A: Schooling the World is addressing the impacts of education programs on relatively intact land-based cultures — that is, cultures where people still live on their traditional territories, where they are able to produce healthful and adequate food, shelter, and clothing for themselves in locally self-sufficient ways, and where they enjoy the support of intact family, community and religious structures.

A person who makes less than two dollars a day in this setting is not “poor” in the sense that a person living in an urban slum on less than two dollars a day is poor.  We asked the World Bank how it accounts for the  cash value of having a network of grandparents and aunts and cousins to help with child care, for example, or of living in a place with clean water, clean air, and a beautiful natural environment.  The honest answer is that the Bank simply doesn’t account for those things.  So from its standpoint, there is no distinction between a family living on their own farm in an idyllic valley in the Himalayas and  a family living in a slum in Calcutta with raw sewage running down the street — as long as their daily cash income is the same.

This is not to say that people in intact land-based cultures don’t have problems — they do.    But if people in less “developed” parts of the world have higher rates of typhoid, malaria, or infant mortality than we do, they may also have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, suicide, traffic deaths, and drug and alcohol-related mortality. So we need to ask a lot of questions before we try to “improve” their lives by simply replacing their way of life on a wholesale basis with our own.

Even in an urban context, however, the idea that getting every child into school is a solution to the problem of poverty is problematic. Why?  Well, for starters  –  and everybody knows this –  a huge percentage of the children in those schools will fail. We often hear the touching story of the girl from the poor family who studies hard, passes her school exams, and goes on to become the proverbial doctor-who-will-come-back-to-the-neighborhood-and-reduce-infant-mortality.   What we don’t hear about is what happens to all the other children.   The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids.  Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. A Brookings Institution study of education in Pakistan by Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff reports that “the education system produces many unemployable youths with few skills for economic survival…..In a recent survey of Pakistani youth, half the students say that they believe they lack the skills necessary to compete in today’s labor market.”  A World Bank Policy Research working paper indicates that, contrary to popular belief, money spent on education often increases inequality in a country. This is partly because those who already have substantial assets are better positioned to take advantage of educational resources than those who have their hands full trying to get food on the table.  But it’s also because from its inception school was designed as a sorting mechanism, a rigged competition where only one form of intelligence is valued, only one way of learning is permitted, and one child’s success means another child’s failure.  We forget that the structure of schools as we know them was designed to perpetuate a hierarchical class system, and – despite the best efforts of many dedicated teachers – that’s exactly what it still does, through the non-democratic, hierarchical ranking of children which is hard-wired into our entire system of grading, testing, and one-size-fits-all standards.

Until we change that – at home as well as abroad –  education will continue to perpetuate and justify poverty, not to ameliorate it.

What then, should we do?  Some people will naturally feel that we shouldn’t criticize existing forms of aid unless we have an alternative to suggest. But a central point of the film is that one of the biggest problems in education and international aid in general is that the dominant culture envisions its opinions as prescriptive — in other words, we assume that “experts” (us) should make recommendations or generate policies which other people in other faraway places should then follow.

There is a growing body of thought in the development community about the potential unintended consequences of this “top-down” approach to aid — where programs are developed with inadequate detailed knowledge of the local communities “targeted” (interesting term) and where an unacknowledged attitude of superiority results in the objectification of poor or indigenous people.  An unthinking promotion of development and market economies, for example, has often resulted in making rural people less, not more, economically secure;  many are beginning to realize that the greatest source of food security for traditional people is to maintain their land rights, their seeds, and their traditional agricultural methods and to grow food for local consumption, a strategy that makes them less vulnerable to unpredictable economic fluctuations.

That being said, there is a list of organizations on our “Get Involved” page which we think are worthy of support. They are not all education NGO’s; in many cases a more concrete way to help people  is to support them in their land struggles and in their efforts to revitalize their own cultures, languages, and self-respect.


  1. EmmaEmma01-09-2012

    The answer you provided does not address the question at all–plus the push for education in most ‘southern’ places in the world are really in a state of neo-colonisilm, very few communities are this isolated. It is important to think about the impact. However, is it also harmful to provide sufficient doubt to the american public about education ngos work in general? especially given the publics reluctance to fund initiatives these past few years?

  2. Carol BlackCarol Black01-10-2012

    Thanks for your comment and questions, Emma. Perhaps a better or more complete answer to this question is in the blog post, “Three Cups of Fiction:”

    “The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, 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. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation. 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. And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.”

    “So what are the solutions?

    “Most importantly, solutions begin with the truth. We can’t start working toward real answers until we stop lying to ourselves about what schools do to children – in the real world, not in our dreams. We need to acknowledge that no system that discards millions of normal, healthy kids as failures – many of them extremely smart, by the way – will ever provide a lasting or universal solution to anything. We need to innovate with learning here at home and abroad, to put our resources into developing the many promising models that already exist for sharing knowledge, skills and ideas without humiliating children or branding them as failures. We need to recognize the real value of the intellectual traditions of other cultures – including non-literate cultures – and look for ways to share useful information in both directions which does not completely disrupt or undermine the social structures, traditional livelihoods, and knowledge systems of those cultures.

