The Promise of Education
By André Weißenfels
All images are by the author.
Upward social mobility through education is a promise that has captured the minds of generations all across the globe. It has motivated and continues to motivate people to plan their lives around formal education and to strive for degrees in the hope these might offer a desirable future. But what if the promise turns out to be false?
In Tunisia, education has always played a prominent role in the post-colonial quest for “future development”. Education has been a central policy sector for successive governments and has been improved significantly after independence (Ben Romdhane, 2011: 150-151). This has been a source of national pride, as the La Presse’s “balance sheet of the first ten-year plan” stated:
It is in the area of Education [sic.] that our country has made the most spectacular leap […] The number of formally educated citizens has tripled in ten years increasing from 450 thousand to 1.2 million (La Presse, 06.04.1972).
Ever since, Tunisia’s educated work force has been understood as an important comparative advantage – a factor that increases the country’s competitiveness in global markets. Thus, education has been presented as a key factor during the 1970s when the government under Hédi Nouira established an export-oriented “liberal” development strategy (King, 1998: 69; Murphy, 1999: 42; Bellin, 2002: 23). It has also featured prominently in the state discourse around the “neoliberal” (King, 2003; Hanieh, 2013: 64; Radl, 2017: 112) structural adjustment program which increased the country’s exposure to international competition:
The prime minister has again highlighted that ‘the key to our success in the next stages will be the reliance on the human potential that we have created thanks to the wise and clear-sighted guidance of the Supreme Combatant [a common reference for Habib Bourguiba]’ (La Presse, 21.10.1986).
On the level of individual life making projects, education policies and state discourse about education went hand in hand with a meritocratic promise (Ben Romdhane, 2011: 168-170; Gherib, 2017: 76; 80; 136-137). Successful studies were to be rewarded with a high salary and material well-being. Thus, the state had to make sure that enough “good” jobs were created. As the then minister of planning and finance, Mansour Moalla, put it in 1972:
It is about creating more qualified jobs for all the young people who will graduate from schools, high schools, and universities. The sites of struggle against under-development will still be necessary for some time for a part of the non-qualified population. But it is mostly qualified jobs that have to be created for the future (La Presse, 10.02.1972).
Today, it has become increasingly clear that the Tunisian state has failed to live up to this promise. In 2009, the chances to be unemployed increased with higher levels of education. And if well-educated people did find a job, they were often overqualified (Ben Romdhane, 2011: 168-169). Furthermore, the unemployment of university graduates has been a constant source of conflict and politicization before and after the 2010 revolution (“Tunisie : Les diplômés du chômage”; “L’union des diplômés chômeurs tient son premier congrès national”). For many Tunisians, therefore, the main problem is neither the level nor quality of education but rather the lack of appropriate jobs that would match their formal qualifications.
Nevertheless, many Tunisians still resort to formal education when trying to improve their lives. In the main fieldwork site of my doctoral thesis, an electronics factory in the southern suburbs of Tunis, many employees take language courses or study in evening classes. They do so to attain a higher degree or an extra certificate that might enhance their chances of finding a better job in Tunisia or of emigrating to Europe or Canada. Thus, the promise of upward social mobility through formal education is still very much present in the everyday lives of people in Tunisia.
This photo series wants to portray how the promise of education is inscribed in the urban landscape of Tunis in the form of publicity for private formal education. Billboards, banners, posters, flyers: the promise of education is omnipresent in Tunisia’s capital. You can find such advertising materials in bus and train stations, on the ground in the streets, and on the walls of private and public buildings. They are most visible in the city center but can be found all over the city, including the peri-urban fringes of Tunis. Most of the visuals depict young happy students with books and degrees in their hands wearing academic dresses. The publicity guarantees that the degrees offered are officially recognized and promise to “secure your future” or to “free your potential to transform your future”, with or without a “Bac”.
