Last Tuesday the Warner School hosted a screening of Schooling the World, with a fantastic panel discussion afterward. The film covers a lot of ground, from economic globalization and neocolonial ideology to sustainable farming and the Buddhist aspects of Ladakh culture. It attempts, successfully in my opinion, to disrupt simple conceptions of schooling, progress, development, wealth, culture and what it means to help through charitable action. Although the film presents a somewhat simplified story of how compulsory schooling and its well-intentioned supporters change indigenous cultures, it does challenge the audience to think about how this interaction occurs in the globalized world.
Both panelists and audience members alike struggled to understand the power dynamics at play when a narrow conception of “help” is imposed on another culture. Do they even want our help? Who are we to help them anyway? What do they need? What do we want? The film makes the point that we (of cultural privilege and power) need to be aware of how our actions impact those in the world around us. Personally, not a day goes by anymore in this doctoral program that I claim to know, or even understand, the totality of any situation or concept. The world is so complicated and irreducible. The film and discussion showed me how quick we sometimes are to swoop in and claim that we have all the answers. I definitely do not, and Schooling the World reminded me that it is equally important to be present in the listening aspect of conversation. I think this starts with a temperament rooted in humility and doubt; something often missing from the hyper-partisan and vitriolic rhetoric that sadly characterizes much of our modern political discourse.
The film also makes a strong environmental claim, and one that I happen to agree with (probably the reason I was drawn to the film in the first place). The director, leveraging the work of Wade Davis, makes the claim that modern schooling perpetuates a way of thinking that simply cannot be sustained by the ecosystems that support life on Earth. We see images of students taken from their more traditional social learning patterns and placed in compulsory schooling, where they then learn about nature as an abstraction, disconnected from their own sensory experiences in the world. I have seen this over and over again in my own career as an educator, and it’s a trend that I find deeply troubling.
As I write this blog a major winter snowstorm is bearing down on the Rochester community. Ask yourself this question: are you, and your community, really capable of sustaining existence in the face of natural shocks? Or, are you utterly reliant on the whims of fragile economic and environmental systems? As a sustainability educator, this is something I am concerned about in my own practice. As a result much of what I do involves conserving wisdom from prior generations: cultivating sustainable farming practices, fixing materials when they break instead of instantly purchasing a replacement, knowing how to read natural patterns and building local, resilient and durable systems of neighbors. These are all things that are often neglected in our increasingly narrow and technocratic educational system. Schooling the World rightly points out this troubling trend and questions whether we should be sharing it with the rest of the planet.
We have a dominant narrative in this country that progress is often necessary and valuable. But what kind of progress are we talking about? Is it the type of global economic progress that works to destroy local communities? Is it a technologic progress that is ultimately based on a system of cheap labor, cheap energy and rare earth metals? Schooling the World asks us to pause for a minute when facing these notions of progress and the powerful interests that often support them. It is in this pause that we can begin to think about what we are gaining and what we are losing. The video of the Vanuatu chief embedded in this post reminds me that my own education has provided numerous opportunities to live a comfortable lifestyle, including the ability to sit here and write this blog post from the warmth of my home, but it has also distanced me from the wisdom of my ancestors. Is that progress? Yes. And no.
If you were unable to see Schooling the World the other day, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. While is has its flaws, it will prompt you to rethink what you mean when you say someone is well-educated. In the spirit of the film, I’ll leave you with a quote from the Shakyamuni Buddha, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” What is that world?