    “And most of all, we need to stop falling for the popular fiction of schooling as a cure for everything and recognize that a romanticized idea of education is being used as a PR device and a smokescreen to obscure the real economic issues at play for powerful nations and corporations – who extract natural resources and cheap labor from weaker nations, and then turn around and tax their own citizens to provide “aid” and “education” to help “end poverty.” It’s an elaborate shell game, a twisted road to nowhere. It should be clear by now that the “rising tide” does not “float all boats” – that’s another fairy tale – and it’s time to start talking seriously about the underlying global economic structures which are creating poverty, so that people everywhere can educate their own children in the way they think best –– without charity.”

    So we can:
    1. Fund research on the real impacts of schooling on traditional cultures.
    2. Support innovative approaches to learning both at home and abroad.
    3. Stop grading and labeling children as failures everywhere — at home and abroad.
    4. Learn more about other cultural modes of learning and child-rearing (there are some resources on the website, and we will be adding more.)
    5. Work to end poverty directly, by (a) supporting local resilience and self-sufficiency through local agriculture and land ownership (b) supporting indigenous peoples’ land rights against the international mining, timber, and energy companies that are trying to dispossess them, and (c) campaigning for a living wage everywhere, both at home and abroad.
    6. If you are supporting an education initiative abroad, do your homework: what are the demographics of the area served by the school(s)? How are they changing? Are living conditions getting better or worse? Don’t just look at isolated statistics on dollar income or infant mortality, etc.- try to get a holistic view of what’s happening in the community. Even in displaced communities, the impacts are complex — it’s no fun being a child refugee of war who now finds herself unable to divide fractions in school. How can we help these children, and not just the children who are able to succeed academically?

  3. EmmaEmma01-11-2012

    This is a better answer but you have not journeyed far enough away from your original rhetoric (based in an effort to convince people of a problem) and that is problematic at this point in the thought process. Once people see your movie, it is successful at convincing them of the legitimacy of your claims, what then do you want them to do? If it is to just try to spread the word about the lasting harm importing western education (and really what we are talking about is a British primary school system for most models and countries) then you need not further the process. But I don’t think that should be the end goal of this project, you want lasting impact upon the discourse. If your solution is then to suggest that the public vets what education ngo’s to support, perhaps the website could be a good platform for posting a list of education focused ngo’s that pass inspection. Further more concrete solutions would be wonderful. “Support innovative approaches to learning both at home and abroad.” is great but rather ambiguous.

    Some other factors I thinking about:
    Forced cultural stagnation is to some just as harmful as forced cultural changes. If we are to operate within a modern understanding of culture, it is not a stagnate moment in time to be preserved at the insistence of western idealists- this instinct is just as paternalistic as importing western culture. Saying that open dialogue about the pros and cons of western education is the solution but then comparing it to McDonalds’ is not very productive to an open and honest conversation with your audience or those abroad.
    Furthermore the issue of gender equality is important to think about as an example of the pros and cons of traditional cultures. Since your blog post title “three cups of failure’ is directly referencing Greg Mortenson I’m wondering the following: Some of your suggested solutions seem to encourage disengagement with promoting education and certainly building schools abroad what would you want for your two girls had they grown up in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

    Also I would really like to think more on this sentence: “it’s no fun being a child refugee of war who now finds herself unable to divide fractions in school.” I’m quite taken aback by this sentiment. Nothing about being a child refugee of war is fun. However hopefully this is exactly what her days are full of. Her society, her culture is already broken down, rebuilding a displaced population takes years and if this girl can take advantage of perhaps free schooling within her camp I am struggling to figure out the damage. Traditional farming, crafts, family roles and religious practices may not be available but a stable community, books, the reliability of at least 1 meal a day and more importantly for the human spirit, something to do to break the grueling oppressive passing of time can be there for this girl, frustrating fractions and all.

  4. Carol BlackCarol Black01-11-2012

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts in such detail.

    I appreciate your feeling that we shouldn’t criticize existing form of aid unless we have an alternative to suggest. But a central point of the film is that one of the biggest problems in education and international aid in general is that we (the dominant culture) envision our opinions as prescriptive — in other words, we assume that “experts” (us) should make recommendations or generate policies which other people in other faraway places should then follow.

    There is a growing body of thought in the development community about the potential unintended consequences of this “top-down” approach to aid — where programs are developed with inadequate detailed knowledge of the local communities “targeted” (interesting term) and where an unacknowledged attitude of superiority results in the objectification of poor or indigenous people.

    So while I am raising some difficult questions, I actually don’t have my own “program” for people to follow. I encourage people to think for themselves, to ask their own questions, to follow their own common sense, to define their own goals, and where possible to do their own research.

