Education Giveth, Education Taketh Away [Guest Post]

This next post comes from a person who I just learned about a few months ago. Kassie Benjamin is a fellow math teacher with a critical race perspective. Her views on education and her rep as a math teacher for Native American students prompted me to ask her for her views on education. (Yes, she ended up schooling me too over e-mail and she ain’t even know it.) Read promptly.

When I first started teaching, not even a full 4 years ago, I knew firsthand how much an education could transform a life and believed that is what I wanted for my students. Education can make a difference. Education can transform communities. Education is the key. These are core beliefs I had entering the teaching profession.

The only problem was that I soon began to question the sense of that word “education.” Before teaching and even few years after that, I had always believed education was getting a Diploma. Education was getting one or several Degrees. But education also meant going into school buildings and adopting school culture to make such achievements.

Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.

With the history of my people and institutionalized education, specifically boarding schools, I am amazed it had taken me so long. Terrible, terrible events happened within the walls of boarding schools to rid Indigenous people of their language, ceremonies, traditions and beliefs in hopes that they would become ‘civilized’, a.k.a. White.

Though events such as shoving chlorine and lye solutions in children’s mouths for speaking Native languages do not take place in our schools today, I still feel schools want our students to be White. Instead of intoxicating us, society and its forebears use words such as ‘educated’ to get this point across.

Schools do not do a great job of recognizing or seeing our Native students, let alone accepting who they are. Native American perspectives are virtually non-existent in school curriculum and when Native Americans are present in the curriculum, it is too often under the shade of negative, demeaning and hurtful imagery. Native students do, however, clearly see over and over how valued White men such as Abraham Lincoln or Christopher Columbus are in the curriculum. They are being shown what is valued, and how they should present themselves in order to be valued. Assimilation.

The entire setup of school is not aligned with our traditional ways of acquiring knowledge and wisdom.

Some days I feel overwhelmed and over-stressed with the idea that as a teacher in this system, I am a pawn in this assimilation game. It hurts when I see or hear Native youth across this country talk about hating school. I can understand why but at the same time it frightens me because I know how much one can struggle in life by not going through this education system and, essentially, not playing the game successfully. It should not be that way. It should not have to take our younger generations to give up or hide or even change who they are in order to make it to and graduate high school. What gets me through the stress, however, is that I realize the power of true education and learning.

Education in the form of boarding schools caused so much destruction, pain, grief and struggle that our people are still feeling today. Boarding schools are the direct cause of many of our native languages now being extinct or endangered, the cause of so many lost ceremonies and so many people so far from our traditions and beliefs.

Education has stolen so much from us, but has the power to give it all back.

I stay in education because I know, as little as it may be right now, my voice matters. I know that education is where the healing of our Native communities can take place. I know that when we are in charge of our schools, when we set the standards for our schools and when our voices are strong, we have the ability to define education for our coming generations and create a space that heals our hurting communities. I know education can make a difference. Education can transform communities. Education is the key.

photo c/o