What is education?
I was appalled when I read in my local newspaper that Ethiopian children are being used as research subjects for a project that proposes to use tablet computers to teach kids to read English. What struck me most was the goal of the project: "to get kids to a stage called 'deep reading,' where they can read to learn, It won't be in Amharic, Ethiopia's first language, but English, which is widely seen as the ticket to higher paying jobs." As an American, this seemed like another ethnocentric aid effort that, while met with good intentions, only perpetuates westernization and false assumptions about non-American cultures.
The article begins by describing the living conditions of these children, with "filthy, ragged clothes" and sleeping "beside cows and sheep in huts made of sticks and mud." The depiction is clearly targeted at an Americanized audience who may consider such conditions as inferior and pitiful. It continued, saying that on a sunny day, "the kids sat in a dark hut with a hay floor" playing on their tablets. In fact, one child was quoted saying, "'I prefer the computer over my friends because I learn things with the computer.'" Less than a year into the project, these computers are promoting the same kind of isolation culture that technology has brought to America. Yet, to many people, the westernized way is always deemed "the right way," even when it falters or poses health risks.
Furthermore, the project is presented as an experiment to see if children can bring themselves up by the bootstraps by teaching themselves to read in English using technology. The notion is that these children need to change their current lifestyles. Matt Keller, who runs the Ethiopian program, is quoted saying that if they “prove that kids can teach themselves how to read, and then read to learn, then the world is going to look at technology as a way to change the world’s poorest and most remote kids.” He says this project “will have proven you can actually reach these kids and change the way that they think and look at the world.” The overarching idea of these statements seems to be that the way these children think and see the world is somehow not right, and that by learning English and learning to read, they will learn to think “correctly.” While I am sure that this is not the intention of the project, and am in no way undermining the value of education, each culture and community deserves the choice as to how that education is brought about rather than jumping on the westernization bandwagon that has brought about a rather unhappy and individualistic way of living.
Lastly, as I have discovered in my own schooling, that education is more than academic intelligence, than eloquent English skills and technology skills. Education is curiosity, discovery, problem-solving and critical-thinking. It promotes open-mindedness and tolerance, two qualities it seems this world desperately needs. Growing up in the technology age, I have experienced the loneliness and disconnectedness that devices such as iPhones, iPads and computers have brought. Community and sharing has been replaced by individualism and selfishness. While there are many redeeming qualities of American culture and of technology, even the greatest ideas have shadows and unanticipated consequences. Therefore, using foreign cultural values to educate a community can be counterproductive in many instances. Education seems to work best when it is brought about by the people of that community, while still preserving the language and culture.
To read the entire article in The Washington Post, follow the link below or go to The Washington Post website.