25 September 2011

Films on Schooling and Education

Schooling has become more or less universal in the contemporary world, with schools found in virtually every corner of the globe. The pervasiveness of modern schooling is remarkable in that it was for the most part introduced globally within the past century. Visitors to schools the world over would be struck by their similarities, the focus on rigid schedules marked off by bells, their age segregation, the arrangement of desks facing the teacher at the front of the room, behind whom is a blackboard and above which is a clock and the national flag. While everyone attends school, few analyze its origins and impacts, with most concerned with getting ahead in the system. One way to wedge open a discussion on schooling is compare and contrast it with education. Although used interchangeably, schooling can be thought of as the institutionalized side of education, which then points to questions of the impact of this institution on cultures and communities and the alternative views on education.

Indigenous and aboriginal peoples were not often served well by schooling, in particular during the late 19th and early 20 century when various racist government policies informed the schools they often forcibly attended. A famous example is depicted in an episode of 'The American Experience' TV series that focuses on the schools set up by Richard Henry Pratt, famous for his statement 'kill the Indian to save the man.' The title of the 1992 episode, In the White Man's Image, sums up the story well. Pratt's plan to civilize the Indians involved making them more like white folks by shearing their hair, changing their clothes and forbidding their language. This was done after kidnapping children from their tribal families and shipping them hundreds of kilometers away to boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where in addition to be stripped of their Indian identity they were also trained in various menial tasks, perhaps testimony to the attitude of the schools toward their potential. The irony of these policies, and other similar policies the world over, was that even if one accepts the premise to use schooling to make native peoples more white, they would still not be accepted into white society until racist attitudes and cultural beliefs were corrected, suggesting perhaps that for such policies to be truly effective white people would have to also be 'civilized' into accepting racial, cultural and other forms of diversity on an equal footing.

In addition to this documentary feature, Indian and Aboriginal schools have been the topic of a couple of films. The 1997 Canadian film The Education of Little Tree includes a telling scene in one such school. The title character, Little Tree, an aboriginal boy being raised by his grandparents, is taken by court order to an Indian School. Upon arrival, he is told that once he enters the gates of the school he shall not 'speak Indian' again. When Little Tree meets the school headmaster, he is told that 'Americans don't name children after objects,' and is given a new name randomly selected from a book: Joshua. When asked if he understands this, a bewildered 'Joshua' replies, 'no sir.' He fares no better once classes begin. During a biology lesson, when the teacher asks the students to describe a picture of two deer, students mechanically drone 'running' and other half-hearted barely conscious responses. But Little Tree enthusiastically calls out that the deer are 'mating,' which he no doubt recognized from living in the forest with his grandparents. But for offering this answer in the class (which is actually correct), he is beaten by the teacher and brought to the headmaster. While walking the boy to an attic room for solitary confinement, the headmaster asks, 'do you know what you have done?' Little Tree again replies, 'no sir.' He has no idea that he has done anything wrong, because he is not yet acclimated to the ways of schooling, although he is eventually bludgeoned into submission like the other students. These scenes suggest that the knowledge Little Tree brought to school is a liability in the white man's world and that the goal of the school is to do as Pratt recommended, 'kill the Indian to save the man.'

A similar story is told in the 2002 Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence. In this case, three aboriginal girls are forcibly removed from their families by court order and sent hundreds of kilometers away to a boarding school, where they will be taught to serve white folks as maids and seamstresses, again in the name of the white man's civilizing mission. In one telling scene, the director of Indian affairs visits the school and examines one of the girls to see if she qualifies to be taken to a special advanced school. The examination consisted of lifting her shirt to examine her skin color, which being a rich brown meant she failed the 'exam.' Based on a true story, the film points out that schools such as this were part of government policy in Australia for until the mid 20th century but which were eventually closed, with their tragic result of having created a 'lost generation.' This idea of being lost as an aboriginal person in the dominant white society is a factor of colonialism in general, and one could find similar instances of both internal colonialism (as in the US and Australia) and external colonialism (as is in Africa, India and Latin America) wreaking havoc on the communities and cultures of indigenous peoples.

While these films focus on the outcomes of racist policies, often highlighting the tenacity of individual Native Peoples to survive in such a system, these films were more or less produced to inform, and especially entertain, White audiences, making the rounds on the festival circuit and garnering several awards. However, there are also a number of less well known instances of communities redressing the imbalances and healing the damages of colonized institutionalized schooling. For example, a series of films produced by Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas (PRATEC) in Peru focuses on the regeneration of indigenous knowledge and communities. The 2005 film 'Iskay Yachay: Two Kinds of Knowledge' focuses on the attempt by peasant farmers in the Andes to reclaim their rich ecological and agricultural wisdom from the halls of government run schools that undermine local knowledge in favor of Spanish language and the usual slate of school subjects. But what is unique about these communities, as suggested by the title of the film, is that they are not simply rejecting the 'modern knowledge' of the schools part and parcel. Rather, they want the schools to teach 'two kinds of knowledge,' that their children should have the option to remain in the Andes and live a traditional agro-centric life, which has its own requisite knowledge that is ignored in modern schooling with its focus on urban life and language. At the same time, they should also not be impaired if they feel the need to migrate to urban areas, which requires Spanish language and facility with reading, writing and arithmetic. It's a good antidote to the usual sad story of schooling creating an alienated class of people neither here nor there, and the work of PRATEC is exemplary for the close collaboration between schools and communities.

