Equal Opportunity

Full Title: *The Struggle for Equal Opportunity*

_Strategies for Social Welfare Action. Proceedings of the XVIII th International Conference on Social Welfare San Juan, Puerto Rico July 18th – 24th, 1976. Published for the International Council on Social Welfare by Columbia University Press, New York and London, 1977_

‘Education for us is synonymous with the total awakening of personality of the individual. This process takes place throughout one’s lifetime and may be continued even after that, if one believes in rebirth. The final consummation of this awakening process is the total enlightenment of man to his or her complete self-realization’.

*Strategies for social welfare action*

At the the very outset I must confess that my ideas on this subject are conditioned by my own experiences in the society to which I was born, where I was brought up, and in which I continue to live and serve.

The terms ‘education’ and ‘equality’ in our cultural tradition have had a profound meaning full of great human values. If we truly are to understand the confusion that we see around us in our communities and in the world today and find a road to liberation it may be helpful for us to examine even briefly, from our respective cultural viewpoints, what was understood by these expressions.

Education for us is synonymous with the total awakening of personality of the individual. This process takes place throughout one’s lifetime and may be continued even after that, if one believes in rebirth. The final consummation of this awakening process is the total enlightenment of man to his or her complete self-realization. This demands constant and diligent training and understanding in the mindfulness of one’s body, one’s emotions, one’s mind, and the mental phenomena in addition to the external knowledge one has to acquire for the satisfaction of one’s material, social, and cultural needs. True education should lead us from knowledge to wisdom.

All other forms of training, such as the development of skills in literature, languages, sciences, arts and crafts, and technologies, while they are of vital social importance, are at most only contributory factors in achieving the principal goals of an awakening human being. In a society where such a goal is kept before the minds of its members, equality of opportunity among them becomes an inherent characteristic of that society. On the other hand, if literacy or other forms of training are confused for the end product of education, then, of course, equality will remain an ever receding distant target in our highly competitive materialistic societies. For the people of the economically poor countries of the world an inequality gap of several centuries is too much of a hurdle to jump, even with so-called ‘educational systems’ having a most sophisticated technological bias.

The concept of equality in human societies has to be understood both in qualitative and quantitative terms. It is like the five fingers on a hand. If the fingers were all alike and of the same length we would not be able to do much with them. In their collective function each one of them is equally important. Human beings in a society have to be understood in the same way. We are human to the extent that while we understand and appreciate our qualitative differences we also know the art of living together without creating a sort of superhuman being and a subhuman being groups amidst us. Unfortunately, that is what has happened in reality in the human society today. An educational philosophy or system that ignores this fact is not worth its name.

According to the cultural education I was subjected to, I was taught four factors that influence the growth and development of a human being, namely, the environmental factor, the biological hereditary factor, the karmic hereditary factor, and the mind factor (self-mastering). In this teaching, with the exception of the biological hereditary factor, all the factors are within the power of the individual’s mind to change. Education, primarily, is the process that helps the individual to understand and to be conscious of these forces and to bring them under his control so that his personality is brought into a dynamic stream of developing his potentialities toward his own self-fulfillment and for the well-being of other members of his society. If the environment in which he lives is not conducive to such environment then the educational systems should gear themselves to change that environment.
What is the environment that modern society has built up? How far are the economic, political, and social arrangements we see around us helpful to personality awakening, happiness, and the joy of living?

Can the mind of an individual human being today control the complex machine-managed society in which he is living? Where is the rich world heading with an ever increasing pollution of land, water, and air and a senseless consumption of non-renewable resources and a craze for more and more luxuries while millions elsewhere lack the basic essentials of life? Where is the poor world heading, throwing aside our simple ways of living and imitating the life styles of the rich nations? Do we intend to put the underprivileged majority in the world into an educational process which will only make some of the more enterprising among them, in the name of equal opportunities, take the same path that a minority elite before them took toward privilege? Is this the solution? I would say an emphatic no.

The time has come for us to stop for a moment and think. We have to question the very fundamentals of our approach. Education as practised today has brought nothing but hopelessness frustration, anger, and damnation for life to many millions of young people in the world. Similarly, in the name of development, many millions are enslaved today economically, politically, and morally. Educational systems have been manipulated to widen the inadequate equalities that already exist. Our universities have been functioning like wholesale-markets while the schools have conducted themselves like retail shops. Certainly, a perpetuation of this system, with whatever beautiful words we coin from time to time to accommodate those who dropped out of this system, such as nonformal education, can no longer take our people on the road to equal opportunities. Social welfare organizations will also be scratching only the surface and will be struggling only with the symptoms of the social disease unless they delve deep into the causes that have brought about the inequalities that we see built into our social system. Social welfare workers have a dual role to play. On the other hand, they have to bring immediate relief to the distressed wherever they may be and whatever needs they have. They also have to raise the level of consciousness of the afflicted to remove the man-made causes that led them to an oppressed situation of unequal opportunities.

