Schooling the World Review: How Many Elephants Can You Fit in One Room?

Schooling the World is a documentary against the Western educational style system that is often brought to indigenous communities around the world. Its basic argument is that these systems help to alienate the youth of a community from their own culture and change them into capitalist automatons who must now participate in the global capitalist system for they have now not only become instilled with the values of that system but they have also been made unskilled in their former subsistence economy, having not learned how to farm, slaughter, forage, and so on. As a sort of case study for this, they use the region of Ladakh in northern India.

As with most documentaries with a very clear opinion that they are trying to convince you of, this documentary is also full of manipulative editing and simplifications of reality. The clearest examples of these come with the cutting during the interviews with the World Bank and with the people who run the various Western schools in Ladakh. During each interview, they intercut the talking heads of people enumerating their goals and achievements either with images that purport to show how much the children have been stripped of identity or with images of the terrible misery this education has wrought upon them by forcing them into the capitalist system. This blanket condemnation of Western education, however, produces a few problems for the film itself in terms of its structure and its authority. A segment in which statistics are enumerated about how the American educational systems fails is also confusing inasmuch as one is not sure if this is bad, seeing as the film is against this sort of educational system. This segment is also extremely problematic in that it seems to be trying to blame all the ills of American youth on the educational system that induces them into consumerism and hierarchy but there are way more problems with American society than these which could be affecting American youth negatively.

The first main problem is what I would call the question of authority. That is, in the film the implication is that hierarchical systems of education produce people who lose all personal identity and value for themselves except inasmuch as it is defined by the system in which they are processed into, in this case, capitalism. The hierarchy is where authority is both produced and respected and where we can produce the Master who imparts knowledge to the Student. This film, however, is performing this same function inasmuch as it has its panel of experts who act as masters imparting knowledge to we, the audience. Considering that Western education is the problem and all these authorities are the product of Western education, what are we to make of this simultaneous respect for and disavowal of the Western education system? The fact that the film is so very clear in what its opinion is and its belief in the rightness of this opinion also produces this same kind of disjunction as the education that they are critiquing is an education that imparts master narratives to others as self-evident fact and yet, here the film is also producing a master narrative that it wants to impart to you as the correct interpretation of reality. The montage and the quotes all work to serve this purpose.

The second problem is the problem of ideology. The film produces a binary in which the West is evil, ideological and consumerist while indigenous cultures are peaceful, self-subsistent, noble savages. The West is seen as the exterior contagion which is always coming to destroy the peace and beauty of these natives but the real picture is not as simple and unproblematic as they would have you believe. One of the problems with this binary is the implication that the natives exist in a sort of continuous beautiful harmony that no one would ever want to leave and that this order is  more natural than the Western order. While I agree that many forager cultures do have a much healthier and more sustainable relationship to nature, this does not mean that they live in some heaven on Earth and this does not mean that their culture is not also “ideological.” The implication throughout is that Western education destroys an individual’s identity and processes him/her into a goon for the capitalist system. This, however, seems to imply that there is a pre-existing natural self that is being corrupted. However, every cultural system is processing and interpolating people into their cultural system through the production of subjectivities so to imply that only the West does this makes no sense. Every culture is ideological because every culture produces naturalized social relations. Furthermore, this also implies that people have no choice in their lives but, considering the fact that all the experts in the film are products of Western education, clearly you can be processed for capitalism and then rebel against it. Conversely, you can imagine someone being processed for the Ladakh culture and then rebelling against it as well. There is also no consideration of native cultures with practices that would be difficult for even enlightened Western liberals to endorse (such as female circumcision). How are we to treat examples like this?

Technology ends up being another important but unconsidered issue in this film. Technology is what allowed this film to be made and to consequently broadcast this message. Technology is what made me aware of this screening in the first place. What role, then, is technology to have in native culture? It seems that Western education is lumped together with everything Western as being contagions for the native cultures, however, it is hard to deny that some technologies can be useful and desired in more than simply an indulgent, consumerist way. This film, after all, is using a Western technology in order to “educate” people about the evils of education. It seems that there is a lot more to consider here than what is shown in the film in terms of how native cultures should be interacting with the rest of the world.

A lot of this critique comes down to the implication that we should just leave these natives alone. Fair enough, but it’s not that easy because the world has become globalized whether you like it or not and this has to be dealt with. An isolated community will sooner or later butt heads with the global capitalist system whether by development, pollution, or what have you and what is to be done when that happens. If no one in the community has any understanding of what global capitalism is and what it means then it will be very easy for them to be used and exploited. There is no solution provided for this question of how indigenous communities are to interface against capitalism to protect themselves. And, what about us? What does all this mean for the Westerner who is automatically processed into being a worker? This is also not discussed at all even though the idea that capitalism needs to be eliminated is clearly the thread that underlies this entire documentary. It’s not just about the imposition of Western educational systems on non-Western cultures but about the imposition of Capitalist educational systems on everyone, including those in the West. Overall, an interesting and worthwhile documentary with a lot of issues but, hey, that’s film for you.