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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Small Is Beautiful, Economic Development, and Education: Lessons and Insights

podcast / downloadable mp3 file

E. F. Schumacher's seminal work, Small Is Beautiful, while a bit dated (it was first published in 1973), provides valuable insight into how and why countries that have high poverty rates and low economic growth may have problems with technology. It also suggests why technology implemented by industrialized nations may not help lesser-developed nations progress, but instead, heightens dependency. Schumacher helps explain what we have seen with globalization; namely, that the gap between the rich and the poor widens, and that corruption and exploitation often dominate all human enterprise. Eventually, poorer nations lose their autonomy and production capacity, resulting in crumbling infrastructure and ever-increasing poverty.

Schumacher makes the case that technology and industrialization projects in lesser-developed nations are inappropriate and thus harmful to the nation. His thoughts are echoed by John Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004), who describes how "white elephant" and gigantic development projects funded by means of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank often lead to massive foreign debt, which destabilizes an entire country's economy and results in a drain of funds which are used to pay off the debt rather than in education, roads, health, and infrastructure.

The economic growth promised by the giant hydroelectric dams, the pipelines, the modern airports, and toll-road systems never materializes. In the meantime, corruption takes hold as primary contractors (generally large multinational corporations) have record profits and relatives of government officials make money on subcontracting and providing raw materials. The brother-in-law who owns the cement company that provides material for the building of the dam makes out like a bandit, and his profits end up in Switzerland or in an offshore bank, not in the economy that so desperately needs it.

What implications does this have for education?

We can take this a step further and ask the following question: How can online education and appropriate technology come together in a salubrious manner for lesser developed nations?

For Schumacher, the education available for individuals in developing nations is usually the worst for their needs. Instead of practical, in-depth knowledge in subjects that will allow individuals to participate in the specialized jobs that foreign nationals are taking (engineers, technological specialists, communication experts), higher education consists of what Schumacher characterizes as "an amateurish smattering of all major subjects, or a lengthy studium generale in which [learners] are forced to spend their time sniffing at subjects which they do not wish to pursue, while they are being kept away from what they want to learn" (Schumacher, 1989, p. 98). In addition to being unappealing, inappropriate education assures that individuals will not find jobs appropriate to their education level, and will be underemployed -- often as waiters and taxi-drivers for the technical specialists hired by multinational corporations.

According to Schumacher, higher education in both the developed and lesser developed world, lacks ethical groundings. Instead of incorporating any kind of metaphysics, divine purpose, or guiding vision, today's education tends to stress what Schumacher characterizes as the "six great ideas." The six great ideas Schumacher refers to are not those of Mortimer Adler, who claimed they were truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice (Adler, 1981), which sounds very superficial. Schumacher claims that the six great ideas are holdovers from the nineteenth century: evolution, natural selection, distrust of religion, Freudianism, relativism, positivism (Schumacher, 1989, p. 93). What Schumacher wants is a re-infusion of values and metaphysics, which might actually coincide with Adler's truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice.

Unfortunately, a rejection of modernism and postmodernism which involves reinfusing values runs its own risks, as one can observe with fundamentalist groups of all sorts. Ostensibly, a doomsday cult such as Heaven's Gate ( which led to mass suicide, could be a paragon of metaphysics-grounded living, if one takes Schumacher at face value.

Let's return, however, to the original question. How can online education and appropriate technology come together in a salubrious manner for lesser developed nations? There must be equal respect paid to content as well as construct. Without being ephemerally utilitarian, "appropriate" education would include a grounding in theory, applications of ethics, and a mastery-learning approach to content which requires individuals to be able to do something with what they are learning, and what they are doing needs to mean something to them.


Adler, M. (1981). Six Great Ideas. NY: Touchstone.

Perkins, J. (2004). Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. NY: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Schumacher, E. F. (1989). Small Is Beautiful, 1989 ed. (first edition, 1979). NY: HarperPerennial.

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