It is with growing alarm, concern and compassion that we witness the continuing (and growing?) high rate of suicide in Canada’s Aboriginal community. This phenomenon has numerous far-reaching and negative implications and, up to the present, few satisfactory explanations and fewer proposed solutions.
It is, thus, imperative that aspects of contemporary Aboriginal personal and community living that have not yet come under sufficient scrutiny be examined and analyzed, not for anthropological or abstract sociological purposes, but for intensely personal and life purposes. It must be realized that, sometimes, it is that which is most ubiquitous and familiar which may be most ignored, the assumption being that what is common is not significant.
An example is parasites borne by the river that has fed us for generations, or heavy metals in our staple food, both contributing to chronic health problems, and both ignored because we expect severe dysfunction to have exotic and unfamiliar dress. It is, thus, proposed that the existing predominant model of schooling, in this case schooling of Aboriginal children, come under careful scrutiny.
Aboriginals, like most other Canadians, have accepted, now almost without question, the “principle” that education is the key to a secure and happy future. This principle may be as fraught with problems as the one-time equally-accepted principle that the earth was the centre of the universe and that the sun was just one of earth’s satellites. Just as it was heresy to question the geo-centric universe, it is now similar heresy to question the “principle”, the dogma, of the value of “education”.
This may not be merely a questioning of the value of “education” (whatever it is we mean by that). Indeed, Aboriginal communities have recognized that some elements of the schooling system have potential for negative impact on life and living. Now, having taken over some control of their educational systems, they have made some significant curricular changes … and, that is good – as far as it goes.
The major aspect of the problem, however, does not necessarily rest simply with the content of the curriculum, although that is undoubtedly important, so much as with the very concept of “schooling,” and the concomitant and consistent concepts of the nature of learning and of the child as learner. It may be the fact that the product of the educational system may not be the expected and hoped for “education.”
In fact, that which is actually delivered and received may be antithetical to that which is anticipated and hoped for. Rather than the schooling experience providing the hoped for emancipation, it may be providing an insidious enslavement and addiction to dysfunctional concepts of what constitutes “learning,” and dysfunctional perceptions of personal response to that “learning.” In other words, the hoped for “education” may not be that which is supportive of Aboriginal communities or of individual Aboriginal youth or adults.
There is no doubt that one could engage in a rather extensive (and possibly stimulating) philosophical discourse about what constitutes “education,” without arriving at an answer that would be satisfactory, either generally, or particularly to the Aboriginal community. There is, no doubt, a great need to have that debate in the general population, as well as in the Aboriginal community. To some extent, that debate, however one-sided and unfinished, has been on-going, giving rise to a number of royal commission reports and to the growth of a whole new testing industry in Canada, for example.
The solution for Aboriginal communities, and indeed for the general community, does not lie in that direction, primarily because the crucial questions have been neither asked nor answered. The major question has to be “How do children learn, naturally?” That is, how does a child’s brain learn? How do children learn? What are the implications for schooling? What are the implications for children’s developing self-concept and personal confidence and conceptualization of personal value and self-worth?
Is the very model of contemporary schooling so out-of-step with natural brain functioning that it precipitates the destruction of children’s self-esteem, so much so that their personal and social deterioration – and suicide – is an almost inevitable result? The question is important for schooling in the general population. The question has even more significance when asked in a context of the schooling of Aboriginal children.
In fact, the accumulated research on the nature of the brain as the organ of learning is now indicating quite strongly that the predominant model of schooling in today’s Canada is antagonistic to children’s natural mode of learning. In the dominant culture this leads to children becoming alienated from schooling, to low levels of achievement, however measured, to early drop-out, and to schooling non-completion. It also leads to some suicide attempts even among the youth of the dominant culture.
Admitted, these suicide attempts are not typically attributed to the schooling experiences of these young people. However, were a comprehensive research project undertaken with survivors of suicide attempts, with parents of youth who have attempted suicide, and with parents of youth who have committed suicide, I am confident that a causal schooling connection will be found.
The topic is taboo, not only respecting Aboriginal suicide, but youth suicide in the dominant culture. Witness the recent research into suicide in the Aboriginal communities of Western Ontario (University Affairs, April, 1995). A group of researchers looked at virtually all aspects of community life. The one aspect of community life and living NOT examined was the model of schooling. (Note the emphasis on the model of schooling, the paradigm of schooling, rather than on the school system).
I recently talked with the mother (White Anglo) of a 15-year old, ninth-grade boy who committed suicide. Without external prompting, the mother gently and emotionally related a series of events (frustration with home-work, anger with teachers, a two-day suspension from school) which preceded the tragic event. These events indicated, to my perception, an unmistakably distinct school-causal connection. ( I admit that I seem to be the only person who acknowledges that perception).
In the dominant culture, if a student doesn’t “do well” at school, there are still many other aspects of society and culture that provides personal “support” (more-or-less successful friends who are “just like me”, cultural activities, TV, employment – even if part time and minimum wage, general acceptance, being able to blend in, a society that continues to function, at least one parent who “works,” an allowance, and so on), so much so that the student is not challenged or his integrity not breached at a sufficiently fundamental personal and cultural level that suicide is a perceived option. It should be noted, however, that even in the dominant culture, the cohort most at risk of suicide is 15 – 25 year olds, which should raise concern about schooling-related causation.
