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Authors: James Tooley

The Beautiful Tree

BOOK: The Beautiful Tree
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Copyright © 2009 by Cato Institute.
All rights reserved.
The Cato Institute gratefully acknowledges the generous contribution of Steve G. Stevanovich to the production of this book.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tooley, James.
The beautiful tree : a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves / James Tooley.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-933995-92-2 (alk. paper)
eISBN : 97-8-193-39959-3
1. Poor—Education—Developing countries. 2. People with social disabilities—Education—Developing countries. 3. Tooley, James—Travel—Developing countries. I. Title.
LC4065.T66 2008
371.909172’4--dc22 2009004899
Cover design by Jon Meyers.
Printed in the United States of America.
1000 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
To Pauline
First, I want to thank all the educational entrepreneurs I have met over the years who are actively serving poor communities. Some of those I am working with now, who deserve my deepest appreciation and admiration, are M. Anwar, Reshma Lohia, Yasmin Haroon Lohi, K. Surya Reddy, K. Narsimha Reddy, M. Wajid, Ghouse M. Khan, S. A. Basith, M. Faheemuddin, Alice Pangwai, George Mikwa, Fanuel Okwaro, Theophilus Quaye, Ken Donkoh, B. S. E. Ayesminikan, and Liu Qiang. For assisting in funding and associated advice and support over the years, I want to thank (in roughly chronological order) Neil McIntosh; Michael Latham; Tim Emmett; the late Sir John Templeton; Jack Templeton; Charles Harper; Arthur Schwartz; Chester Finn; Peter Woicke; Stuart, Hilary and Andrew Williams; Theodore Agnew; and Richard Chandler. Colleagues and friends who have supported and encouraged me in my endeavors include Khan Latif Khan, Jack Maas, Gurcharan Das, Nandan Nilekani, the late Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu, I. V. Subba Rao, Hernando de Soto, Christopher Crane, Parth Shah, James Shikwati, Thompson Ayodele, Lanre Olaniyan, Barun Mitra, S. V. Gomathi, P. Paul Saran, Sailaja Edla, Chris and Suzie Jolly, Naveen Mandava, Bob Leighton, Deepak Jayaraman, Leonard Liggio, Jo Kwong, Terence Kealey, Linda Whet-stone, and John and Chris Blundell. For helping me to build the first embryonic chain of low-cost private schools in India, I thank Paul Gabie and the Orient Global team. Simon Kearney gave me useful comments on the manuscript, as did five anonymous referees, to whom I’m deeply grateful. Andrew Coulson has been the kind of editor and supporter an author dreams of, through good times and bad. Finally, I give thanks to my friends, colleagues, and students at Newcastle who’ve been an indispensable part of my life and work: Elaine Fisher, Karen Hadley, Nuntarat Charoenkul, Ekta Sodha, Liu Qiang (again), James Stanfield, Sugata Mitra, Richard Graham, and Pauline Dixon—to whom this book is dedicated.
1. A Discovery in India . . .
What Everyone Knows
My first real job was as a mathematics teacher in Africa. Right out of college, a couple of years after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, I went to help “Comrade” Robert Mugabe build his new socialist society. And what better way to assist than through public education?
During my interview with the minister of education at the Zimbabwe High Commission in London, I asked to be assigned to a rural school so that I could really help the poor. He smiled, clearly understanding my motivation, I thought. To my chagrin, I found myself posted to Queen Elizabeth High School, an all-girls school right in the center of Harare, the capital. Queen Elizabeth had originally been a whites-only elite institution, although when I joined it had a mixture of races (“African,” “Asian,” and “European,” as they were classified).
“This government wouldn’t waste you in the rural areas!” the (white) headmistress laughed when I arrived, meaning to compliment me on my mathematics degree. She explained that many daughters of politicians from the ruling party, Zanu-PF, were enrolled in her school, and of course they would look after themselves first! I dismissed her cynicism, putting it down to racism, and the incongruence of my assignment to administrative error. I also found my niche in the school; it seemed all the children trusted me, so I was able to help them get along with one another. But I spent as much of my spare time as possible in the rural “communal lands,” experiencing the realities of life there firsthand. In the process, I developed links between an impoverished rural public school and my own, bringing my privileged urban pupils there to help them appreciate all that Mugabe was doing for the
—the ordinary people.
Two years later, I managed to engineer an assignment to a public school in the Eastern Highlands. I lived and worked in a small school set on a plateau beneath the breathtakingly beautiful Manyau Mountains, from where the calls of baboons echoed as dusk fell and women returned from the river carrying buckets of water on their heads; leopards apparently still hunted at night on the rugged mountain slopes. I defended Mugabe’s regime to its critics, for at least it was engaged in bringing education to the masses, benefiting them in ways denied before independence. Before long, once richer urban people properly paid all their taxes and the international community coughed up a decent amount of aid, it would be able to make education free for all. That would be truly cause for celebration.
After all, everyone knows that the world’s poor desperately need help if every child is to be educated. Help must come from their governments, which must spend billions of dollars more on building and equipping public schools, and training and supporting public school teachers, so that all children can receive a free primary school education. But governments in developing countries cannot succeed on their own. Everyone knows that they, too, need help. Only when rich Western governments spend much more on aid can every child be saved from ignorance and illiteracy. That’s the message we hear every day, from the international aid agencies and our governments, and from pop stars and other celebrities.
As a young man, I believed this accepted wisdom. But over the past few years, I’ve been on a journey that has made me doubt everything about it. It’s a journey that started in the slums of Hyderabad, India, and has taken me to battle-scarred townships in Somaliland; to shantytowns built on stilts above the Lagos lagoons in Nigeria; to India again, to slums and villages across the country; to fishing villages the length of the Ghanaian shoreline; to the tin-and-cardboard huts of Africa’s largest slums in Kenya; to remote rural villages in the poorest provinces of northwestern China; and back to Zimbabwe, to its soon-to-be-bulldozed shantytowns. It’s a journey that has opened my eyes.
Read the development literature, hear the speeches of our politicians, listen to our pop stars and actors, and above all the poor come across as helpless. Helplessly, patiently, they must wait until governments and international agencies acting on their behalf provide them with a decent education. So we need to give more! It’s urgent! Action, not words! It’s all I believed during my early years in Zimbabwe. But my journey has made me suspect that it was, however well intentioned, missing something crucial. Missing from the accepted wisdom is any sense of what the poor can do—are already doing—for themselves. It’s a journey that changed my life.
BOOK: The Beautiful Tree
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