The Enculturation of Traditional Schools: The Significance to World Culture

Edward R. Howe

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

In a world of highly varied cultures, the rapid convergence to a common set of forms of formal schooling is remarkable. It is commonly asserted that these forms of formal schooling have embedded within them the cultural assumptions of Western Europe and North America, where they were invented, and thus create major learning problems when transferred to cultures with differing assumptions and understandings. However, this is not necessarily so, as can be seen in the development of schooling in East Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. While the enculturation of traditional schooling has been a prevailing Westernization of indigenous cultures, there remain pockets of hope in nations that have managed to break the mold. Japan and the Tigers of the East illustrate the possibility of adopting only the educational processes that can be assimilated effectively into their own cultures. Also, the new schools found in Latin America and other regions provide viable alternatives to the Western traditional schools. There remain significant lessons for the West to learn from these cases.

Throughout time, civilizations have asked questions and sought answers in a search for knowledge, yet the history of what constitutes formal comparisons of education systems goes back less than 200 years. Since the early 1800s and the establishment of nationwide schooling in European countries, educators have traveled abroad seeking to discover educational practices to adopt (Thomas, 1990, p. 1). As a result, German universities became an international model emulated in Europe and North America while British primary and secondary schools became a model for the U.S. and Japan. Learning has always been an essential part of any society. However, what constitutes knowledge is traditionally culturally determined and remains embedded within larger social contexts.  Hall (1985) states, “schools are extensions of the societies of which they are a part” (p.168). While local culture has historically played an important role in shaping education, increasingly globalization threatens the cultural heritage and sovereignty of nations. In a world of highly varied nations, it is remarkable to note the many similarities between education systems and the rapid convergence to a common formal schooling. Yet, these forms of schools incorporate cultural assumptions of Western Europe and North America, where they were invented and thus often create major learning problems when transferred to different cultures. However, this has not been the case in several Eastern Asian nations who have successfully imported lessons from abroad while maintaining their cultural heritage. Comparative education will thus continue to feature prominently in the development (whether for good or bad) of education systems around the world.

Education, Colonialism and Development Aid

While comparative international and development education and the borrowing of ideas from abroad have led to remarkable educational enlightenment throughout the world, this has not occurred without a dark side. The colonialism of the past as well as the development aid of UNESCO, The World Bank and The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) have in some cases done more harm than good.

The foundations for the growth of the development idea were firmly laid during the last several hundred years of colonial education. It has been held in place by the history of the colonial relationships between the major European countries and rest of the world, the newer neocolonial relationships that emerged after the “granting” of independence to the former colonies, and the creation of new forms of fiscal dependency of poor countries on the major international lending agencies. (Masemann, 1999, p. 121).

The relationship between the forms of knowledge developed during colonial expansions in many countries and the subsequent spread of formal schooling in the last 150 years have major implications for the field of comparative education. Postcolonialism and the pervasive structural functionalist notion of education perceived as a means of social development continue to underscore development, resulting in cultural hegemony and ethnocentrism. “The result has been the increasing homogenization of the culture of education on a worldwide scale, with the accompanying assumption by educators that there is only one valid epistemology (Masemann, 1999, p. 126). And yet, the consequences of these development policies were identified by comparative educators as early as the 1960s when much of the development was in full swing. Noah and Eckstein (1998) acknowledged this in their retrospective look at three decades of comparative education:

Ethnocentrism is an obvious source of bias in comparative education: inevitably investigators view foreign societies through a selective and distorting screen interposed by their cultural experience. But there is a vastly more important source of bias embedded in the whole field of comparative education and, indeed, in the social sciences in general. This entire edifice of knowledge is part of the intellectual achievement of the Western world during the past two centuries and reflects the secularism, liberalism, and humanism of the modern Western tradition. (p. 20)

Educational Implications of Globalization

Head’s (1991) case studies of El Salvador and Ethiopia highlight several important lessons to be learned and implications for the future of development education: (1) Forceful imposition of foreign and ideological inspired political systems upon a society is morally reprehensible; (2) poverty-driven desperation has led to environmental degradation and to ever increasing human and physical despoliation; (3) those outside powers that introduced ideology or weaponry into these countries must bear some of the responsibility to restore order and the terrain. As developing countries increase their dependence on the North for training, spare parts, modernization, and financing a frightening rise in military spending has also occurred. In recent years over 25 developing countries have spent more on military activities then on health and education combined (Head, p. 172). Governments of the South are often unable to provide even basic social services of health and education, especially to rural areas. This encourages people to migrate to the cities for a chance at a better life and improved opportunities. Yet the infrastructure is not in place to accommodate these new urban dwellers. This in turn can lead to international instability with serious consequences beyond the scope of education.

