The Limits of Public Education — Lessons from the Indian Schools

There’s a tradition in progressive public education that sees itself as a way to counteract the home lives of students. This is a well-intentioned progressivism that we still often see, and there’s good reason for this. We know that in-school factors are only able to account for about 30% of a student’s academic outcomes. When you see public education as something that is intrinsically built to fight poverty and increase economic mobility, it can sometimes be difficult to have any hope in the institution when almost 70% of the student’s outcomes are controlled by factors outside of the school.

There are a lot of ways to react to this fact. One way is to think of other social programs — attempts to improve housing, health, crime, and food — as necessary and connected aspects to an anti-poverty education system. Another common reaction is to try and build new ways in which schools can have a larger impact on a student’s outcomes by increasing the influence of the school over the home life. For instance, we can increase the length of the school day or we can make school go year-round. These types of policies are frequently suggested. The former policy featured prominently in Kamala Harris’s recent presidential campaign. The problem, however, is that these types of policies have an unfortunate historical precedent.

When we see our public education system as fundamentally working to counteract the family life of a student we slowly approach a place where we blur the line between the state and the family. We begin to risk the erasure of local culture in favor of the dominant, authoritatively impressed values of whoever runs the state. When you’re the one in power, this type of progressivism seems logical and even charitable. However, to the people whose culture is being degraded by the use of an overly ambitious public education system, these actions are not charitable. In some cases they border on evil.

The trouble is that those in power are overly confident about the infallible goodness of their values without a sufficient skepticism about their ability to appropriately implement a truly effective and altruistic public education system. Sadly, this type of overly-ambitious progressivism has a long and abusive past within the United States. This is perhaps best shown by the American Indian Boarding School System of the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

American Indian Boarding Schools

Ever since the US started colonizing the American frontier, missionaries and government groups worked to try and assimilate native people through education programs. These programs sought to teach natives English and Christianity while introducing them to western culture and education in the hope of pushing them to better contort themselves to US culture. It’s unclear whether that meant being full citizens or being a permanent and “unproblematic” underclass. Either way the general idea behind the schools was always clear: colonizing Americans saw independent Indian culture as a problem which had to be corrected through the slow indoctrination of a publicly funded education system.

At first this just meant normal reservation schools. Kids would attend school and then go back home to their family and culture at night. The trouble was that this wasn’t effective at curbing Indian culture. Students would frequently not attend class, and they would hold on to their culture tightly, not sufficiently Westernizing at the pace that missionaries and the government had hoped. So, in response, the US government started building large residential boarding schools far away from Indian land. Children could be forcibly taken from their families and taught western values while sufficiently separated from their home culture.


Students would be broken up by gender and then forced to assimilate. Their hair would be cut. They’d be forced to dress in traditional western clothes. And they would be forced to speak English.

The enforcement of the rules was frequently brutal and abusive. Whole generations of Indian children were physically and sexually abused. Not only did they not assimilate into American culture, they partially lost connection to the complicated and rich systems of support that already existed in their cultures. This arguably set a foundation of systematic and re-occurring trauma that continues to this day. In other words, repeated generations grew up under abuse. The trauma dysregulated their development and led to patterns of mental health issues that caused unstable social networks for the following generations of children that they raised. Even after the boarding schools ended, the trauma continues to be felt by the cycles of addiction and trauma that were exacerbated by these years of oppression.

I must emphasize that the progressives behind the American Indian Boarding Schools did not see themselves as evil. They saw themselves as saviors and do-gooders. They had a view of what is good for American Indians and they used the US government to coerce these groups in accordance to their progressive vision. Their confidence in the rightness of their mission — that Indians were inferior and needed to be forced into Western culture for their own good — helped lead otherwise good people to commit atrocities against these children.

(For a more thorough introduction to the legacy of American Indian Boarding Schools try this podcast, or try these articles)

Moving Forward

I think that this is an important cautionary tale. Public education is arguably essential to a well-functioning democracy, but any public education system is necessarily indoctrinary. There is no culturally neutral education curriculum. Choosing how and what to teach students necessarily involves impressing certain values on students about what is worth learning, what is worth valuing, and how the world is actually constructed.

The naive view of this is that the English, History, Science, and Math taught in school is “Objective” and beyond culture. That’s wrong for two big reasons. First, there is an infinite amount of things that we can teach and so there is an opportunity cost to any curriculum. Teaching western values and college preparatory subjects is necessarily a choice over other options. The choice to teach what we do signals what the state wants us to believe. Second, although there is an arguable objectivity to certain aspects of the subjects that we choose to teach, the majority of subjects are uncertain within the actual literature. Whatever is chosen to be in a curriculum is taking a simplistic stance to one side of an ongoing debate.

The American Indian Boarding Schools showed us one extreme side of the cultural wars that are fought through public education. In this case, a dominant and well-intentioned government attempted to erase a group’s culture by forcibly separating students from their families and re-educating the students in the “truths” of the dominant culture.

The main problem is to think that we aren’t doing this to some degree today. A progressive public education system that seeks to lift students out of poverty is necessarily working to separate students from their own culture in order to re-indoctrinate students into new belief systems.

Even the most thoughtful modern schools have frighteningly similar practices to the original Indian Schools. Just as original Indian schools punished students for speaking their native language, modern schools punish students for using the unique vocabulary and grammar of local languages/dialects. Just as the Navajo child was banned from speaking Navajo (known to its own speakers as Diné), the black kid is punished from using black english, the english language learning student is often not legally allowed to receive translations, and the poor child is discouraged from using the language of their own home in favor of speaking the Academic English of the classroom. The parallels don’t end there. Low-income students in many urban areas are often subjected to borderline draconian disciplinary systems that begin to mirror the practices of the American Indian schools. Students are pushed away from the values and goals of their community into the values and goals of the elites which now mostly means being a well-to-do, college educated citizen.

Now of course these aren’t the same things. I do strongly believe that the modern progressive education movement has partially learned from the past. The schools of today are unquestionably less traumatic than anything Indian children were subjected to in the boarding schools. The problem is that we need to be more vigilant to the possibility that we are wrong. We need to be more cautious of the possibility that we can seriously damage children when we are trying to help them. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t enough to prevent this and we must accept that our work is in part impressing our belief systems onto students that don’t often want anything to do with us.

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