one pencil per child

A student brings in an article for his functional text.  It's a story about the One Pencil Per Child initiative.

"Sorry kiddo, but this isn't a functional text," I explain to him.  

"Sure it is.  It's telling the reader how to colonize Africa with pencils."  

"It's informational text with some narrative mixed in," I explain.  

"But it's an implied functional text.  At the end there is even a description of what you can do to help."  

I inform him that he will need to bring in a new article tomorrow, but we will discuss his article together as a class during our civics time.  For what it's worth, I'm not so sure that civics needs to be a class.  Shouldn't everything we do be a civics lesson?  Shouldn't our aim to be to encourage critical thinking, democratic citizenship?  Doesn't exactly fit our factory school, though.  

*      *      *
"Is this good for the children in Africa?" I ask.  

One girl steps in, "Would you ask that same question about Europe? It seems to me that Africa is a whole continent with different languages and cultures.  Yet we treat it like it's this one entity.  The people of Africa have no chance to determine their own national and cultural identity."  It's a hard topic for her, because her family is from Africa and she is mixed race and our town is generally segregated.  

Another boy adds, "We've been learning about imperialism.  It seems like passing out paper and pencils to kids is simply another form of imperialism."  

"I disagree," a girl responds.  "Imperialism has motives of conquering and using resources.  It doesn't respect the rights of the people."  

"And you think this does?  Did anyone from the OPPC study the needs of the people?  Did anyone study the culture?  No, they just toss out green pencils and claim that it will lead to freedom.  Africa needs economic development.  Africa needs the right to nationhood without interference from imperial powers. Pencils are nice, but I don't think they are very helpful in keeping France and Britain out of your backyard."  

"So, do we do nothing?  It seems like doing nothing just makes it worse.  Kids need paper and pencil.  They need an education.  We can talk about imperialism, but let's be honest, every kid needs a chance to write."  

"Maybe," a kid adds.  "And maybe the pencils will be a good thing.  But I still think it's imperialism.  It's using kids' minds for their own good.  Why are they doing this?  To feel good about themselves probably.  And to get a little recognition when people see just how shiny and durable the green pencils are. So, they might have good intentions, but it's still imperialism if they are using the minds of Africa to boost their sense of purpose."  

*     *     *
When I tell Mr. Brown about this story, he explains to me, "I am the product of colonialism.  I hate that word product, but that's how it feels.  I don't even know my Indian last name.  My language, my clothes, my religion - all British.  I think they're asking the right questions."  
"It makes me wonder about our grant proposal.  If we have a guy like Carnegie paying for our education, isn't he now the one with the loudest voice?  And even if he is looking out for kids and really wants us to have pencils, isn't he failing to look at the injustices of his own factory? Sometimes I wonder if we should raise the money from the community instead.  Let the resources come from the locals."  

"Or not," Mr. Brown reminds me. "Look, there is injustice in all the resources we use.  You can get all worked up about the iPaper and the waste of money when we could get open source paper.  However, you miss the fact that little kids in the factory are making the paper that our kids are using.  Or we talk about imperialism and that's fine, but how often do you push your own agenda on your kids?  Everyone is guilty either by complicity or apathy or outright participation.  The amazing part is that out of injustice something beautiful grows."  

1 comment:

  1. Yes there is a Yin and Yang in everything and we need to reconcile ourselves to that. I sat in a conference once and heard a speaker say, "The problem is not the problem, the solution is the problem." The speaker meant that the solutions we formulate will have inherent problems. We need to to consider whether our solutions will create greater problems than the original problem we are addressing. Our actions will not be free of unintended negative consequences.