McEducation for All: Whose Agenda Does Global Education Really Serve?

The reflections in this article are a result of my explorations with rethinking education and development over the past 20 years. My work in essence is about strengthening peoples’ knowledge systems and cultural imaginations, and regenerating the larger learning commons that is necessary to move from a schooling society to learning societies. My essay has two deeper objectives: 1) To raise the bar of courage, dialogue and imagination required to think beyond the global monopoly of Education for All (EFA) which I believe needs to be exposed for what it really is, that is, McEducation for All; 2) To help reclaim and revitalize what is commonly called ‘informal education’, basically all of the natural learning that happens in everyday life that does not fit neatly into institutionalized categories of formal and non-formal education.

Let me start by evoking the image of slave castles and boats filled with slaves from West Africa. When I mention the period of slavery in Africa, I ask you to take a moment of silence to think what is the first word that comes to your mind. Is there a feeling of brutality, sadness, anger, repulsion, a sense of guilt or something else? Does the word Enlightenment come to mind, as in the Renaissance period, when this practice was at its peak?

I have asked many people what took so long to dismantle such a vicious and inhumane system? Of course, there was a lot of money being made by vested interests, but there were several moral arguments upon which that practice was held in place. Here are some of them:

  • Slavery is needed for the growth of the economy

  • The slaves are not intelligent enough to take care of themselves and slavery is being done to them for their own good and advancement.

  • Slavery has always existed and is a natural part of human society.

  • Getting rid of slavery would lead to greater violence and bloodshed.

  • The Africans are living in superstition and slavery is a necessary path for civilizing them.ii

​It seems that the grand narrative of the March of Progress silenced the conscience of humanity at that time. There is no need today to enunciate the devastating effects that slavery has had for humanity. However, as I will explore in this essay, the case has not been made so clearly yet for Education for All. It is quite revealing if one replaces the word ‘slavery’ with the word ‘education’ in the arguments above. The ‘white man’s burden’ can be seen to be alive and well in the 21st century.iii

In my travels around the word, I have found that on every issue, in every domain, education (read: factory schooling) is seen as a panacea, as a source of hope, as a symbol of great human upliftment. Whatever the problem, more education is ultimately posited as the answer. Since 1993, I have had the rare opportunity to have seen the EFA agenda which is supported by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, and governments from all over the world, up close from the perspective of a UN official, the ministry of education, an NGO member, an academic researcher, a teacher trainer/facilitator, an activist, a parent, and a lifelong UN-learner. My experiences in these various avatars, however, have led me to suspect that rather than being a grand solution for all of humanity, McEducation for All and the thinking and values that it represents might be at the core of the problem. 

Under McEducation for All, learning and knowledge, along with everything else in life, is to be extracted from an abundant gift of the commons and converted into a scarce good that can be processed, packaged and cleverly sold to us. McEducation for All tells us that we must all walk on a single universal, linear, standardized path of education and development, which is dictated by the logic of the industrial-military system. This path is controlled and managed by institutions, experts and technologies approved by the State- Corporate-NGO nexus. We are made to believe that McEducation, like McDonald’s, is a key step in the journey to a ‘developed’, ‘peaceful’, and ‘democratic’ civilization.

The Parrot’s Training

I would like to share a story that I adapted from the Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, in which he warned us of the dangers of McEducation almost 80 years ago. In 'The Parrot’s Training'iv, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison the wild and uncivilized parrot so that she can be properly educated by the king’s pundits. In addition to the 3Rs, she should also learn 'who is the boss' as well as be familiar with all the latest global brands. First, the teachers tried stuffing the bird with pages of the official textbooks. That did not work. Then a UNICEF project came with all kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques. They also taught the parrot about child rights. No improvement. Then the World Bank gave a loan to the king (with austerity conditionalities of course) to build a bigger cage with a nice toilet. Still, no difference. Then the OECD came with the PISA standardized tests and new a national policy white paper was written. Harvard researchers were invited to conduct studies on the parrot’s brain and multiple intelligences. Nothing worked. Then Apple gave it an iPad and a free high speed wifi connection. She even got her own facebook page. But the parrot was not allowed to leave the cage despite her obvious distress. In fact, she was scolded for being ungrateful and impertinent. Then she was given mindfulness training. Finally, anti- depressants drugs were prescribed. As the parrot was overstuffed with information and tormented by the pressure of competition, she internalized her label as a 'slow learner' and 'failure', and lost confidence in her gift of flight. She became totally dependent on the cage. One day the cage was accidently left open but she was afraid to venture out. Her dreams were reduced to being a rat in the rat-race. A deep loss of purpose ensued. Slowly her spirit withered away. In the end, a lot of people made a lot of money on the parrot’s education, everyone benefited except the parrot. The time has come to more deeply understand the nature of the cage and its impact on each of us and our communities in both the South and the North – beyond what the World Bank economists tell us. It is important to crack open and re-examine our definitions of progress, success, happiness and to look at how our imaginations for social action have been colonized by the cage.

