A:  No.  People everywhere are entitled to choose the educational setting they feel is best for their children.

There’s an important context in which we need to view this phenomenon, however.

The enormous multinational corporations that drive the global economy spend billions advertising the modern consumer lifestyle, and they do a very good job of making people want what we have (it’s been called the “Coca-Colonization” of the world.) Even the word “developing” implies a kind of evolutionary process whereby other cultures will inevitably “advance” to our superior level. The result is that many people in the non-industrialized parts of the world have come to feel that their traditional way of life – their food, their clothing, their houses, their entertainment, their work, their skin color, their language, and, of course, their way of educating children – is inferior, and that a better life awaits them to the extent that they mimic the lifestyles of affluent westerners.

But the advertising agencies aren’t communicating to traditional people what they will be giving up when they enter our version of reality – things like extended family, and clean air, and food security, and living on one’s own land.  People in traditional societies often don’t realize that our elders end their lives in nursing homes or that millions of our children suffer from depression, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol problems.  No one tells them that 50% of public school children in major American cities fail to graduate from high school, and that the quality of life that awaits these children is not something that they would have reason to envy.

In a world with extreme imbalances of power and wealth, the more powerful partner in the cultural exchange sometimes embeds deep – often unconscious – assumptions of its own superiority, and then projects the assumption of inferiority onto the weaker partner.   When development agencies, NGO’s, missionary societies, and volunteer groups travel to traditional cultures in order to “help” them, it powerfully reinforces the assumption of the superiority of the developed nations and the inferiority of traditional societies.  This can undermine people’s self-respect at a deep level.

In Ladakh, where we shot “Schooling the World,” most people in rural villages want their children to go to school, at least in part because they accurately perceive that school knowledge and certification is granted a higher status in the larger society than their own traditional knowledge.  Young Ladakhi women use chemical skin-lightening creams because they accurately perceive that a higher status is accorded to people with lighter skin in India.  And many Ladakhi Buddhist nuns will tell you that they hope to be reborn as a man, because men are accorded a higher status within Tibetan Buddhism.   So what people want may be a reflection of intrinsic value, or it may be a reflection of a discriminatory system that causes them to devalue themselves and accord a higher status to someone else.  And when we offer to help, we’re making value judgments about whether we believe that people’s desires are something that we endorse; we don’t collect money from schoolchildren to buy skin-lightening creams — or cigarettes, or cell phones, or many of the other things that traditional people may want.  If we raise money to fund schools, it is because we believe that this is a superior way of raising children, and that the school curriculum is superior to the local indigenous knowledge that children would otherwise learn.

What the film “Schooling the World” attempts to do is to challenge that assumption of superiority on its home turf, and to suggest that the perception of the superiority of school knowledge to traditional knowledge is to a very great extent discriminatory rather than a reflection of actual value.   For example, it has been said that the average traditional person from Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs.  Western biologists studying PNG ecosystems have been astonished by the depth, breadth, and specificity of the ecological knowledge of the local people.  Children traditionally would accompany their mothers on gathering trips in the forest, where they would engage in a kind of call-and-response song game which has the effect of teaching these birdsongs.  Some researchers speculate that the vast majority of our collective knowledge of ecosystems resides in indigenous populations, and scientists are rushing to record a few small fragments of this knowledge before it vanishes.   So when PNG children spend most of their childhood in a schoolroom, they will be losing much of this rich and detailed knowledge of their own ecosystem – including their ability to sustain themselves independently on the land – in order to gain, in most cases, a very rudimentary knowledge of modern school subjects, which may in the end have little or no real economic value.  Martyn Namorong of Papua New Guinea has referred to this phenomenon as “The Education Trap.”

We would suggest that  it would be a good alternative for people to feel that specific skills they may desire — literacy, practical math, a little germ theory, the knowledge required to navigate legal or governmental issues — could be acquired without the radical shift in the structure of community life that occurs with the full-time institutionalization of children.  In a remote region of Afghanistan, for example, 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 a brick-and-mortar school.  In a working-class neighborhood in Delhi, a non-compulsory drop-in resource center provides opportunities for informal self-directed learning as well as classes, tutoring, and enrichment activities like drama, music, and field trips.  More flexible models like these could allow for the efficient sharing of specific skills while still allowing children time for the side-by-side experiential learning from their elders which is the real heart of traditional knowledge transmission in many societies, and if models like this could be developed, families would not feel they had an “all-or-nothing” choice to either send kids to full-time school or completely forswear access to modern skills.

It is important to remember, however, that there are still indigenous people in many parts of the world who have no interest in modern education or in economic “development,” and who prefer to continue their traditional land-based livelihoods and to raise and educate their children in their traditional ways. They are quite rightly skeptical of the “Whites in Shining Armor” who come to save them from their supposed “ignorance” and “illiteracy.”   The children of these parents will often be referred to as “truant,” and the parents as “neglectful” of their children’s education.  The central point of the “Schooling the World,” however, is that these parents are making a perfectly legitimate choice which should be respected by all concerned.


  1. Josephine HanJosephine Han04-11-2012

    you didn’t really answer the question. You assume all schools are bad, but community members are establishing community schools (not interfered by western world) to serve the demand of the community. i think you’re taking in your own views of schooling. Schools and the institution of schooling takes on a more amorphous shape, providing students security, comfort, and stability.

    • Carol BlackCarol Black04-12-2012

      Thanks for your comment, Josephine. We’re not saying that all schools are bad — just that they are not the only valid way of raising and educating children. Of course communities are entitled to establish schools for their children if they wish. But there are other models, both cultural and individual, that work as well, and and we are simply questioning the idea that school should be viewed as the superior choice in all cases.

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