NPR and Indian Education

Other Objectivist bloggers - Flibbert and Monica - have brought up the failings of NPR reporting in the past few days. With that in mind, I listened longer than I normally would have to a piece this morning about federally managed Indian boarding schools, just to see what the reporter would say.

The link above has the full transcript of the report, so you can skim it without having to listen to an 8 minute audio piece. A brief summary is that there are a number of federally funded boarding schools for "at risk" Indians that are now under threat of funding cuts. The schools apparently have a sordid history of abuse, and of trying to weed out tribal culture (which is presented as a bad thing). They have turned around in recent decades, though what "turning around" means in this context was unexplored. (perhaps the lack of abuse? It wasn't discussed.)

There's really not much to the story, overall. It's just another piece about federal funding of education and the hand-wringing about budget cuts, with the added confusion and complexity of the "Indian Question". One key omission from the story is what held my interest through the whole thing.

One of the supposed benefits of these schools is that they give the at-risk kids a very structured environment, and a chance to break away from a home culture where "a lot of people drink and also commit suicide." That's fine. I can see how a structured environment could be good for some kids. But then the report describes what the school actually teaches that is positive for the kids.
Every day at Sherman is rigorously structured. But students who stick it out say Sherman offers them opportunities, too, like the chance to learn about other tribes.

In Tara Charley-Baugus's classroom, students learn the language of the ... Navajo ... by taking tests and reciting vocabulary. They also sing traditional songs.

Baugus tells her students that the songs are a way to teach more than just language skills.

"You learn about the culture and history because of the sheep, from way back in the 1500s when the Spaniards brought them in," she instructs students. "And you can teach these to your brothers and sisters. That's how you pass on the language." [bold added]

Later, traditional basket weaving is mentioned as another valuable skill to learn and pass on. Now don't get me wrong. While ancestral traditions mean absolutely nothing to me, I don't discount that they can be valuable to others. But where is the glaring omission in the report that I referred to earlier?

Not one mention was made about the teaching of Western thought, math, US history, English... nothing. The schools were presented as being uniquely qualified to help at-risk Indian kids break out of the depressing cycle of reservation life, and yet the only reference to education was to the passing on of traditional tribal culture.

One particular girl was profiled who went from failing freshman year of public high school (presumably on a reservation, though this wasn't specified), to graduating from a boarding school and going on to attend UC-Berkeley. Why was this? The implication was that the strict routine and the focus on tribal culture is what made her successful.

I find this highly doubtful. Basket weaving and Navajo songs about sheep will not prepare one for a highly competitive university, even if one is studying postmodernism. And the omission of any reporting on real education at these schools is telling, and points to the decidedly left-leaning slant NPR often packages in its products. Although cultural relativism is held as an ideal at NPR, I think this report made an implicit judgment about which culture is the better one.

UPDATE: One point I failed to make above was that I presume, just like any public education system in the US, these schools do teach the regular subjects we're all accustomed to (the ineffectiveness of public education notwithstanding, the subjects matter it tries to teach is generally OK). The issue here is 1) that the school seems to highlight its focus on teaching tribal customs as its primary way to help the students learn how to be successful, and 2) that NPR not only swallowed this argument but trumpeted it.

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