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If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it?

You would change the way it educates its children.

The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a ‘better’ life for indigenous children.

But is this true?  What really happens when we replace a traditional culture’s canon of knowledge with our own?  Does life really get better for its people?

SCHOOLING THE WORLD takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply troubling look at the role played by modern education in the destruction of the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures.

Beautifully shot on location in the Buddhist culture of Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas, the film weaves the voices of Ladakhi people through a conversation between four carefully chosen original thinkers; anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis,  a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence; Helena Norberg-Hodge and Vandana Shiva, both recipients of the Right Livelihood Award for their work with traditional peoples in India; and Manish Jain, a former architect of education programs with UNESCO,  USAID, and the World Bank.

It  examines the hidden assumption of cultural superiority behind education aid projects, which overtly aim to help children “escape” to a “better life.”

It looks at the failure of institutional education to deliver on its promise of a way out of poverty – here in the United States as well as in the so-called “developing” world.

And it questions our very definitions of wealth and poverty – and of knowledge and ignorance – as it uncovers the role of schools in the destruction of traditional sustainable agricultural and ecological knowledge, in the breakup of extended families and communities, and in the devaluation of ancient spiritual traditions.

Finally, SCHOOLING THE WORLD calls for a “deeper dialogue” between cultures, suggesting that we have at least as much to learn as we have to teach, and that these ancient sustainable societies may harbor knowledge which is vital for our own survival in the coming millenia.


photography JIM HURST and  BEN KNIGHT   sound recording JIM HURST
produced by NEAL MARLENS, JIM HURST, and MARK GROSSAN directed and edited by CAROL BLACK
DVD-NTSC-R0   color/65 minutes   copyleft 2010 lost people films  WWW.SCHOOLINGTHEWORLD.ORG

  1. dana sawyerdana sawyer05-12-2011

    I believe deeply in the outlook of this film. Having said that, how aware of the Siddhartha School in Stok, Ladakh, were the creators of this film? For more than sixteen years, the Siddhartha School Project, based in the U.S., in Freeport, ME, has worked to fund the Siddhartha School TO PROTECT LADAKHIS FROM WESTERNIZATION by educating children to the advantages and content of their own culture. In short, this film calls popular attention to soething the Siddhartha School, led by Khen Rinpoche Tsetan, figured out long ago.

  2. Carol BlackCarol Black05-12-2011

    Thanks for your comment, Dana. I think efforts like the Siddhartha School are laudable and certainly create a better alternative for local people than the current government schools and missionary schools in Ladakh.

    Modern educators working in traditional cultures often try to address the problem of cultural erosion by including more of the traditional culture in the classroom – traditional songs, dances, stories, religious instruction, visits to the school from grandparents, etc. But Marshall McLuhan’s famous remark, “the medium is the message” suggests that even more important than the content of the message is the mode by which it is communicated. We tend to forget that school itself is a cultural construct which alters traditional life in profound ways. Some of these ways include:

    – The separation of children from nature.
    – The separation of children from family and community.
    – The enforcement of a sedentary lifestyle.
    – The fragmentation of knowledge into “subjects.”
    – An emphasis on text-based rather than experience-based learning.
    – An emphasis on competition and ranking, which inevitably leads to some children being labeled as “failures.”

    I would suggest that these are all features not of learning but of institutional schooling, and that it would be a good alternative for people to feel that specific desirable skills — literacy, practical math — could be acquired without the radical shift in the structure of community life that occurs with the institutionalization of children. In the early days of the U.S., for example, many rural children learned at home or in small group settings while continuing to actively participate in farm life. In a remote region of Afghanistan, teachers go to stay in the yurts of Kyrgyz nomads to teach the children without the disruption of traditional culture and livelihood that would occur if the children were sent to school. Increasing numbers of traditional rural communities are finding it is cheaper and just as effective to create ways of gaining access to useful information without relying on conventional schools.

