The essential question underlying this post is toward what end are we trying to help the poor? Where are we trying to bring them and are we sure that’s the ideal?
A recent encounter triggered this post:
I visited Northwestern last week and, while at church, I met a tall, awkward, and mostly cheerful Freshman guy. As usual, we went through the where are you from, how do you like NU, etc. Then I asked “What do you study?” and, like 900 others at Northwestern, he replied “Economics.” Hiding my frustration I asked, “Why?’ To which he responded, “I want to go into Finance.” Not satisfied with his response, I probed further: “Why?” His response was what I had both dreaded and expected, “Well, you can make a lot of money.” To his credit, he was honest and I don’t fault him for his relatively unimaginative and deep desire for post-graduation marketability.
Don’t worry, I am not going to rant about how confused he was or about the downward spiral of American society due to rampant materialism. I think this conversation brought up a different, bigger question. The point is that the young man in this story did extremely well at what would probably be considered a near “model high school” in our system. My question is, if this is a model student from a model school, toward what end are we attempting to develop underperforming schools? Are we sure that we have our metrics right for determining the success of a school and a student?
It seems that we hold wealthy and “high-performing” suburban schools as an ideal toward which we ought to be developing the underperforming urban and rural schools in our country. So what if every school in the country had average ACT scores of 26 with 80% of their students going to college? Would students necessarily have a more coherent worldview, sense of purpose, or desire for justice? In my mind, if a student can excel in our educational system, get accepted to a top college, and have such a narrow a vision about the possibilities of their life, something is broken.
When it comes to international development, the most cited statistic is that x number of people live on less than $2 dollars per day. Why is it money that we are so concerned with? Haven’t we learned that money doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of fullness or happiness? I think the only appropriate goal of those who wish to develop poor communities is “Do people have the capacity to live lives that they have reason to value?” The imposition of our paradigm on the world represents a violent subversion of their identity, it puts them into financial, not human, categories.
Underlying all of this is a general frustration about how we think about helping poor communities. We assume that the institutions of the wealthy are the goal and we “develop” accordingly. What is that we are desiring for poor communities? That they too can become entrenched in a cycle of acquisition and maintenance? Maybe there is a different paradigm that we should all be working toward, wealthy and underprivileged communities alike. What would your alternative education or international development paradigm look like? What are the proper metrics of success?