Unit 1 – Critiques of Education in Rural Alaska

The first task of this paper is to demonstrate comprehension of the required readings. The second is to engage critically with some of the issues raised therein. One facet of this critical engagement is to use two sources of data about school performance – this to ground the theoretical. Finally, for those of us in “the lower 48” we can further inform the conversation with relevant local data. In what follows I offer brief summaries of the required readings and then move into a critique. First, my biases in thinking about schooling and education, I, as a graduate student, read materials like Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society”, George Dennison’s “Lives of Children”, Eliot Wigginton’s “Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience”, Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, and less about school and more about learning, Gregory Bateson – indeed, everything he wrote available to the public. While I resonate with Foucault’s criticism of the panopticon and its pervasiveness in our lives, I prefer Wigginton because he was first and last about practice, about doing and making with people.

Turning to the four required readings: The Alaska Natives Commission – “Alaska Native Education: Final Report” offers a comprehensive roadmap of the issues affecting the education of Alaska Natives. Specifically, the Findings and Recommendations section maps neatly the landscape from the Native point of view: Skills Necessary for Success, Failure of the Public Education System, Failure of the Social System, Need and Issues. This report then offers fifteen recommendations I touch on the following in what follows: Total Local Control of Schools, Model Curricula for Alaska Native Students, Involvement of Parents and Community, Indian/Native Education Programs for all Native Students.

Paul Ongtooguk offers beyond these points one additional issue: “In fact, the perspective of Alaska Natives, particularly during the contact period of modern times, was almost absent” hence the title of his essay; “Their Silence about Us: Why We Need an Alaska Native Curriculum.”

Leona Okakok’s essay “Serving the Purpose of Education” is the oldest of the resources and yet a pleasure to read, perhaps because she succeeds in melding two voices, the storyteller and the scholar. She identifies: The Role of Local Culture in the Learning Process, Contrasting Definitions of Education, and Educating for Success; Teacher-Student Ratio, Skills Taught, Parental Involvement, Cultural Identity, and Bilingual Education, as key issues with which North Slope Borough School District wrangles.

The First Alaskans Institute “2006 Alaska Native Student Vitality: Community Perspectives on Supporting Student Success” is quite a long article its approach is qualitative; the authors interviewed 45 Alaska Natives, community leaders, community members, and advocates. The findings were categorized within four questions:

  • How do you define Alaska Native student success?
  • How schools define Alaska Native student success?
  • What should schools prepare Alaska Native students for?
  • What are the characteristics of effective schools?

Their Chart 1: Suggested Measures of Success provides an interesting summary and starting point for operationalizing what they learned from the interviewees.

I think the ANC report is particularly useful for thinking critically about some of these issues:

The most thoughtfully designed education system, most current school facilities, best trained and carefully selected teachers, brilliantly conceived and unimpeachable intentions will not, by themselves, significantly improve the education situation of Alaska Native students. The environments in which many young Alaska Natives find themselves must be rid of alcohol and drug abuse, dysfunctional families, and poverty…. Ironically, improved education is part of the solution to these problems and must begin immediately if Alaska Natives are to survive as a distinct culture and the fulfilling lives to which all Americans are entitled.

This quote shows a recurrent theme that occurs throughout these readings; a kind of chicken/egg phrasing of the problem. Here it is cast as we need better schools to have better communities/we need better communities to have better schools. Whenever problems are cast as chicken/egg conundrums, I worry we are trapped in a double-bind, or, perhaps we are excusing our inactivity by falsely casting the circumstance as a double-bind to justify our inactivity.

Returning to Okakok’s article, she does some important work first in distinguishing between “education” and “schooling.” She also reminds us that real, individual young persons are the subject of this conversation. In all of the readings required for this essay the subject is present, there are learners: youth and some older people too. Villegas and Prieto offer us an important example showing the success of a particular young person. This model is useful as it also wrangles with the statistic that shows a slightly greater frequency of learning disabilities among Alaska Native learners:

