Education in Bush Alaska meets with mixed success

Education, or the lack thereof, is a topic that generates a lot of heat in Alaska.  The bush/urban divide is probably nowhere more evident than in the state’s education funding bill that values bush students less than urban students.

Any arguments that can be mustered to support this disparity are relatively useless next to the emotional reaction produced when you tell a parent that their child is somehow not quantified by the state as being quite as valuable as another child.  The fact that those children seemingly less valued are mostly Native just adds fuel to the fire.

As someone who lived in Bush Alaska for almost 30 years, I know the depth of the passion that is put into education by parents who had only limited access to one themselves.  They have been thoroughly indoctrinated into the belief that education holds the only hope for their children to have a good future.

When oil money first arrived on the North Slope, education became the number one priority.  The BIA was asked to leave and the North Slope Borough School District was formed because the people wanted to have a strong voice in their children’s education. They wanted their children to be equally schooled in Western and Inupiat thought. They wanted their children to be able to compete for jobs in a moneyed economy while still being able to hunt whales, caribou and ptarmigan. They wanted to find a way to blend their subsistence way of life with a 9 to 5 world and have the blend come out the richer for the mixing.

Thirty years later, the success of this mixed educational program is open to question.  This can be attributed to many things such as not enough money, not enough teachers, not enough parental involvement. In short, not enough of all the things that are traditionally thought to be critical to a successful education.

But in observing education in the bush for all those many years, I’ve always felt there was a large elephant in the room, which everyone was pretending or hoping simply didn’t exist. 

That elephant is the reality inherent in understanding that maintaining traditional cultures while emphasizing western education is an intrinsically flawed process.  Traditional culture occurs in the wilderness where the only things you need to be able to read are the signs of the land, the weather and the game. Survival is the ultimate goal and achieving it does not involve a knowledge of algebraic equations or Socratic thought. 

Heck, you don’t even need to know who Holden Caufield is.

A western education prepares you for more education, which leads to employment opportunities that simply don’t exist to any significant extent in bush Alaska.  If you are going to take your western education seriously and pursue it to its logical end, that end is not in a small hunting village with little to no moneyed economy and maybe, at best, a dozen full time jobs.

And so pushing education in the bush leads to a very fundamental conundrum for the people living there.  What’s the point of a western education if your life is going to be spent subsistence hunting? Yet, if you decide to pursue a western education, you set yourself up for the inevitable move from your village to get a job. At best you get to subsistence hunt on weekends and vacations.

I used to hear it said that for many young people, the high point of their lives was when they were high school basketball stars or cheerleaders.  Once they graduated, they had nothing left to look forward to unless they left their village.

I don’t know the answer to this problem.  Even raising it will probably anger some people who want to persist with the myth that they can have it both ways.  Only a few lucky people in each village can achieve that. Once the few jobs that allow a person to work in the moneyed economy while staying close enough to the land to live a subsistence lifestyle are gone, people face a hard choice. They can leave for a job or they can stay behind and be subsistence hunters and fishers. 

Most will never have the option of having it both ways. It’s probably time we faced that reality and had an honest discussion of what it means to students who are trying so desperately to meet everyone’s expectations and successfully straddle both worlds.