Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Craig Jeffrey, Patricia Jeffrey, Roger Jeffrey

Degrees Without Freedom?
Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India

CA.: Stanford University Press, 2008
ISBN 978-0-8074-5743-0 (pbk), xiv + 240 pp.

reviewed by Assa Doron

  1. The promises and pitfalls of education in North India are the subject of this important volume co-written by three leading scholars in the field, Craig Jeffrey, Patricia Jeffrey and Roger Jeffrey. Degrees without Freedom: Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India is partly a response to the commonsensical notion that education is itself a value—a social good—a perception most notably advocated by Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen.
  2. For the authors such views regarding the intrinsic value of education must be complimented, and seen in relation to a more 'on the ground' reality, where attitudes towards education appear more contradictory and ambivalent. The volume is therefore a cautionary examination of the transformative capacities of education, specifically, as it is experienced by young educated men. The analysis critically engages with the work of Pierre Bourdieau and Paul Willis illuminating the distinctive practices, meanings and perceptions associated with education and social change in India.
  3. More specifically, the volume examines the immediate environment in which young un/underemployed men live, without losing sight of wider historical, economic and political forces shaping contemporary India as well as the ongoing structural inequalities —all of which belie any linear understating of education as leading to progress and social uplift.
  4. Set in the western part of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the authors detail the perceptions and practices amongst educated young men and their responses and strategies to un/underemployment. Through a careful examination of their everyday lives, the authors are able to bring to the fore the multiple factors that influence and shape the prospects of securing a stable 'educated' job, including caste, class, religion and gender, which inform the experiences, fears, struggles and aspirations of these men and their families.
  5. Employing an ethnographic approach, the authors compare the life trajectories of three groups of young educated un/underemployed men from different communities: the disenfranchised Chamar men (belonging to the Dalit, ex-untouchable caste), those belonging to the more prosperous land-owning Jat caste and Muslim youth.
  6. The basic premise that education is a vehicle for social mobility and progress is challenged at the outset, when the reader encounters the ambivalence characterising the education narratives and performance articulated by a young Jat man. Rather than a vehicle for securing work and a respectable future, education is but one element in a terrain of political and social struggles that young men face when competing for jobs, power and status. As such, the authors argue that an examination of education must begin by considering how cultural and social factors mediate access to education. They then proceed to examine the multiple and differential ways in which education is perceived and strategically employed by the youth to better their socio-economic status.
  7. Indeed, the educated men (defined by an Eighth Class pass) whom the authors follow demonstrate a variety of attitudes towards education and its benefits. Attitudes range from those men who view education as indispensable for achieving progress and enhancing work and marriage prospects to others who ridicule education as a waste of money and the educated as emasculate people unable to perform manual labour. Whatever the case may be, the authors muster a range of evidence to persuade the reader that education is a primary marker of difference and hierarchy in contemporary India (p. 147).
  8. Difference is constructed along lines of consumption, and for most an educated man is considered better equipped to deal with modern life. 'To be educated is to be on the side of modernity, development and progress, even if one was unable to acquire economic security and prestigious work' (p. 73). But while such views may attest to internalisation of hegemonic values espoused by the state and the élites, a closer examination reveals a more complex reality, shaped by the vestige and practice of class, caste and gender and everyday forms of resistance: those fragmented acts that do not amount to a significant challenge to state power and ideology.
  9. If Jat men value and invest in education it is also because they are able to mobilise other resources, both material and social, to secure white-collar work—a strategy denied to many of the young Chamar men who occupy an inferior ritual and economic position. But if for Chamar men education is hardly an avenue for gaining such prestigious jobs, other important benefits can follow. The authors observe the rise of an educated Chamar leadership that is able to capitalize on educational qualifications and social distinction thus enabling entry into Dalit politics and culture broker activity. For most Dalits, however, the effects of gaining an education are often self-defeating, furthering their frustrations with the 'system,' while at the same time refusing to take up menial jobs which are considered demeaning for educated men. Such frustrations find expression in both the home and public space, rather than in the formation of a coherent political ideology.
  10. Indeed, the authors argue that to an extent, education and educational opportunities reproduce the cycle of inequality, furthering the social and economic exclusion of the subaltern classes. Such arguments are then examined with relation to the political plane, where a much more optimistic picture has been painted by scholars focusing on the recent rise of the Dalit assertion movements in Uttar Pradesh.[1] These views, however, are subjected to critical examination by the authors of this book when they investigate the everyday realities of Dalit men, whose narratives of education and everyday practice of 'idleness' reveal a more disillusioned picture about the potential for Dalit leaders to transform their lives. Once again, the ethnographic approach proves to be a powerful corrective to the political economic one.
  11. One of the most fascinating parts of the book details the tensions that exist in the Muslim community between religious and secular education. The latter is seen as a particularly powerful vehicle for challenging recent stereotypes of Muslims as 'terrorists,' while the former is viewed favourably by some as a means for revitalising religious practices, and cultivating a piece of mind that evades those chasing dreams of consumption and modern life. The authors also note a discernible trajectory taken by young educated un/underemployed Muslim men —that of migration to the cities and taking up manual labour and artisan work. But the dim prospects of salaried work amongst educated young Muslim, in particular, have also meant that Muslim parents are increasingly viewing education as useless and irrelevant for their children's future (p. 150). Indeed, the generational tensions explored in the book add another important dimension to what is a complex and rich examination of education in contemporary North India. It is a shame, however, that the authors did not engage with an equally suggestive ethnographic study written by Robert Newman (1989) on grassroots education in North India (Lucknow District), in the late 1960s and 1970s, in which he offers a fascinating examination of primary schools, their structure, organisation and impact on both Hindu and Muslim village communities.[2]
  12. Overall Degrees without Freedom is an important and highly readable book about a complex relationship between education and social change in contemporary Indian society. It will be valuable for scholars of South Asia, as well as students and policy-makers interested in development, gender and education.


    [1] See for example: S. Pai, Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Democratic Revolution, New Delhi: Sage, 2002; and C. Jafferlot, India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of Lower Castes in North India, Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003.

    [2] R.S. Newman, Grassroots Education in North India: A Challenge to Policy-Makers, Sterling Publishers: New Delhi, 1989.


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