One can certainly define failure in terms of not passing tests, but there are students, [student name] we have in [village name] who was diagnosed with FAS [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome]…his grandparents raised him…school was not his thing, there was no way he was going to survive in school. His grandparents raised him in the traditional way. He is now the youngest speaker of the language, the best dancer, the youngest and one of the best hunters and trappers, dog team, and I would have to say that he has been prepared to make a life for himself, that is tailor made to [student name], and he is successful at a level that exceeds…as long as you’re not limiting the definition of successfully passing a test, you have to include [student name] as someone who is successful. Academics alone would not…he would be [a failure]. Which is one of the problems in the whole [adequate yearly] progress criteria and whole emphasis on the tests as the only basis that counts any more. (E21)

My switch from “young person” to “learner” is intentional, first to disrupt the roles of teacher/student and second because part of unpacking the double-bind is realizing that this needs to be about lifelong learning rather than something we do to young persons from the outside in and all at once.

As each child shows a proclivity toward a certain activity, it is quickly acknowledged and nurtured. As these children and adults in the community interact, bonds are established that help determines the teacher and the activities which will be made available to that particular child. As education progresses, excellence is pursued naturally. Parents often stand back and let a child explore and experience things, observing the child’s inclinations. If a child shows an aptitude for skills that the parents don’t possess, they might arrange for their child to spend time with an expert, or an adult may ask to participate in the education of the child. Thus, many adults in the community have a role in the education of our children.

I think it is important to unpack this and replace Okakok’s use of “children” with “learner” and to imagine this model extending entirely throughout a life span. For example, I have a proclivity for leadership, and as I mature, the community entrusts me with greater responsibility, naturally. As this goes along, senior community members mentor me on communication, problem diagnosis, and politicking of coalition building until I am myself senior and I, in turn, look for apprentices to influence. Alas, if we have dysfunctional communities and dysfunctional personalities then we must fret about pedophiles and contributors to juvenile delinquency in this model. Therefore, when we render the boundary between school/community porous we take on the responsibility for protecting learners of all ages as they cross the border and interact.

I bridle at the notion of “schooling.” This is informed by Foucault’s critique of the Panopticon. We can easily describe the traditional classroom of ranks and rows of individual desks as “cells” and the teacher standing facing the ranks and rows as situated in the inspection house. Even if we disrupt the architecture and sit in a circle, we have not disrupted the roles of teacher/student, or warden/prisoner. Therefore, in reading Okakok, I had to read closely to understand her meaning of schooling. I take it to be this; “all the circumstance that surrounds and supports education, e.g. “the building, the equipment and materials, the quality of teaching and counseling services – everything about our schools – to ensure that education can take place in the classroom.” When I read, First Alaskans Foundation – “Alaska Native Education Study/Indicators” and Alaska Dept. of Education – “No Child Left Behind/History of Alaska School Reform” I learn about the quality of “schooling” perhaps the panopticon becomes Escheresque infinitely folding back upon itself, “wardens” in their inspection houses which become cells too, inspected by inspectors. I, however, observe little or nothing about particular learners or education in these reports and that harkens back to the coerciveness and double-bind that caused me to bridle over the term “schooling.” Bateson helps me unpack my meaning when he says:

Double bind situations are created by and within the [teaching] setting and the [school] milieu. From the point of view of this hypothesis, we wonder about the effect of [educational] “benevolence” on the [student]…. We would assume that whenever the system is organized for [school] purposes, and it is announced to the [student] that the actions are for his benefit, then the schizophrenogenic situation is being perpetuated.” (Bateson, 1972b)

I have appropriated Bateson shamelessly here, what he said: “psychotherapeutic setting and the hospital milieu,” “medical ‘benevolence’ on the schizophrenic patient,” “hospital purposes and it is announced to the patient.” Given the pervasiveness of the panopticon, this appropriation seems reasonable. Here let us reach back to my misgivings about the double bind, cast as we need better schools to have better communities/we need better communities to have better schools. Dysfunction is at the center of a complex of institutional failures, failures of families, failures of communities, failures of schools. Ongtooguk makes this point:

As recently as the mid-1970s, the teachers and counselors at my high school in Nome had quite different expectations about the future of white students and Alaska Native students. In a certain sense, they didn’t need to worry much about the future of Native students. At that time, close to half the students from Native villages dropped out well before graduating. And suicide rates among male Native students—like myself—were ten times higher than among white students. In my own school, students who had died were initially given their own pages in the yearbook—but when so many died that the yearbook was becoming a virtual obituary column, the policy was dropped.

