Harvard Educational Review
  1. Escaping Education

    Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures

    By Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva

    New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 147 pp. $22.95

    As Homer tells it, the Greeks of ancient times filled a large wooden horse with soldiers and sent it to Troy, an assault masquerading as a gift. This “assault as gift” tactic has been repeated throughout the ages in various guises. A current iteration, according to Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva, the authors of Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures, lies buried in the helpful-sounding rhetoric of international development education programs. The authors argue passionately that the gates that lead into the cultures and communities of the “social majority” — those who are traditionally seen as being on the receiving end of social programs — have been propped open for the twin Trojan horses of globalization and neocolonialism, with the wedges of educational development discourse and practice. Education, they say, is assaulting traditional cultures.

    Readers who think of education programs by international development agencies as either the “fishing poles” with which the people will fish for themselves, or even as the “carrot” offered before “stickier” interventions, will be struck by the authors’ claims that the programs are not the fishing poles of the first adage, but, rather, the stick itself of the second. These authors interrogate the relationship between the socializing power of education and the bombshell of globalizing capitalist culture, a shell that destroys the integrity of independent communities and razes the possibility of sovereignty for native peoples. The authors portray the education stick not simply as a blunt instrument, but as something akin to a concrete, curricular column upon which rests the intellectual frame of an empire.

    Escaping Education is a call to resistance. Its three chapters plus epilogue provide a set of thumbnail sketches that portray the battle scene as the structuring of intellectual space by educational design. Though the book is not linear in its construction, the chapters do have certain themes or refrains. In the first chapter, “Education as a Human Right,” Prakash and Esteva identify education, particularly at the margins of the industrialized world, as a form of colonialism, and rights as a Western construct that is alien to indigenous communities. Pointing to the indigenous communities of Oaxaca, where Esteva lives, as an example, the authors describe the classroom’s devastating effect on community cultures. In the second chapter, “Grassroots Postmodernism,” they weave a deeper analysis of the socioeconomic factors and actors at play in maintaining the global system with strands of the stories of those who resist it from their local sites. The third chapter, “After Education What?” focuses less on delineating an action plan such as the title could suggest and more on implementing a particular plan, that of resuscitating Ivan Illich as a “contemporary prophet.” Illich’s life’s work, including his famed Deschooling Society, has clearly played a central role in the intellectual formation of these authors.

    This is an exciting polemical work. I find myself engaged by many of the authors’ goals and assumptions, in solidarity with their sense of urgency and rage, and fascinated by many of their arguments. At the same time, I feel less enthusiastic about certain elements of their tone and rhetoric.

    At the heart of the authors’ claims against the institution of education is their critique of “development” as an imposition of foreign standards of appropriate living conditions on local cultures. Those cultures that have maintained a modicum of independence should have the right not to be consumed by a set of cultural practices and norms imposed by and tied into the foundation of modern society that propelled capitalism to its current warp speed. The authors critique the concepts of “development” and “rights,” pointing out the specific histories and origins of these ideas. They also distinguish “underdeveloped,” which ascribes characteristics to a people, from “oppressed,” which refers to the social and historical conditions that have an impact on people. While I agree with the authors that there must be a place in this world for communities that do not want to participate in the globalization project, and that people in these communities, by definition, will have a hard time being heard and understood by those of us who live at the center of the empire, their argument raises a philosophical contradiction — the rights of a people to self-determination are being fought on the grounds that rights are a Western, alien construct.

    Another example where the book could have discussed some issues more deeply is the ascription of responsibility to U.S. President Truman for “underdeveloping” two billion people. It seems a bit hyperbolic to argue, as do the authors, that when Truman coined and used the word underdeveloped,

    On January 20, 1949, two billion people became underdeveloped. In a very real sense, they ceased being what and who they were — in all their diversity. (p. 89)

    By adroitly confounding the coining of a word with both the concept behind the word and the changing of people’s material conditions, the authors find a convenient scapegoat for righteous anger, but do a disservice to the creation of a legitimate theoretical frame.

    Perhaps I have been so schooled in the discourse of the academy that I have become too quickly skeptical of prophetic style. That might explain some of my discomfort as I read. Or perhaps I’m harboring an internalized colonial mentality, which would not be so surprising; most of us are in one way or another. Perhaps what I read as an attack on “literate” cultures was merely a defense of nonliterate cultures, though sentences like “The literate started their fullest persecution of the illiterate in all of human history” (p. 89), gave me pause. If the authors are suggesting that we use literacy as quid pro quo for neocolonial aggression, I believe they are as mistaken as the ranks of the defeated Trojan army would have been had they blamed their demise on the wooden-ness of that Greek horse.

    However, when I reach beyond some of the thorny aspects of the book to what I consider its essence, I find myself appreciating this book a great deal for the questions that it raises. When I read,

    However passionately committed to cultural diversity, the classroom must necessarily be the cemetery of sensibilities cultivated in commons and communities, central to the transmission and regeneration of soil cultures. (p. 26)

    I ask myself if it must be the case that classrooms stealthily kill indigenous culture. But even if this were only sometimes the case, which it clearly is, it would be incumbent upon us all to look that academic gift horse of development education in the mouth.

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    Book Notes

    Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems
    Edited by Kenneth Leithwood

    Escaping Education
    By Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva

    Schools that Learn
    By Peter Senge

    Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity
    By Elliot G. Mishler

    Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education
    By Peter Mayo