I’d better preface this post by briefly outlining my educational background, since educational experiences are far from universal. All of my academic education has taken place in the US, from preschool through college. I currently hold a Bachelor of Arts from a west coast liberal arts college. I have no plans at this time to pursue additional degrees. That’s probably all you need to know for the purposes of this post.*
Today, I’m back to wrestle with a question – or a series of questions – which I started to consider during college and to which I continue to seek satisfactory answers as I navigate post-academia life. While I think anyone with an interest or stake in the US education system might find this post worth a read (inasmuch as any of my posts are worth a read, ha), my questions will be directed primarily at professionals in US academia.
Until I reached college, I hadn’t thought much about the origins of the education system I was being put through. It was simply there, a seemingly eternal and immovable framework, meant to guide me from a state of not knowing to a state of knowing something. I didn’t consider who defined “not knowing” or “knowing something,” or how, when, and why they did it. When people I knew talked about volunteering overseas with their church groups, or teaching English in other countries, I accepted both as unquestionably “good” deeds. If “we” had resources and knowledge that “they” didn’t, it was only fair and right for us to share, wasn’t it? “We” would feel good about ourselves; “they” would feel grateful for the opportunities.
Sophomore year of college, those of us in my major were strongly advised to choose an area of specialty. I chose American Indian cultures and histories.** In keeping with the tenets of our methodology course, I sought out books, articles, interviews, oral histories, visual media, websites – basically anything tangible that was not a cultural artifact that I could get my hands on – for my research. I paid close attention to the creators of these source materials and tried to locate Native voices wherever possible, but it wasn’t until I shifted from materials generated BY academia FOR academia to materials generated by NON-academics that I started to question myself.
It was easiest to see in historical, primary accounts – things spoken (and transcribed) and written by people who had lived in eras far different from the one I knew. Sometimes it was how the passage of time was described, or a geographic location. Sometimes it was a cultural practice. Sometimes it was doing a side-by-side comparison of two accounts of the same battle, one from a Native perspective, one from a white perspective. As someone who grew up bilingual and often encountered questions about translation, I started to wonder how much was being distorted or lost in these primary accounts, especially when it was an English transcription of an oral account originally given in a Native language and filtered through an interpreter. If you’ve ever attempted live translation or a multilingual conversation involving parties who only know some of the languages being spoken, you know what a hassle it can be trying to communicate certain points in a way that everyone understands. While I can’t presume to map my personal experiences with translation onto the experiences of Native people who have had their words transcribed and/or translated, I did wonder if any of them had experiences similar to mine. And if they had, then – was there a chance this “primary” source I was analyzing so heavily wasn’t so “primary” after all?
We had, of course, been warned to review every source with a grain of salt, because people distort, omit, forget, embroider, or otherwise record things in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. But this felt different, somehow. Why?
I went back to my secondary sources and looked for material written by Native scholars. It didn’t take long to find answers.*** I quickly realized certain Native perspectives on colonization differed significantly from how the topic was covered in my classes. Discussions of land usage, reparations, historical trauma, artifact custodianship, tribal governments, reservation life, language preservation, and cultural appropriation (and more) drove home not only the extent to which colonization affected Native peoples, but the fact that it never ended.****
For the next two years, this notion of ongoing colonization floated around in my head. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to acknowledge I, too, was a colonist – for some reason, I never had the knee-jerk NO response to this that some people had when I tried to broach the subject with them – but rather the sense that my understanding of the concept was still missing giant chunks of vital information.
One of these giant chunks fell into place in my senior year, when I chose American Indian boarding schools as my thesis topic. These schools have been written about in-depth from both primary and secondary perspectives, so I won’t elaborate on them here, but suffice to say, it wasn’t a giant leap from looking at the assimilationist tactics used in these schools to looking at the US education system today and seeing some troubling parallels in the ideological frameworks governing both. Below is a partial list of examples:
- Lessons taught in English
- ESL lessons
- Western-centric research methodologies
- Western-centric academic evaluation standards
- Western-centric behavioral standards
- Western-centric “culture” of academia
- Topics pertaining to nonwhite peoples/cultures taught by (white) outsiders
- Non-English languages taught by (white) outsiders
If you aren’t sure why these things can be problematic, here are a few specifics. Recall my previous example of an oral account given in a Native language, translated by an interpreter, and transcribed in English. I’ll make a flowchart to illustrate.
Oral account (in Native language) –> oral account (in English) –> written account (in English)
At every transition in the flowchart, there are opportunities for distortion. The number and nature of opportunities also depends on the language level of everyone involved – for example, if the original speaker has some knowledge of English, they may correct the interpreter or the written account. Or, if the interpreter has a low understanding of English, the transcriber may end up omitting or improvising sections of the oral translation that are unclear. Or perhaps the speaker describes a cultural practice or belief system that has no parallel in the interpreter’s culture, so the interpreter makes an inaccurate cultural comparison to try to clarify things for the transcriber. And so on.
