Learning and transformation: tracing shifts across MCC’s education program

[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Throughout its one hundred-year history, MCC has supported learning opportunities for millions of people in the United States, Canada and around the world. In the process, MCC has passed through its own arc of transformational learning as new experiences opened workers’ eyes, leading many to see themselves in a new light and even rethink their most basic assumptions about education itself.

MCC has supported education by sending teachers to other countries, providing scholarships for students, shipping millions of school kits and working to strengthen local partner schools. This education support has been driven by a belief that education improves people’s individual and collective lives by building knowledge, skills and values that prepare people for vocations and empower them to find new solutions to community problems.

In Kolkata, India in 2012, civil engineering students at Don Bosco Ashlayam’s Self-Employment Research Institute (SERI) work on a construction project. MCC’s Global Family program supported student Kanchan Kumari Shaw, left, and other students with financial need who qualified for enrollment in vocational training courses at SERI. (MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker)

MCC workers have also learned that formal schooling has a more problematic side, one of unintended negative impacts. In her 1977 reflection on Integrating Education and Development (a study written 15 years after MCC began intensive support for formal education as a key solution for problems in Africa), Nancy Heisey reached this staggering conclusion: “We have seen that education, defined as schooling, is one of the roots of the development problem for nations struggling with the demands of a modern world.”

This article examines MCC’s education approaches over the past century, while analyzing the successes and challenges MCC has faced in its education work. It will also explore concerns that MCC workers like Heisey raised about educational programs and MCC’s ongoing search for ways to support education that is liberative and empowering rather than being a “root of the problem.”

MCC’s first few decades focused on famine relief in Russia, the resettlement of Mennonite refugees to Paraguay and post-World War II relief efforts in Europe. Education was not MCC’s primary focus in these decades but was nevertheless sometimes part of these early efforts—for example, MCC supported children’s homes in Europe during and after the Second World War as well as schools in the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay. At this stage, the emphasis on education was more as a tool for shaping values and identity than as a tool for development. Specifically, these education initiatives sought to shape the values and identity of Mennonite communities and MCC workers.

We have seen that education, defined as schooling, is one of the roots of the development problem for nations struggling with the demands of a modern world.

—Nancy Heisey, 1977

Mennonite groups that had settled in Paraguay with MCC support insisted on having their own schools. A 1944 report quoted a common adage that held, “As the school, so the church,” explaining that the church is “vitally concerned with keeping absolute control over matters of education.” In the 1940s, some teachers in the Paraguayan Mennonite schools who had become adherents of Germany’s National Socialist ideology were using their influence to promote Nazi values among young people in the colonies. This raised great concern both within the Paraguayan Mennonite colonies and within MCC and generated calls for finding teachers who were “loyal to Mennonite Christian principles.” In a 1946 report to the Executive Committee, MCC’s director in Paraguay recommended that MCC should “use its influence [within Paraguayan Mennonite colonies] in the direction of securing the right kind of teachers.”

This understanding of education as a tool for shaping values and identity was also reflected in MCC-operated alternative service programs in the 1940s and 1950s. MCC and Mennonite church leaders recognized that alternative service terms had life-changing effects on Mennonite young adults and began to intentionally create orientations, trainings and curricula to maximize this transformational learning opportunity and so strengthen commitment to traditional Mennonite convictions. The MCC Peace Section was established in 1942 in part to “lead and aid our churches in the education of the youth in the ways of peace and non-resistance in keeping with our confession of faith as based on the word of God.”

In a 1947 Peace Section meeting, Rufus Franz gave a passionate call to strengthen MCC peace education. He argued that a person cannot “fully live according to the principles of peace” without a “heart changed experience.” He granted that education alone cannot bring about this miraculous transformation of one’s heart but did insist that education can “make the conditions so favorable that the miracle can be realized.” This could happen through Christian service: “we must help them [people in service] to lose themselves in order to save themselves, in Christian activity and service.”

From the 1950s onwards, MCC began to support educational initiatives that aimed to further economic development by securing education for more young people in the so-called developing world. So, for example, MCC launched scholarship programs to increase access to education for disadvantaged groups. In 1954, MCC began paying schooling costs for orphaned boys in Korea. This program of individual scholarships to help children access formal education soon expanded to other countries. These scholarships were funded by individual donors who received regular reports about the children they supported. This model eventually came to be known as Global Family, growing to over 2,000 students by 1968 and continuing for nearly fifty years in different forms.

Suha Namrwouty, age 6, learns letters and sounds from Ifidal Abu Madil at the Shoroq wa-Amal (Sunrise and Hope) children’s center in the Khan Younis Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Palestine in 2004. MCC’s Global Family program supported arts and sports and academic tutoring at the center for children who were growing up in the midst of poverty and violence. (MCC photo/Ryan Beiler)

MCC wrestled with tensions related to the sponsorship model. On the one hand, it generated strong interest from some supporters because of the sense of connection it created, giving donors a tangible glimpse onto the impact of their donations, and of course it provided life-changing educational opportunities for many thousands of children. On the other hand, the individual sponsorship model tended to reinforce a paternalistic dynamic between giver and receiver, created challenges related to participant selection and added a significant administrative load for MCC staff to facilitate individual connections. In the early years of this century, MCC stopped producing reports for donors about individual children, instead providing reports about MCC’s work with specific schools or informal education programs. This coincided with a programmatic shift within MCC’s education program towards strengthening educational quality and away from an exclusive focus on access.