We also need to question the assumption that, if we keep adding more and more bells and whistles onto the cage, we can actually fix or reform its fundamental nature. It is important to understand how the hidden curriculum, embedded in the structure of the cage, shapes our priorities and behaviours. Here, I would briefly like to name what I call the 5 Cs of the hidden curriculum which can be found in schools all over the world: compulsion, competition/comparison, commodification, compartmentalization of knowledge, and mono-culture. The parrot's cage has a complex symbiotic relationship with the global economic system: it molds human beings into 'human resources' to feed the economic growth machine and depends on funding from the Industrial-military paradigm to grow itself.

[There is also an elephant in the room which I feel is important to name: most of the people reading this essay’s salaries and livelihoods are dependent on the current system and most of us would not know how to survive if we lost our jobs. So I cannot help but wonder how much do we really want a radical paradigm shift when we talk of global education. Unless we also talk about this reality, this fear limits our ability to think and act beyond the cage.]

One hundred years from now, I believe that we will have a similar reaction towards McEducation for All as we do towards slavery as a devastating system of social control, cultural genocide, and modern servitude to the suicidal global economyv. Here, the worst form of slavery is not ignorance; rather, it is arrogance. We will ask ourselves how we could have done this to children and local communities all over the planet. For example, anyone claiming to be concerned with social justice and human rights must today answer the question of how they can continue to give legitimacy to a system of education which constantly labels and ranks millions of innocent and talented children around the world as ‘failures’ and discards them as rejects. It is personally very painful every time I meet a young person in India who describes himself as 'I am 10th class fail'. Failure has become part of their identity.

My Grandmother’s University...

People often ask me about what I have unlearned from my experience at Harvard Graduate School of Education. There are two things: one is the fear of livelihood, the other, is where to look for hope. Hope for me is no longer in fixing, reforming or transforming the McEducation for All cage. Let me explain this further. When I became an adult, I had the privilege of living with my illiterate village grandmother for 9 years. In addition to being an intense student of Mahatma Gandhi, I like to say that I did my PhD at my grandmother’s university since Jia, my grandmother, has shaken my ‘educated’, ‘civilized’ worldview up many times.

The most profound lesson I learned from her was the difference between knowing and being. I have been talking about sustainability for a long time but my grandmother did not give any lectures on zero waste lifestyles. She simply embodied it. I remember one time I had just eaten some mangos and was about to throw out the peel and the seeds. She asked me to dry them in the sun. I was shocked when I saw her a few days later making a tasty vegetable dish out of it. She said the peels of any fruit or vegetable were the most nutritious parts of it so she questioned why we throw them away. This was my first lesson in upcycling. Imagine how many more people we could feed on the planet if we remembered the art of cooking the peels of watermelons, zucchinis and squashes, peas, even aloe vera. Jia helped to see many things that had been rendered invisible to me by McEducation. She helped me to see the richness of the world of informal education. One day she sent me to collect goat shit pellets. She introduced me to a world in which shit was not a waste product but an asset. But that I will explore at another time.

It was at that time I met Madan, an eleven year old boy in nearby Bhuvana village in Rajasthan, who was a goat herder. His way of life was one where a sense of abundance, inter-connectedness and gratitude were common. It was a way of life that was free from aspirations for social mobility, modernisation or self-betterment in terms of capital accumulation. This very way of being was jeopardized by McEducation for All.

I do not want to over-romanticize Madan’s world. There are hardships and challenges in his context, but there are things that McEducationists cannot see, such as beauty, creativity, diverse knowledges, community and power. In India, educationists usually sarcastically posit the options for education as either you study hard and climb the ladder of factory schooling or you will be left behind as an illiterate goat herder. Sadly, most educationists have never bothered to spend even an hour to understand the deep learning lives of the goat herders or farmers or local artisans.

I had the privilege to spend some time with Madan and other boys and girls involved in herding goats and buffalos for their families. Within a few hours my perspective on them had totally changed. I found their lives and knowledge to be extremely rich. Madan knew about most of the plant and animal species in his eco-system. As we walked, he identified 10 trees with berries for me which could be eaten during different seasons. He also knew several medicinal plants for treating the goats when they were sick or injured. He could catch all kinds of snakes and identify lots of birds. He and the other kids would make up many games. They would make their own toys out of twigs and leaves, tell riddles and sing songs and climb trees and swim in the streams. He knew about the politics of his village, about the links between the land mafia, politicians and mining companies which threatened his community. Madan understood the power of silence and meditation. He had a deep sense of harmony and interconnectedness with life. And his understanding of management was amazing. I have challenged my MBA students to come and manage a herd of 25 goats for a day but have not found any takers yet. Madan had a strong curiosity, affection and confidence. It was hard to say that he was not learning anything by not going to school. In fact, I wondered if his education was better than mine. He had a higher ecological intelligence for sure. School children may know how to spell G.O.A.T. but they will probably never experience goats like Madan.