I find myself struggling with the logic or rather illogic that seems to say schooling got us sick, so more schooling will make us better. Certainly, this is a gross gloss, yet not entirely. Most of this is evident in the literature describing school evaluation, but it also sneaks back into the 15 recommendations of the “Alaska Native Education: Final Report.” For myself, it seems that a more radical break with the forces of colonization and westernization is necessary if any of these aspirations are to be realized. Villegas and Prieto also struggle with how to operationalize the visions and goals articulated by their respondents

Thirteen of the 34 participants who responded to this question also hesitated and struggled to identify any specific examples of effective schools for Alaska Native students. Several respondents (9) wanted to talk specifically about the roles and responsibilities of Alaska Native communities rather than the characteristics of effective schools. Some mentioned their experiences in schools, others referred to what they knew about schooling in other countries, and still, others spoke about what they had experienced or heard about particular schools in Alaska.

Our required readings offer a robust theoretical framework for a better future, alas; they are lean on offering practical guidelines or detailed plans for accomplishing these goals, for realizing this vision. Certainly, there are several different ethnic regions in Alaska and within those regions varying and unique circumstances. None-the-less, if people stuck in the bind of we need better schools to have better communities/we need better communities to have better schools are to create and sustain change, then some recipes, some templates, some guidelines of best practice need to be offered. Villegas and Prieto were able to identify eight schools that respondents felt were on track. “First, there are several schools and initiatives cited that are based on community and cultural values, employ Native teachers and educators, and have meaningful community partnerships – and in some cases are controlled by the community itself.” To my mind, this offers an important starting place for examining these as case studies and potential role models. However, I think it is important to avoid the logic of confirming the content of today’s newspaper by reading the second copy. I believe it is important to look outside of Alaska for successful pedagogies and unique cultures surviving and navigating post-modernity.

I can only sketch in brief of my meaning, but I find Eliot Wigginton’s Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience incredibly valuable. Wigginton was both a practitioner and theoretician and so much can be learned from him about young people; about learning, about creating school and community exchanges, and about preserving culture. Very simply Foxfire was a magazine capturing southern Appalachian folkways. It was entirely student produced. However, to be in a place to see the opportunity and build on it Wiggington had to fail and to genuinely question his educational experience to be receptive to the clues around him. The chapter, “So What Did I Learn In School, Anyway?” offers us a skeleton:

I began to make a list of memorable, positive experiences…. I found that then experiences could be grouped fairly easily … into broad categories: Times when there were visitors to our class from the world outside the classroom…. Times when, as students, we left the classroom on assignments or field trips…. Times when things we did, as students, had an audience beyond the teacher…. Times when we, as students were given responsibility of an adult nature, and\ were trusted to fulfill it…. Times when we, as students, took on major independent research projects that went far beyond simply copying something out of an encyclopedia, or involved ourselves in periods of intense personal creativity and action…. (Wigginton, 1985)

Indeed, in three of our required readings these same insights are present, but not, I think, in the same self-conscious way that Wigginton offers. The situation that framed Foxfire was parallel and similar in ways to the troubles Alaskan Natives describe: rural, poverty, dysfunction and substance abuse, the traditional life-ways eroded by the consumer society. The young people in his classes were like most young people trapped in the institution of schooling: bored — sometimes to death, de-motivated, and waiting to be old enough to get on with real life. The magazine, and later the books, was the catalyst at that place and time, which allowed Wigginton to accomplish all of the goals our required readings celebrate. Wigginton pulled all facets of the curriculum, English, business math, technology (of the era), history, social studies, and art together into a single project. He ruptured the barrier between town and gown or at least rendered it porous with knowledge flowing in both directions. His project preserved and transmitted lifeways and material culture across generations. Imitation is a kind flattery but it is also bound for failure, and that is why I emphasize Wigginton’s theoretical value. We do not have to re-invent him, rather we can appropriate and adapt to the circumstance of schools, and villages and Alaska Natives. Another strength in Wigginton’s approach is that it cuts through the Gordian knot if the double-bind school/community dysfunction. The function is restored adequately as a together step of both systems in as much as is possible through the restoration and stimulation of life-long learning.

