Freezing the World: The White Man’s Indulgence

Does the attitude of “let every child go to school” in fact harm traditional cultures? Is it based on a newer, nicer version of the White Man bringing progress to the natives of the world? This is the question asked by the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden. It comes to the conclusion that the education system impressed on the world forces youth to take part in the urban consumer culture by making them incapable of existing within their own cultural spheres, as well as many times instilling them with a sense that their worth is based on their economic success. The latter phenomenon affects elders and the non-educated, the educated but unemployed, and the educated who find jobs in the cities and may even meet the promised success.

The criticisms made are valid indeed. Viewing the film, however, one gets a sense that many of the criticisms are given while viewing non-western (or, one might gather from the title, non-white) culture through a highly romanticized lens. We see many scenes of Ladakhi farmers taking their livestock through fields of crops waving in the breeze, for example. We did not see, however, the infant mortality, which was 19% in 1981 (the last info available), the result of a lack of medical services.

The important principle which the creators take to heart is that one must be careful of presuming that ones’ own culture is the standard for the world. This is important as a principle of ethnopluralism, and maintains that the dignity of a culture and way of life is not objectively defined by those of any single one. As such, the fact that a tribe or group may choose to live a lifestyle which was practiced thousands of years ago rather than as a result of globalization is a choice which must be respected. However, the error that the creators appear to fall into is one on the other end of the spectrum. Cultures are not static; they develop out of a relationship between people and an environment, and as such are always subject to change. When new technologies come about, cultures take them and adapt. This is something which the film seems to overlook.

The point that the documentary makes rather well is that a cultural change should not, however, be based on values which are not that of the culture in question. The feelings of inferiority reported should not be the basis for change. Rather, technology ought to be suited to the needs and values of the people acquiring them. If this does not preserve the way of life shown in pictures seen in tourist books, so be it. Upon this principle lies the cultural autonomy of all peoples, including the peoples of Europe and the Western world. The creators of the film asked the question, “how can we preserve cultures”? But then, preservation is for jam. Perhaps we should ask how we can have living ones.