Thanks to McEducation for All and the India Right to Education Act, Madan has started going to school. He is now officially a ‘first generation learner’. He will be made to believe he is educated and have a deep sense of shame for his parents and ancestors who were all uneducated and have supposedly never learned anything. He will be systematically uprooted from his local culture and language, local ecology and local gift culture economy, and be remolded to serve the global economy – both as a worker, or if he is lucky as a manager, and as a consumer. He will learn that he is ‘poor’ and the best things in life cost a lot of money. So he will sell his goats and lands to buy a motorcycle and flat screen TV and move to the city.

In India, we talk about the outbreak of farmer suicides in due to the trap of big industrial agriculture. But we don’t want to talk about the fact that no one in Madan’s school wants to be a farmer. Or a weaver or a potter or a cobbler. If you mention any of these traditional sustainable professions to the children, their eyes are filled with a very deep sense of inferiority and shame. This has been the case in my visits to hundreds of classrooms across India.

Through these experiences, I started questioning many things. One was my understanding of child labour. I used to think that all labor was a distraction from learning. But I learned that meaningful labor is a phenomenal source for meaningful learning. Gandhi talked about a new system of education which involved the head, heart and hands. With the mantra, work is worship, the first task he had for those who came to join him in the movement for freedom was to clean the toilets. He knew that there is a real dignity of the human spirit that is grounded in one’s physical labor. The industrial system has come to see labor as a source of drudgery to be escaped rather than as a source of joy, cooperation, imagination, play, mindfulness, and hope. Gandhi’s spiritual successor, Vinoba Bhave, once articulated a very meaningful vision for education, “My goal is to live a life in which I am not being exploited nor I am surviving by exploiting others”. McEducation for All has produced a class of global parasites, who disdain physical labor, except for playing video games, watching sports on TV or going to the gym.

I also started questioning what I had been taught on gender and women’s empowerment. Many feminists have taken up “Education of the Girl Child” as one of their key issues. This has become a very emotional issue as they want to liberate their brown and black sisters. They do not realize, however, that they are falling into a trap of wiping out the most powerful source of resistance and regeneration. For me, hope on the planet still exists today because of so-called illiterate village women. They are the last bastion of protection against global assault. They are the holders of the non-GM seeds, forests, water bodies, healing traditions, cultural festivals and stories, gift culture economies and access the spirit world. They live the most sustainable zero waste lifestyles on the planet. They live with deep compassion and love. They are the backbone for many leading social movements around India. The recent Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada River) featured 51 villagers, the majority of them illiterate women, who had the courage to stand in neck-deep cold river water for 16 days to protest violation of their rights due to a large dam project. McEducation for All negates the power and love of my grandmother as well as that of these women leaders.

The Dangers of EFA

The Education for All policy agenda raises a number of issues that are often sidelined in international discussions on educational policy and practice, I will use my context in India to illustrate two of these issues. First, because we do not have a lot of school cages in India, we have been told over and over again that we are poor in education. Just as it ranks and labels students, the Education for All agenda ranks countries. We are told year after year that we are stupid, inferior and poor. In the 2011 Human Development Index, India with diverse ecosystems and a population of 1.2 billion ranked 134 out of 187 countries. Norway with a population of 5 million was ranked 1st in the same list. Talk about comparing apples and oranges. A hierarchy of knowledge has been put in place with no space in the educational establishment for questioning its basic parameters. We are told to fight to climb up the education ladder. Curiously on the world Happiness Planet Index which is adjusted for sustainability and happiness, India ranks 32. How do we make sense of this?

Through my experiences in my Grandmother’s University I have discovered that India is rich in informal education modalities which take place through apprenticeship learning, learning from nature, joint families systems, community media and festivals, spiritual centres, etc. Interestingly, none of these are controlled by the State or the Market institutions. They are self-organizing learning spaces. They are powerful everyday sites of resistance and regeneration of our political-spiritual imaginations.

