Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cultural Influence on Education

I can certainly see with my girls that learning is a cultural phenomenon, unique to each family and community. 

If we made our living as dairy farmers (as my parents did), my girls would have a big understanding of the life cycle of cows and the planting of crops. If we ran a landscaping business, they'd know about trees and flowers and grades and soil. If we belonged to a church, it would form part of their community and they would learn there, too. Because we are literate, environmentally-minded, world-issue-conscious and committed to healthy living, our children will have those ideas as part of their culture. And because we live in a fast-paced, ethnically diverse city, they will have access to more ideas which will form their complete culture.

I think that culture is incredibly important in the education of children. (And by education I basically mean learning.) Culture determines priorities, perceptions and core values. I have read about a group of Mennonites or Hutterites who formed an isolated community in which to live within their beliefs without outside influence. Within two generations they were completely illiterate. But I bet their children could tend the animals, plant crops, bake bread, butcher a pig and make cheese. They probably understood weather patterns and the habits of wild animals, too. It goes to show that priorities determine education, as established by the culture of the community.

On Monday morning the principal at Partner-Guy's school made a school-wide announcement asking the students and staff to observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the earthquake in Haiti and to be conscious of how many Haitian children are now without food, water and schools. Partner-Guy almost choked on his coffee when he heard her say that. As if schools are as important as food and water? And what about the Haitian children who are now without parents? Not as important as being without schools, apparently.

So why is it that whenever humanitarian aid is offered to impoverished regions, immediately teams of Westerners are sent to establish schools in the typical style of North America? Wouldn't it make sense to let the community establish its own educational priorities as reflected by their history, lifestyle and core values? I remember watching the Oprah special when she went to South Africa and built schools. Every child showed up for school wearing an American-style uniform and sat in desks in neat rows and wrote in notebooks and studied from textbooks. I couldn't believe it. Was she trying to make them into Americans? Just because the children study South African history, or read a novel written by a South African, does that mean their true educational needs are being met? And meanwhile, they are removed from the work of their parents for 8 hours a day and they lose the opportunity to learn meaningful life skills from them. I'm still confused.

I'm not anti-education. Really, I'm in favour of access to education for all. For example, preventing girls from attending school in Afghanistan is clearly just one more way that women are oppressed in that country. And literacy is a basic life skill that everyone should attain. Throughout the world ample evidence exists that access to education opens doors for people who would otherwise live generation after generation in perpetual poverty. But why has the word school come to mean just one style of education all over the world? ( It's like the word milk automatically connotes cow's milk, not soy milk or human milk even.)

This issue of forcing North American style schooling on the people of developing nations is one of the things that prevents me from giving to humanitarian groups such as Oxfam or Compassion or WorldVision. Instead, I keep my giving local by handing my pocket change to the homeless or panhandlers I see. I can't help it that my tax dollars fund a system of education that I don't endorse. (My tax dollars also fund a healthcare system that is wasteful and misguided, but I can't cover everything in one post.) But I can question where money is spent if I am going to make a donation to provide humanitarian aid overseas.

And I can remember everyday how fortunate I am to be raising my daughters in a time and place where I can not only ask these questions, but also follow my heart with regards to our priorities and core values.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't thought about education in quite this way. Thank you for that. It's true that I see a micro-culture of learning within each homeschooling family I know. It's fascinating to observe the differences.

    I agree with you that there is far more to bringing an education into another country than importing western teaching methods. I remember a conversation I had with a friend vounteering in Haiti patiently explaining to some missionaries trying to set up an American-style school that it would be far more valuable to use real world experiences as teaching tools than to continue wrote learning. For example, working together to create safe water was a prime opportunity to teach any number of subjects. The missionaries didn't listen and the kids stopped coming. The upshot was that the kids gained nothing but another empty temporary building after the missionaries left for a more willing audience.