“Schooling the World”: The Myth of Progress?


Recently, for a graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I was required to watch a documentary titled “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden”.  Given the class discussion that spurred from the viewing of this film and the tumultuous feelings that it incited within many of my classmates, I felt compelled to share this documentary with the educational community to hopefully to start a conversation around some of the key themes and points that it raises.

A recurring question that appears on the website promoting the film is “If you wanted to destroy a culture, where would you start?…With the children.”[1] The core premise is that formal mass education, as we know it, is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures around the world by indoctrinating the young people of these cultures into being members of a global consumer society.[1]  Further, the film’s tagline “The White Man’s Last Burden” brings to light the, often taken for granted, air of superiority that underlies the mission of mostly white, Western nations that are deemed “developed” to carry out education aid projects in developing nations in order to bring them a “better life” and lead them out of poverty.[1]  The spread of formal mass education has not, however, led to lifting the developing world up out of poverty, and the documentary highlights that it would take four planet Earths for the entire world to consume at Western levels rendering much of the “promises” of formal mass education merely an illusion.[2]

What make these realities particularly disheartening are a few facts that the documentary stresses.  First, that governments are acutely aware that education can serve as a tool of control.  For example, in the 19th century, Native American children were forced into government boarding schools, and a founder of one of these schools quoted its mission as being “to civilize the Indians…immerse them in our civilization, and when we get them under…hold them there until they are thoroughly soaked. [1][2] A commencement speaker for this school proclaimed “let all that is Indian within you die.”[2] Further, the filmmakers cite the hierarchy of values that is imposed by formal education.  They talk about an experience common today of traveling into indigenous communities to talk to elders about traditional knowledge and practices, only to have these elders refuse to provide their insight on the grounds that they are not “educated,” or they defer to their children who have now completed formal education to some level. [4]

Not far in the past there were approximately six thousand languages spoken on earth, but today half of these languages are not being taught to children as English is strictly enforced in many schools as the language that rules so many facets of the world.[5] On the grounds of being economically competitive, a particular type of student and subsequently human being is cultivated within the walls of formal mass schooling that destroys human individuality in the process of training students for scarce jobs in an urban consumer environment.[2][3]  Parents cite heartache over the breaking up of their families as they send their children away or see their children moving away with their own children in search of better schooling. [1][2]

Given that my program of study is Comparative and International Education, my classmates are from very diverse backgrounds.  Some are from the United States or of Western origins and are teaching abroad in various settings such as international schools, others are interested in education policy or international development, while others still are teachers within their country of origin.  Regardless of background, each student had a very similar reaction of both being saddened, overwhelmed, and angry at the ways in which formal mass schooling is impacting so many people all over the world.  Further it really led everyone to question and to think about his or her role in this process.

The most common criticism of this documentary by my classmates was that it brings to light many alarming and important points regarding how formal schooling is impacting people, communities, and our relationship with our planet, but it does very little by way of offering any points for action or change.  I personally feel that while the film grounds its argument from the very beginning in an imperialistic view of education, giving the example of Native Americans in the United States, this dynamic is much less overt and much more complicated today.  Formal mass education has become a deeply institutionalized part of daily life all over the world.  It is no longer explicitly imposed on others as a means of control but, rather, is much more frequently willingly agreed to and accepted by those in indigenous or developing communities.  Many of my classmates questioned why these people do not refuse or fight back, why they adhere to this model of formal mass schooling at the expense of their culture, traditions, family units, and their relationships with the environment.  Why do they sacrifice their sustainable ways of life, their independence, for promises that largely continue to go unmet?

One of the central questions to the course for which this documentary was mandatory was “what gets taught in schools and who gets to decide.”  I think the reason that so many people all over the world acquiesce to the idea of mass schooling as it has come to be known is because they do believe that on some level education can be used as a tool for good.  The questions just posed of what gets taught and who gets to decide become of ever greater importance as we think of not whether we should rid the world of mass schooling completely, but of how we can allow it to exist and to grow in a way that is in harmony with the people that it serves, not in a way that destroys them.  The first step, I believe, is for us to engage in a dialogue about how to disrupt the current conceptions and value systems regarding knowledge, learning, and the goals of education to allow for more inclusive definitions.

