Malala Was Wrong: Feminism, Progress & Education

Deconstructing the narrative of education by those who rally around Malala Yousafzai in favor of a more consistent feminist, progressive perspective.

Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Prize laureate who came to prominence as a result of her activism in Pakistan, which was centered on allowing the admission of females into state schools. Although this does give an appearance of progress and equality, there are many unexamined issues buried in this narrative. No doubt that Malala herself was an admirable and brave young woman who was fighting systematic misogyny. However the type of progressives in the west who made her a saint of secularism and female empowerment must ignore the very basic tenets of feminism to come to such conclusions about education themselves.

Equality & Personal Agency

If asked to define feminism most people who identify thusly or are sympathetic to that ideology would probably give you an answer that centered around equality. While I would not call that flat out wrong, it lacks any nuance and does not get to the specific reasons why equality is important, nor even what equality means. To do this we must examine the conditions present when feminism arose.

In the western world that means understanding the religious ideologies of Christianity that influenced social and political forms. What is most important to understand is that women (and children, non-whites, etc.) were considered to be literally devoid of will. Since it was widely believed that there was no female agency, women were not given equal consideration as individuals or political entities. They were limited or outright restricted from the privileges and protections that the state granted to men, and were also often treated like secondary citizens in their own homes and communities.

Institutionalized inequality was therefore a symptom or byproduct of the denial of female agency. Early feminists considered the acknowledgement and consideration of personal agency to be a central force of their ideology. As such many of the early feminists were also opponents of nation statism, as it was viewed as an intrusion on the personal agency of everyone, and was where patriarchal power had been organizing itself for thousands of years.

Today many feminist narratives focus on equality within the nation state. Because this violates the central ethic of feminism, personal agency, it should instead be called womenism. Womenists want patriarchy to work equally for everyone, where feminists want to end centralized authority altogether. Womenism is often little more than female festishism celebrated with endless signaling, which is a strong violation of feminist ideas about objectification. Setting womenism ideas aside, lets see what feminist ideas about personal agency look like when applied to compulsory state schooling.

Schooling as we know it is an essentially conformity-producing institution. Standardization of subjects, curriculum and perspective all combine to create a product whose intent is to achieve like-mindedness. When others decide what the contents of your mind must contain, you have been denied your personal agency.

This is where many might argue that the value of the knowledge prescribed takes precedence over personal agency. Not only do I find this stance presumptive and authoritarian, I find it self-refuting. For any knowledge to be valuable it must remain so outside of acts of aggression. If the value of knowledge requires it to be upheld by force, then education is nothing more than might makes right.

However if we dig even further we find that justifications for education based on the primacy of knowledge are themselves predicated on patriarchal thinking that feminism has already addressed on numerous occasions.

Post Modernism & Truth

While the idea of personal agency has been corrupted or outright lost recently to many who identify as feminists and progressives, post modern criticism is alive and well. One of the most important revelations of post modern thought is the rejection of truth and other absolutes. Truth has come to be viewed as an interpretation of a phenomena that empowers a specific person or group exclusively. It has been acknowledged that since there is no eternal, omnipotent, infallible authority by which any truth or absolute can be determined, truths are subjective claims, not objective facts supported by any ultimate evidence. Claims of truth are issued as behavior modifiers used to control people and gain a monopoly on power. They are used as justification for usurping peoples agency and replacing it with the agenda and will of those holding or seeking power.

Post modern critiques of truth are far too complex to fully tackle here, and I encourage you to begin a campaign to study these ideas further if you are not already familiar. However most feminists are aware of these arguments and side with post modernists, and they often reference this in their ideas about gender, sex and sexuality.

So then if we view knowledge as something that is truth-based, we are validating notions of absolutes which empower patriarchal forces. If we accept the primacy of compulsory schooling then we affirm and empower a direct threat against our own personal agency. But if we reject the notions of truth and knowledge propagated by those in power, then we must also reject the chain of logic that makes education seem benevolent and essential.

Nationalism & Community

When people who identify as progressive show support for our institutions of education they violate progressive ideologies in favor of conservative beliefs and nationalism.

Schooling as we know it is an antiquated institution. It was designed to address a population at the height of industrialism. It fails to address the many ways in which new ideas, technologies and socio-economic forces have reshaped the world since then. To insist on the continuation of this system in perpetuity is inherently a conservative attitude and approach. The baby grew up long ago and there is nothing left to throw out but the bathwater.

It is also true that schooling as we know it is a decidedly nationalist enterprise. At its very inception it was endowed with nationalistic attitudes and based on nationalist values and agendas. The only thing that has changed in the meantime is that through behavioral, curriculum and testing initiatives that are held in place by funding requirements, the contents of schooling have been even more centralized to the nationalist perspective and cause. Any appearance of schooling districts as independent entities that do their own thing is so painfully naive that it could only be uttered as reactive hyperbole. You can walk into any school district in the country and find almost the exact same things. They are like franchises, where local differences serve more to highlight sameness than disrupt it.

An Alternative

My aim is not to abolish all forms of learning, but rather to shift focus to local solutions that are consistent with recognition and respect for personal agency. Indeed I am all in favor of public services developed uniquely to meet the needs and desires of their community. Self-directed learning centers that provide support and resources for members of their community of all ages are a novel way to replace schools. And also provide the good faith needed to foster an interest in continued lifelong learning.

Force and compulsion are acts of bad faith that erode trust and create resistance to learning. To view human beings as innately curious beings able to guide the evolution of their own minds is a show of good faith that makes learning attractive. To trust that individuals who are given the opportunity to guide and develop their knowledge and skill sets will do so forms a basis of a healthy relationship between educators and students. And it also happens to be supported by most of history, where human beings evolved through achievements and successes on the strength of their own curiosity and innate desire to learn, without any compulsory, standardized schooling.

“If children started school at six months old and their teachers gave them
walking lessons, within a single generation people would come
to believe that humans couldn’t learn to walk without going to school.”
— Geoff Graham

In Conclusion

If people who claim to be champions of feminism and progress wish to remain consistent to the letter and spirit of their professed ideologies, then they must elect to do no less than reject all forms of education that are based on the violation of personal agency. And this issue should be addressed and treated with great urgency, as the current system allows the daily victimization of the most vulnerable members of our society and species. Corrosion of human minds will not wait idly by while we navigate an impenetrable mess of signalling and equivocation, so we must realize the center and gravity of the problem and act immediately.


4 thoughts on “Malala Was Wrong: Feminism, Progress & Education

    1. Definitely look up signaling theory, and don’t just take my word for it.

      Signals are self statements wrapped in statements about other phenomena external to the self. They are declarations of identity, status and virtue. For instance, in the context of schooling, many people will make positive statements of that institution that have almost no valuable information but are instead just the individual signaling virtues that they are pro children and pro intelligence. Often signals contain equivocations, in this case intelligence and well being are equated with compulsory schooling, without a proper examination of whether compulsive schooling leads to intelligence and well being, based only on an unexamined appearance that they do.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I offer a soft critique of your description of postmodernism, and I know you say it is too complex to detail. But shouldn’t we avoid saying “postmodern thought rejects truth?” It’s too easy for people who don’t know much about it to assume from that statement, that postmodernism means “nothing is real and we should all be nihilistic moral relativists.” We are in fact surrounded by “truths” and “morals.” Postmodernism encourages us to look into their hidden assumptions and their historical/cultural contexts, no?


    1. I think it is accurate to say that it rejects the existence of truth outside an interpretation, but is open enough to make room for reasonable interpretations of things usefully considered true.


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