Comps Notes: Schooling and Citizenship

Navajo Indian Tom Torlino before and after ~3 years at Carlisle, circa 1882

In my rationale, and in my studies more generally, education’s connection to citizenship and power is a major theme. For example, I argued that education is used as a tool for creating order in the midst of clashes over migration, race, class, etc. as it both gives people the tools they need to reflect on their identities and harness power or is used as an instrument of power itself when education is a means of assimilating people. So, in the literature on my list, education has a pretty ambivalent role. I think that’s pretty fair of education in American history more generally too.

Education and Empire

In this section, I’m using the term empire loosely, because I’m also going to include Native American boarding schools in this discussion of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other groups who were targets of assimilation.

Education has long been linked to the American Dream. Education is seen as a sort of gateway to American identity as well as a magnet to draw people to America. For example, upon coming to America, Mary Antin waxes poetic in raptures about the free education America offered: “This child, who had never seen us till yesterday, who could not pronounce our names, who was not much better dressed than we, was able to offer us the freedom of the schools of Boston! No application made, no questions asked, no examinations, rulings, exclusions; no machinations, no fees. The doors stood open for every one of us. The smallest child could show us the way.”

It’s important, though, to consider how education is used as a magnet for certain desirable types of people. A quick gloss of U.S. immigration law will show that not everyone was considered assimilable or a person who the powerful people wanted to assimilate and include in the body politic.

In “The Performance of Patriotism: Ironic Affiliations and Literary Disruptions in Carlos’ Boulson’s America,” Meg Wesling describes how education in the Philippines played a role in the larger politics of empire. By examining correspondence between the war department and top officials at the Carlisle School, she shows how 1) education was explicitly used as a means to dominate and assimilate certain peoples and 2) how plans to use a similar method of education as what was used on Native Americans was considered as a gentler use of power than the violence that had become controversial in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines (139-41). The plan offered a means of saving the colonized from people who sought to exploit them, “good civilization, in other words, was the antidote for the corruption, greed, and violence that characterized the scarcely hidden underside of colonial expansion” (142).

The debate over the plan, however, also shows the attitudes of some toward the colonial subjects. For example, Joe Cannon (R, IL) said that it would be “‘an outrage’ to allocate public funds for educating Filipino children who, he insisted, could not be educated ‘above the sentient of the people from whom they sprang and with whom they must live.’ Cannon thus refused the notion of Filipino education and Filipino immigration, insisting on an absolute difference that was at once biological…and cultural” (142).

America is in the Heart by Carlos Boulsan is arguably the most famous work of Filipino American literature and in it Boulson positions education as central to his hopes for the future. Wesling argues that “Boulson’s work foregrounds the complexities of education as a central tool in the alienation of the colonial subject and in the promise of his or her assimilation into the American body” (144). In the book, education occupies an ambivalent space as it works as a theme along side the consistent, violent oppression Carlos faces in America. Wesling argues that education is portrayed through a tension between learning from experience and formal education and I think that is pretty well borne out in the text as Carlos strives for formal, literary education–in the American canon, but learns most readily from his experiences. Yet, he consistently delays reflecting on those experiences until he feels he has the tools acquired by a literary education.

The Carlisle School and similar boarding schools have a haunting presence in a lot of Native American literature. As the photos above show, the boarding school experience served largely to strip American Indians of their culture in order to make them citizens. The ideology was “kill the Indian to save the man.” Even more contemporary Native American authors write about how their education reinforces the colonial presence of the U.S., often contradicting their culture and education at home. In Bloodlines, Janet Campbell Hale writes about her father’s experiences at a mission school and how religion–in this case Catholicism–colluded with the government to beat the “Indianness” out of children: “Dad (like all Indian students) was beaten for speaking his own language and for acting too Indian at mission school. Once, when he first went there and still didn’t know a word of English, he was put into a dark, windowless space above the chapel in the church building…Dad was never a good Catholic. He was never a good white-man’s Indian. But it was too late to turn back” (173-74). Importantly, education isn’t all bad in Bloodlines. Going to community college, and her tribe’s role in helping her go, helps Hale escape from both an abusive relationship and, eventually, from poverty.

In “Indian Education” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie writes about Victor’s education in the reservation school, contrasting life at home with life at school as well as the narratives about education with reality. For example, his third grade teacher punishes him for no reason and demands that his parents cut off his braids. Then, in fourth grade the teacher tells him he should be a doctor “So you can come back and help the tribe. So you can heal people” (174). Victor thinks, “That was the year my father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year that my mother started two hundred different quilts but never finished any. They sat in separate, dark places in our HUD house and wept savagely” (174). In the Eleventh Grade section he describes playing basketball for a farm town high school team called the Indians. “I’m probably the only actual Indian ever to play for a team with such a mascot. This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN. Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much” (179).

In Tracks, Fleur sends her daughter Lulu off to a government school so that she will not have to suffer the way the rest of the family had as the government slowly encroached on their land, bleeding them of their money through taxes and taking their means of making money in the process. That the boarding school, such a sign of oppression seemed like the better option is one of the saddest parts of a sad book.

"One does not love breathing." - To Kill a MockingbirdAnd, as ongoing debates over ethnic studies, the cannon, and the curriculum show, what you teach is also political. In When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago recounts a couple of instances in which educational programs supported by the government illustrated the empire inserting itself into her daily life while also demonstrating illogical Anglo-centrism in what they were teaching. For example, the government puts on a health course for the women in Macun, but in teaching basic nutrition fails to use foods that are actually available in Puerto Rico and then, when the women ask about substitutions, “Is an apple the same as a mango,” the teacher does not have the knowledge to make the lesson relevant to the women’s lives (66-68). Later, Esmeralda learns about imperialism from her father and has an impromptu protest when the school breakfast program run by the U.S. government feeds them gross powdered eggs and powdered milk that tastes sour: “I’ve never gone hungry!…My Mami and Papi can feed us without your disgusting gringo imperialist food!” (82).

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is awesome. And, as was pointed out to me at a conference, reading it is like sticking it to the administrations in the Southwest that have tried to ban it. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes, “Any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his or her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human” (55). His basic idea is that liberation is “not a gift, not a self-achievement, but a mutual process.” Rather than educating through a “banking model” in which students are deposited with what is presupposed to be knowledge and skills of value, the student and teacher should be involved in a dialogic process through which the student helps create knowledge with the teacher.

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