However, if you look at all the national plans produced by countries and their international consultants, mainstreaming education has meant monoculture. All of the plans look essentially the same focusing on the same model of factory schooling and killing innovation. The monoculture of the EFA approach negates this diversity of the informal education systems and its myriad of cosmologies, epistemologies, languages and pedagogies. It is indeed strange that we can have 100 types of toothpaste but only one model/definition of education. EFA also prevents ‘good mentors’ that are abundant in local communities from teaching by proposing that those who do not have B.Ed, MA or PhD should not have any role in the educational process. Perhaps most troubling, is that it perpetuates a global arrogance that ‘we know’ – we know what is good for all the diverse cultures in the world, we know how to control nature, we know how to save the planet.

The second troubling point that EFA and the Millennium Development Goals have a strong emphasis on is public-private partnerships. For us in India, this is coded language for giving a carte blanche to multinational corporations to illegally acquire lands and bypass social and environmental regulations. It also means additional power to the state to silence protest movements through any means necessary. I have found that Education for All is a tool for intellectual and moral intimidation. It humiliates and silences the wisdom of the local communities which might raise questions that challenge the dominant development model. Elders are continuously told that they are backward and illiterate, and so they are not ‘qualified’ to make decisions about progress and development. So their control over their lands and resources should be handed over to the intelligentsia of global managers to handle.

The sad thing is that the EFA is being promoted by very good and well-intentioned people. Similar to slavery, the monoculture of McEducation for All is also justified by the relentless March of Progress.

Post-2015: We need a new story

Luckily, we are living in a time of global churning. We are surrounded by great anxiety and great opportunities. Therein lies the paradox. It is exactly during these uncertain times of fear when we must be most willing to try new things, to be more open, curious, experimental and courageous. Beyond the fields of left and right ideologies is the garden of disenchantment and re-imagination. I invite you to meet me there.

Rather than trying to fight or reform the education system, I think we need a new story. The game has changed and calls for a radically new vision of education - one that is so beautiful and compelling that it will make the McEducation for All one obsolete. I believe that a key element of this new story will be based in what I call the “Pedagogy of the Gift Culture”. The new story will facilitate a shift from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, a shift from isolated individualism to deep interconnectedness and collaboration, a shift from the hyper-efficiency of monoculture to the beautiful self-organizing messiness of diversity.

I would like to share one of the experiments that I am involved in India which is part of the new story. Swaraj University ( is India’s first gift culture university dedicated to regenerating the local economy, local culture and local ecology. The focus is on self, sustainability, social justice and social entrepreneurship. We call the learners, khojis, which means seekers. We encourage and support each of the khojis to enter the process of exploring their own 'experiments with truth' (which is the title of Gandhi's biography). From Day 1, students are asked what they want to learn, what is important to them, what is their deeper search, and are introduced to several key processes of self-design learning such as unlearning and deep listening. There are a few important aspects which I would like to highlight: 1) each student designs their own personalized learning programs based on their dreams for their lives and their community. They learn/work on authentic projects which affect the lives of others; 2) students are initiated in peer co-learning and community living and the mundane but important day-to-day life questions of shit, waste, food, water, energy, entertainment, power and conflict; 3) students have the power to choose their own mentors. Our 'faculty' include non-PhD teachers, traditional artisans and village healers and farmers, jail inmates, children, mentally challenged adults, and others. Gandhian educationist, Dayalchand Soni has noted that, “Real democracy does not come when people choose their leaders. Real democracy can only come when people can choose their own gurus"; 4) there are no degrees or qualifications required to join Swaraj University and there are no degrees issued. We believe that those who need degrees are not sure about their own knowledge. They need a piece of paper to remind them of what they learned; 5) there are no fees to join Swaraj University as we are trying to de-commodify learning and re-build the gift culturevi. Khojis are encouraged to receive the gift of learning in the spirit of ‘pay it forward’.

In conclusion, I have attempted to raise the stakes on EFA. Gandhi talked a lot about satyagraha, truth-force or non-cooperation. If we want to support a vision of non-violent social change, then we must develop a strategy of non-cooperation in which we actively walkout and withdraw our moral support and resources from this global McEducation for All system. We must challenge the pillars of the Hidden Curriculum - as they show up in the school as well as in our alternative spaces. I would like to finish this article by invoking the Zapatistas movement: can we imagine a world in which many worlds are possible? In other words, is global education willing to take a stand on the hegemony of McEducation for All?

i This article was excerpted from a speech delivered at the 2nd European Congress on Global Education in Lisbon, Portugal from September 27-28, 2012.
ii See Robert Higgs. Ten Reasons Not to Abolish Slavery. <

iii Also see the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.
iv See 9502E9CD11FD&ti=4A57AB73-A4A0-4FB5-251D-9502E9CD11FD
v See this apology from the Prime Minister of Australia in 2008 to the aboriginals who were part of the Stolen Generation eighty years ago <>.
vi For more on the spirit of the gift culture, see Reclaiming the Gift Culture, 

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