    In Ladakh, where the winters are long and the glorious summers are short, schools are generally in session during the summer because it is too expensive to heat the schools in winter. This means that children often cannot participate in the traditional agricultural activities of planting, harvesting, irrigation, building, or taking animals up to graze, with a resulting loss in valuable local knowledge of ecology, agriculture, and sustainability.

    But most family homes in Ladakh are large, comfortable, and well-lit during the day, and it would be quite feasible for teachers or monks to teach groups of children in a family home during the long winters so that they could participate fully in farm and community life during the summer.

    I think if models like this could be developed, families would not feel they had an “all-or-nothing” choice to either send kids to school or be completely “left behind’ in terms of modern skills. And as the economy contracts and jobs become more scarce, it may be increasingly important for children to learn the traditional skills involved in living sustainably on the land.

    For more ideas along these lines, check out “The Future of BIg Box Schooling” on our blog, and look at the chapter called “The Culture of Schooling” in our Discussion Guide.



  3. Clint ViebrockClint Viebrock05-30-2011

    Your comments during the May 28 Coffee Meeting at Mountainfilm in Telluride about schooling as sacred cow were thought provoking. I missed the screening of “Schooling the World” last year, but hope to get another chance. How do you come down on the argument that schooling girls has affected the birth rate in less-developed countries?

  4. Carol BlackCarol Black05-30-2011

    Hi Clint — Great question. The issue of the statistics about girls’ education is discussed at some length in the blog post, “Three Cups of Fiction.” The short answer is that when you change the way a culture raises its children, you create a complex cascade of changes which will radically alter that culture in a single generation. Inevitably some of those changes will be good and others not so good. What you find will depend on what you look for, what you measure, and how you attribute causality.

    For example, the reduced birth rate that occurs when girls are schooled may derive from their increased knowledge, or it may derive from the fact that it is very expensive for parents to pay for school fees, uniforms, and books in less “developed” parts of the world, which motivates them to have fewer children. This same expense may induce families to get deeply into debt, cause increased workloads on mothers, lead fathers to leave the home in search of higher-paying jobs, and cause family breakdown, stress, depression, and even suicide. So you have to look at a larger picture to understand whether the changes you have provoked are creating a net benefit.

    Through a process known as “data mining,” one can search for and highlight consequences to schooling that make it appear to be an unequivocal good. A more balanced review of the data might reveal that while the birth rate and the infant mortality rate go down, the rates of suicide, mental illness, diabetes, drug and alcohol addiction, and family and community conflict and breakdown go up. Did life just get better or worse? When you embed these statistics in a more complete context, the picture becomes less clear.

    One particularly disturbing statistic is that in many areas an increase in schooling correlates with an increase in human trafficking. The presumed mechanism for this is that schooling causes rural girls to devalue stable traditional livelihoods like farming and to migrate to urban areas in search of higher-paying modern jobs. But unfortunately there are very high school failure rates in less-developed parts of the world, and high urban unemployment rates even for the small percentage who succeed. When young people are exhorted to stay in school in order to attain a “better” life only to find that success remains out of reach, they are highly vulnerable to the predatory forays of traffickers.

    For more on this, check out “Three Cups of Fiction” and the related links at

    Thanks! Carol

  5. Rebecca AdamsonRebecca Adamson10-04-2011

    This is an important insight and valuable film. It would have been much stronger if an Indigenous voice was central as an agent in the dialogue instead of topic for dialogue. I know and respect each speaker but there are numerous Indigenous controlled schools and teachers who have thought about this very issue and I guarantee they have deep thought provoking insights too. These are important conversations but why do the Indigenous voices never seem to have a role? It is never a conversation with us but always one about us. If you really want to work on behalf of IPs then insist they be on the panel too It will make a more powerful next time.

  6. Carol BlackCarol Black10-05-2011

    Thanks so much for your comments, Rebecca. We made the film on an extremely low budget, which is one of the reasons for the relatively small number of voices in the film, and for the fact that we focused on Ladakh rather than traveling to many locations around the world. However, the film does feature many indigenous Ladakhi people, from Dolma Tsering and Rinchen Dolkar of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh to local women from the village of Hemis Shukpa-Chen to a Ladakhi school principal to Ladakhi students from elementary through college age, and we very much consider the film a conversation “with” them rather than simply “about” them.

