Education is culture under restraint. Culture is free.
– Leo Tolstoy
What does education mean to a refugee?
A few words come to mind right away:
Opportunity. Freedom. Self-reliance. Survival.
For me, the pursuit of education has never been directly associated with making a lot of money. I’ve always known that my parents brought us here for a chance at a better life, and that realization has guided me over the years.
It has not always been easy, and I don’t always feel successful.
As an educator myself, I know the value of education. A good teacher will teach you what the world thinks you should know while simultaneously encouraging you to think for yourself. That’s what I have decided, anyway. The reality is that we are so worried about meeting national standards for competencies that there is often little room for free thought.
Who decides what we need to know? Why is it so important that they teach us?
Recently we watched a stunning documentary that digs deeply into compulsory education. Schooling the World (2010) illuminates the loss of traditional wisdom and values in societies that have been introduced to the Western system of education. In place of culture, their children are indoctrinated with a consumer-driven curriculum intended to pull them into a corporate society, one that is only concerned with accumulation of wealth.
What remains is a nation of rapidly aging individuals who mourn their children, whose anchor to the past will die with them.
Yesterday, the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines. Today, the Tibetans. Cultures around the world have been forcibly remodeled generation after generation, under the pretense of salvation. A way of life – indeed, a nation of individuals – is essentially exterminated.
As I watched footage of Tibetan children goose-stepping their way into a new era – their modern school uniforms strangely out of place beneath beautiful, rosy-cheeked faces – I became even more fiercely grateful to my parents for the gifts they have given me. The gifts of life, opportunity, and a solid foundation built on culture.
Back in their villages, parents and grandparents continue to work the land as they have for centuries. They don’t look destitute or starving. In fact, they appear quite happy. Would life be easier for them if they were part of a global economy? Maybe. But we have to be careful how we define happiness, for it is not synonymous with words like “easy,” “comfortable,” or even “convenient.”
I am not vilifying state-run educational systems. In fact, I am grateful for the tools they have given me. I realize that the knowledge I have chased has been assembled by powerful people who don’t have an interest in preserving my ancestral wisdom. That duty falls to my parents, aunts, and uncles.
Unless things change suddenly, my children will be educated in a consumer-driven system. They will know the value of a dollar and the meaning of hard work. It is also my hope that they will speak the language of my people, understand the rituals at our church, learn from our folklore. They will not forget interconnectedness. They will be able to cook sticky rice and eat spicy tham maak hoong with more than one or two chilies.
Most of all, it is my hope that they learn to think freely.