Here’s another example. A non-Japanese lecturer is teaching a lesson on Shinto in a US school. He draws a comparison between roadside Shinto shrines in Japan and Christian churches in the US. A student asks what kind of preparation he did for the lesson; he answers that he read Japanese textual sources on Shinto, interviewed Japanese Shinto practitioners, and visited several roadside Shinto shrines in Japan. Let’s do a flowchart.
Primary sources on Shinto – texts/interviews/shrines (in Japanese/Japan) –> lecturer’s translation/analysis of sources (in English) –> lecturer’s lesson (in English)
Again, there are opportunities for distortion at every transition in the flowchart. Did the lecturer correctly translate the Japanese texts? When interviewing Shinto practitioners, was he cognizant of his outsider status and how it might affect the answers he was given? When analyzing his findings, what kind of methodologies did he utilize? Did he account for the fact that western-centric ways of thought do not perfectly map onto all aspects of Japanese culture? How did he account for the resulting “gaps,” both in his analysis and in his accountability as a credible source for his students? What was his reasoning for comparing Shinto shrines to Christian churches?
I am not saying the lecturer in the above example is bad at his job. He could be outstandingly qualified to research and communicate academic information – from a western-centric perspective. The problem arises when he and his fellow academics attempt to fit the source materials to their methodology – and this is where I see fractures in the current US education system. For those of you who choose to work in (US) academia, I have a few questions.
- What methodologies do you utilize in your research and/or when preparing lessons?
- If someone challenges your methodology, how do you respond?
- How do you feel about the methodologies you utilize? Are you satisfied with them? Do you find they fit your needs, or do you constantly reevaluate them?
- If you are researching or teaching a subject from an outside perspective, how do you acknowledge your outsider status? How do you respond when insiders critique your approach and/or findings?
- How do you feel about the current US education system? What changes would you like to see? Do you contribute to effecting these changes?
From what I’ve seen, if people in US academia are asking questions like these, they are doing it quietly, in places I mostly can’t seem to find.***** Very few of my college professors ever explicitly asked any of the above questions, at least in my hearing. Instead, we were given the tools to do the very best we could – within a western-centric academic framework. Marginalized perspectives were important – but ought to be evaluated by the same standards used for the “mainstream” narrative. If a source was not documented in a way considered “reliable” by our methodology, we were to consider it suspect. So.
I am not saying that western-centric academic frameworks are fundamentally “bad.” I am, however, saying that western-centric academic frameworks have, in the context of US academia, created a colonial institution designed primarily to favor the dominant (white) culture. The result is a kind of tunnel-vision, but one so thoroughly worked into the foundations of the US education system that many people fail to recognize it as such. All that talk about my college days wasn’t just narcissism – it’s a real-life example of how long it took me to get to where I am now, in terms of understanding both the legacies and ongoing issues of colonization in US academia. And I don’t assume I know it all.
If you’re thinking I hate the US education system – no, I don’t. I’m a product of that system and its effects on me, for better or worse. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post (I know, that was a lot of words ago), I have questions I haven’t found answers to yet. I’d like to know how many professional academics recognize the colonization inherent to US academia. I’d like to know how many professional academics acknowledge their role in this colonization. I’d like to know how many professional academics are actively trying to decolonize their institutions.
A final quick clarifier – I’ve used the term “colonization” broadly in this post, not just in the context of what was done/is being done to American Indian peoples and cultures, but also in reference to the ideologies that underlie the unquestioning (or insufficiently questioned) application of western-centric methodologies to non-western-centric information.******
Thanks for reading! Is it just me, or are these posts getting longer? Next time, I’ll have Part 2 of this series, where I reflect on the connections between what I wrote here and the world of fiction writing.
*In other words, this post will be written in the context of US academia, because it’s the only academia with which I have personal experience. Other people in other places on the internet have discussed their experiences in non-US academia – I highly recommend checking them out if this topic is of interest to you.
**There will be a post explaining this choice, sometime in the future. It’s a bit too long for a footnote or an in-text tangent.
***Unfortunately, I no longer recall the exact individuals whose work I read, but check out the Resources page for links to Native voices I’m currently following. Also, if you ARE researching Native issues from a western-centric standpoint, consider that some of the Native-produced sources you label as “secondary” might also be “primary,” depending on the circumstances. But before you do that, you might want to take a second look at your western-centric perspective to see if it’s really the “best fit” for the material you’re trying to cover. Is it something that might be more accurately represented by an insider perspective? Will there be “gaps” if you try to map your methodologies onto this topic?
****I’m not qualified to discuss these topics from anything other than a colonist’s perspective, so please read what Natives are saying about them.
*****I HAVE found a few, mostly through Twitter. But where are the others? Are they speaking up? Do they choose to stay silent? What motivates their choices?
******The colonization of indigenous peoples on this continent is not the same as the colonial experiences of nonwhite, non-indigenous peoples on this continent. Nonwhite people – both indigenous and non-indigenous – have written about their experiences with colonization on this continent at length in other places on the internet. Please look them up for firsthand accounts. This post is not comparing the colonial experiences of various groups; instead, it is a brief exploration of the colonizing nature of the current US education system, filtered through the lens of my personal experiences.