knowledge holds a strong and significant marginal impact on the person’s confidence level and it makes the person feel that he or she knows it all, when, in fact, the reality is quite different. This is exactly what happens in case of Rita. She enters with an intellectual inferiority complex. But soon, a little education turns her into an arrogant being which, in turn, holds social impact by furthering her class and other prejudices rather than decreasing them.

However, further experiences and knowledge lowers her confidence again. Finally, Rita’s confidence rises again with her knowledge and experience and she moves into the expert zone. The movie identifies the expert zone as the one which internally frees a person. The final words of Rita in the movie are, “I have a choice”. While Sen’s work talks about external freedoms, Kant’s work goes much beyond and talks about internal freedoms – maximising the capabilities and functioning of internal free will. It is the recognition of internal choice and external application of one’s free will where the purpose of education completes. Without that, education remains incomplete and its objectives unachieved.

Plato, in his allegory of the cave, talks about how people live the lives of ignorance and closed-mindedness. Our education policies should seek to bring us out of those caves of ignorance and help us see the light and embrace the real world. In short, the primary objective of education and educational institutions must be to eliminate inequalities, increase tolerance and autonomy and free people from the chains of internal and external narrow-mindedness.


The writer is pursuing an MPhil in
development studies at Lahore School of Economics and works as a research
associate at LUMS.

Email: [email protected]


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