I also recommend various works by Donald Kraybill and his co-authors, on the Amish. I am neither Amish nor particularly religious, so my admiration for these people arises from other angles. In conjunction with a course on the legal and ethical issues in technology, I wrote an ethnographic comparison of Amish and Tlingit ethics of appropriate technology. It probably was not very good, but I was struck by the self-consciousness and intentional albeit inconsistent approach that Amish had in confronting consumer technology. At the most basic if the technology threatened to erode spiritual values and community values then it was rejected. Here I think of a story that Rosita Worl told at a presentation 30 years ago where she talked about how plumbing and running water had damaged the social fabric in many Native villages because it had replaced the trek to the water source – a chore shared by older and younger men and an opportunity for them to transmit cultural knowledge, create trust and respect and hence bonds that preserved communities, for example. Certainly, plumbing is better than Cholera yet perhaps some alternatives could have been negotiated to sustain the culture if greater self-consciousness in the adoption of technology were practiced. Indeed, the Amish display at times inconsistencies or they create loopholes for themselves, yet I think the process and vigorous commitment to values offer some valuable guidelines as Alaska Natives grapple with the issues raised and goals set in these four readings. Similarly, I think the Amish offer insights into getting a living while straddling two worlds. In the 100 years between 1900 and 1992, the Amish population grew steadily. Originally, farming or trade and industry supporting farming were the only acceptable ways of making a living. However, as real estate prices rose, and population encroached on the Amish settlements, family farming became nearly impossible to sustain. The Amish have exploded into the small business economy of the eastern Pennsylvania and the US. However, they have done it with the same self-consciousness and keen awareness of spiritual and communal values. My point again is Alaska Natives will have to find their way, but I believe the Amish offer some absorbing guidelines for how to manage to live between two cultures – “in the world but not of it.”

The response to this Amish “intransigence” eventually pushed the landmark Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder…. Here it was declared in 1972 that the Amish could not be forced to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade. The Supreme Court recognized that education could continue outside the classroom and that “enforcement of the State’s requirement for compulsory formal education after the eighth grade would gravely endanger if not destroy the free exercise of … [Amish] religious beliefs.” (Huntington, 1994)

Above I worry about the illogic of taking more of the poison that makes us ill to cure the ill. The Amish, in the 1950’s, offered a workable and sustainable compromise to minimize this.

Under the vocational plan the children could work at home, supervised by a member of the community, keeping a diary of “what they worked.” One three-hour period per week the children met with an Amish teacher, either in a home or the parochial school to report on their week’s work and to study English, math, German and whatever else was determined by the local community. Attendance records were kept and forwarded to the State. In these localities where school authorities recognized the vocational program many problems were avoided. (Huntington, 1994)

I have wondered far afield, the Appalachian foothills, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania and I have only scratched the surface of both the required readings and the readings I bring to the conversation. However, I hope for a fruitful cross-pollination as these ideas inform subsequent papers. Also, whatever research and publication have been done on the eight schools/initiatives that Villegas and Prieto identify as approximating the desired outcomes should be sought and added to the conversation. While I argue for cross-pollination, I likewise see the value of local assessment and solutions. I also, appropriating the quote about the Amish, celebrate and encourage Alaska native “intransigence” both in self-determination around education, but also in response to documents like, First Alaskans Foundation – “Alaska Native Education Study/Indicators” and Alaska Dept. of Education – “No Child Left Behind/History of Alaska School Reform.” These assessments actually miss the mark and rather can be read in light of hegemonic intrusion really into all communities, not just Alaska Natives. I can, however, easily imagine a school entirely addressing the issues raised in our required readings and yet failing “No Child Left Behind” assessment repeatedly and ultimately facing re-organization.


Alaska Natives Commission – “Alaska Native Education: Final Report.”

Leona Okakok – “Serving the Purpose of Education.”

Paul Ongtooguk – “Their Silence About Us: The Absence of Alaska Natives in Curriculum.”

First Alaskans Institute – “2006 Alaska Native Student Vitality: Community Perspectives on Supporting Student Success.”

Bateson, G. (1972b). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Huntington, G. E. (1994). Persistence and Change in Amish Education. In D. C. K. a. M. A. Olshan (Ed.), The Amish Struggle with Modernity (pp. 77-96). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Wigginton, E. (1985). Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.