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 Changing attitudes: the key to development education
by Carrol Joy

Acceptance of the inherent oneness of humanity automatically involves a new approach to the educational process. An article illustrating how the realization of this unity can be conveyed to the student.

Rod is going to be a teacher. He's 20 now, an undergraduate education major with good intentions, a typical sort of young adult in the American mid-west. Like most of his countrymen, he saw the terrible images of starving Ethiopian refugees on his television set a few years ago, and, like most of his peers, he bought a copy of We Are the World.

I am giving a three-hour presentation on development to his student-teaching seminar, waiting for the students to react to the scenes of underdevelopment depicted in some photos I have handed out. It has required 10 minutes for the nervousness and giggling to subside and be replaced by silent study. Rod, who was one of the last to quiet down, raises his hand and waves one of the photographs so that everyone can see it. It's a picture of a Guatemalan woman, embroidering while a group of children stand around her.

"Okay", he says, "this woman is really poor. She has all these children, and it looks like they live in a shack. But she doesn't seem to care very much. She looks all right."

I ask Rod why he thinks that the mother doesn't care about her situation. He points off-handedly. "Well, look at her face. She's sort of smiling. She looks perfectly happy to me." And what does he think she feels about her children being so poor? He considers a moment. "I think those people more or less get used to it after a while."

Another hand goes up in the room. This time it's Erica, one of the few older members of the seminar. "I think the woman is really happy to have such a large family, even if they are poor", she says. "Why do you think that?" I ask. "Because", she responds, "I know what it's like. I have four children of my own."

Annie, a young, wholesome-looking girl holds up a photo across the room. "I don't know if that woman is happy or not, but I think my picture is awful." It is a shot of Ethiopian refugees, arms held out in desperation as they try to claim relief supplies. "What effect do those images have on you?" I ask her. "I realize I have so much. And they have so little." Gently, I press on: "And how does that make you feel?" Her face is grim. "Guilty. I mean, for every person in this picture, there are millions more. The problem is so big and I can't do anything about it – I just can't deal with it."

But the young man sitting next to her shakes his head vehemently. "Not me", he says fiercely. "It makes me angry. Why should they have to demean themselves that way? We have enough in this world that they shouldn't have to do that. Why don't we just give them our surplus food? We don't know what to do with it anyway."

I have heard these same kinds of responses many times. The names, faces, ages and occupations may differ, and our time together may vary. But giving these presentations has shown me over and over that many – if not most – Americans (and, I suspect, citizens in some other Northern nations too) perceive the issues of Third World development through the clouded lenses of their own ambivalent feelings, their prejudices, and their social programming.

For anyone trying to educate either students or the general public about development, this tendency needs to be both acknowledged and addressed. For the fact, whether we admit it or not, is that learners of all ages – even small children – bring to the study of development an enormous amount of social and psychological baggage. Absorbed unthinkingly from one's family, from the prevailing culture, and from the media, these unexamined assumptions are the hidden curriculum in many a development education setting. And unless they are brought to the surface and become objectified as part of the educational content, these attitudes can interfere with the learner's capacity to engage with the very ideas and information we want to communicate.

In the scenario above, the photographs served as a means to uncover some very common attitudes. For one participant, the Guatemalan scene mirrored her own values: since I like having a large family, they must like it too. For another, the very same photograph became a screen upon which he could project some of his unexamined assumptions and stereotypes: they are less caring about their families, bothered less by poverty and misery than we would be.

The plight of the Ethiopian refugees brought out of one student feelings of pervasive guilt and powerlessness, and her response made it evident, both to herself and to all of us, that guilt may lead one not to action, but to depression and apathy. But the same picture produced in another a latent anger at injustice, and provoked the student into revealing his belief that the solution to world hunger is simple: throw surplus food at it.

