True Education

The late 1800s were a dynamic time in the United States. Cities grew at a dramatic rate. The mechanization of production led to vast increases in industrial output. The introduction of railroads provided the first major leap forward in transportation in centuries, which mobilized populations everywhere. Yet, with all of this burgeoning growth and development in the background, the United States Government was trying to deal with its so-called “Indian problem.”

During this time (particularly the late 1870s), the “Americanization” of the “savage” population was in full swing. The goal was to find ways to integrate the Native Americans into modern society now that they had been subdued by the U.S. Army and mostly confined to reservations. One particular effort was led by an army officer named Richard H. Pratt. Pratt founded a boarding school in Carlisle, PA for Indian children, which had the ultimate goal of assimilating Indian children into mainstream culture. Despite this lofty sounding goal, Pratt’s motto was: “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Children in this system were taken from their families and indoctrinated into a new way of living and thinking. The old beliefs and tribal traditions were stamped out of them (hair was cut, clothes were changed, tribal languages and religious ceremonies were forbidden, etc.) and the children were fed a steady diet of “Americanizing” or “ways of the white man” education under heavily regimented conditions. This effort, one of many designed to compensate for the growing recognition that the removal and reservation policies of the time were failing, soon became the model for the education of Indian children.

I wonder to what degree this same thinking has been applied to the education of our children today. “Kill the child and save the man” may be one way to describe a system of education that emphasizes what to think over how to think. Doris Lessing described this well in her fascinating and bold novel, The Golden Notebook:

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

What tends to be lost in such a system are the pillars of that which ought to be drawn forth, exercised, and galvanized in the mind and heart of every child: curiosity, imagination, and appreciation. To my mind, true education is a process of inspiring, activating, and igniting the resident genius in each one. When these are the standard, there is little room for indoctrination or inculcation.

The way the “Indian problem” was tackled may have removed some of the more obvious symptoms of 19th century societal dislocation in the United States, but it most certainly did not provide for full healing of the deep wounds inflicted upon those who were so terribly treated for the better part of a century. The children who graduated from this and other similar programs may have had the right hair, makeup, and diction to fit in to the increasingly urban, “modern” society, but at what cost? Progress afforded by the exercise of intelligence (aka reason) can be impressive on the surface, but what radical transformation would we see on the basis of wisdom being applied to the challenges and opportunities we face?

I, for one, would love to know.

Photo of Carlisle Indian Industrial School c.1900

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