It is this dual attitude toward knowledge in a cooperative relationship that makes PRATEC interesting and worth following, and their work has been the subject of the 1998 book The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. Other films made by PRATEC, including 'Loving Teacher' and 'Culturally Sensitive Education,' focus on the role of teachers among the indigenous communities. In Perus as elsewhere, with a Ministry of Education system in control of schools, urban college graduates are sent to rural areas for two years before they can qualify for jobs in the cities, a common policy where state subsidized education is in a sense 'paid back' through service in places where there are shortages. The problem is that these teachers have no connection to the communities in which they are placed, and are often at best indifferent to the local culture, and at worst hostile toward it. PRATEC sought to intervene in this bad ecology of knowledge by helping local communities have a say in the way their own schools are run and recruiting teachers who are either from the communities or who at least would be sympathetic to the concerns of the community.

Beyond this question of the impact of schooling on indigenous peoples, the topic of modern schooling as a global phenomenon in general has received a great deal of attention in the mainstream media, in particular through the efforts of the BBC in conjunction with the Open University, through a four part documentary series: African School, Chinese School, Indian School and, most recently, Syrian School. Each series consists of five one hour episodes or ten half hour episodes profiling a selection of schools in each of the four regions. While fairly wide ranging and covering many issues related to the politics and economics of schooling and the ongoing social changes in each region, the four series share an emphasis on competition as a defining feature of schooling. Several episodes of each series focus on the high stakes examinations that still define formal schooling in many places, although the emphasis is on those who succeed in the competitive marketplace at the expense of those who do not. The series would be more useful, and representative, if it also had something to say about the losers within this system of high stakes schooling, which in many cases would likely outnumber the winners. Perhaps it is to be expected to applaud the few who succeed, given the source of these programs in the former colonial powers and hosted by over educated white folks, but it's also tragic to ignore the consequences of these successes for the many who are failed by the system. This aspect of schooling as a lopsided and biased social sorting mechanism, which was identified long ago by Martin Carnoy in Education as Cultural Imperialism, needs as much attention as the success stories of the few.

The sorting function of schooling works internally, as in the above examples, but it also operates internationally, where nations compete for prestige, wealth and power, the road to which often passes through the halls of modern schooling. A common theme in recent American documentaries about schooling is how the USA is losing its political and economic edge in the world, with the blame being laid at the doorstep of schooling. As an example, the documentary Two Million Minutes, which spawned several sequels, compares schooling the US, India and China, and using math and science as a criteria for success shows how American students are falling behind their Third World rivals.

Two Million Minutes can be seen as a form of scare mongering, in some sense along the lines of the 1980s discourse that emerged with A Nation at Risk and several similar reports that also decried Americans losing ground to their rivals, which at the time was focused on Japan. In fact, this discourse could be traced back to the infamous Sputnik launch in the 1950s, which also caused a great deal of hand wringing on the part of American politicians and educational technocrats, who saw the early Soviet success in the 'space race' as an indication that the USA was falling behind. Some interesting quasi-agitprop pieces emerged from that era, such as the ABC television report Meet Comrade Student, which took post-Sputnik American viewers into Soviet Schools. But all this emphasis on competition, economics and politics, emphasizing ideological battlegrounds and focusing mainly on the question of winners and losers, almost as if schooling is a competitive sport, neglects other bigger questions, such as those posed by Ivan Illich in his influential and classic work on Deschooling Society. Rather than just winners and losers, crucial questions revolve around what kind of person is created by schooling. While this question may have no definitive answer, it needs constant asking.

