“The Beautiful Tree” is a book that lays bare the bankruptcy of Western ideas about free primary education in developing countries.
Written by British educator James Tooley and supported by data from the field, it shows how the poor of the world are taking charge of their educational destiny, and how foreign money and governmental collusion threaten to undermine them.
Tooley’s odyssey began in
Ignored by western aid agencies and harassed by government officials, a vast network of private schools in these low-income areas have been serving the poor for years. They are locally owned and funded, in contrast to the free public schools that receive copious financial aid from western donors and NGOs. Yet the poor send their children to these private schools, supporting them with fees from their meager income.
They made this conscious decision, Tooley found, because they had compared the public and private schools in their areas and found the education in the latter superior. They could see the transformational power of knowledge in their children as they moved through the grades, even though they had no education themselves.
Tooley’s discovery was as simple as it was profound: The poor chose self-reliance over dependency. They were the best agents of their change, from poverty to prosperity.
Guaranteed salaries in government schools meant that many teachers, beneficiaries of political patronage, rarely showed up for work, and when they did, spent much of their time sleeping or relaxing rather than teaching. “I don’t care whether students learn anything or not. I always collect my pay at the end of the month,” was how one teacher put it.
In contrast, teachers in the fee-charging private schools had to earn their wings every day, or else they were fired. Accountability, combined with a genuine desire to shape young minds, motivated these poorly-paid teachers to excel in their craft, reflected in the higher scores of private school students over their counterparts in government schools.
From numerous interactions with aid executives, public school officials and teachers, Tooley came to understand the philosophy guiding western donors and NGOs: The natives, many of them poor ignoramuses, don’t know what’s best for them. We do. We will fund the construction of schools, bring technology into classrooms, train teachers on western styles of teaching and make education free for all. Good salaries and incentives will ensure a large supply of locals who will buy into our ideas, implement them as directed and stifle any renegade educational movements.
But the private schools of
Was this phenomenon unique to the backstreets and alleys of
For the next several years, Tooley traveled to slums, shantytowns and villages in
In his investigation, Tooley uncovered facts that turned conventional wisdom on its head. One such was that the British brought education to the uneducated masses of the subcontinent. Yet data collected in
Citing these figures, Mahatma Gandhi said at Chatham House, London, on October 20, 1931, that “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago … because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.”<>
What was the beautiful tree Gandhi was referring to? It was the network of private schools, “closely interwoven with the habits of the people and the customs of the country,” throughout
It is rich in irony that Tooley, an Englishman (he chose the title “The Beautiful Tree” for his book as homage to Gandhi), dissects Hartog’s arguments point by point almost seven decades later and proves that Gandhi was, in fact, right. Far from bringing education to
Tooley is particularly critical of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the architect of the public schooling system in existence in
Whether it is the World Bank or Department for International Development (DfID), UNDP, Oxfam, UNESCO, UNICEF, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or well-meaning celebrities like Bono, Tooley believes that “development experts today, academics, aid agency officials, and the pop stars and actors and who encourage them, are modern day Macaulays.”
While they believe in the importance of education, they are also convinced that without their intervention, the poor will be doomed. Like Macaulay, they will not even admit to the possibility that the poor can meet their educational aspirations on their own. Macaulay thought there was only one way to educate Indians, and that was to install a uniform and centralized system that suited the British upper classes. The modern Macaulays hold the same view, that only publicly funded systems that serve
Through inquiry and analysis, as opposed to theorizing and acting on received wisdom, Tooley has offered compelling evidence that the world’s poor are not waiting for educational handouts. They are building their own schools and educating themselves, a surer path to universal literacy and prosperity than the sterile ideas and practices of development experts.
Tooley’s observations point the way to a promising future for developing nations. They must find a way to unlock the potential of their poor citizens. It can be done if educational entrepreneurs like Fazlur Rahman Khurrum and Maria build self-sustaining schools in urban slums and villages and transform them into centers of excellence. Private schools for the poor will flourish as much in the cities of
An aspect of education missing in “The Beautiful Tree” is online learning, particularly mobile learning. If educational entrepreneurs can integrate the Web and mobile learning into their services, they can overcome the limitations of physical classrooms and the vagaries of weather. Given the existence of robust wireless infrastructures in countries like
Contrary to what development experts and aid agencies claim, it does not require a miracle to bring schooling to the earth’s poorest children. The poor are already doing it by using their own resources in a holistic network of children, parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs, with knowledge, performance and accountability as keys. Sir Bob Geldof, the activist who has dedicated his life to social justice and peace worldwide, said that development succeeds admirably when people ignore the advice of ‘the experts’ and find their own culturally appropriate model. This is exactly what the world’s poor are doing. They have found their model and it is working admirably for them.
If they really want to do some good in the world, development experts should learn from the private schools in the slums of cities like