There is More Than One Way to Learn

August 11, 2011
By Anonymous

In “civilized” society, it is not common or even comfortable to question the intrinsic value of formal education as something good and a way out of poverty for those hardworking enough to capitalize on the opportunity given to them. No one wants to question that the export of the outdated Western system of education may bring more negative consequences than positive for relatively intact indigenous cultures. It is our assumption that education is the key to reducing poverty in the “developing” world, the key to unlocking the secrets of prosperity that we enjoy in the West. However, forcing education on traditional societies is not the godsend we declare it to be, but rather a manifestation of our feeling of cultural superiority and an express route to destroying and devaluing all the knowledge and wisdom contained in an ancient culture in as little as one generation.

The American government had this goal in mind when they took it upon themselves to “civilize” the “savages” that already inhabited the land they wanted to turn into a money-making empire. Forcibly taking children away from their families and communities and putting them into boarding school dormitories, they were encouraged to “Let all that is Indian within you die,” in the words of the headmaster of Carlisle Indian School. That meant instilling a sense of “American” identity in children too young to know what they were being robbed of and a systematic devaluation of the traditions of their own people- all for their own supposed benefit. It was a changing world, and Americans assumed that they were doing the Native Americans a favor by giving them a leg up on how to survive in it. But how did these people really benefit? Native American reservations are known for their high rates of alcoholism, depression, substance abuse, low graduation rates and few students going on to college- all indicators of what makes a people a success or a failure in our eyes. The pattern of Westerners smothering indigenous cultures with our education system and expecting positive results despite the grim precedent repeated itself time and time again. In India, Cuba, The Philippines, and Central America, indigenous cultures had education force-fed to them as a necessary way to “assimilate into a modern society.” What doesn’t make sense, however, is the insistence that modern equals necessary. What did we give those cultures besides most of the problems and few of the benefits of an industrial society?

As a result of the cultural slash-and-burn wrought upon traditional peoples, there are very few intact indigenous societies in existence today. And yet we are embarking on the same quest all over again. Well-meaning volunteers and education aid programs build schools all over the world. The assumption is that indigenous people are squandering their minds, missing out on something better for themselves and their families. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that an ancient culture has valuable knowledge which may be greater than what we have learned in the West from the past hundred or so years of formal schooling. So why do we naively assume that indigenous children are not being educated? The beauty of a culture, with its traditions, spirituality, music, art, relationships, and language, is not disposable and is not replaced by the “better” things we can offer- an Algebra textbook and a poorly paying job in a crowded city. Generations of spiritual knowledge are not less valuable than an iPhone. Indigenous people are not somehow “needy” or “ignorant” because they do not have the chance or feel the need to buy a pair of Nikes or the latest in Prada. Cultural superiority takes root in trying to define the standard of living of a traditional society by the actual definition of standard of living, “a level of material comfort in terms of goods and services available.” Education is not the key to happiness if it supposed benefits aren’t what an indigenous people wants or values. The economic “standard” of a person’s life is not always the measure of their happiness.

What proponents of the benefits of education for indigenous cultures fail to take into account is that the very system we want to export is outdated even in America. Our current system of public education is constantly the source of controversy and debate. The current system of public education was developed during America’s Industrial Revolution and is modeled after and designed to benefit one of the most important hallmarks of that age- the factory. Grades were designed to separate the “intellectual elite” from the common workforce, destined not for creativity but for a life like that of school – automated movements at the sound of a bell, attention focused on one subject at a time, standards of inspection, and leaving at the end of the day at which point the learning (or work) just stops. Then and now, not coincidentally, the income level of one’s parents is the most powerful correlating factor to how well a student does in school. Of course, this is no longer the objective of modern teachers, but we are still operating under the assumption that the more people in this type of system, the more the human race will benefit. We are told that anyone can grow up to be anything, but for the large majority, does our current system of education prepare us for that? As recent years have shown, graduating is no longer a guarantee of securing a good job. Superimposing this grid of the school as a factory onto traditional societies who have no need for uniform workers doesn’t make sense. The failure of schooling in third world countries is often blamed on poor funding and low educational standards, but the problem reaches back much further. It should come as no surprise that cultures that revere old-growth forests, the pristine lakes and the rivers that give them sustenance and life do not see the value in a GPA or standardized testing. It is natural that in the space of a few generations, they would not be able to prosper within a system that goes against thousands of years of a dramatically different perspective of the world.
Of course, this is not to say that cultural diversity should be preserved like a zoological experiment we look at from time to time to make ourselves feel better. It is equally unethical to deny a people a modern education for their children if they see it as necessary. Instead of mandating that what an indigenous child’s parents, grandparents and thousands of years of ancestors had simply isn’t good enough anymore, we should stop and ask them how they want their children educated. Just because you won’t find it on an SAT test doesn’t mean that indigenous people don’t have valuable collective insight about how to let human creativity, intelligence, and potential flourish. Indigenous cultures focus on learning by immersion and experience, satisfying the natural desire of humankind to stimulate more than one sense, in a way that text and lectures often don’t. Visit any school and you will see that students perk up and consider it a treat to be able to play a game or go outside as part of their lesson. Critics of Western education often assert that its biggest crime against children is forcing them to learn about the world while sitting still in a box, instead of learning to appreciate and experience it every day. Indigenous techniques that effectively teach children how to identify thousands of unique plants in an endless rainforest or nuanced ancient rituals can be applied in our own schools as they naturally evolve into something more fitting to the twenty-first century. Letting the two styles of educating the world’s children converge may be the answer to why initiatives, grants, and educational plans often fail and leave countless children behind, but only if we can shed the paternalistic view that indigenous cultures are inherently less intelligent. We must stop the ancient tendency to equate technological superiority with intellectual superiority.

There are no easy answers to these questions. There isn’t a simple solution to having indigenous cultures coexist with our technological society or how to merge globalization with localization. But the solution is not to force the world’s last remaining indigenous cultures- generations deep troves of ancient knowledge and wisdom- to give up their way of life and traditional education so that they can “escape” to a “better life.” When we leave behind the old notions of cultural superiority, we can see that our way of life and education is far from perfect and that we have at least as much that can be taught to us as we want to teach.

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