Twice a year, before and during the hase, this promise is renewed in the form of fresh posters and flyers that appear all over the city. Once in circulation, those advertising materials begin to deteriorate immediately – just as their promise of a better future. The flyers end up as litter on the ground as people step on them, until they finally find their way into the trash. The posters bleach in the sun, rot in the weather or are deliberately torn down. Often, you can detect older layers of flyers underneath the fissures of the most recent ones. As if they were the visual manifestation of generations of disappointed promises of education. What is left in the urban landscape is often not more than fragments of images, catchwords and familiar designs. But those layers also represent the cyclical and constant renewal of the promise of development as many Tunisians continue to put their hopes for a better future into formal education.
 An important national newspaper and (at the time) a regular mouthpiece of the government.
 “C’est dans le domaine de l’Education que notre pays a fait le bond le plus spectaculaire […] La population scolarisée a triplé en 10 ans passant de 450 mille à 1,2 million” (La Presse, 06.04.1972: Bilan d’un décennie).
 “Le Premier ministre a encore souligné que ‘la clé de notre réussite dans les prochaines étapes consiste à compter sur notre potentiel humain constitué, grâce à la direction sage et lucide du Combattant Supreme’” (La Presse,21.10.1986).
 “Il s’agit de créer des emplois plus qualifiés pour tous les jeunes qui vont sortir des écoles, des lycées, des universités. Les chantiers de lutte contre le sous-développement seront nécessaires encore quelque temps pour une partie de la population non qualifié. Mais ce sont surtout les emplois qualifiés qui sont à créer pour l’avenir” (La Presse, 10.02.1972).
 The equivalent of a high school degree.
Bellin, Eva (2002): “Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development”; Cornell University Press, 2011.
Ben Romdhane, Mahmoud (2011): “Tunisie: Etat, économie et société”; Publisud, 2011.
Gherib, Baccar (2017): “Penser la transition avec Gramsci: Tunisie (2011–2014)”; Éditions Diwen, 2017.
Hanieh, Adam (2013): “Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East”; Haymarket Books, 2013.
King, Stephen J. (1998): “Economic Reform and Tunisia’s Hegemonic Party: The End of the Administrative Elite”, in: “Arab Studies Quarterly” Vol. 20, No. 2; 1998; pp. 59–86.
King, Stephen J. (2003): “Neo-liberal Transformation in Tunisia”, in King, Stephen J. (2003): “Liberalization against Democracy”; Indiana University Press, 2002; 25–41.
Murphy, Emma (1999): “Economic and Political Change in Tunisia: From Bourguiba to ben Ali”; Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
Radl, Sascha (2017): “Structural Adjustment in Tunisia: The Crisis of Neoliberalism and the ‘Gafsa Riots’ of 2008”, in: Baumgratz, Gisela et al. (2017): “Development by Free Trade?”; P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2017; 109–130.
André Weißenfels is Scientific Associate and doctoral researcher at FU-Berlin. Trained in Near-and Middle Eastern Studies and Sociology, André’s PhD project analyzes the everyday of Tunisian employees in a French factory in Tunis and how it connects to global capitalist dynamics and the post-colonial development project of the Tunisian state. In his teaching, André focuses on topics of political economy, power-knowledge dynamics and anarchist thought and practices. In the context of the MECAM fellowship he collects testimonies of autonomous self-administration in the aftermath of the revolution in 2010. During this time, different groups all over Tunisia decided to claim (back) state lands. In many cases, people took control over those lands and started to work them individually or collectively. Almost all of those projects have disappeared after the State started to take back/ expropriate those lands since 2014. The aim of André’s research project is to collect those experiences and to theorize them from an anarchist perspective.
Further articles in the #Inequality&Mobility thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Call for Contributions: Inequality and Mobility. Perspectives from Tunisia / Inégalités et mobilités. Perspectives depuis la Tunisie, 1 February 2022
Citation: André Weißenfels, The Promise of Education, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/32110