    The schools that we featured in the film are in fact “indigenous-controlled schools,” although they use a primarily modern curriculum and educational structure, with traditional culture included mainly in the form of traditional song, dance, and costume on special occasions. We would have loved to have spoken to more local people involved in creating alternatives to the dominant form of schooling, but we were not able to discover any that were challenging the dominant paradigm in significant ways. Most of the Ladakhi people we spoke to had come to believe in the superiority of modern schooling to traditional Ladakhi knowledge, and while they seemed pained by the loss of their own culture and values and the splintering of their families and communities, they accepted that this was inevitable and that their own ways were “primitive” and inferior.

    There are a few schools in Ladakh which are attempting to bring more of the traditional culture and religion into the modern classroom, but they remain overwhelmingly westernized / modernized in their structure and curriculum. We certainly support these initiatives, but ultimately the purpose of this film is to question the cultural biases which underlie this apparent “compromise” at a deeper level.  The modern “culture of schooling” is neither necessary nor universal, and there is in fact little evidence that it is even the best way for children to learn. Why have we decided that children should remain sedentary and indoors for most of the day? Why have we decided that they must be in constant competition with one another, with a percentage of children labeled as “failures?” Why have we decided that children should be separated from their own elders and families and taught by strangers? Why have we decided that all children everywhere must learn the same things, rather than allowing them to learn the local knowledge that has allowed their ancestors to live sustainably in specific ecosystems for generations?

    We are continuing to build a body of resources on the website and in the discussion guide, and we would love to hear any recommendations that you may have. We would also like to add additional video interviews to the website to create an ongoing discussion of these issues online. If you have any suggestions for people who might be interested in granting such an interview, please let us know. This film is really only a small first step in a much larger discussion. Ultimately we are suggesting, along with leading education philosophers and reformers, that the structure of modern schooling itself needs to be transformed to accommodate the diversity of the world’s children both in modern and traditional societies, and that indigenous knowledge may provide a source of practical insight into the nature of children and learning which can inform this transformation.

  7. Josie EstadillaJosie Estadilla11-07-2011

    I haven’t seen the film but I’d do so the first opportunity I get. In the Philippines, particularly in the South (Mindano) our Muslim brothers enjoy a different educational system than those in the other parts of the country. Theirs is tailored to comply with the academic requirement of the Department of Education as well as to instill to the students the values and cultures that are uniquely Muslim…it is termed the Madrasah Educational System… I cannot say how successful this system is though but that’s one way of addressing this issue though…

  8. Nigel HanrahanNigel Hanrahan11-16-2011

    A recent issue of “Monthly Review” in the US addresses the whole issue of Education Under Attack. Reading some comments here has reminded me about something I had not considered previously and read in that issue; that is, how certain models of education provide a means to drain a disadvantaged community of its leadership which hardly seems a benefit at all. Good thought provoking stuff!

  9. Tarun GuptaTarun Gupta11-18-2011

    We might be confusing “Education” with the “Purpose of Education”. Education for the sake of knowledge and discovering the truths about the world, about ourselves is a wonderful thing. However, when the idea of success is defined with materialism and education is solely pursued for the sake of degrees and jobs, that’s where the problem begins. Education frees us from the chains of dogma and myth.. it reveals the beauty, complexity and mystery of the universe we live in.. In current times, we know that we share more than 99% DNA with each others, we have shared evolutionary histories.. promoting respect for each other and the animal life form. Education tells that homosexuality is not a punishment from some invisible sky-man or dark skin is not a sin from some mormon god. Traditions and stories are wonderful.. but would you rather believe in such socio-cultural myths that foster hatred based on false morals? Sheep are there so that their meat can be kept fresh until we kill them for food? Or that earth is less than 6000 years old? With 7 billion people, conservation, resource management, population management and sustainability are some of the fundamental issues we are faced with. Yes, closed indigenous cultures that live in harmony with nature are likely to have a smaller carbon imprint. Close families and social bonding depicted in the film may lead to happier individuals.. Yes, we should cherish the beauty of languages.. but what can be said about Ladakh and some other less populous, pristine areas where people live in harmony with nature, can not necessarily be extrapolated to others. Painting the so called “western” education with a stroke black brush may not be the most appropriate thing to do. I quote from the American Prospect: ” It falls squarely on the side of institutionalized education being a horrific thing. These schools are presented as mechanical and destructive — we know that because the filmmaker, Carol Black, provides a steady montage of schoolchildren doing a lot of marching and weird calisthenics. The farming communities from which they hail are presented as holistic and natural. Infant mortality, hunger, and lack of opportunity — all very real effects of poverty among remote populations — are brushed over. But the idea that we should more critically examine a push to educate the entire world, in a fairly universal system, is a good one.”

