Thursday, October 25, 2012

Schooling the World

I saw the film Schooling the world: the white man's last burden on Wednesday. It presents a critique of foreign assistance to promote schooling, suggesting that too often schooling results in loss of cultural values and environmental degradation. Schooling also often encourages students in poor countries to develop aspirations that can not possible be fulfilled, leading to unhappiness in those students and their families. It is a thought provoking film.

As the movie points out (somewhat disapprovingly), people all over the world want schools in their communities. I am not surprised. Schools which allow people good at sharing knowledge, skills and values to interact with groups of children have been around for a very long time. They are used in different ways by different cultures, but the meme of the school seems very likely to be accepted in most societies.

There are some easy answers to the critique of foreign assistance to build school capacity:
  • Over many decades, we have learned a lot on how to deliver foreign assistance, and foreign aid to school capacity development in particular. The best practices learned should always be used in new education programs and projects.
  • We should encourage the development of good schools, with well targeted curricula, good teaching methods, well trained and motivated teachers, and good teaching materials.
  • The content of education should be "right" - the best justified information, the most relevant skills, etc.
of course, it is a lot easier to say that people should learn the lessons of the past and do the right thing, than actually to learn those lessons and to do the right think in difficult circumstances.

The movie makes an implicit comparison between the education provided to children in a Buddhist monastery (in the mountains of north India)  focused on spiritual growth, that which would be provided in a rural village to prepare the youth to life successfully in that rural culture, and that which would seek to prepare students to compete in a global community (and probably result in their leaving rural communities. TI suppose that the issue is what future do the people of the community want for their children. I would note that all three of these objectives are more acceptable than say a community in the tribal areas of Pakistan that might want its children to be educated to act as terrorists in a religious jihad.

A foreign donor may help people in such a community to better appreciate the implications of the alternative choices available to them. Such a donor might indeed help to create schools either to help people provide schooling of some kinds, stay out of development of schooling that the donor feels is best left to other sources, or indeed to oppose the development of schools that it perceived as dangerous.

The film makes a very valid point that the American schooling system is leaving a lot of kids out in the cold. We certainly should be humble in sharing what we know about schools with other societies. I also think we would be well advised to seek to learn from others how their schools work and whether they have approaches that would benefit U.S. schools.

I think a key aspect of culture is that culture changes. If you believe in freedom, then you should believe that people within a culture should choose the direction of change (with some exceptions, such as Hitler in Germany), Often the choice is implicit. One of the problems is that the choices should be made according to the values of the community, but the values of the children of the changes will be different than the values of the older and wiser members of the community that guide the change. Development ain't for sissies!

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