Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden

Last week I presented a paper at a “Globalization, Diversity, & Education” conference near Portland. It’s a small conference attended by equal numbers of liberals and radicals. An ideological oasis for lefties. At times it felt like I was on the set of Portlandia.

People enjoy like-minded company because it’s self-affirming, but at conferences it makes for less-interesting sessions because there’s little to no tension. When everyone is of the same mind, no one is pressed to rethink or refine their ideas. Conflict is exasperating, but after awhile, blanket likemindedness can be equally vexing.

I’ve never been too fond of professional conferences mostly because networking is a weakness of mine. Also, too much of the content is theoretical and directed only at other academics resulting in an echo chamber far too removed from families’, teachers’, and students’ day-to-day lives. And too often it’s a game—participants are simply padding their vitas with an eye toward promotion. I couldn’t help but think how differently people would have to write their papers if they were forced to present them in pubs or community centers to a mix of citizens from different walks of life.

The highlight of the conference was the film “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” by Carol Black. Black created the Emmy award winning television series The Wonder Years with her husband Neal Marlens. TWY is one of my fav series of all time. After TWY, and the birth of her children, Black withdrew from Hollywood, got involved in the alternative education movement, and researched cross-cultural perspectives on education which lead to the making of the film. Black attended my paper presentation and helped in the discussion of it. I also talked to her right before the film screened. A lot of her thinking about alternative education resonants with me. Someone I wish I could get to know better.

Here’s the film summary from the DVD cover:

Schooling the World takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply disturbing look at the effects of modern education on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures. If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a ‘better’ life for indigenous children. But is this true? What really happens when we replace a traditional culture’s way of learning and understanding the world with our own?

It’s as well made and provocative an educational documentary as you’re going to see. Many viewers will resist the message and leave upset. After watching the film, one person did ask Black why she drew such a sharp dichotomy between the “negatives of western education and consumer culture” and the “positives of non-western cultures and people”. Black acknowledged the dichotomy and said it was intentional because no one ever questions the premise that western education is a positive force for all of the world’s children. It was a thoughtful explanation for the film’s one-sidedness. I couldn’t help but think of how when I’m arguing with my Better Half, frustration clouds my thinking and I take more extreme stands than I normally would.

I could write a few week’s worth of posts on the film’s content. One thought. Few in the audience probably thought to use the film as a mirror for evaluating their teaching. Every educator enters the classroom with biases, privileging some cultural practices, disregarding others. Put differently, every educator sometimes slights the significance of their students’ backgrounds. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How do my preservice teachers and how do I impose our worldview on students?”

Another thought in the form of a premise. Even if we could close every boarding school in traditional societies around the world, indigenous cultures would still face the same challenges imposed on them by western education as a result of global media including television, music, film, and advertising. I’ve written in the past about the societal curriculum‘s effect on students. Sam Wineburg and friends have shown that modern film is the single most influential resource in shaping high schoolers historical understanding. Here’s their paper titled, “Forest Gump and the Future of Teaching the Past.

Beginning in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was blown away by how pervasive western popular culture was in my travels through East Africa and China. In African markets, endless posters of the three Mikes—Jackson, Tyson, Jordan. Hiking up a steep trail to the Great Wall, I was subjected to Lionel Ritchie whose music was being piped in through cheap speakers tied to tree branches.  Immediately after a Chinese teacher talked teaching with some colleagues and me as required, she turned far more animated and excitedly asked if we had seen the Bridges of Madison County. My favorite Michael Jordan poster in China, like all English in China, had a wonderful typo. Under his picture it said, “Michael Jordan, MBA.” Tru dat.

So given global satellites, coaxial cables, the internet, and smart phones, the central question, “How can we avoid imposing our worldview on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures?” is even more challenging than the film suggests. Maybe Black’s film will inspire someone else to make a companion one on the global media. And maybe people much smarter than me will figure out how to manage globalization so that indigenous cultures aren’t completely overwhelmed to the detriment of us all.

4 thoughts on “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden

  1. As usual Ron your posts always pose interesting insights from equally interesting sources. I’m going to have catch Black’s video on global education.

    One thing that bubbled to the surface of my thoughts as I was reading this was the concept I learned as a student of Sociology – ethnocentrism. We all think we have the better culture than those around us and we view everyone lese with a sense of superiority. Even some of the less complicated cultures you refer to as indigenous people have to some degree a sense of feeling more comfortable with their customs than thinking that others have something better to offer.

    This can be a good thing to retain a sense of self but it can also serve as a block that prevents us from learning new things and sharing a common humanity with other people of this earth.

    • Thanks Larry. Black would argue that when it comes to things like the World Bank’s “Education for All” campaign, ethnocentrism definitely comes into play. And yes it’s something every culture must contend with.

  2. Prof Byrnes, as one of your soon-to-be-teacher students I appreciated your showing the film in our class. To say the least, it was frustrating. As a mom of 4 daughters one of my highest priorities has been for them to get their educations, mainly so that they will not have to be dependent on someone else for their wellbeing in life. Educated women are less likely to be taken advantage of, used, abused, seen as property, or end up on welfare. Yet I was forced to stop and think about not just how culture plays so strongly into education, but how culture can be a form of education that I may not have considered as valuable as it actually is. One question I continue to ponder, and even discussed with family members, was whether or not anyone can decide which type of educational system is most valuable for someone else. Ultimately, I feel people should be able to pursue what they want to. Yet this value in and of itself has been ingrained in me as part of the American Way since I was a child. Other cultures highly value a stronger sense of community and less focus on self. I have always felt that one can say what they wish about me, but if they mess with my family then they will find themselves in very hot water because I would do anything to protect my hubby and my girls. Perhaps if more of us, myself included, applied that idea of protectiveness to our communities, or those who don’t get included, or what have you, the world would be a better place. Entering the education field will always prove challenging and diversity of thought and ideas should be one of its strongest characteristics. I will try to remember to continually guage where I am coming from personally along with where my students are coming from in an effort to create a rich learning environment – no small feat!

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