International schools and white savior complex

An ad at the old international airport; it reads “Empowering Students to Make a Difference”

The other evening was Back to School Night at Devin’s school, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It was the first time I was able to attend one of these since 8th grade (they’re in 11th grade now). It was refreshing to be at the school in person, see all the teachers, and talk to them face to face instead of in Google Meet. Also, Devin has all new teachers this year (a few of them new to the school), so it was good to have a less awkward first encounter. For me, meeting new people is awkward enough. Meeting through a screen is downright painful.

What stuck with me, though, was part of the welcome speech the director of the school made, when he was talking about the seven heartbeats at the molten core of the school’s mission or some such thing. These were: Community, Inclusion, Inspiration, Global Citizenship, Action, Sustainability, and the Mongolian Context. What he had to say about the last one really got me thinking, especially since in our experience of three years at the school, it wasn’t true at all.

What he said was that Mongolia was the starting point for all the school’s activity (well, geographically, yes, absolutely), and that even though the school was preparing students to solve global problems and be good global citizens, the problem-solving students were learning must be rooted in Mongolian soil. Or words to that effect. The idea was that we, as a school, would participate in solving Mongolia’s problems as a way to get insight into solving global problems.

It was said with the best of intentions, and I know that international schools are expected to contribute to their host countries so as to not be completely parasitical or detached (they could tend towards either, or both). And when the international school is in a poor country like Mongolia, that contribution takes specific forms. The school organizes “service learning” opportunities for some of the students who are interested to volunteer at orphanages, schools for the disabled, soup kitchens, public parks, and the like. There are a couple of after-school clubs (called co-curricular activities or CCAs) that help connect students of various ages to these possibilities. Many of the students don’t participate or can’t participate. In this past round of CCA sign-ups, there was one for volunteering at the Rainbow Center, a special education center for children, and only a handful of students had signed up. In fact, it was one of the only CCAs with space available after the first day of sign-ups. Others, involving sports, arts, or music, had filled up completely.

Each year, the school organizes what’s now called a week without walls (WWW; when we first got here in 7th grade, it was called Ideals Week). The students are organized by grade and go out to the Mongolian countryside to experience nature and Mongolian culture. In seventh grade, Devin’s class went to Hustai National Park and learned about the conservation of the takhi or Mongolian wild horse (also known as Przewalski’s horse). They didn’t have a WWW in 9th grade because of the pandemic, but last May their class went to Terelj National Park to learn about birdwatching. They also visited a Mongolian family and helped them with their chores, and also played games with kids at an orphanage along the way.

This fall, I darn near had a heart attack when the first email I got about WWW was for a week of mountain biking (with Devin’s chronic pain, this sounded like a nightmare), but it was quickly followed up with a new email about a trip to an archaeological site in central Mongolia instead. (The mountain biking trip was for the 10th grade.) The archaeology trip sounded way more interesting, and as a former archaeologist, after I read the program, I was quite jealous. The kids would stay at the archaeological site and spend a day helping at the excavation (only a day???), and then visit other sites in the area and learn more about Mongolian history. And there was the obligatory visit to a nomadic family to learn about their way of life, help them milk animals, herd sheep, clean up the area, and collect firewood. A change in the program added a half-day of cleaning up trash along a nearby river. In this way, the week counted as an educational experience (learning about history and archaeology), as well as a service, helping a nomadic family (thereby learning about how they live) and cleaning up trash.

The student attitudes towards WWW are mixed, but in Devin’s grade they are mainly negative. The students complained about having to do “child labor” at the archaeological site, as well as with the nomadic family the clean-up. Before the trip, we were talking about how incredibly cool it was to be able to do archaeology in Mongolia (!!!), and all the stuff Devin would learn. But by the time they left, Devin felt that they were the only student who was excited about the trip. We thought maybe there were some other kids who might also be excited but couldn’t admit it because it wasn’t cool. During the trip, Devin discovered that was optimistic. In fact, the time the kids spent excavating was cut short because the students complained so much, and they basically complained throughout the trip.

I am not entirely sure how much confidence I’d have in this group of students’ abilities or interests in solving Mongolia’s problems or even really caring that much about them. Granted, they’re a small sample, and I only hear what Devin reports about them. But they don’t seem very inspired or inspiring, despite the glowing speeches from the school’s director. (Devin’s reaction to the director’s speeches, which they hear more frequently than I have, is, “Are you talking about this school?”) It seems like a lot of the messages about “global citizenship” and “the Mongolian context” are lost on this crowd. But since the way they are primarily being taught to care about (and for) Mongolia is perceived as “child labor” in the form of participating in and/or learning about discovering Mongolia’s historical, cultural, or natural world, as well as picking up trash or stopping off at an orphanage for a few hours, it’s not too surprising.

At least in the middle and high school grades, Mongolia makes only rare appearances in the classroom. We were surprised by this in 7th grade, when we were told that the curriculum included field trips and other opportunities to learn about Mongolia. It didn’t. In fact, it turns out the WWW is pretty much the field trip, and it’s an extensive one, but the lessons learned are not worked into classroom discussions or activities before or after the trip, so it remains separated from the main curriculum.