    That being said, there is a short list of organizations on our “Get Involved” page (https://schoolingtheworld.org/resources/get-involved/) which I think are worthy of support. They are not all education NGO’s; as I mentioned above, I think that a more concrete way to help people in many parts of the world is to support them in their land struggles, for example. While some education NGO’s are more culturally sensitive than others, I am not aware of many which are providing a genuine alternative to the dominant model of schooling. Manzil and Shikshantar are both developing interesting models in India. We are continuing to build our lists of these resources, and welcome any suggestions that you might make.

    In the developed world, there are many active organizations which are creating innovative alternatives in education; a quick google search will turn up hundreds of small alternative schools, unschooling organizations, Native American homeschooling organizations, democratic education organizations, etc. If you haven’t seen the Sir Ken Robinson videos on our “resources” page (https://schoolingtheworld.org/resources/video/), I encourage you to do so. Those should give a clearer idea of the ways in which reform in the developed world might intersect with new options in the developing world.

    Please be clear that I am by no means encouraging “forced stagnation” of other cultures; my fundamental point here is that we need to stop assuming it is up to us to decide how other people should live and raise their children. Non-modernized communities around the world are made up of individuals who do not all agree about the best way forward, and there is a wide spectrum of opinions ranging from those who want “development” to those who would like to remain as they are, with others preferring varying blends of old and new.

    In asking me what I would want for my daughters if they were living in remote parts parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan, these would be my questions: what are we assuming to be the reality for girls in these regions? Have we been there? Have we talked to the people? Do we know what the realities are for girls and women who live in small rural villages as opposed to girls who become educated and move to Kabul or Karachi looking for jobs? Many accounts of the Gilgit-Baltistan region where Mortenson worked describe the local culture as quite peaceful, similar in many respects to the adjacent Buddhist culture in Ladakh — with traditional gender roles for men and women but without the brutal domination of women so often characterized as universal in the Muslim world. Other areas may have more severe problems, some of them inflamed by U.S. military interventions. But even where local women do want to make changes in their own cultures, it does not automatically follow that they want outsiders coming in to instigate those changes. Here’s a quote from a Kenyan woman in response to a blog post about Nike’s education initiative, “The Girl Effect:”

    “As a “girl” born, brought up and currently living in the Kenya, I find the (Nike promo) very amusing. While mine is just an opinion and not “research”….I can tell you that in my home province (the second poorest in the country), it is exactly initiatives like this that increase violence against women. Communities have structures…and in some, men’s (who by the way are not beasts as portrayed by adverts in the west) roles and duties in the home are taken away by such projects…leaving them feeling frustrated and useless. I’m in no way excusing violent behaviour….but perhaps what NGO’s need to do when trying to implement such initiatives is first try and understand the structure of the community….then see what works best. While in others the “Girl Effect” will work fine….in some communities, like the one I come from, it will be a disaster.”

    So these are complex questions and we do need to avoid inflammatory stereotypes of people whose countries we have never visited. It’s not for me to say whether a mother in Pakistan should want her daughter to go to school or not. I’m just saying we should not assume that we know best, and we shouldn’t be holding out false promises for what advantages that schooling will confer.

    As far as your last point, I think we can’t underestimate how truly cruel it is to tell a desperately suffering child that she can have a better life if and only if she can succeed at academics — especially since it is extremely well-documented that emotional stress and cultural conflict make academic success vastly more difficult. The despair generated by this message, which makes the child who fails believe that it is her own deficiency which causes her failure and thus her poverty, is felt around the world from urban slums in North America to refugee camps in Africa to mega-slums in India to tiny villages in Asia. There is no reason to accept it as inevitable that normal, healthy children should be branded as failures; all children can learn to garden, care for animals, weave, sew, build, fix things, operate small businesses, master various trades or crafts or agricultural or technical skills, and I do believe that it is a moral imperative that we should follow the philosophy of Gandhi and teach respect for and pride in all of these vital life-sustaining activities rather than always imply they are inferior in value to academic skills.

    Thanks again for continuing the conversation! All best wishes, Carol

  5. HeidiHeidi04-24-2016

    Thanks for your thoughts on this subject. I am a Christian and I homeschool my kids. I am not an unschooler, but I use Charlotte Mason’s methods which I think have some similarities in educational philosophy. I just wanted to share one easy resource that people could read if they are interested in this topic of top-down intervention. It is written from a Christian perspective, and it talks about how we need to carefully study and work with a culture before trying to help them. I think the book could leave you feeling unable to help well out of fear of doing harm, so it will require us to think very creatively about how to engage with problems around the world before we jump in an assert ourselves. I just thought that this resource might be a helpful one for some people and wanted to share it here! It’s called When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. http://www.amazon.com/When-Helping-Hurts-Alleviate-Yourself/dp/0802409989/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461505845&sr=1-1&keywords=When+helping+hurts

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