The Cultural Imperialism of Schooling

I have thought & spoken before about the idea of schooling being a kind of cultural imperialism, by which I mean, a culture imposed upon the masses by those who think they know best - usually by virtue of their background, class or their own educational success. This is an idea taken up by Carol Black in her profoundly challenging film: Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden. If you haven't watched it, do.


The description of the film says ....
"If you wanted to change a 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 rural and Indigenous children.
But is this true?  What really happens when we replace another culture’s canon of knowledge with our own?  Does life really get better for its people?
SCHOOLING THE WORLD takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply troubling look at the role played by modern education in the destruction of the world’s last sustainable land-based cultures ....
And it questions our very definitions of wealth and poverty – and of knowledge and ignorance – as it uncovers the role of schools in the destruction of traditional sustainable agricultural and ecological knowledge, in the breakup of extended families and communities, and in the devaluation of ancient spiritual traditions.
... SCHOOLING THE WORLD calls for a “deeper dialogue” between cultures, suggesting that we have at least as much to learn as we have to teach, and that these ancient sustainable societies may harbor knowledge which is vital for our own survival in the coming millenia."

Although it appears wholly disconnected, for Christmas I received a book:


Today, down with a heavy cold, I have started reading it. I want to share the first few pages with you (With credit to James Rebanks) ....

"I realized we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987. I was sitting in an assembly in the 1960s-style shoddily built concrete comprehensive in our local town. I was thirteen or so years old, sitting surrounded by a mass of other academic non-achievers, listening to an old battle-weary teacher lecturing us on how we should aim to be more than just farm workers, joiners, brickies, electricians and hairdressers. It felt like a sermon she had delivered many times before. It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were, and had always been. Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it at school. It would have been dangerous.
There was an abyss of understanding between that teacher and us. The kids who gave a damn had departed the year before to our local grammar school, leaving the 'losers' to fester away over the next three years in a place no-one wanted to be. The result was something akin to a guerrilla war between largely disillusioned teachers and some of the most bored and aggressive kids imaginable. We played a 'game' as a class where the object was to smash the greatest value of school equipment in one lesson and pass it off as an 'accident'.
I was good at that kind of thing.
The floor was littered with broken microscopes, biological specimens, crippled stools and torn books. A long dead frog pickled in formaldehyde lay sprawled on the floor doing breaststroke. The gas taps were burning like an oil rig and a window was cracked. The teacher stared at us with tears streaming down her face - destroyed - as a lab technician tried to restore order. One maths lesson was improved for me by a fist-fight between a pupil and the teacher, before the lad ran for it down the stairs and across the muddy playing fields only to be knocked down by the teacher before he escaped into town. We cheered as if it were a great tackle in a game of rugby. From time to time, someone would try (incompetently) to burn the school down. One boy who we bullied killed himself a few years later in his car. It was like being locked in a Ken Loach movie: if some skinny kid had turned up with a kestrel, no one would have been surprised.
On another occasion, I argued with our dumbfounded headmaster that school was really a prison and 'an infringement of my human rights'. He looked at me strangely, and said, 'But what would you do at home?' As if this was an impossible question to answer. 'I'd work on the farm,' I answered, equally amazed that he couldn't see how simple this was. He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly, told me to stop being ridiculous and go away. When people got into serious trouble, he sent them home. So I thought about putting a brick through his window, but didn't dare.
So in that assembly in 1987, I was daydreaming through the windows into the rain, wondering what the men on our farm were doing, and what I should have been doing, when I realised the assembly was about the valleys of the Lake District, where my grandfather and father farmed. So I switched on. After a few minutes of listening, I realised this bloody teacher woman thought we were too stupid and unimaginative to 'do anything with our lives'. She was taunting us to rise above ourselves. We were too dumb to want to leave this area with its dirty dead-end jobs and its narrow-minded provincial ways. There was nothing here for us, we should open our eyes and see it. In her eyes, to want to leave school early and go and work with sheep was to be more or less an idiot.
The idea that we, our fathers and mothers, might be proud, hard-working and intelligent people doing something worthwhile, or even admirable, seemed to be beyond her. For a woman who saw success as being demonstrated through education, ambition, adventure and conspicuous professional achievement, we must have seemed a poor sample. I don't think anyone ever mentioned 'university' in this school; no one wanted to go anyway - people that went away ceased to belong; they changed and could never really come back, we knew that in our bones. Schooling was a 'way out' but we didn't want it, and we'd made our choice. Later I would understand that modern industrial communities are obsessed with the importance of 'going somewhere' and 'doing something with your life'. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn't count for much.
I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realised that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a 'wild' landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers ... people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had 'really done something'. Occasionally she would utter a name in a reverential tone and look in vain for us to respond with interest. One of the names was 'Alfred Wainwright', another was 'Chris Bonington'; and she kept going on and on about someone called 'Wordsworth'.
I'd never heard of any of them. I don't think anyone in that hall, who wasn't a teacher, had." ....

"The whole time I was at school, I wanted to be at home on the farm. I was convinced then, and I still am, that home was a more interesting and productive place to be for me. Making someone do something they don't want to do with thirty other bored kids seemed to me absolutely pointless. I'd look out of the windows and watch the swifts rising above the town, their scythed wings glistening in the sunshine."


My husband often works in challenging classrooms in our own city here in the Midlands where there seems to be disconnect between the teacher / culture of school and the young people who frequent these classrooms. That is why I said in my TEDx talk we need to profoundly change the way in which we engage these young people. We need to recognise the value of their own stories and the worlds that they inhabit. We need to help them to write their own journeys, discover the dreams and talents within, enabling and facilitating, rather than always thinking that we know better ....

When I was 15, I went to my GCSE Geography teacher with an idea for my coursework, a geographical enquiry. I went to him, a young Sussex girl with my love for the Downs and the Weald, and fascination for the geographical features I encountered walking the local hills with my friend. I wanted to investigate the strata of the hillsides; I certainly wanted a project rooted in the local countryside I loved. But the teacher didn't encourage my interest .... "You should do urbanisation," he said. Urbanisation? What did I know about urbanisation? But, ever the compliant student, I spent the weeks that followed studying global urbanisation, and drawing seemingly endless pie-charts, all beautifully coloured and nicely presented. I got an A in GCSE Geography, but a line of self-initiated enquiry was closed to me and, a few years later, life and education moved me away from those Downs I so love. I miss them still ....


"Students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know."(Thomas Huxley)

"The question is not - How much does the youth know when he has finished his education - but how much does he care?" (Charlotte Mason)

Though I no longer dwell in the South Downs, the South Downs will always dwell in me.

Now as fracking companies threaten those hills of mine, who will stand before the destructive machinery and say, "No" if we do not care? Who will stand with the native American communities at Standing Rock and say, "Save our Water" unless we care? The Grade A is not so important, really, is it? Not for a rootless urbanite who really just wants to go home ....

"I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we have seen just enough of the wider world to know we like our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home." (James Rebanks in "The Shepherd's Life)