Sometimes the focus in the winner/loser dyad is on the losers, and there are a number of documentaries that focus on the disenfranchised and downtrodden, mainly women and children, who are unable to attend school and who are instead locked into lives of poverty and despair. A recent BBC series entitled Hunger to Learn focuses on the difficult lives of children in conflict zones, and how school is ironically a respite from the lives made difficult by the mis-educated adults around them. Similarly, the TVE program Educating Lucia focuses on the limited options for girls in a male dominated society that prefers to educate its sons over daughters. In addition to its function in reproducing social ills, the oppressive structure of schooling has been the focus of several films. Most notable perhaps is Abbas Kiarostami's documentary Homework, which consists of interviews with schoolboys on the role of homework in their lives. When asked what happens if they did not do their homework, they all said they were punished by an older sibling or parent. Kiarostami then asks the children if they know the meaning of the word 'encouragement' and none do. Punishment without encouragement, not by teachers and principals, but in the home in what amounts to an extension of the authority of schools beyond their walls. One wonders again what type of person is created by such a system, irrespective of grades and successes. In contrast, the award winning Japanese documentary Children Full of Life profiles a 4th grade teacher who took the radical step of encouraging his students to get in touch with their emotions.

Why this is seen as radical, of course, speaks reams about the oppressive nature of modern Japanese schooling, which forces conformity and high stakes testing upon students to such a degree that suicide is common a way out for increasing numbers of youths. While emphasizing in various ways the dark side of society and schooling, these programs subtly offer up the possibility of hope through entering mainstream schooling. In Homework, a parent intervenes in one of the interviews with a short speech about the need for reforming Iranian education. While no sane person would be against helping the unfortunate and making the lives of children better, by relying on schooling (either more of the same or by tweaking the system) as the primary answer to poverty and alienation, many of these programs reinforce the hegemonic grip of schooling over minds and bodies that cannot conceive of other ways to live and learn. In fact, to the privileged white viewers of the European and American networks who watch such programs, they also serve the additional function of having viewers feel thankful for their schooling. What is missing from all this talk of the haves and have-nots is the question of alternatives.

While the mainstream news media are constantly emphasizing the successes and failures of modern schooling, meaningful alternatives are almost completely absent from their programming. However, this neglect, or ignorance, of alternatives should not be confused with an absence of alternatives. If they are unable or unwilling to locate alternatives and instead obsess on the closed dyad of the haves and have-nots of schooling, the onus is on viewers to seek out the meaningful alternatives that don't rely on the 'more of the same' treatment that Ivan Illich decried in Deschooling Society. Before getting to those, it might be worth reviewing some of Illich's main points. In fact, the title is in some way misleading, if it is taken to mean closing down schools. Illich had a far deeper plan in mind, which could be better described as the de-institutionalization of society, but since schools play a major role in the 'schooled society,' it's worth dwelling for a moment on the possibility of life without schooling.

Rid society of school? The mere proposition that Illich suggests in Deschooling Society may seem preposterous, even treasonous, to many people. How can we live without school? Where will our children go? What will they do about jobs? When will they learn the heritage of their civilization? Civic values? Literacy and numeracy? But such questions only prove Illich’s rule: we are addicted to schooling. And this addiction is to such an extent that it seems unthinkable to question the very existence of schooling. But is it really so hard to imagine society without school? After all, modern schooling is less than a century old in most parts of the world, and a little over a century old in its birthplaces in Europe and America. Prior to schooling, communities often found various ways to answer all the above questions, ways that were meaningful in their own cultural, historical and social contexts. Young people learned language, religion, cultural values, and social responsibility by living life. Apprentices learned trades by practicing them with those who had more experience. Education was often casual and informal, and such an education was part of life, which was a life of learning.

Modern schooling arose with other institutions of modern society, first in the West and then around the globe with colonialism. As Foucault suggested in Discipline and Punish, prisons, schools, hospitals, asylums, armies and other institutions of modern society are all of the same mind set. They are places of social control and conformity to order, they are places where others decide what to do, when to do it, and for how long, and they are places that created, in Illich’s words, a ‘schooled society,’ which is a society that expects not a life of learning but lifelong subservience to a system that is beyond their reach and control. At the core of Illich’s analysis of the schooled society lies consumerism, not the narrow form of consumerism that one finds proliferating in shopping malls today, but the broader idea of consumerism, that people can no longer think or do things for themselves, that they are addicted to consuming ideas, habits, practices, as well as products, from professional producers. Such a society is one that has ceased to think for itself, and it has ceased to be creative. Illich would perhaps say that it has even ceased to be human. The schooled society can only do one thing: seek more schooling. While this may benefit the bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians that control modern societies, its benefits for the multitude are dubious, and, in Illich’s view, downright alienating and even destructive.

Of course, there are perceived benefits of schooling. The commonest defense of schooling is that it prepares one for citizenship and the world of work. Yet the irony of this defense is that schooling in most modern societies has become a holding zone for those unable to find employment or who are unemployable, which in the end is only a way of deferring the inevitable condition of joblessness. Even those who succeed do so only at the expense of the majority of their peers in the system. So, if jobs are scarce at graduation – while remaining the main reason for schooling – then why submit children to twelve or more years of schooling? Similarly, what passes as citizenship education is in many ways nationalist indoctrination. In the film Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, a community elder notes how the imposition of schooling divided along religious and ethnic lines, and which emphasizes competition and fighting as the way to solve problems, has created schism in the city of Leh and may be even implicated in sectarian violence. These are no doubt serious complex social problems, but the inability to conceive or effectively deal with such questions and observations beyond recommending further institutionalization may only prove Illich's point about schooling.