The Mongolian context is pushed out in favor of one of the other “heartbeats,” global citizenship, which seems to mean learning about history and society mainly from a Western perspective, at least in the Middle Years Programme (7th-10th grade). The reason for this is that IB schools need to be relatively homogeneous so that students can move around between them without missing out on much material. Students become global citizens in the sense that they become part of a cosmopolitan class of people who can move around the world, mingling with other members of the cosmopolitan class, who are mainly working for multinational corporations, international organizations, and embassies. They move frequently from one country to another and often don’t put down roots. Thus, they become citizens of the world (an abstract, nationless concept) rather than any particular country. (I have a lot to say about this concept of “global citizenship,” but that’s another blog post.)

At Devin’s school, at least in their grade, about 60% of the class is Mongolian. The other 40% are a mix of nationalities, but majority American. It has changed over the years we’ve been at the school (the DP program seems to be more like 75% Mongolian). The school is an expensive one, and the Mongolian students are from wealthy, elite backgrounds. Devin’s class includes the sons of the former president of Mongolia, and children of the owners of Mongolia’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises (along with many other companies), as well as the Khan Bank, one of the country’s largest banks. Many of the Mongolian kids don’t seem to feel any particular attachment to Mongolia, according to what they say at school, and are often disdainful of their country, talking frequently about its poverty and “backwardness.” They go to other countries for their medical care and vacations, and many of their parents spend considerable time abroad. The boys appreciate the “macho” characteristics of Mongolian culture but otherwise don’t seem to have much use for it. Few of them are even fluent in Mongolian, since they have been learning in English from a young age. A side-effect of international schools is that kids begin to identify strongly with a white-coded cosmopolitan culture. They identify more with white people, especially Americans and other white westerners, than they do with poor or even middle-class citizens of the country they grew up in or live in. And they know more about American popular culture than my kid who grew up in America.

So how does the white savior complex fit in? It fits in through the notions of the global citizenship that the school cultivates, and its relationship to the Mongolian context. If the idea is to “do good” or “help” Mongolians solve Mongolian problems, then voices of other Mongolians, aside from elite children and parents, need to be part of the conversation. A lot of what I hear around the school reminds me of a series of tweets the Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole made after the release of the YouTube disaster “Kony 2012” by the organization Invisible Children, as well as a follow-up article he wrote for the Atlantic, which also contains the tweets.

My personal favorite of Cole’s seven tweets was the third one, “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” This is how I feel about a lot of the activism (if you could call it that) promoted by ISU in Mongolia. It’s about helping underprivileged children, stray animals, and pristine nature in a way that is safe and sentimental. Which is not inherently bad, but it can lead people to feeling like they are doing good without challenging them to think about the deeper causes of the problems they are trying to solve, or their complicity in them. A lot of students participate in volunteer activities not out of a genuine desire to discover long-term solutions to deeply intrenched socio-economic inequalities in Mongolian society, but because they are required to (as part of the IB curriculum called Service as Action in the middle years and Creativity, Action, and Service in the diploma program), or because the volunteer service will look good on a college application. It is part of a performative philanthropy that enables people to look as though they are helping, and thus to feel good about themselves, while serving other needs at the same time (getting into college).

The white savior complex has its origins in predominantly white philanthropy, bolstered by American and western foreign policy, as outlined in Cole’s article. But it’s not exclusively a white phenomenon. The label refers to the nature of the endeavor, and the exclusion of the perspectives, articulated needs, and participation of the people that are the targets of the philanthropy. In his critique, Cole points out that “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of ‘First do no harm.’ There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Programs like WWW and other activities available to ISU’s students don’t explicitly establish an equal dialog between rural Mongolians and the students. Other, more long-term activities such as the CCA at the Rainbow Center might, but not easily or automatically, given how few of the students speak Mongolian, as well as their tendency to see themselves as superior to the recipients of their benevolence. When Mongolia comes up in classes, it’s usually as an example of a poor country that needs help.

Obviously, these thoughts are not complete, nor are they based on any kind of real research. They are just musings I’ve had based on what I’ve seen and heard about some of the activities at Devin’s school. Other international schools may be radically different and enable their students to develop deep understandings of and even deep ties with their surrounding communities. But thinking about the IB curriculum, and its emphasis on academic rigor and uniformity, it would seem difficult to make these a sustained part of what the students do in their classes. At best, Mongolia might serve as an example of something. Especially in the last couple of years, the focus is almost exclusively on taking and passing the high-stakes exams at the end of the 12th grade, which determine whether the student gets the coveted IB diploma or not. These exams are global, not local, and the knowledge needed to pass them is globally standardized. The students are, at this point, so necessarily focused on passing these exams and going on to the next step in their education or careers, that they have little time for worrying much about the complex environmental, social, political, and economic problems that the country they live in is facing.

I can and do apply this to my own work in Mongolia as well. I work at an international university, but the majority of the students are Mongolian, and the school seeks to contribute to the Mongolian context while training students to be international citizens and employees. Since before I even started working at MIU back in 2018, I have questioned what I can possibly contribute to my students’ knowledge and lives, given who I am and what I know. The answers are, for me, complex, and I am still working out what my contribution really is. But this post is long enough, and I can write more about it later. But I do often wonder if what I am doing here has any value for anyone but me.

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