Schooling the World: Should we be Exporting “Western Education”?

By Antonia McGrath

A group of International Development Masters students at the University of Amsterdam recently organized a film screening and panel discussion event featuring the film ‘Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.’ This was part of a course on Education, Development and Social Justice, and as one of educate.’s directors, I was invited to speak on the panel at the event to provide an NGO perspective on the film’s themes.

Schooling the World is a documentary film that explores the hidden assumption of Western cultural superiority in educational aid work. Aid projects that specifically focus on education (often) explicitly work to “change the lives” of “poor” children to help them “escape” their situations. Filmed in the northern Indian Himalayas, the film looks at how institutionalized educational systems are failing children across the world due to their overly rigid structures, and how this form of education is also contributing to environmental degradation, a destruction of traditional knowledge about the earth and sustainability, and a breaking down of communities and spiritual cultures. At its core, the film “calls for a deeper dialogue between cultures, suggesting that modernized societies have at least as much to learn as they have to teach.”

Given educate.’s anti-service philosophy and our grassroots approach that aims to tackle the unequal power relationships in aid work, it was an honour to be given a platform to share my personal and professional perspectives on this topic. We work to empower local youth and their communities in a way that is built from the ground up, and this process and the continuous dialogue it is built upon are of the utmost importance to us. The other panellists included Dr. Helen Kopnina, a researcher and lecturer of sustainable business at The Hague University of Applied Science, and David Vandevoort, an environmental education and meditation teacher at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, India. Our diverse perspectives made for an engaging discussion.

Schooling the World is a great film, and I fully stand by the core idea that the film tries to promote: the need to question the assumption of Western cultural superiority and the need for a deeper dialogue that does not favour a single way of doing things but can take context into account. The lack of context specificity in the educational projects the film explores, shows without a doubt the negative impact that projects like this can have. This is also central to educate.’s work, and we have seen first-hand in Honduras the ways in which a lack of knowledge about and respect for the local culture and context can negatively impact educational projects (see my 2017 TEDx talk for more on this).

Beyond this however, I feel the film unfairly dichotomizes “western education” with “traditional/indigenous education.” It even goes so far as having a split screen with starkly different images of each on each side, attempting to emphasize the difference between the nature-based indigenous cultures and the global consumer culture that institutionalized education is supposedly moving these cultures towards. In my opinion, the stark dichotomy the film attempts to portray takes away from the key message. Nuance is needed in all aid projects, because no two situations are the same. Likewise, nuance is needed in the portrayal of aid projects, and here I believe the film falls short. In taking away the complexity, the message of the film becomes weakened.

While I probably made the most direct criticisms of the film, the panel also agreed that the place given to (white) Western experts in the film was ironic given the film’s message. The entirely white panel was also worth noting.

So, should we be exporting “Western education”? Absolutely not! But it’s also more complicated than that. Globalization is a fact, and the wheel of time cannot be reversed. Educational structures exist across the world, and these cannot be ignored, but it is important that educational curriculum and pedagogy are being questioned and re-worked so as to make educational systems positive forces within the societies they exist. That means challenging and working on whatever problems exist in a specific location, country or even school, and working to make education better and more useful for those it is trying to serve. This includes thinking about each specific cultural, economic and socio-political context, and the history that education has within that – including its colonial history. The very idea of what constitutes “education” does not need to be (nor should it be) the same across the world, and so the promotion of education does not need to be a Western notion either.

Thank you to the team who organised the event. I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of constantly questioning my own assumptions and moving beyond standard ways of doing so-called “aid work.” Events like this help us all continue to think and re-think our ideas, and the importance of this alone cannot be overstated.

If you are interested in these ideas and would like to continue this discussion with us and others, feel free to comment below and we’ll get back to you!


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