Fortunately, there are a number of places in which alternatives to conventional schooling are taking shape. A good place to begin a survey of alternatives to schooling is India. Several independent films have highlighted a variety of efforts at coming to terms with the detrimental and destructive aspects of schooling and finding ways to participate in alternatives rooted in communities that are pursuing different strategies. Leaving school altogether is the subject of several independent documentaries produced by Shikshantar and Abhivekti. For example, the 2004 film 'Walkout,' accompanied by an occasional newsletter entitled Swapathgami, tells the stories of young people who have been failed by modern schooling and have taken it upon themselves to walk out and find other ways of living and learning. The 2002 Unfolding Learning Societies meeting in Udaipur is profiled in the film 'If the Shoe Doesn't Fit,' which includes interviews with young people who are exploring alternatives to modern schooling and the institutionalized lifestyle. Similar conversations about imagining life without schools, which took place at the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, are documented in the film 'Other Worlds of Power.' These works raise a second question, that besides the reasons for people walking out of schooling, there need to be viable alternatives to walk into. The work of Arvin Gupta and others has promoted the creation of children's toys made from natural or found objects, even at times trash, as an antidote to the dependency on products built by others. Some of these are highlighted in the short collection 'Homemade Toys and Natural Playthings' and 'Toys from Everyday Stuff.'

Inspired by Krishnamurti, whose books and lectures suggested new ways to think about life and learning, the film 'School Without Walls' highlights a community of self directed learners in Andhra Pradesh. Influenced by the 1976 publication Danger! School, the animated short film 'Do Flowers Fly' focuses on what is lost by the overly restricted regimentation of modern schooling, which seems more geared toward creating domesticated automatons than enabling whole persons. This works suggest that one way to humanize schools is to integrated them more deeply with community life and development and create settings where students can learn by doing. This approach is profiled in the documentary 'Development Through Education,' which focuses on the Vigyam Ashram learning community near Pune. Similar community based experiences can be found in Kerala, such as those depicted in the 2001 film 'Kanavu Malayilekku: To the Dream Mountain.' This sampling suggests that there are viable and diverse alternatives to conventional schooling, even if they are ignored by mainstream officialdom.

One could find many kindred efforts in the Americas as well, such as the work of PRATEC in Peru to integrate local culture and communities with education, as noted above. In Mexico, the Universidad de la Tierra was established by Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca as a place where young people can explore learning with one another and from artisans and experts in various fields in a free-flowing, supportive and self-directed environment. Students articulate their experiences at UniTierre in the film 'Nuestros Caminos,' which also includes interviews with Esteva, who is also the author of Escaping Education.

In North America, an important example of a truly humanistic educational experience is Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933 until 1957. An outgrowth of the progressive education movement, it centralized the arts in its curriculum and featured luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller on its faculty, and counted among its alumni the painter Harrison Begay and the poet Jane Mayhall. The college has been lovingly portrayed in the 2008 documentary film 'Fully Awake,' which features interviews with former students and teacher interspersed with archival materials. Black Mountain College has also been the subject of a number of books, including Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, which features an extensive collection of photographs, and the definitive account by Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College.

Universities have also been the subject of a number of films and videos, in particular on questions of reform. At a 2005 international workshop held in Malaysia, a number of academics and activists met to discuss reform of social science curricula in Third World universities. Excerpts from the workshop assembled into a video as part of the Multiversity project feature a variety of perspectives on this question, including the late Malaysian thinker Syed Hussein Alatas revisiting his work on the 'captive mind' and discussing its implications for ethics within social science curricula. Vinay Lal from India spoke on the 'disciplines in ruins,' focusing on the 'mathmetization' of political science at the expense of other possibilities such as exploring grass roots movements, which are virtually ignored in contemporary political science departments. There was considerable discussion on the prospect of 'walking out' or 'dwelling in the ruins,' as posed by Yusef Progler from Dubai, with participants weighing in on both sides. Claude Alvares of India and Wasif Rizvi of Pakistan advocated walking out of universities and into alternative learning spaces. Fred Chiu of Hong Kong disagreed with the notion of walking out, as it smacked of 'escapism,' and suggested instead that academics remain in the system but learn to 'create viruses' of different ideas and perspectives from within, while Clemen Aquino and Farid Alatas outlined efforts at localizing the social sciences in their respective universities in the Philippines and Singapore.

[This article is extracted from a longer work in progress by J. Progler, professor of Culture, Society, and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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