MCC also supported education as a tool for development by placing teachers in schools. The first large-scale effort to place MCC teachers in schools was in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada beginning in 1956. Building on this experience, MCC established the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) in 1962 in response to a call from newly independent African nations who believed formal education was the key to economic development and modernization. Mennonite college graduates motivated by a desire to serve were also looking for opportunities to use their professional skills to make a positive difference in the world. TAP eventually placed over 200 teachers per year, providing over 2,800 “teacher-service years” over a quarter century, primarily in countries across Africa. MCC also placed many teachers across the United States during the sixties and seventies through the Voluntary Service program, including in Cleveland, Atlanta, Appalachia, St. Louis and Mississippi.

The reflections of MCC teachers about their work from the 1950s onwards tell the story of MCC’s own education as an organization. The majority of these teachers were white Mennonite college graduates driven by a desire to make the world a better place and inspired by the values of peace and justice nurtured by Mennonite colleges, churches and MCC itself. They went out with the best of intentions, motivated by visions of what they could accomplish, yet their service experiences prompted critical questions, as these workers’ worlds were turned upside down. Put bluntly, for many MCC teachers their own transformative education consisted in cracks in the internalized, subconscious sense of superiority over the people they were there to serve. The first crack was to simply notice these internalized attitudes. Whether in post-colonial Africa or in the white supremacist context of the United States, white MCC teachers began to realize that while education had the potential to empower, it was also shaping others in their image: success was understood to mean that students could eventually become teachers and continue the system their white teachers had set up. By 1970, a TAP report recognized this dynamic and described a hope for the gradual emergence of an “educational system which is more authentically Kenyan in character, and purpose.”

Whether in post-colonial Africa or in the white supremacist context of the United States, white MCC teachers began to realize that while education had the potential to empower, it was also shaping others in their image: success was understood to mean that students could eventually become teachers and continue the system their white teachers had set up.

In 1977, Nancy Heisey wrote her analysis of education and development, highlighting fundamental problems of the education system MCC supported and promoted: this system cultivated values of individualism and consumerism, reinforced a worldview of white, Western superiority and fostered a pyramidal societal model in which an elite few succeed while the majority are discarded and left unprepared for a vocation or life in a rural context. Such educational systems, Heisey observed, intensified rather than diminished inequality between rich and poor, an observation that led to her conclusion that formal schooling was “one of the roots of the development problem.”

The lessons of this era led to a slightly more humble, self-critical approach by MCC from the 1980s onwards. When MCC began sending English teachers to China in the early 1980s, the language was markedly different than when the first TAP teachers were sent to Africa twenty years earlier. Instead of helping “emerging nations . . . compress a century of development into the span of a decade” (MCC Workbook 1962 about TAP) or helping “the local protestant churches and overseas missions to inherit the land” (MCC Workbook 1965 about TAP), the new China Educational Exchange was described in 1982 as “an unusual opportunity for learning and serving in this moment of history. This is a venture of faith. In this program is the expectation, joy and wonder of growth. Neither do our Chinese friends nor we know where these exchanges will lead.”

In 1990, a landmark gathering in Lesotho brought together MCC staff and African educators and church leaders for an All-Africa Education Conference to evaluate MCC’s involvement in African formal education. The report from this conference echoed the critiques that Nancy Heisey had articulated 13 years earlier and concluded with the assertion that “MCC must listen to what Africans are saying.” The conference seemed to both acknowledge the flaws in the education system and affirm that MCC should stay engaged and support African efforts to improve and reshape the system.

The awakening awareness of white, colonial privilege in international contexts paralleled a growing recognition by the white majority within MCC of their privilege in the U.S. and Canada as well.

In the last quarter-century, MCC began to use the language of partnership and emphasize the idea of local ownership. Together, the emphases on partnership and local ownership have resulted in great diversity in MCC-supported educational ventures. Education partners today include early childhood education centers, primary and secondary schools, after-school programs, vocational training, peace education and education for children with disabilities. In this era of partnership, MCC’s role in education has shifted from direct teacher placement and MCC implementing educational programs to helping local schools and organizations do their educational work more effectively. MCC support now often comes in the form of grants to partners to buy materials, pay for activities, train staff and more. MCC staff facilitate reflective learning processes—commonly called planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting, or PMER—to help ensure accountability and transparency and to capture lessons learned that can strengthen the work or be shared with other partners. Emphases within MCC’s current education program include: strengthening school management committees to increase parent and local community involvement; improving gender equity in education; making education more relevant by focusing on practical vocational skills in addition to traditional academic subjects; strengthening child safeguarding practices to prevent and respond effectively to child abuse; and building teacher capacity to work with children who have experienced trauma.

Learning has been at the core of MCC’s work for one hundred years, as MCC has simultaneously worked to provide learning opportunities for others and intentionally tried to learn from its own experience. It is exciting to imagine what new opportunities and lessons are waiting in the years ahead.

Lynn Longenecker is MCC education coordinator, based in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Heisey, Nancy. Integrating Education and Development. Development Monograph Series. Volume 1. Akron, PA: MCC, 1977.

Theme issue on “Community Participation in Education.” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly. 7/3 (Summer 2019). Available at: https://mcc.org/media/resources/8812.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s