    Thanks for the movie though.

  10. Tarun GuptaTarun Gupta11-18-2011

    btw, I was wondering if you could share information about the soundtrack used in the movie?

  11. Giannozzo PucciGiannozzo Pucci07-13-2012

    fantastic subject

  12. Curtis KorenCurtis Koren10-11-2012

    I have just been made aware of this film, and ordered it. I hope you included the work of Sonam Wangchuk and the Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). This incredible education reform organization has impacted education all over Lakakh via the Hill Councils, and is remarkable for the curriculum which is teaching Ladakhis not only about Ladakh, but also to take pride in their own culture.

  13. Carol BlackCarol Black10-11-2012

    Thanks, Curtis. We are well aware of Sonam Wangchuk and SECMOL, but as discussed at length in the comment stream above, we did not feature initiatives such as SECMOL in the film because our intention is to question the underlying assumptions of modern schooling at a deeper level. SECMOL has made great strides in terms of building on local language, culture, and in including some practical agricultural/sustainability knowledge in its curriculum. But its schools are still very much schools. Our effort is to question the universality of the practice of institutionalizing children and learning, and to suggest that, rather than simply modifying schools and standard curricula to include a bit of local culture, people are entitled to work in the other direction, building on their own cultures and only adding specific forms of knowledge and learning that they desire and that actually enhance their lives. The discussion that we are trying to raise requires us to go back to the origins of modern schooling and to question its structural features, its standardized curricula, and its deeply embedded pedagogical assumptions. These are all modern phenomena which are by no means culturally universal, and we believe that many of the approaches to children and learning which are embedded in the world’s thousands of traditional societies might offer insights which would benefit children in the modernized as well as in the traditional world. For more on this, please see our blog posts, “The Future of Big Box Schooling” and “Learning from Indigenous Knowledge Systems.” Thanks!

  14. Nic TannerNic Tanner10-30-2013

    Just a short comment I will be using this film to teach TOK to my IB students from now on. Thought it was thought provoking.

  15. Daniel GregoDaniel Grego02-18-2014


    Your film reminded me of the work of Ivan Illich. I’m sure you know about him. If not, check out Deschooling Society, e.g.

    I hope your film finds its way to many, many viewers.

    All the best,


  16. Carol BlackCarol Black02-18-2014

    Thanks, Dan. Yes, Illich’s essay “To Hell With Good Intentions” is in our “RESOURCES” section,, as is a link to “Deschooling Society” We’re always looking for new resources! all best, Carol

  17. Dana StuchulDana Stuchul07-15-2014

    Hi Carol! Your film and the questions it raises are SO very important! Thank you! I use your film in my courses at Penn State. With my dear friend and colleague, Madhu Suri Prakash, I’m wondering if you would consider either a) a guest lecture at Penn State and/or b) a presentation to the Ivan Illich Special Interest Group (a small group within the very large organization known as the American Educational Research Association (AERA). If yes to either of these possibilities, what would it take (what would you require) to bring you?


  18. Galina VladiGalina Vladi10-11-2014

    Gurdjieff has called a modern education “the chief evil”. So precise!
    I would really like to watch this movie. Is it already on DVD or only in movie theaters?

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If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.