Indian schools' century-old lesson still unlearned

This weekend, an hour and a half north of Baltimore in Carlisle, Pa., a group of experts will convene for a symposium on the first federally operated Native American boarding school in the U.S. The lessons learned from this piece of U.S. history still resonate today when we think about current federal education policies and practices.

I teach a graduate course on the history of education to local teachers at Loyola University Maryland, and we spend a good deal of time learning about this historical phenomenon. In 1879, a former Civil War officer, Richard Henry Pratt, persuaded the federal government to allow him to utilize a vacant military base for an educational experiment that could "kill the Indian and save the man." Pratt traveled west and persuaded Indian leaders to allow him to take their children east to Carlisle, where they could learn practical, important skills that would help them succeed in the growing United States.

When the children arrived, their long hair was cut, they were issued uniforms, and they engaged in military-like disciplinary activities intended to Americanize them. They were harshly forbidden from speaking their native languages, so that they could learn English. The Carlisle Indian School became a model for many other Native American boarding schools across the country, the last of which closed in the later 20th century. Needless to say, the outcomes were not what Pratt intended.

Last spring, I took my class to visit the former site of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which is now the Army War College. Over the summer, I interviewed a few of my students and found that they saw this history as easily relevant and important for teachers to learn. First, most had never heard of this history, and so they were surprised — some even shocked — to learn that the federal government sponsored such schools. That confirmed my experiences of teaching this topic. Further, upon reflection, they saw specific parallels to today. A Baltimore County elementary teacher remarked: "Are we trying to do the same thing with Latino students? I find that [with] so many of my Latino students, they don't want to speak Spanish. Their parents don't encourage it. I feel that that's such a loss."

The Carlisle Symposium has as part of its title "reclamation," so why can't we learn from these past experiences that top-down, one-size-fits all mandates can backfire? Neglecting a student's culture in favor of narrow accountability can only result in a loss. Further, a Baltimore City elementary teacher remarked, "I've heard some schools say, 'no Spanish.' That's cultural genocide. That's saying that there's something wrong with speaking these different languages, their culture." This teacher goes on to compare the ways in which we also stamp out urban culture in children within our schools, calling their practices and behavior unprofessional. Why is it that we cannot return to the pursuit of public education for a democratic society grounded in local contexts and dignity of the human person? Or were we ever there in the first place?

A Baltimore County high school social studies teacher remarked, "[M]aybe one universal standard is not the best. Just when you look back at this time period, again it was a handful of people legislating change across the country without considering the different tribal histories ... no consideration of change at all. It makes me wonder if we're repeating that. I think there's an argument saying that we are."

This teacher hints at the ways in which legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, with their one-size-fits-all approaches, are really not what is best for the many different types of schools, communities and students across our vast nation. As another teacher puts it: "People say being fair is giving the same thing to everyone, but really it's making sure everyone has what they need."

I think we would be wise to remember the history and legacy of the Native American boarding school movement as we continue to refine our public education.

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish is an associate professor and director of the Curriculum & Instruction Program in the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. Her email is

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