Community Control of Knowledge



A movement is afoot in some regions to generate new ways to educate children and share knowledge that powerfully reflects community wisdom, culture, and values.  What’s at stake is nothing less than who controls information and ‘truth’, what values are propagated in education, and how history is codified.  

Corporations and governments are heavily invested in today’s push to privatize and commodify knowledge and culture.  One indicator was the World Bank’s announcement in 1996 that part of its role would be as a “Knowledge Bank.”  As the World Bank articulated in its program in India, this means “expanding the Bank Group role as a politically realistic knowledge provider and generator." The ‘providers and generators’ are highly paid consultants, often foreign; the beliefs, wisdom, and expertise of community members are excluded from the canon.  Instead of being an honest inquiry, the research routinely reaffirms the Bank’s highly ideological view of reality which forms the basis of its policies.i  Textbooks, the mainstream media, and even encyclopedias usually reflect similar processes and products, in more or less subtle ways.  If you doubt this, sit down one day with the Encyclopedia Britannica and see how it spins history.

In the U.S., the new Secretary of Education is the same man who, when he was superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, pushed to open charter schools and military academies, while closing public schools in low-income and people of color neighborhoods.  In the wave of privatization which has washed over New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina’s wake, the number of public schools has gone from 119 public and seven charter (2005) to 40 public and 38 charter (2009).ii  After nearly eight years of the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S.  schools are frantically teaching children to pass standardized tests.  The factory model of schooling in many countries promotes values of individualism, commodification, and competition, and privileges colonial languages over indigenous ones.

But that is not, of course, the end of the story.  Some Native groups are regenerating and evolving the riches of their culture, identity, language, and knowledge.  They are preserving, documenting, and teaching environmental and agricultural strategies, healing methods, traditional arts, and a whole lot more.  One case is Hawaii, where a 25-year-old non-profit organization named ‘Aha Pūnana Leo is ensuring that the Hawaiian language survives and flourishes.  An organized effort was needed because during the 1920’s, schools placed a ban on using Hawaiian in the classroom and began teaching with an English-only curriculum.  ‘Aha Pūnana Leo with other Hawaiians got the ban on the use of Hawaiian in schools through state legislation lifted.  ‘Aha Pūnana Leo also worked with Native Americans nations on successful passage of a federal law to protect their languages.  They are now working together to save some 200 remaining Native American languages – and with them, a way of life - from extinction.

Today, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo runs 11 private preschools where everything takes place in Hawaiian.  The students can then graduate to Hawaiian-language public schools that the legislative victory made possible.  ‘Aha Pūnana Leo also trains educators to strengthen Hawaiian language and culture.  Encouraged by the immersion model, some families have made a commitment to speak only Hawaiian at home.  In 20 years, the number of Hawaiian-speaking children has increased from 40 to nearly 2,000.  

In India, the grassroots movement Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development encourages individuals and communities to reclaim control over their own learning processes, minds, and hearts.  Billing itself as an institute to “rethink education and development,” Shikshantar aims to keep creativity and tradition front and center.  Its philosophy springs from the Gandhian principle of Swaraj, or liberation through self-mastery and self-awareness of the diverse and non-violent cultures, traditions, and values of South Asia.  

For the people of Shikshantar, social change starts with individuals’ and communities’ existence and daily practices.  That means drawing on traditional wisdom and imagination to build trusting communities; value indigenous expressions and local resources; and continually share skills, visions, and experiences across generations.  As Other Worlds organizer and Shikshantar learning activist Shilpa Jain says, “We have to remove our blinders and see that real learning is all around us.  It's simply about asking open questions, thinking outside the box, and realizing that everyone has a gift to share.”  

Community members involved with Shikshantar have transformed the entire city of Udaipur in Rajathstan into a ‘learning ecosystem.’ The ecosystem consists of homes, offices, parks, and other public spaces, in which Shikshantar hosts informal workshops, creates community media, and shares skills for sustainable living.  Through songs, stories, films and publications, the community is regenerating Mewari, the local language that has been falling from use because of the government promotion of Hindi and English.  Led by artists, farmers, healers, chefs and artisans, free workshops teach local crafts made from waste, media production, self-healing, slow food recipes, and sustainable agriculture.  The workshops are based on the abundance of resources already in the community.  Shikshantar also offers resources to walk-outs - its term for people who have chosen to leave traditional schools - such as apprenticeships that give walk-out youth on-the-job training, real world vision, and the skills they need for green vocations and lifestyles.  

Other examples of transforming education include the following:

  • In the U.S., publications like Rethinking Schools, organizations like Teachers 4 Social Justice, and a loose network of free schools and homeschoolers are evolving educational models that encourage diversity, with more and different options to meet the needs of children.  They are creating alternatives to mainstream schools (or sometimes within them) that value the dignity and creativity of kids, and that draw on the knowledge and resources of the communities around them.  As of 2008, almost 1.3 million children in the U.S.  were being homeschooled.  
  • In Mali, the Institute for Popular Education is creating curriculum, used in community schools and studied by the Department of Education, that explicitly promotes communal values and the tradition of the gift economy.
  • In Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas are establishing a teacher training school so that young teachers can share throughout rebel territory learning that is steeped in indigenous history, language, and values.  Explicit to the program is supplanting a dignified and culturally appropriate education model over the colonial legacy of individualism and materialism found in government curricula.

Harvard University’s motto is “veritas,” truth.  Many people outside those high wrought iron gates know there is no single truth, and that if there were, it certainly wouldn’t be owned by the Harvards of this world.  “Think, explore, and analyze for yourself” might be a more appropriate motto for a reclaiming education movement.