[1] Schooling the World. (2010). The film. Retrieved from http://schoolingtheworld.org/film/

[2] Schooling the World Part 1/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLSIgZWNR9M

[3] Schooling the World Part 2/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeZSQTE8RrE

[4] Schooling the World Part 3/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arzoZqTceic

[5] Schooling the World Part 5/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5mm2YtiO0A

2 thoughts on ““Schooling the World”: The Myth of Progress?

  1. Hi Alyssa:

    Great post. It’s important to remember that in addition to the question of what gets taught and who gets to decide is the question of HOW it will be taught. As Marshall McLuhan famously said about television, “the medium is the message:” in other words, school itself is a cultural construct which radically changes life in most traditional societies. All cultures are different, of course, but there are many aspects of “the culture of schooling” which conflict in deep ways with the way childhood and learning are understood in many parts of the world. For example:

    –Age segregation: Modern schools separate children from adult life and group them by age. In most traditional societies, children live and work alongside adults, and they play and learn in mixed-age groups of children.

    –Hierarchical ranking and competition: In modern schools, students compete to be the best, and are ranked by their performance. Many traditional cultures are more egalitarian, and consider overt competition or ranking to be bad manners.

    –Hierarchical control: Modern education is normally organized in hierarchical authority structures, where the teacher controls the child, the district and state control the teacher, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding control the state. Traditional learning is often non-coerced, and the child is frequently free from direct control of her moment-to-moment choices and activities.

    –Separation from nature: Modern schools usually require children to be indoors for most of the day. Children in traditional societies typically spend much of their time outdoors in the natural world, and develop an intimate knowledge of their local ecosystems through their daily activities.

    –Restricted physical activity: Modern schools usually require children to be sedentary and quiet for many hours each day. Children in traditional societies are generally free to move about, talk, laugh, etc., and are physically active both in work and in play.

    –Text-based rather than experience-based learning: Most learning in schools is based on de-contextualized knowledge encoded in written form. In most traditional cultures, children learn most of what they know through hands-on experience and participation in community life.

    –Direct instruction: School learning relies heavily on lecture and direct teacher-controlled instruction. Learning in traditional societies is more often initiated by the child through observation, experiment, play, and voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ritual.

    –Age-based “standards” and the invention of “failure:” Modern schooling creates standards of learning based on chronological age and then talks in terms of failure or disability when children do not meet those standards. Traditional societies generally have a more flexible approach to child development, assuming that a child will learn when she is ready, and that variations in the timing of learning have little importance.

    The interesting thing to note is how many of these features of the “culture of schooling” are the subjects of active discussion in the industrialized world among people who are looking for better ways to help children learn. Children who are diagnosed with learning “disabilities” in school might be able to thrive if they were able to learn more independently, with less constant control, more physical activity, more immersion in nature, more experimentation, more integration into the community, more flexibility in reaching developmental milestones. By the same token, children from traditional societies might be able to acquire desired skills like literacy and numeracy without such a radical disconnection from their own cultures if they were offered opportunities to learn in ways that were more compatible with the values, livelihoods, and elegant indigenous pedagogies of their own people.

    So the plan of action I would suggest is to learn more about how childhood and learning are constructed in other societies, and begin a dialogue about how this knowledge might inform our approach to educating our own children as well as the approach to sharing skills between cultures.

    There are a lot of great resources for anyone who is interested in this, some of them on the Schooling the World website; a great place to start is with Barbara Rogoff’s work on learning through intent community participation:


    all best,
    Carol Black
    Director, Schooling the World

  2. Pingback: “Opportunities to Reinvent and Redesign”: The Druk White Lotus School | Education Policy Talk

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