Please do not think I am trying to advocate that social welfare workers have to take to power politics. I am only mentioning the importance of transforming the present unjust environment into a just one at all levels and in all fields without ourselves getting trapped in a situation of hunting for power ourselves. This is a great challenge which has to be faced very delicately. I believe that the greatest ingenuity possessed by the human being is expressed at times of greatest challenge. We have such a challenge today and we have to stand up to it and find new solutions. It must be recognized that this is a universal challenge and should be faced as such. Concerned educators and social welfare workers the world over can and should play a key role in blazing a new trail in human civilization where human beings express their solidarity with one another by sacrifice, sharing, and non-cooperation with any form of exploitation of man by man.

Some believe that a transfer of political power from one group to another democratically or otherwise is the surest way to bring about equality, and they advocate political action as opposed to education and social welfare. They may be right if, firstly, such changes bring about raising the level of consciousness of members of the society and, secondly, if they change the very structures of economic, bureaucratic, and political organizations so radically as to bring them within the direct control of the people. Unfortunately, instances of such achievements are rarely heard of. Perhaps it is within the capacity of educators and social welfare workers to achieve the same objectives in a more gently but concrete way. I believe that the path to the realization of the objective lies through an integrated approach to education, welfare, and development, and structural change.

We should not be dazzled by the monstrous structures that we see around us be they bureaucratic, militaristic, or otherwise in nature. Like everything else in a transient world these also have to change. Of course, conscious actions by persons who believe in the dignity and equality of man and are prepared to make sacrifices for these ideals can quicken the pace of this change. We can make a beginning in our own small surroundings wherever we may be. What is needed are grass-roots actions in thousands of places in the world, showing by example a new pattern of total education and new ways of development participation where man and his human values are right at the heart of our work. Instead of institutions and orders coming from above, from a distant decision-making source, the personality awakening of man and the awakening of groups of people on a basis of co-operation and sharing will begin to influence our lives. This is the true beginning of the path to equal opportunities.

Lack of grass-roots initiative and leadership is one of the main sources of the present unbalanced nature of our society. The habit of looking toward the top to initiate changes at the bottom has not paid dividends. Instead, organize the bottom and the top will necessarily have to change. Without involvement in power politics it is possible for social welfare and community development workers with a vision and sense of dedication to achieve a tremendous lot. After all, as the ICSW* President remarked at the opening session of this conference, ‘political power structures are not the only realities in the world that affect the lives of people’.

In my country, Sri Lanka, the movement I represent has already successfully initiated this process of self-development in over a thousand village communities. While keeping our total freedom and identity as a non-governmental people’s movement we have succeeded in getting our schemes integrated with governmental efforts and getting maximum benefit to the people from progressive policies of land reform, decentralization of development schemes and administrative systems, pre-vocational and project systems in education, and self-employment promotional schemes.

I am a strong believer in the importance of laying a psychological infrastructure among the masses of people for involvement in social welfare and development action as an essential prerequisite to all other changes we intend to bring about. Even among groups that have been lagging behind for several centuries an opportunity thus provided for self-development can bring about an all-round reactivization of their community life. This can be followed up with laying a social infrastructure where all members of the community – pre-school children, children of school age, youth, women, farmers, and others – are organized on a functional basis so as to enable them to cooperate to meet their own needs. These same groups can participate in deciding the type of physical infrastructure they need and the type of education, vocational training, socially appropriate economic technologies, consumption patterns, marketing organizations, basic health care, care of the handicapped, and cultural life they need. Can we, the social welfare workers and community educators, guide this whole process of providing an opportunity for the broad masses of people to participate thus in fields directly pertaining to their own immediate life situations? No power on earth will be able to resist a people’s awakening of this nature when it starts from the base and is directly beneficial to the people.

If we accept this position, social services of all types presently carried on the voluntary agencies as well as the multifarious social welfare activities promoted by governments, including education, have to be systematically geared to promote people’s initiative rather than impose on them centrally decided palliative measures. Every stage of formal education, be it primary, secondary, university, or higher, should be a complete exercise in itself, strengthening community bonds and catering to people’s needs. Disintegration of rural communities, unemployment, economic stagnation and even the so-called ‘brain drains’ may be checked by an education, thus centered in the community. Such an approach will make many new findings in social research and new knowledge compiled in centers of higher education meaningful and useful in real-life situations. Also, new, meaningful areas for research and discovery will be opened up. It is left to each of us according to situations in our own areas to work to design strategies for such a reorientation in education and related activities.

Let us not even for a moment assume that those who control the political, economic, administrative, and even educational establishments are unaware of the seriousness of the situation in their own countries and the world. They know that mass unemployment, low incomes, class divisions, scarcities of food, clothing, shelter, health-care facilities, problems of pollution, and so on, threaten their good health also. But they too have to work within the limitations of a machinery which they have inherited or created and of which they do not have complete control. Under these circumstances, if a way out of this impasse is shown by practical action, however small it may be, I am sure that such actions will have a multiplier effect toward building a world with less unequal opportunities and with least harm to human lives.