Recently, globalization and increased competition have contributed to the enculturation of schooling. As the borders between nations become more permeable due to increased travel and study abroad and through free trade agreements, economic unions and the emergence of multi-national conglomerates, there is a push from governments for education to ‘internationalize’ in order to keep up with our rapidly changing world. The recent advances in communication technology have ushered in a new information age requiring extremely well trained and skilled populations of workers. Countries that do not keep up will be left behind and so education becomes a marketable international commodity in the new millennium. However, once again there are cultural considerations and serious implications for developing nations. Frequently, foreign graduates have difficulty returning home as the advanced training they received abroad may not be easily assimilated into their less well-developed economies (Altbach, 1992, p. 43). Also, this can result in a ‘brain drain’ as graduates frequently decide to stay in the country where they received their training rather than returning home. Sending students abroad worked well for some nations in the late 1800s. However, what worked in the industrial revolution will not necessarily work as effectively in today’s information technology revolution due predominantly to the rapid rise in production in Industrialized nations.  Head (1991) states, “As the developing countries’ share of world population grew, their share of production dropped from 44 percent in 1800 to 19 percent in 1900. In 1980 production share had risen to 21 percent but the population share was 75 percent” (p.131). Primarily due to overpopulation, challenges to contemporary developing countries’ governments of the South are much greater compared to the challenges that faced the North during the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, more developed nations should continue to send educators to less developed countries.  On the other hand, foreign students should be encouraged to study abroad. It is important to realize that educational exchanges are for the most part positive, provided one culture does not impose its values on another. Or as Hall (1985) states, “no society and no culture should force its educational system on another” (p. 168).

Education and the Politics of Development

A one-size fits all mentality is not suitable for the transplanting of education systems from one donor nation to another recipient nation. In the past, much of the funding and assistance came with specific conditions requiring the developing nations to adhere to strict guidelines pertaining to school structure and fiscal management. Development projects encourage the adoption of Western democratic political institutions, legal systems, fiscal policies, market economies and social values. While aid is humanitarian– development is essentially political and far more controversial. Canada’s aid programs have more to do with diplomatic strategy than with helping impoverished peoples. CIDA is in one sense an international public relations campaign for Canada that seriously neglects basic human needs (Scowen, 1997). Often autocratic decisions have been made by policy-makers without consultations with the parties concerned. While there have been some success stories, the effects of the blunders have been enormous. For example, African countries came into independence with high expectations for education as a means for national development, community improvement and social mobility, however despite efforts from CIDA, UNESCO and others, an education crisis rooted in poverty remains.

In much of Africa, the rate of education expansion could not be sustained. Facilities deteriorated, worn-out textbooks were not replaced, libraries had few books, laboratories had little equipment, and gross enrollment ratios stagnated or declined.  Measures of education quality, school efficiency, and teacher and learner satisfaction showed similar distress…. African countries turned increasingly to foreign funding…. With the funding came ideas and values, advice and directives… their direct and indirect influence on policy and programs was often substantial. (Samoff, 1999, pp. 426–427)

The Cultural Context of Knowledge and Education

In addition to development education lessons, Africa holds important clues to the cultural context of knowledge and education. Deng’s (1985) study of the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the Sudan provides a fascinating look at how another culture understands knowledge and education. While literate societies house knowledge in libraries and archives, preliterate societies pass knowledge down from person to person. Thus, they perceive knowledge and learning as something embodied in the human being and his experiences.

