The Impossible Dream: Education and the MDGs

By Jones, Phillip W. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Impossible Dream: Education and the MDGs


Jones, Phillip W., Harvard International Review


For international aid and development agencies working in the social sectors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shape their flagship programs and budgets, notably in education and health. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000, the goals constitute an ambitious, dynamic, and integrated strategy for poverty reduction by the year 2015. Major global organizations, not least the World Bank and other specialized UN agencies, now routinely frame their policies and interventions in terms of the MDGs, an approach also highly visible in the aid programs provided by major Western donor countries, and, perhaps more predictably, by prominent non-governmental organizations committed to poverty reduction.

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For education, much work has been done to quantify progress over the 2000-2008 period and to assess prospects for the years leading to 2015. But at this midpoint, it is timely to reconsider the ongoing policy priorities implied in the MDGs themselves. At their heart is the notion of education for all (EFA). The language surrounding EFA is the language of idealism, not simply because the MDG education targets are ambitious but because the impossibility of reaching the MDG education targets right across the developing world is now a certainty. The 2005 deadline for gender equity in education has come and gone, and in 2015 as many as 70 countries will still be short of providing a basic education to each of its young people, some seriously so.

Idealism in Educational History

The history of education is deeply embedded in attempts to achieves an ideal society through educational provision. Utopian visions are numerous; even more numerous are attempts at social reform by promoting widespread religious commitment. Political revolutions also frequently saw in education a pathway to their sustainability, and we are well used to attempts to achieve social cohesiveness, equity, and stability by educational means. Given its potentially transcendent nature, it is understandable that education is so often clothed in the talk of idealists. More than this, universal education has become an ideal in itself, and not merely a means to idealized ends.

In the West, the rise of mass schooling that followed the Industrial Revolution saw a tempering of much historical idealism. As soon as the idea of mass education took hold, idealism had to yield some ground to more realistic concerns of ways and means--not least how many young people society could place in school, as well as what form and duration their schooling should take. Whether or not it was government that was looked to as the guarantor of universal access to education, it was clear from the very beginnings of mass expansion that the rate of growth would be tempered by resource and capacity constraints. Such concerns impinged directly on the very purposes of mass schooling, these now being subjected to the discipline of economic scrutiny. So there opened up that great divide in modern education--tension between the moral and material.

We know from recent history that material concerns seem to count most in the construction of educational priorities and budgets. Economic rationales for education have shaped enrollment patterns, the content of curriculum, and the very way the purposes of education are understood. This has proven to be universally the case--in the developed world, in the transition economies of the old Soviet bloc, and across the developing world of the South. Yet the idealism of education as a potentially transcendent enterprise refuses to go away, and individual learners, their families, and their communities seem unshakeable in belief that education can be an endeavour that transcends the confines of material existence. One prominent expression of this belief is the idea of education as a fundamental human right, famously included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The chief obstacle to putting the ideal into effect is less a matter of moral acceptance than the obstacle of capacity. …

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