It should also be noted that even in the dominant culture that many people are not successful in school, and even as adults they live with the continuing pain of the belief that they are stupid, can’t learn, and the damage to personal value and self-esteem that implies.
The predominant model of schooling in Canada, much like that of the United States, is so entrenched in our psyches that it is hardly questioned. Although it is true that an occasional dispute arises concerning approaches such as “Whole Language” vs wholesale phonics, the paradigm of schooling has hardly changed, if at all, since we adopted the model from Horace Mann who brought it back to Massachusetts from Prussia in 1840. That is, our basic paradigm of schooling has not changed fundamentally or significantly in 150 years. It was based on a Prussian militaristic approach to schooling, reinforced by Skinnerian behaviourist psychology which perceives learning as simply a conditioned response to an external stimulus, epitomized by the memorization of stuff to be regurgitated on demand, usually for a test on which students will be judged.
In the early years of European “discovery” of North America, the newcomers brought with them scourges such as small pox and measles which took a terrible toll among the Aboriginal population. The Europeans were “carriers” and didn’t know that they hosted the diseases which were deadly to the Aboriginal population.
In a somewhat similar manner, the extant predominant paradigm of schooling has been transmitted to the Aboriginal population. This has occurred specifically and deliberately by government in its desire to “educate” the Aboriginals in order to make them more “like us.” That infection has continued and been spread by a flood of “White” teachers who have carried that schooling model enthusiastically and unquestioningly. It’s the AIDS virus of “education!” Furthermore, Aboriginal youth who have survived their schooling experiences relatively unscathed (at least in terms of the dominant culture, but likely at tremendous cost to their Aboriginal identity) have gone to teacher training institutions and have become infected from the source.
It is imperative to note that teachers are those who have been most successful in school, have even thrived, in the fascist model of schooling that obtains in contemporary culture. They are the people who have sold their souls to the system and are those least likely to perceive problems with it.
It is also important to note that at not a single teacher training institution in Canada (and, as far as I have determined, thus far, only one in the US), is there a course on the nature of the learning brain, nor do teacher training courses contain elements of that area of knowledge. It also appears that there are no teacher training faculties who have even exhibited interest in that area of knowledge. In other words, the infection is firmly entrenched at the teacher training institutions and since it is not recognized as an important issue (In fact it is not recognized at all!) the situation is unlikely to soon change.
Consider the Aboriginal child from what may be a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional community having inflicted on him the contemporary dominant model of schooling. Consider, even, a healthy Aboriginal child from a functional family in a functioning community being forced to attend the dysfunctional and brain-antagonistic school.
The model, utilizing various kinds of severe judgments, including percentages and other kinds of judging methods, the language of success and failure, passing and failing, memorization for testing, where the model of “the good student” is a quiet and passive one, where discussion is discouraged, questions perceived as challenges to the person of the teacher, and initiative and creativity ridiculed and undermined, and the result is almost predictable. The typical child has experienced so much pain that by age 12 he is already alienated from school, desperately hanging on until age 15 or 16 so that he can drop out legally. The drop out rate in Canada is still 30%!
Aboriginal youth, like Aboriginal adults, have now accepted the propaganda that “education” is the key to future success and happiness and acceptance. It is the standard of worth in the dominant culture, and Aboriginals seem to perceive almost all functioning adults in the dominant culture as possessing it. They go to school, and send their children to school, with enormous anticipation, expectation and hope. Then, children begin to do less and less well – they don’t measure up to that artificial and dysfunctional and foreign standard that embodies the concept of personal value and worth in Canadian society. Thus, they come to see themselves as not measuring up either as individual people or as a culture to that “foreign” standard which they have accepted and applied to themselves.
The Aboriginal dropout has few or no supports at his community or village level and may drift to Toronto or Winnipeg or Montreal or Vancouver, where he quickly perceives himself as one of a small, despised, and unrespected minority, with no skills of value to the dominant culture. Alcohol becomes a refuge and a relief.
Is it any wonder that along that path suicide becomes an option – an option for someone who perceives himself as having no value, whose culture has lost its value, and who has neither the social, educational, or employment skills which have currency and value in the dominant culture?
The model of schooling must change – to one which is non-judgmental, one which supports the development of a strong self-esteem, confidence and competence, based on activities which are meaningful and enjoyable for the Aboriginal children and firmly entrenched in a culture-positive and culture-enhancing ethos.
This calls for radical change in the model of schooling in Aboriginal communities. It is amply documented that “Education” (read: trustees, superintendents, principals, teachers, teacher trainers) has exhibited remarkable inability or unwillingness to make significant, substantial, or long-lasting changes to the predominant (archaic and inappropriate) schooling paradigm. Thus, it may be incumbent upon Aboriginal community leaders and elders to insist on, and maybe initiate, the needed changes if there is to be hope for the viability of Aboriginal culture and for Aboriginals as a continuing viable people.