While most of the Third World remains preliterate, modern education has not only cut off the younger generation from the knowledge and teaching methods of their elders, but has made them disparage those very elders who are in effect their parents and towards whom all cultures, traditional or modern, religious or secular, advocate filial piety and reverence. (Deng, 1985, p. 106)

Cultural assimilation along with a loss of identity, alienation, and systematic discrimination and in some cases even worse consequences, have beset aboriginal populations.

Education in the Local and Global Context

Canada’s residential schools for native Indians provide an excellent example of what can happen to one culture when another tries to inculcate their education system. To this day, there are aboriginal workers in British Columbia public schools trying to ensure that native Indians remain in school. It would appear the system still discriminates and segregates these students to some extent as the parents are considered ‘damaged goods’ or products of the systemic annihilation of their culture from the government policies of the past. Another salient example can be found in Deyhle’s (1986) study of Navajo and Anglo students’ perceptions of testing. The Navajo students had very different conceptions of knowledge, school and tests. These are culturally determined and thus must be taken into account. “Most educational research now recognizes cultural differences as a source of academic failure among minority children” (Deyhle, p. 386).

Internationally, common characteristics of schools and classrooms include similar age groupings, numbers of students, teacher to student ratios, teaching materials, standardized curricula, exams and the job descriptions of teachers.  The very notion of a school consisting of students enrolled in grades and going to classes where the adult teacher is responsible for disseminating knowledge is so commonplace that it is rarely questioned as it is assumed to be the norm in most modern nations. Yet this not the case in some societies where students of various ages gather in places other than schools; peers teach rather than adults; and learning is far more experiential without the need for classrooms, standardized curricula, exams and formal school practices. Examples of these new schools can be found in Colombia, Chile, Bangladesh, and Egypt.

They depend for their success not on the ability and willingness of teachers to “follow orders” from on high, but rather on stimulating and unleashing the creative energy, enthusiasm, and personal practical knowledge of teachers…. They tried to break down the boundaries between formal and nonformal education and to focus less on teaching and more on learning. (Farrell, 1999, p. 171)

The Eastern Asian Alternative

While human resource development of many nations has merely constituted a hegemonic process of assimilation to the ideal schools of the West, several Eastern Asian countries have successfully remained politically independent and have survived in the face of Western dominance. Cummings (1997) proposed a ‘J Model’ for human resource development in Eastern Asia that challenged the predominant Westernization model. The Eastern Asian approach is labeled the J Model in recognition of the fact that Japan was the chief initiator and diffuser. In addition to Japan– Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are all developing distinctive approaches to development that contrasts with the Western model (Cummings, p. 275). Therefore, while problems have occurred when Western forms of schooling were transferred to cultures with differing assumptions and understandings, Japan and the other Eastern Asian nations offer another perspective.

Japan is one of the few nations to have successfully borrowed from abroad while maintaining a unique cultural identity. Since the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan has increasingly looked beyond her shores for ideas and more efficient ways of accomplishing things. The Japanese are remarkable in the way they have been able to take good ideas from abroad, perfect and adapt them for their own purposes, while maintaining their culture and traditions. Education is a prime example of this. By learning Western methods of production and adapting the Western model of capitalism to suit their culture, Japan evolved from a feudal state to a modern industrial nation in a short period of time. Emperor Meiji understood that in order for Japan to be competitive in the post-industrial world, the country would have to learn to be modern. He sent scholars to Europe, North America and Asia to study the education systems of other countries. Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world for the first time in the history of the nation. This proved to be the single most important factor influencing Japanese education (Howe, 2000, p. 15).

In summary, while the enculturation of traditional schooling has been a prevailing Westernization of indigenous cultures, there remain pockets of hope in nations that have managed to break the mold. Japan and the Tigers of the East illustrate the possibility of adopting only the educational processes that can be assimilated effectively into their own cultures. Also, the new schools found in Latin America and other regions provide viable alternatives to the Western traditional schools. There remain significant lessons for the West to learn from these cases. However, as Thomas Rohlen puts it in the film Making the Grade in Japan comparative studies may offer a mirror rather than a model.

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Reference citation:

Howe, E. (2002 Fourth Quarter).  The enculturation of traditional schools- the significance to world culture.  In Focus Journal, Open Forum, Retrieved Month day, year, from