Every child in school: how Westernised education is shrinking knowledge in the 21st century

The globalisation of education is underway, on a scale unprecedented in human history. While its promises are many, Blog Editor Louisa Jones reveals the negative consequences of teaching every child to think alike, and explores an alternative approach in Listuguj First Nation, Quebec, Canada.



© Julie Lafrance/Creative Commons license

A ‘modern education’ is the most highly coveted accomplishment in the world today. It spells social mobility, riches and acceptance on the international stage. Free elementary education was enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and currently forms a crucial part of the United Nations’ poverty reduction strategy through the Millennium Development Goals.

With the weight of the world’s decision-makers behind it, few have questioned why the educational model reproduced from Chile to China continues to follow the rational mindset of nineteenth-century Europe. Book-based, compartmentalised and obsessed with testing, the Western-biased syllabus that once moulded youth into ideal colonial citizens today encourages them to abandon their own cultures, languages and environments in favour of an unsustainable urban consumer culture, according to Helena Norberg-Hodge, Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

A moose-antler carving overshadowed by a student recreation of The Tree of Life: just some of the Mi'kmaq imagery adorning the corridors of Alaqsite'w Gitpu School, Listuguj.

A moose-antler carving overshadowed by a student recreation of The Tree of Life: just some of the Mi’gmaq imagery adorning the corridors of Alaqsite’w Gitpu School, Listuguj. © Louisa Jones

In Canada, however, where the legacy of the brutal residential schools still haunts many of the country’s 624 First Nations communities, indigenous knowledge has been protected by the constitution since 1982, and must be taught in school curricula. Today, educational establishments in Listuguj, a Mi’gmaq reserve located in eastern Quebec, are firmly embedded within the community. The Kindergarten-to-Grade 8 Alaqitse’w Gitpu School is operated in a consultative manner by the Band Council, rather than a top-down provincial school board. While principal Jeff Grass admits there is more work to be done to integrate Mi’gmaq pedagogy into the curriculum, pride in the school’s indigenous identity is all around, from petroglyph images decorating the corridors to weekly cultural activities such as smelt fishing and native drumming. With few students speaking Mi’gmaq in the home, the school’s compulsory language programme plays a fundamental role in ensuring the continued oral transmission of 10,000-year-old tribal traditions from generation to generation. Lessons in Mi’gmaq language and culture at the off-reserve high school in nearby Campbellton, New Brunswick, are also open to non-indigenous students, allowing them to explore alternative ways of knowing.

Students in the Mi’gmaq Culture Room of Alaqsite’w Gitpu School, Listuguj. © Louisa Jones

For Dr Cathy Martin, Assistant Director of the First Nations Regional Adult Education Center in Listuguj, putting the indigenous in education is more about the people involved than the course content. ‘You can’t include culture in a programme. It’s in the community, taught by the community,’ she claims, attributing the centre’s low dropout rate to the mutual understanding between students and their primarily Mi’gmaq instructors. However, one particularly popular academic option is History, told from a Mi’gmaq perspective with input from tribal elders. Linking the politics of the past with current indigenous issues such as land claims and fracking, students feel this course is more relevant to them than a standard textbook.

Idle No More - Panasonic Lumix FZ20 - 42/45

Since 2012, First Nations from across Canada have banded together to protest against their treatment by the Stephen Harper government under the banner of the grass-roots mass movement, Idle No More. © Russell McNeil/Creative Commons license

But if it looked like progress was being made regarding the autonomy of Canadian First Nations over their children’s education, think again. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recently announced First Nations Control over First Nations Education Act (FNCFNEA) is now proposing increased government regulation of indigenous schools in the form of standardised core curriculums, teacher certification and testing. The aim: to provide ‘First Nations children on-reserve with a high quality education, just like every other Canadian’ (italics mine). For the vast majority of communities, who consider themselves sovereign nations, this regressive move, by a Conservative government with a dismal track record on native affairs, is unacceptable. In the face of such overwhelming dissent, on 2 May Shawn Atleo became the first-ever National Chief to resign from the Assembly of First Nations for having rubber-stamped the bill, throwing the very future of the national body into question.

However, you don’t have to be an indigenous person to worry about the direction education is taking in the twenty-first century. In Canada as a whole, the high school dropout rate was 7.8 per cent in 2011-12, with three provinces recording rates of over 10 per cent. That’s 10 per cent of the population of a given age who will remain forever labelled as failures because their talents lie beyond the exigencies of the ‘modern’ syllabus. Meanwhile, in developing countries, standardised schooling is facilitating the rapid spread of English and official state languages over local vernaculars, which has contributed to the endangerment of half of the world’s 7000 spoken languages.

Though a Westernised education prepares a segment of youth to succeed in the global economy, it would seem this is frequently at the expense of local cultural variations that contribute to their sense of belonging in a fast-changing world. Meanwhile, the enforcement of uniform educational standards is shifting the power to influence children’s futures from communities to state authorities, who cannot necessarily be trusted to represent their needs. If we wish to reverse this process and make education truly equitable, we need to recognise the validity of different worldviews and allow them the freedom to flourish.

To learn more about this issue, download the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden (lost people films, 2010).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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