Native Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

The following post is the third in a series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

ExploringNCTEhistory“Indian people need to be doers, rather than objects to which things are done,” Rough Rock Demonstration School Director Dillon Platero proclaimed in 1970.[1] One of the longest lasting of the 1960s experiments in community control, Rough Rock, a Navajo-operated school in Chinle, Arizona, sought to combine local control of the school with a curriculum that served its population educationally, politically, and psychically. Students at Rough Rock studied (and continue to study today) in English and in Navajo, and they learned Navajo art and science traditions in addition to the standard curriculum. Through a deep, cross-disciplinary immersion in their own culture and history taught largely by Navajo teachers, Rough Rock students could better understand their people’s intellectual traditions and ideas and, by contrast, those of others, as well.

The Demonstration School (called thus because it demonstrated what Native schools could look like and accomplish) marked a break from the federalized public schools that otherwise dotted Indian reservations. Since the early 1900s, both boarding and on-reservation schools had sought to “kill the Indian and save the man” with differing levels of explicitness. Often, schools sought to divorce Native children from their home languages, customs, and dress. At Rough Rock, Platero explained, the aim was just the opposite, and “the child’s self-image and feeling of worthy personhood is not shattered so mercilessly, as often happens, when the difference between what is actual life and what it taught in school strikes the child at the age of six.”[2] Rough Rock sought to dismantle historical traditions in Native American schooling, starting with the psychic damage committed on children.

The NCTE archives hold an extensive collection of materials related to language instruction and literature designed for Native American students in the late 1960s and 1970s, including some focused on Rough Rock. In one of the most important of these documents, a report on the school from 1969, four Navajo external evaluators examined the school in its third year, tasked by the Rough Rock school board to determine how well the curriculum was working.

In so doing, the evaluators looked for the three things:

  1. Is the child happy?

  2. Is the child learning?

  3. Is the child interested?

The school received high scores in learning and interest, 83 and 86 percent, respectively. But in happiness, they found, the school truly excelled, with a score of 94 percent.[3] In asking these questions in this order, the evaluators understood what we often forget now—that happiness is both a political and an educational act, a precondition for individual autonomy and growth as well as community health and identification. People learn better when what they learn deepens and stretches their sense of self-worth and place in the world.

By contrast, school reform policies of the last twenty years have diminished the time and activities in which children are often most happy: physical education, recess, and the arts. We have cut into children’s independent reading time with computerized comprehension tests partnered with material incentives and rewards, as if these are ample replacement for the enjoyment of reading. Writing focused on test prep has taken over, and many students possess far less experience in developing real ideas of their own.

Altogether, the areas that have faced the greatest sacrifice in the past decades are school activities in which students feel most autonomous and free.

Each month, news articles appear applauding the quality of education in Finland; no small number of these articles point to the ways in which student happiness is part of education planning there. Yet it is important to remember that we have traditions of education happiness in our nation—traditions that teachers have been able to prioritize and maintain despite the restrictions and challenges that our schools face and that schools serving low-income populations face all the more acutely. We can learn from our own examples and from the unique perspectives that educators like Platero were able to embrace, often because historical circumstances pushed them to do so.

From its early days, Rough Rock demonstrated far more than what an Indian school looks like; it demonstrated what a school that pushes against history and puts students first looks like. It is not too late to pay attention.

[1] Dillon Platero, “The Rough Rock Demonstration School, Navajo Nation, 1970.” The School in the United States: A Documentary History, James W. Fraser (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001): 312–18, 318.

[2] Platero, 314.

[3] John Y. Begay et al., “Navajo Evaluators Look at Rough Rock Demonstration School” (Washington, DC: Office of Economic Opportunity, 1969), 7. National Council of Teachers of English Archives, Record group 15/73/008, box 7.

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