It’s becoming slightly more common in the Western industrialized world to propose radical cultural change away from consumerism and environmental destruction. It’s not hard to find people making the case that in fact nothing else can save us.
But we should have one eye on what our governments and billionaires are doing to educate the rest of the world with the way of thinking that we are beginning to question.
What if the United States were to radically reform and abandon its role as leading destroyer of the environment and leading maker of war in the world, and we were to discover that U.S.- and Western-funded institutions had in the mean time created billions of teenagers around the globe intent on each becoming Bill Gates?
The remarkable film Schooling the World brings this warning. It is not an overly simplistic or dreamy argument. It is not a rejection of the accomplishments of Western medicine or a pitch for adopting polytheistic beliefs. But the film documents that the same practice that “educated” thousands of young Native Americans into second-class U.S. citizens through forced boarding schools is running its course in India and around the world.
Young people are being educated out of kindness and cooperation, and into greed and consumerism, out of connections to family and culture and history, and into a deep sense of inferiority of the sort created in the U.S. by the separate-but-equal educational system of Jim Crow. People whose families lived happily and sustainably are being taken away from their villages to struggle in cities, the majority of them labeled as failures by the schools created to “help” them — many of them cruelly introduced to a modern invention called poverty.
Eliminated in the process are languages — referred to in the film as ecosystems of the mind — and all the wealth of knowledge they contain. Also eliminated: actual ecosystems, those that once included humans, and those simply damaged by heightened consumption rampaging around the globe. Young people are not taught to care for local resources as their parents and grandparents and great grandparents were.
And much of this is done with the best of intentions. Well-meaning Westerners, from philanthropic tourists to World Bank executives, believe that their culture — that of industrial extraction, competition, and consumption — is good and inevitable. Therefore they believe it helpful to impose an education in it on everyone on earth, most easily accomplished on young people.
But is a young person’s removal from a sustainable healthy life rich in community and tradition, and their arrival in a sweatshop in a crowded slum, as good for them as it looks in the economic statistics that quantify it as an increase in wealth?
And can we see our way out of this trap while screaming hysterically about the glories of “American exceptionalism”? Will we have to lose that stupid arrogance first? And by the time we’ve done that, will every African nation have its own Fox News?