The savior complex: One the harsh realities of “voluntourism” in developing countries

As the conclusion of my senior year of high school approached, it became obvious that there was an expectation that I would get my life together. And, while most of my peers were brave and patient enough to get on with it already, I decided to skirt “adult life” for another year and instead traveled around the world for seven months, engaging in various work projects. This was how I found myself in the wholly miserable position of teaching English and mathematics for four weeks in a rural primary school in northern India.

I understand your dismissal of my disdain for the position. After all, many Western students travel to poor countries to teach the less fortunate, the less educated, the oppressed. They champion themselves as bringers of knowledge, as if they are the light in otherwise dark lives.

I went into Gayan Deep fully expecting to fall passionately in love with these children, and to have them love me back with a sort of dazed, bright-eyed adoration. I wanted that moment, when I would watch understanding light up their faces and see how the education I provided would make their lives more meaningful. After all, I was raised to think that the best way to  to cure poverty, sexism and oppression, was to educate, thoroughly and earnestly.

What I failed to know, or even consider, was that the education solution so carefully peddled to me was, in reality, a prison sentence for these children.

I was a middle-class white female from a Western country. I had no teaching experience and lacked even the most basic grasp of Hindi. I was implicitly told that I was somehow qualified to insert myself into these children’s lives. I believed I could inspire them, champion them, when, in fact, I was so far removed from their reality that I was essentially nothing more than a spectacle.

Beyond that, the entire foundation of this education system is built on Western ideas of how to measure success. Students are subjected to English exams and are told their scores reflect intelligence and ability to succeed. Teachers assign pages of text for students to memorize and later regurgitate. Class proceeds as the students stand and repeat the same empty words, fumbling to line them up in the exact same order in which they were presented. They drone on about complex verb conjugations and elaborate sentence structure but fail to comprehend questions about their favorite color. These were the questions we weren’t supposed to ask, the ones that didn’t appear with an answer in the book: What’s your favorite animal? What did you eat for breakfast? How are you today? How can I help you?

This is not done with malicious intent. On the contrary, I spoke extensively with one teacher who believed she was building a brighter future for these children. The reality is that the scores on these tests shape the jobs opportunities these children will receive. It is disheartening to those who have been taught to think, not recite. These are children — individuals, who have thoughts, ideas and potential to shape the world around them. But the influence of the Western world has convinced them that this is the only way forward. They must learn English, pass their exams and chase the ideals set forth by the more “developed” countries. And to what end? Why should the Western standard of success be the only one against which to measure their lives?

Development is a tricky subject. But what I’ve come to believe is that sometimes a Western education is not the one that will be most beneficial to the community and the individual. What good does an English education do for children whose only career path is to work on their parents’ farm? It sounds harsh, but sometimes, more education is not a necessity. Yes, it can be empowering, but it can also be detrimental. In so many ways, we are products of our education, both inside and outside the classroom. In that way, education can almost be a source of oppression. In refusing to teach the local language, in insisting on an education based on Western ideas, can we ever claim to be liberating these children? Or are we simply perpetuating a system of oppression to which we are so numb? I can’t help but feel like it is my fault that these children are subjected to tireless repetition and mind-numbing teaching. Indirectly, they are being oppressed, not only by their teachers but also by an entire system built on this skewed idea that “West is best.”

I watched a four-year-old child beaten with a stick for not knowing that her favorite color needed to be pink, not yellow. That was my moment — not the one I was promised, not the one that all “voluntourism” students are promised, but the one that mattered — the one whe I knew that we were wrong. I knew that in trying to bring an education to these children, and in trying to convince ourselves that we knew what was best for an entire culture about which we knew next to nothing, we were causing immense and irreparable harm. We did not belong there.

Elinor Sherman ’20 is from Rockville, Md. She lives in Mills. 

One comment

  1. Elinor,
    Your intrepid courage in reaching beyond yourself and traveling to India to teach children amidst difficult circumstances is deeply touching and will be rewarded, in more ways than can you fathom. You will find as you get older, the hard-won insights acquired during your time in India, will serve as invaluable wells of wisdom in many situations. The humility that you learned during your stint, is another intangible, priceless treasure. Humility and honesty go hand-in-hand. As we grow more honest with ourselves and others, the real self emerges from this deep earth of the mind and heart, this humility, and this is true power, for one then sees things not as they seem, but as they are. I understand that deep down, your heart was wounded by this experience in India. You have a wonderful heart and mind, and have a wonderful future ahead of you. A truly powerful woman is attuned to soundings in her heart, while guided by a robust mind and deep courage, all of which you have, and will led you to great success in life.

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