A: When people suggest that the film is “romanticizing” traditional cultures, they generally have one of two concerns:
- That the film is patronizing traditional cultures by representing them in an idealized way in the tradition of the “noble savage” and proposing that they should be “preserved;”
- That the film is presenting an oversimplified vision of traditional societies as uniformly idyllic and of school as a uniformly negative force.
Neither of these views is expressed in the film, which explicitly states that no culture is perfect or without its own problems. What the film attempts to do is to provide a counterbalance to the dominant public discourse about universal education, in which school is romanticized. School is continually represented around the world as the vehicle for universal enlightenment and advancement –– a rosy vision which overlooks the chronic and severe problems of inequity, boredom, alienation and failure which plague this institution wherever it goes, and which consistently complicate whatever advantages it may bring. The intent of Schooling the World is to present another side to this picture, and to raise a serious discussion about the validity of other ways of understanding the world and of educating children.
It is important to understand that the film Schooling the World does not have the scope to present a complete portrayal of Ladakhi life and culture nor a detailed portrayal of the pros and cons of institutional schooling. Rather, the film simply attempts to raise a set of questions around the commonly held assumption that every child in the world must go to school. The glancing critique of institutional schooling in the film is there simply to unsettle the unquestioned assumption of superiority which leads people to believe that school must be imposed on every child on the planet. The brief portrait of Ladakhi life is simply intended to convey that the traditional culture has sufficient depth, complexity, and beauty that it deserves to be respected — not “preserved” as a museum piece – but respected and engaged with as equal in value and intellectual stature to modernized cultures.
In truth, many of us “romanticize” our homes, our families, or our traditions to some extent. One of the Ladakhi college students interviewed in the film tells us that Ladakh is “heaven.” He does not mean, of course, that people in Ladakh are perfect and have no problems. He simply means that he loves his home; that it has, to him, a kind of absolute value. Dolma Tsering says that traditional Ladakhi education was more spiritual and less materialistic in its values than modern schooling. She does not mean that her people were “noble savages;’ she is simply raising the proposition that a set of tradeoffs has occurred which is not uniformly positive.
Every culture, it should go without saying, is composed of complex human beings with different strengths and weaknesses, and every culture has different insights and blind spots. Of course people should not be idealized as “noble savages” and manipulated into “preserving” their cultures any more than they should be looked down upon as “ignorant” and “illiterate” and manipulated into modernizing. Within each society there will inevitably be many different perspectives on development, modernization, and education, and people will disagree vigorously about the best way forward. The purpose of Schooling the World is not to tell people what they should or should not do; it is simply to encourage people in the so-called “developed” world to drop their easy assumption of superiority and instead open a ‘deeper dialogue” with other cultures in which we speak to each other as equals about the nature of the choices that we all face.