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.