Like many other Americans, these future teachers perceive people struggling with development, whether in the South or in our own communities, as significantly different from themselves. Not just in terms of culture, but in terms of the most basic human qualities. "They" don't mind it so much when their children sicken and die; "those people" are too ignorant to grow food as well as we do. Furthermore, if "they" could be more like "us" – more intellectual, creative and aggressive – they would be far better off. This "us" and "them" mentality, with its built-in stereotypes, myths, misinformation and ignorance, is a fertile breeding ground for the paranoia and fear which help maintain social, political and economic injustice. Within such a mindset, people who are shut out of the mainstream and who lack access to resources are perceived as less than fully human, perpetually powerless, weak and dependent. This perspective, I would contend, is one of the greatest obstacles in the way of a public commitment to sustainable development. For these attitudes are essentially incompatible with the political will to promote the global solidarity, grassroots empowerment and South-North partnerships that long-term international development will require.

However we go about it, the task is to provide opportunities for learners to identify with those struggling with development, and to discover our common humanity and mutual interests. The ideal way to accomplish this, of course, is through person-to-person dialogue. But that may not always be possible, or even if it is, some learners may need first to encounter their own negative attitudes before they can even benefit from such experiences.

One of my own responses to this need has been to devise a carefully structured process that can be used as a workshop, or a presentation, both in schools and in nonformal learning situations, as a first step to further education about development. This process, which could be glimpsed in the classroom scenario above, is a learner-centered approach which allows an instructor to use the attitudes and beliefs learners bring with them as the very building blocks of their educational experience.

Learner-centered approach

Discovering unexamined feelings and assumptions.

Within small groups and in silence, I ask the learners to study stark, black-and-white photographs depicting the development problems of the South. Silence is important because in the absence of other distractions, learners can come to grips with their own feelings and attitudes. The large-group sharing that follows takes place in a non-judgmental atmosphere so that even the most uncomfortable feelings can be articulated without fear of criticism. In this atmosphere participants can come to accept and learn from one another.

Learning about the realities of the struggle for development

Once this information has emerged, the learners go back into their small groups to speculate upon the causes of, and potential solutions to, the problems of underdevelopment revealed by their photos. After a large-group sharing session, the next step is to build upon what the learners do know, at the same time replacing any myths and misapprehensions with more accurate information about people, problems and solutions. This is done by depicting the issues from the "inside-out" – that is, from the perspective of those struggling to build a better life for themselves, and by encouraging participants to draw upon their own experience as a basis for understanding the experiences of people from the South. By these means learners not only gain new factual knowledge, but also become more able to identify with the aspirations and potentials of those working on their own development.

Discovering the beauty of the South

Having introduced and sensitized the learners to the serious development issues facing the poor of the South, and to what it will take for these issues to be resolved, I show a series of color slides. These slides capture the "other side" of the developing world: the beauty of its countryside, the bounty of its land, the promise of its creativity, the complexity of its culture, and the humanity of its people.

Making the local/global links

Next, we turn to some important questions which invariably arise: what about the problems in my own country? Shouldn't we do something about them first? A worksheet lists a number of crucial issues facing the learners' own communities and country; across from each such problem, they write down a problem in the South that might be in some way related. In the ensuing discussion, the group explores the nature of these relationships and considers the possibility that both sets of problems can and should be dealt with by North and South acting together. The emphasis here is on identifying common problems, mutual interests, and cooperative, win-win solutions.

Getting involved

The final phase is to identify informed and effective actions that might address these local/global problems. Another worksheet asks learners to list personal actions they could take as individuals to address these problems, and policy-making actions they could encourage at the local or national level. This is the point at which we must make a decision together about what the next step is to be: direct action? more education? or perhaps both?

I am optimistic about the ultimate effects this, and other similar attitude-change educational strategies, can have. It moved me deeply, for example, when at the end of the process, a young adult who shared many of Rod's attitudes found himself admitting "I had no idea they were just like us". This may not seem like a profound realization to some. But anyone who can remember the first time they knew – really knew in their hearts – we are a single human family, can appreciate how transforming to both the individual and society, this discovery can be. If we can successfully confront the attitudes blocking this awareness, we will be helping to dismantle the misunderstanding that perpetuates the misery of poverty and powerlessness. And by so doing, we can make a real contribute to making this a more sane and just world.

(This article is adapted from an article entitled The Subverters of Solidarity, from the Development Forum.)

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005