A:  There are two main problems with the mainstream narrative about education for girls:

1.  It tends to ignore or denigrate the substantial knowledge base and capacity of rural and Indigenous women, portraying them merely as “uneducated” and “illiterate” because they have not gone to school;

2. It tends to oversimplify both the problems facing rural and Indigenous women and the potential solutions to those problems, ignoring the role of industrialized societies in creating poverty through exploitative economic practices, and focusing instead on a “savior” role for wealthy nations.

The appeal of the mainstream narrative about building schools is its simplicity; through this one simple act, we are often told, we can end poverty, reduce conflict and war, and improve the status and living conditions of girls and women around the world.  The reality, however, is that when you intervene to change the way a culture raises its children, you create a complex cascade of thousands 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.

The World Bank and other international development agencies have a few favorite statistics that they highlight in support of girls’ education programs.  These include reductions in birth rates and infant mortality and an increase in per capita income for women.

But as the film points out, an increase in per capita income may reflect a transition from a non-cash agrarian economy into low-wage labor in sweatshops or domestic servitude.  This statistic by no means guarantees an increase in quality of life, dignity, independence, or economic security.

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 a substantial financial burden for parents in less “developed” parts of the world to pay for school fees, uniforms, and books, which motivates them to have fewer children. This same expense may induce families to get 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, substance abuse, and other problems. 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, obesity and diabetes, drug and alcohol addiction, and family and community conflict and breakdown go up (all of these pathologies tend to be correlated with rapid modernization of traditional cultures.)  Did life just get better or worse? When you embed these statistics in a more complete context, the picture becomes less clear.  In some cases you may have simply replaced the pathologies of traditional life with the pathologies of development – which in many cases are more complex and difficult to resolve.  (Childhood infectious disease, for example, is a lot easier to prevent or to treat than mental illness, alcoholism, or diabetes.)

One particularly disturbing statistic shows a correlation between years of schooling and the risk of human trafficking. It’s commonly assumed that lack of education in developing areas is a risk factor for trafficking, but there is evidence which suggests the opposite; according to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Traffickingvulnerability to human trafficking correlates with more schooling and the migration to urban areas in search of money that usually follows it.  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 the very high school failure rates in less-developed parts of the world apply to girls as well as to boys, as do the high urban unemployment rates for the small percentage who succeed. When girls are exhorted to stay in school in order to attain a “better” life only to find that success remains out of reach, they may become vulnerable to the predatory forays of traffickers.

Another troubling statistic has to do with increasing rates of suicide among girls.  Both school failure and suicide are epidemic among teenagers in many Indigenous communities from the Amazon to Australia to the Arctic Circle.  In rapidly developing societies like India, China, and South Korea, whose recent economic growth has been fueled by intense academic pressure placed on children, suicide among girls has now outstripped the rate among boys. The pressure to succeed academically and the shame and humiliation of failure are thought to be major factors in this increase.  In an alarming trend, according the the Lancet, unpublished WHO studies show the same pattern emerging in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. “This is something striking, unfortunately for women,” says Jose Bertolote of the World Health Organization.

The bottom line is that the modern school is no panacea, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. Again, when we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes, and to assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.

For links to sources for this information, see the blog post, “Three Cups of Fiction.”  
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  1. J.J.10-20-2014

    This film and the information you present here has touched me deeply. I’ve always felt antagonistic toward schools because they felt antagonistic toward me. As an orphan and African American, ‘education’ appeared suspect simply because all the adults in my life were telling me the best way for me to improve my situation was by buckling down and learning. The refrain”he’s so smart…if only he would just apply himself” was so routine as to appear religious as my teachers and adoptive parents ruminated over the best course of action to just get me to ‘behave’ and ‘do the work’.
    There was a 3 year period (grades 8-10) when I decided that I would just do the work to keep my parents and teachers off my back. I was shocked by how easy it was to ‘get good grades’ when I did do what everybody in my life told me to do. I also empathized with my brother who constantly struggled in academic settings and now had the pressure of my parents leaning on him to ‘do better’.
    Boredom with just keeping my head down and playing the game eventually led me to abandon those ways.
    I guess my point is that the ‘all you have to do is’ approach to learning about our world and our place in it IS too simple. Our system of public education does not promote sincere critical thought nor does it truly honor other ways of knowing. Thank you for this brilliant work.

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