Friday, November 16, 2012

Keep Education Open and Inclusive

Many public school administrative staff and teachers do what they can to address issues of racial equity within their education institutions. In most cases, it's not enough. Others believe issues like diversity and inclusion should play minor roles in education. After all, the only necessary things students must be taught to be successful are reading, writing and arithmetic, right?
Assimilation through Education...
Not so fast. If history has taught us anything, it’s that trying to educate young people without taking into account their rich and distinct culture is not only counterproductive, it’s de-humanizing.
November is Native American Heritage Month. What does that have to do with educating children? More than a century ago, Native Americans weathered considerable attempts to have their traditional ways replaced with those authorized by government ‘experts.’ This included programs that ended up removing Native Americans from their lands and the de­struction of their livelihoods.
Culturally destructive programs centered on reconditioning an entire population of people were instituted in the late 1800s. The purpose: remove Native American children from their rightful heritage and traditions and impose a ‘proper’ ed­ucation. Included was a no doubt well-intentioned, yet ultimately ham-handed indoctrination designed to compel the children of a conquered people to accept a new way of being. It was called it Assimilation through Education.
In an effort to make Native American youth proper, patriotic and pro­ductive American citizens, the government introduced federally-run boarding schools, reservation boarding schools and other day schools. Among the curriculum, schools adhered strictly to speaking English only. Classes were conducted with military-like schedules and discipline, and emphasized farming and other manual skills. The daily schedule was split between vocational training and academics. By 1893, education in this way was mandatory for Native American kids.
Material change; spiritual genocide
When the students were brought to the school, they were systematically ‘de-cultured.’ Included in the process, they were re-clothed; anything resembling native attire was forbidden. Boys were issued stiff uniforms and girls ‘proper’ dresses. For people used to an entirely different form of attire, these were constricting, often uncomfortable clothing.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which incidentally was part of the nation’s War Department (the equivalent of today’s Department of Defense) stopped supporting this form of education in the 1920s. Complaints about cost, substandard living conditions, poor medical care, and poor teaching practices contributed to the demise of this ultimately debilitating program.
At the time, many in government held the position that Native Americans weren’t inferior because of their race or skin color. Rather, it was because of their culture, which was no longer relevant to contemporary (i.e., white) civilization, and should therefore be discarded. The takeaway from this is that historic attempts to strip a people of their traditions have time and again resulted in cultural scarring and psychological degradation of all peoples.
I realize we are not personally responsible for the often deliberate and insensitive acts perpetrated on Native Americans generations ago. But we must hold ourselves accountable for benefiting from their rich, fertile lands and the natural resources stripped from them. At the same time, we should continue to guard against our proclivity to wholly discount and even discard non-dominant cultures and ways of being, just because they are different from what we are used to.
So as we educate our children, remember the unyielding truth that there is more to learning than the three Rs. If we don’t, we condemn ourselves to repeat the shameful parts of our American history, and rob our children of opportunities to tap into all our inherited cultural richness and seek their full potential.

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