I was preparing a for a class recently at the university where I teach a course on adolescence and we were going to talk about the school system. Having been raised in two very distinct cultures: Indigenous-Latino with Quechua roots and European American who’s ancestors came two years after the first pilgrims came to North America, I am highly conscious of the filters with which we view the world and how they are shaped by our perceptions, which in turn are deeply impacted by our belief systems and highly impacted by our cultural references that impact norms and standards. So, when I think of reality, I am always looking for multiple realities knowing that it highly depends on the doorway of your perception.
When we talk about the U.S. system of education, we cannot divorce this from these multiple realities. We cannot speak about a system of education as if it holds only one window in which we all look through. Our experiences in any system of education will depend highly on the door in which we walk in. As I researched for my class, I came across a letter from the interactions between the early European pilgrims and the Indigenous people of the Eastern states of North America. It was a response from one of the tribal elders to the colonists. In this letter the elder mentions an invitation made by the colonists for the tribe to send their brightest men to attend the college of the colonists. The tribe responded and a few of their men were sent. Upon returning to the tribe, these young men found their new found skills to be of no use and felt useless in face of the needs of the tribe. The elder mentions this in the letter and in turn invites the colonists to send them their brightest and best young men to be educated by the tribe. The colonists never respond to this invitation.
The interactions of this letter made me think how we define success and value according to our perceptions of reality and belief systems. If we value individualism, competition, and assertiveness than we may very well find success in our educational system as this is the doorway in which it was set up with a set of Western values and norms and any other doorway is one filled with deficits in comparison. But, as the letter suggests, if you enter through a different doorway, as did the elder’s young men, then these offer very little value to the survival of your family and more importantly, tribe. If the colonists entered through the doorway of the tribal people on whose land they were building a nation, they might have found that instead of individualism, competition and assertiveness, they would find success through developing a collectivist approach to their tasks in which collectivism, collaboration and group consensus would take precedence.
So, this is interesting historically, but what are the implications for today?
Our schools are set up with a learning culture that ultimately, at its core, believes in individualism, competing and striving to be at the top and asserting yourself over others. If you walk in through this doorway and you hold these beliefs to be true, then you could do well. But if you are like me, and either you walk in two worlds in which one is collectivistic and one is individualistic, it is much harder to choose which doorway to walk through. One doorway sacrifices the other.
So what to do?
When I think of this seemingly conundrum, there are two shifts that I think need to be a part of the change we all seek in the educational system and even in our home learning cultures.
It is important to recognize that many of us are walking through different doorways into a learning space. I don’t mean different doorways in the sense that we are all individuals and with different strengths and weaknesses. I mean collectively, groups have different realities according to their cultural groups and the norms and beliefs of those groups that shape their world view and value system as in the example shared in the letter.
Many students walk in through different doorways according to their culture and those things valued by each may differ than the school’s dominant culture. This may seem small at first, but placing a student in between two cultures can create a clash, which without guidance, can cause an inner conflict. They might be left feeling that they have to choose one doorway to enter into the educational realm successfully, which can by its very nature ask them to sacrifice the other.
Couple this conflict with the history of oppression humanity has experienced in various ways, in particular through its experiences of colonialism, and you have another layer of right and wrong. The right doorway to enter is through the dominant culture where you develop a strong sense of self and let that self-drive push you through to the top: the top of your class, your team, your group, your class, your art, your sport, your field, etc, etc, etc. This doorway will lead to success as defined by Western standards.
We can help students with this conflict in two ways:
One is to understand that these multiple doorways exist. This alone helps students realize that this conflict is not about them being inherently flawed for not finding the right way to succeed. Instead they can begin to work through the gifts and challenges of each doorway and help schools stretch into larger versions of excellence and success. Challenge the system to be more and ultimately, begin questioning itself.
Two, explore the history of oppression and its impact on all people. It did not only impact people of color negatively, those of European descent lost their humanity in order to ride the wave of success of colonialism. Explore with students how this oppression was systemized and shows up today in our school system, our neighborhoods, housing, etc. An excellent article on the Myth of Meritocracy cites a research study in which middle schoolers who came from historically oppressed communities did well academically until they reached the 7th grade. In 7th grade, right at the time when they begin to form a sense of cultural identity, they see the conditions of their home community group and because meritocracy is so strong in the dominant culture of the United States, they falsely believe the conditions of their people are because of an inherent flaw within them. Self-identifying with the negative stereotypes told about their cultural group, they fall into behaviors that ultimately harm them. The research study found that by empowering students with the truth of systematic oppression, students begin to realize it is a systemic condition and can be changed. Students begin to see themselves as protagonists of change, able to shift the reality of the conditions in which they live.
Seeking Truth Through Consultation
Another important shift is moving away from dichotomous thinking. We currently live in a society
that is strongly polarized by right and wrong, yes and no, and when we think in these terms no one wins. Like a child moving through adolescence, we can try and hold onto these false dichotomies of right and wrong in an effort to find calm and balance in a world that increasingly feels unbalanced. As humanity collectively moves through the stage of adolescence, we will increasingly find ourselves needing to move away from simple answers of yes and no, to searching through the complexity of human experiences for the truth. This search for truth will require a new tool that can elevate our conversations from finger-pointing that runs on fear and pain, to a recognition of the oneness of humanity and the inherent value that each human soul has something of deep value to contribute.
I have found the tool of consultation to be of great value for me and my family as we try and sift through the diverse cultures and belief systems that run through our family to the truth. Along with many other families, the hard realities of the society we live in have impacted us deeply and we at times also feel lost and confused. And, like other families, with historical oppression running deep in our blood, one can feel overwhelmed by the pain and anger that can well up at the callous effects this oppression can have on family relations and with larger society. The effects of oppression can show up in mental illness, in a false sense of isolation and division among loved ones, self-identifying with stereotypes and often feeling not good enough. These have all shown up at my doorstep either through familial experiences or with the many noble souls I get to engage with in healing work who try to shift through the mire of pain, fear and anger that wells up inside of them.
I use consultation in the tradition of the Baha’i Faith, which asks the participants to detach from hoped for outcomes and instead to enter the consultation with a pure heart in search of truth.
The first condition is absolute love and harmony — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
As humanity moves through the mire of difficulties that lies before it, we can no longer hope to strong arm each other in believing that there is only one of us who is right. We must begin the path of maturity in which we recognize that humans are complex beings with many paths and doorways traveling through and around them. That answers lie in learning from each other and with each other. That truth will only come when we stop holding onto our version of reality as the only version. When we begin to recognize, that maybe there are multiple ways to view and experience the world, and to learn from each other about these multiple ways might mean suspending the truth as we know it with an open heart for a new truth to show up.