RETHINKING THE ROLE OF COMPARATIVE EDUCATION
GLORIA G. BONDOC
In the newly emerging global economic order governments and policy makers are keen to seek ideas from other countr ies and recognize the impor tance of looking comparatively. This expansion of interest in comparative education brings new challenges for the discipline: research may be undertaken by non-specialists ( by consultants and politicians or educationists from quite different backgrounds); the short lifespan of democratically elected governments may lend attraction to ‘quick-fix’ solutions; statistics and data may be decontextualized. Added to these challenges are the worldwide proliferation of education providers outside state control and the transformation of teaching and learning brought about by the new information technology. This rethinks the role of comparative education in the light of these changing circumstances and looks at the new opportunities they bring.
There was a time, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when comparative education was asser ting itself as a new ‘educational discipline’ on university campuses throughout North America, Western Europe and East Asia. Specialist journals and societies were launched. Governments, bent on reforming their education systems, sought to glean ideas from developments and innovations elsewhere in the world. Then, dur ing the late 1970s and 1980s, it went through a ‘crisis of confidence’. It came under attack from academics in the social sciences as to its relevance: in what ways did it differ from sociology, curriculum studies, educational administration and planning, policy-making and so on? Was there anything special about a comparative research methodology and was ther e any underpinning theor y? What was its relevance to trainee teacher s, policy-makers and educational administrators? Numbers studying comparative education at undergraduate level in the United Kingdom fell dramatically (Watson, 1982) but in the USA at least there was a fight back. Comparative education was classified as a ‘field of study’ whose relevance was both unique and important (Altbach et al, 1982; Altbach& Kelly, 1986). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the picture has changed yet again. There is no longer any need to justify comparative educational studies; there is, however, a need to refocus its orientation; to ensure that classic mistakes of misinterpretation are avoided; and to seek new areas for research. How and why has this change come about?
The growing ‘globalization’ of the wor ld’s economic systems and the apparent tr iumph of neoliberal, free market economics ( Rober ts, 1985; Fukuyama, 1992; Colclough, 1997) have led many, if not all, governments to recognize that the future success of their countries, even their survival, in the global market place depends less upon their natural resources than upon their human resources. The overwhelming evidence would now suggest that it is increasingly the creation, acquisition, manipulation and use of knowledge that constitutes the basis for international competition, especially with the growth of information technology. Singapore provides a shining example of this thesis. The better the education and training provided, the higher the levels of skills acquisition and the greater the knowledge base offered to the next generation, the more likely is it that a country, or region, will thrive and be able to compete economically. The conver se is also true.
It is this recognition that has led international agencies such as the World Bank (1995), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), UNESCO (1996) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to re-emphasise the importance of education and training for both human resource development as well as for socio-economic development, especially in the poorer countries of the world. This was the thrust of the 1990 Jomtien Conference on Education for All, and of the World Bank’s emphasis on the necessity to develop primary education as the foundation for all other developments.
Education, especially at primary level, has a vital role to play in the process of socio economic development. It is even more true today and in the next century with advances in technology, micro technology and computer related industry that a nation’s capacity for development hinges as much on the ability of its people to acquire, adapt, and then to advance knowledge as it does on its natural resources. Literacy, numeracy, communications and problem solving ski lls – higher order thinking among the workforce – are essential for economic survival, let alone development. (World Bank, 1990, p. 1)
At the same time, the industr ialized countr ies have been looking askance at the economic challenge posed by the growth of the Newly Industr ializing Countries ( NICs) such as Mexico, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan, especially as the Asian countries have consistently outstripped the USA, Australasia and Western Europe in the International Evaluation of Achievement (IEA) surveys in mathematics and science. Just as the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 led to some soul-searching and educational reforms in the USA, so has the continuing growth of the Asian economies (Lewin, 1998) led many of the industrialised country leaders and businessmen to focus on the role education has played in their sluggish economic performance compared to the ongoing high rates of growth in Asia. It has frequently been suggested that the inspiration for many of the educational reforms in Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom during the last two decades of the twentieth century had their origins in a misreading of developments in Asia.
At a time such as the present, when profound changes are occurr ing in the whole structure of global economic, social and cultural relations, and the role of education in these changes is coming to be recognized as fundamental, all countr ies can only benefit from knowing more about the cultural premises of each other’s education. (UNESCO, 1993, p. 89)
The willingness on the par t of governments and policy-makers to seek ideas from other countr ies and to recognise the impor tance of looking compar atively, using comparative data and ideas to inform policy decisions, cannot be underestimated in the newly emerging global economic order.
The author is Teacher II at Macabebe West District, Sto. Niño Elementary School