Square Pegs and Round Holes

Hi, Everyone.

I enjoyed the conversation that Paul Berg’s five-piece series has started. In my limited time in Alaska in Fairbanks and on the Kenai, I could tell that the issues surrounding Native education and acculturation were highly sensitive. While in Fairbanks in 2003-2005 working on my Master’s in English, I remember seeing so many Native men walking the streets late at night, nearly incoherent. To me, that’s what Paul Berg’s and the New Zealand professor’s notion of “acultural’ looks like. I also recall two Native students I had a Kenai Peninsula College in a composition class: one was quiet and demure like Judith Kleinfeld describes and another was confident and eager to receive her Elementary Education degree so she could return to her village and teach. She was one of the best writers in the class and her parents both had Master’s degrees. It seemed as though her decision to get a degree and return to her village originated from her own family’s ability to appreciate the importance of their culture and heritage but also to assimilate into a Western educational structure. Her story makes me believe that the future of Alaska Native education has to include clear steps that prepare the village students to enter the Western education system. I believe that in order to have the assertiveness and vision to enter this world, however, the village elders and students have to be empowered in the way Berg describes. Having a strong sense of purpose, place, and culture is, I think, the way anyone–not just Alaskan Natives–is encouraged to journey beyond their natural physical borders so that they might eventually return to them more fully prepared to lead the community forward.

In the comments that followed Berg’s piece, I heard a great deal of fear that has become a distressing form of ethnocentrism. Berg tried desperately not to blame anyone by insisting that all the attempted and failed solutions were introduced with the best of intentions. His opening about the Sami people provided a relevant historical example; just because someone such as Berg wants to learn from historical examples does not mean he wants to be divisive, as some comments suggest. It makes sense to consider historical precedence when making decisions about the future. I also believe his article was solely interested in discovering the best way to empower the villages. Obviously, past and current strategies are not working as well as they could, so why not consider using approaches that have worked for other Native populations?

Ideally, an Alaskan Native village could be educationally self-sufficient. The problem is, we can change the educational content as much as we want but the structure itself is definitively Western. I’m not sure Alaska is ready, or should be for that matter, to change the structure of education for the rural villages to reflect the Native cultural predispositions. So long as we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, we’re going to need outside help to scaffold the process.

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