Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Naïveté? Or Exploitation?

If there was one thing I learned from my Peace Corps experience it was that people everywhere know a lot more than the lucky few in the worldwide elites believe they do—and that the idea of helping them is really, at its heart, an idea of helping that elite. We lucky ones, generally from industrialized and, often, formerly colonizing nations (or from the very rich of the rest of the world) are the beneficiaries of a concentration of power and wealth—not of talent, intelligence or ability—a concentration that continues to be reinforced today through what are really sham efforts at development. And, it seems, at education.

“Sharing the wealth” should only be seen as exactly that. The only way “we” can bring “them” up to our level is by eradicating poverty and distributing power equitably. Many of the elite continue to believe that something else—particularly education—is the way to do that. That this is nonsense is not something they are willing to even contemplate. The only way out of poverty is by first making sure people can feed and house themselves. Education alone will never do that, nor will anything else brought to the poor by the rich.

What I learned in Peace Corps slips over into my philosophy on teaching: Many of my students exhibit the disadvantages of poverty, making their education within a system geared to the needs and predilections of the elite nearly impossible.

There’s not even a “wealth” in education that can be shared. You can’t give your education to me the way you could give me money, for example. Yet a belief that such sharing is possible can be seen in continued reliance on Paolo Freire’s “banking concept,” where the teacher deposits knowledge into the students, making them benevolent givers. What nonsense.

Ways need to be found for the students to take charge of their own education, just as communities need to be the leading edges of their own development.

Just as successful development in underdeveloped countries starts with the population itself and not with the imposition of projects by outsiders, successful education begins with the students themselves, not with what teachers can give them. The role of the development worker and the teacher is to assist with what is already there, providing connection to possibilities that the population and the students might not find on their own, enhancing motivation through an understanding of obstacles that the local people and the students might not yet be able to see or understand that they can overcome. The main role of the outsider is to provide access to resources and support, not to “give” things.

The outsider, in other words, is never the answer. The best the outsider can be is a useful tool.

I wonder at those who seem to believe that outsiders from the worldwide elite can zoom in solve local problems. Are they merely ignorant or foolish? I certainly was both in Peace Corps, when I arrived at my village in northern Togo in 1988 ready to teach animal and equipment care and plowing techniques to farmers who had enrolled in a government program that provided them with oxen and plows to be paid for through a loan program. For one thing, I did not understand that, by putting the farmers into debt, “we” were tying them to a monetary economy where they have little control over their income (I should have remembered the Frank Norris story “A Deal in Wheat”). To pay for their oxen, the farmers now had to plant cash crops—cotton, in particular. This meant two things: First, they could no longer plant enough food crops to sustain their families, so also had to sell cotton to buy food. Second, they now had to buy more fertilizer and pesticide—and were straining land that, at best, should only see cotton grown on it every third year, with a nitrogen-fixing crop planted at least one of those other years.

What they could earn was dependent on the price for cotton, something beyond their control, so they had to plant as much of it as they could, so they could be assured of sufficient income even if the price dropped. Animal traction, by itself, is a good idea—but forcing farmers into an economy that can easily break them? We might as well be condemning at least a part of them to poverty worse than they had experienced as subsistence farmers.

Rather than a program developed “for” the farmers by foreign experts working with the government in Lomé at the other end of the country, a better program could have been developed by the farmers themselves, working with a single development worker (perhaps a Peace Corps Volunteer) who could serve as a liaison with outside sources of information and resources. Rather than each farmer buying oxen and setting up a stable, etc., perhaps a deal could have been made with a Peul (Fulani) herder to provide and take care of a pair that would then be owned by a group of farmers. The Peul, after all, are traditional cattle herders with more expertise in dealing with animals in that environment than any foreigner could have. The needed equipment could even have been made by local blacksmiths from designs provided by the development worker. All in all, such a program would have taken greater advantage of local skills and would have placed the farmers at much less risk.

That this would even be possible would not likely have been known by outside experts.
In addition, it would not be popular with the elite. It would not profit those who would, in the program that I was working for, provide the oxen and equipment and the loans. There would not have been a net shift of wealth from the farmers to the elite of the country.

A similar model holds true for education. My mantra, one resulting from my Peace Corps experience, is “start with the students.” Find out where they are, what they know, and what they have been through. Teach through their experiences, taking what they know and showing them ways of expanding it. To do this, I have to stand away from my own abilities and successes and listen. To do this, I have to develop ways of allowing the students to teach each other, acting as a facilitator not always as a “teller.”

All of this is a lead in to my highly negative reaction to today’s Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times. Enamored, as usual, by what the elite can do for the rest, Friedman calls looks to “the makers,” extolling the ability of the elite to “help” everyone else. Traveling with Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America and, now, Teach for All, he is seeing what he believes will be the wonders of the urban elite helping the rural (and urban) poor.

But what goes on, really? Is something gained in the poor communities? Or is the real profit going to the elite? In the United States, Teach for America does quite nicely for Kopp and the others who run the program, and provides a learning experience for the young college graduates it recruits. But what has it to show, after twenty years, for the communities it claims to help?

Not a lot, as far as I can see. In this case, as in so many others, the wealth goes to the wealthy.

Friedman, as I said, calls the Teach for All recruits “the makers.” I have a sneaky suspicion that all they will be making is more money for the elite.

Maybe Friedman doesn’t know that. Maybe he really is so naïve that he cannot see the exploitation, that Teach for All, like Teach for America… like most every program supposedly for the poor, really helps the rich much more.

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