I had learned many English words in the white man's school, and could recite part of the Ten Commandments. I learned to eat with a knife and fork. I also learned that a person is expected to think with his head and not his heart, and about his money not his spirit. --Sun Chief, Hopi
Indigenous education enables individuals to reach completeness by learning to …see things deeply…and to recognize and honor the teacher of spirit within themselves and the natural world. This is the educational legacy of indigenous people. --Gregory Cajete in Look to the Mountain
Curriculum development in the postmodern era includes attention to the wisdom embedded in Naïve American spirituality, for it is in the very sacred land of the Native people that American education now finds its home. --Patrick Slattery in Curriculum Development in the Post Modern Era
Our ideas about teaching virtues stem from a fundamental American Indian view that sees the universe as intimate relationships of living things that are vitally affected by attributes we call "universal virtues." From all the noble creatures that display courage, patience, humility, generosity, or fortitude we learn about the respect and responsibility necessary to keep these intimate relationships in natural harmony.
Such a perspective is not exclusive American Indians, but by and large, schools throughout the United States reflect a sharply contrasting set of assumptions that have roots on another continent. They do not see human relationships with nature as dependent and morally reciprocal. More inclined toward individualism and mechanistic structures than community or holistic processes, the dominant worldview emphasizes economic utility and consumption rather than diversity and conservation. With such a priority, moral education is not about a commitment to life and its interconnections but is merely another vehicle for enforcing conformity in behalf of economic outcomes.
When proponents of "character education" endorse programs that segregate spiritual , ethical, ecological and moral issues from the standard academic subjects, they violate authentic principles of character by forcing compliance with certain values or by inculcating rather than cultivating virtue awareness. They see character education as independent from the affective aspects of moral development, such as caring or compassion. Or, they relegate the traits of good personhood to the exclusive domain of a particular religion. None of these approaches do much for maintaining harmonious relationships.
In our book, we show how teachers, teacher candidates, parents, administrators and students can weave awareness and a consideration of core universal virtues into all subjects on a daily basis. In the same way that our Indian ancestors blended ideas about courage or generosity into teaching a child to make a bow and arrow, teachers help students understand relationships between virtues and all of the subjects required in our schools. By daily integration of virtue awareness into the curriculum, students can internalize virtues as a part of their identity and learn how this identity relates to the larger web of life.
Acknowledging that our approach to character education originates from the people whose blood colors the soils of the American landscape provides a new paradigm for teaching virtues. Without this different perspective, it may be more difficult to avoid the pitfalls that ultimately cause genuine character education to receive more lip service than application; or cause it to take a turn in the wrong direction; or cause it to become more associated with a religion than a way of life; or cause it to be overly anthropocentric. This is because our current educational direction does not support an authentic approach to learning virtues and content simultaneously or interactively. The structures of our institutions often contradict the precepts of good character.
For example, we may talk about generosity as an aspect of fair play in competition. However,
in our dominant culture, the importance of winning and the expectations surrounding winning can counter genuine generosity. One dimension of this is how the winner not only wins but also receives gifts, awards and recognition for winning. From the American Indian perspective, when someone achieves success, this person is expected to give to those who helped him or her gain the success. The latter tends to support the idea of generosity more inherently than the dominant culture's assumptions allow.
There was a time when American Indian elders used stories and experiences to teach virtues as a way of life. They believed that right actions kept the world from spinning out of control. Wrong actions disturbed the precarious balance of nature. By and large, the people lived in accordance with this belief. They "walked the talk." While children learned to master skills for living, they learned to cherish the virtues necessary to use the skills in a balanced way. From this came freedom, genuine respect for all relationships, an abiding love of nature, and adherence to principles of truth, generosity, courage, humility, equity and brotherhood. This contrasts with our current system of education, with its over-emphasis on standardized tests, technology and competitiveness that provides us with more efficient ways to go backwards or to arrange the world in a way that may cause us to lose our ability to experience it.
In saying this, we are not putting American Indians or their cultures on a pedestal. We know that all humans of any race, any culture, or any group have the same potential for greed, selfishness, wrongdoing or stupidity, and that all people can be generous, patient, courageous, honest, persevering and humble. However, in spite of the fact that studies of world history or world religions often exclude American Indians , there is ample research revealing that indigenous societies are more likely to revere interdependence, cooperation and reciprocity than western cultures.
For example, Research conducted at Boise State University shows that even today, American Indian learners are influenced significantly more than non-Indian learners by the degrees to which group harmony and holistic approaches to health and spirituality exist in the learning environment. The study concluded that:
The values which produced significant differences
between American Indians and non-Indians provide an interesting point of discussion.
When considering which values affect socialization practice and subsequently
one's approach to learning, the American Indian respondents selected discipline,
group harmony, holistic approaches to health and spirituality to a greater
extent than non-Indians. These values all speak to the integral aspects of
one's life which
communicate balance and respect and apparently affect the way in which one approaches a new learning situation.
That this difference exists is revealing to us and speaks to support the idea that there is much to learn about "character education" from the American Indian perspective on learning and character education. It will finally allow us to integrate skills and virtues in a way that allows children to construct meaning and relevancy from both. To begin accomplishing this now, we offer our book as a way to begin "walking the talk."