Reading the Tea Leaves in School's Cups

Schooling The World: The White Man's Last Burden is a fascinating blog and this entry summarizes well the critiques of mass education made by Goodman, Holt, and Illich from the sixties forward. Homeschoolers, unschoolers, and anyone interested in knowing more about the debilitating nature of unasked-for, or misguided, help in both education and foreign policy will be rewarded by reading the complete essay. Here are a few excerpts to help move you toward reading it.


The recent revelation that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is based on fictionalized accounts of his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that his charity’s funds were misspent and its books were cooked, and that there was little or no followup or support for many of his schools once they were built – if they were built at all – has drawn a lot of media attention.  But the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.


Don’t get me wrong – I would never deny that there are individuals who benefit when money is spent on education, and I would never want to come between those individuals and that money.  If a girl from rural Pakistan wants to go to school and has a knack for academics, she deserves support and I hope she gets it.  But the idea that building schools and getting every kid on the planet inside them is a solution to the problem of global poverty, for example, is a real whopper.

Why?  Well, for starters  –  and everybody knows this –  a huge percentage of the children in those schools will fail.


When we put children from traditional rural areas into school, what we’re doing is transitioning them from a non-cash agricultural economy where nobody gets rich but nobody starves into a hierarchical system of success and failure in which some lives may get “better,” but others will get much, much worse.  Guess which club has more members?  Welcome, boys and girls, to the global economy.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. A Brookings Institution study of education in Pakistan by Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff reports that “the education system produces many unemployable youths with few skills for economic survival…..In a recent survey of Pakistani youth, half the students say that they believe they lack the skills necessary to compete in today’s labor market.”  A World Bank Policy Research working paper indicates that, contrary to popular belief, money spent on education often increases inequality in a country. This is partly because those who already have substantial assets are better positioned to take advantage of educational resources than those who have their hands full trying to get food on the table.  But it’s also because from its inception school was designed as a sorting mechanism, a rigged competition where only one form of intelligence is valued, only one way of learning is permitted, and one child’s success means another child’s failure.  We forget that the structure of schools as we know them today was developed during a time when people believed in racist eugenics and Social Darwinism; modern schools were structurally designed to perpetuate a hierarchical class system, and – despite the best efforts of many dedicated teachers – that’s exactly what they still do, through the non-democratic, hierarchical ranking of children which is hard-wired into our entire system of grading, testing, and one-size-fits-all standards.  Until we change that – at home as well as abroad –  education will continue to perpetuate and justify poverty, not to ameliorate it.

Read the entire blog entry: Three Cups of Fiction.