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U.S. Schools Called Training Grounds for Isolationism

March 21, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

American education has taken another drubbing, this time from critics who contend that this country's schools are turning out "ethnocentric" students who have little sense of the world at large. Moreover, these critics charged during a conference here, U.S. schools are part of a wider malaise that afflicts education in much of the developed world.

While technology has made distances almost meaningless, there's "a certain meanness of spirit abroad in our land" that has turned American schools into training grounds for isolationism through ignorance, claimed Kenneth Tye, one of the participants at the conference, co-sponsored by a United Nations agency.

Joining in the critique, a U.N. official accused education in most developed countries with perpetuating a false view of world history through "cultural brainwashing."

These opinions, guaranteed to raise neo-conservatives' temperatures, were expressed at a gathering held to consider a wide range of problems in the developing nations--including population patterns and industrial disasters, the failure of well-intentioned aid programs and the media.

But it was education that took the hardest shots.

No 'Sense of Globalism'

Even in such ethnically diverse places as Los Angeles, U.S. schools are doing little "to give children a sense of the globalism of the world," Tye told one of the conference seminars at USC recently. Tye, chairman of the education department at Chapman College in Orange, added, "There is no doubt that American kids are ethnocentric." And he predicted that teaching of a Western-centered world view will increasingly dominate American schooling as the new secretary of education, William J. Bennett, asserts himself in the federal government.

Passivity Charged

Tye also charged that the education American children are getting breeds passivity. One study he participated in, Tye said, found that students tend to "sit and listen, then they write on worksheets and then they take tests. The process does not produce people who can think and create."

Erskine Childers, director of information for the U.N. Development Program, delivered a more sweeping indictment. Childers, a Canadian who is based in New York, maintained that education in the Western, or Northern, developed countries has fostered "a fit of cultural amnesia" about the role of emerging nations in world history. Most Westerners are brought up to believe that progress stems solely from the European Renaissance, he said. "This is simply not true," he added. "Most of the ideas for progress were drawn from what today is considered the Third World. . . . We were not taught that town planning was at an advanced stage in the Indus River valley when Europe was unrecognizable."

Even worse, Childers argued, was that the "cultural amnesia was transmitted to the few people in occupied (colonial) countries who were allowed to have an education . . . . I can remember as a boy growing up in Ireland being surrounded by the view that nothing made in Ireland could be worth anything." Potential technological gifts such as farm terracing techniques and native medicines in use as much as 2,000 to 3,000 years "were derided by colonial authorities and educated elites," he said. As a result, Childers said, peoples freed from colonialism "did not liberate themselves intellectually." And, he concluded, "It is vital, even in the mid-1980s, that we have the courage to address the legacies of colonialism."

Stephen Viederman, an American who works for the U.N.'s Fund for Population Activities in New York, said that many Westerners criticize population growth in developing countries because they don't understand local conditions. High birth rates are often due to high mortality rates or because a family needs many hands to support itself, he said.

Sometimes, Viederman said, population problems are a more a matter of population distribution than absolute numbers. He cited the Bhopal disaster in which 2,000 Indians were killed when a Union Carbide plant released a pesticide concentrate into the air. Because it offered jobs, the plant was almost immediately surrounded by shanty towns, a phenomenon in most Third World countries.

If buses or other means of commuting had been available to workers, Viederman suggested, the death toll would have been much lower.

Hilda Paqui, a Ugandan and also a U.N. Development Program official based in New York, did not spare her own organization from the lash of criticism. She advised her audience that the United Nations is not necessarily the best way to channel donations for the relief of African starvation, that privately channeled money can be just as, if not more, effective. "U.N. agencies are recognizing that non-governmental organizations are crucial to development, especially indigenous ones," she said.

Many well-intentioned aid programs have failed because administrators did not listen to local advice, Paqui said.

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