Yupiks, Black kids, and Old French Nuns: A Pedagogy of the Accountable

Sometimes the greatest lessons in life emanate from the most unlikely of people and places. In the mid1970s, I found myself working at a Yupik Eskimo boarding school located in western Alaska.  St. Mary’s Mission School had been a fixture on the Yukon Delta since 1910. During which time, it had built a reputation as a model of effective bicultural education because of the thousands of Yupik Eskimos students that had gone on to contribute to Alaskan society.  Doctor Judith Kleinfeld, Educational Psychologist and Chair of the Northern Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, authored a book describing just why St. Mary’s Mission School experienced so much success in educating Yupik Eskimos; which often wasn’t the case at many public or government schools set-up in bush Alaska by secular administrators and the BIA.[1]

St.  Mary’s success wasn’t because of its facilities. The campus buildings were mostly made-up of surplus Army barracks, Quonset huts, and a potpourri of other re-purposed structures. The school’s audio-visual equipment was antiquated to say the least.  The teaching and other support staff were hardly well paid. And in many cases, the teachers were also the support staff. Most of us received a small stipend for our efforts.  Essentially, three hots and a cot set-up.

My wife and I lived in a 10 by 12-foot room in the boy’s dormitory, and shared a small bathroom with other teachers who worked at the school.

Typical of most parochial schools at that time, staff members wore many hats.  For example, I worked in the library, taught social studies and theology, served as a prefect in the boy’s dormitory, and monitored an evening study hall.  A daily two-hour study hall was mandatory for all students. I was also the Saturday morning student work crew supervisory, as well as the assistant basketball coach.

Often in the current debate over improving the educational quality of our nation’s schools, we think funding or paying people more is the key to successfully educating students.  In reality, and especially in the government schools in bush Alaskan, their teachers were paid over $30K back in 1970s, plus housing. However, their success at educating Yupik students was nothing to write home about.

A seminal lesson I learned early in my professional career was that pouring more money into failing schools or programs only made failure and mediocrity more expensive.

All the students at St. Mary’s and the government schools came from the same small Eskimo villages and a large percentage of St. Mary’s students where cast-offs from various public schools on the delta.

The curriculum and pedagogy at St. Mary’s was very congruent to the instruction I received in Catholic schools in the 1950s & 60s.  No nonsense, strict, (occasionally to a fault), plenty of tough love from teachers and administrators who cared about you as “person”, and not as a “poor oppressed minority”.  Discipline, building character, emphasis on math, science, reading, writing and personal accountability were categorical imperatives.

If you observed the everyday class instruction at St. Mary’s, there was no special “culturally-sensitive pedagogical methods” being employed, which were the rage at many of the government schools. St. Mary’s teaching methodology, if it could be called one, was merely making sure students mastered their lessons.  Mastery of reading, science, math and writing were at the core of the school’s educational philosophy.  Teaching, study and testing was the instructional triad most associated with St Mary’s.

A group of catholic nuns who came to Alaska from France in the1930s were truly the schools’ unquestionable matriarchs. In the many informal discussions, I had with the good sisters, they were always somewhat amused when teachers from the government school districts came to St. Mary’s to discovered the so-called secrets for St. Mary’s success.  These visiting teams of teachers and administrators soon discovered that there wasn’t any special curriculum or “school of education” instructional paradigms.

Sister Thecla, Sister Scholastica and other nuns insisted and demanded the best from all their students. With no excuses, period!  The sisters and all of us at the schools had great respect for Yupik culture but not at the expense that students weren’t prepared to deal with, and succeed in the wider culture.  Many of the government schools at time were gun-ho about employing culturally sensitive, ethnically congruent, but totally ineffective instruction models on their students.  These old French nuns did not succumb to what we call today as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” That is the instructional parasite that has subtly undercut and hamstring the academic performance of minority students both in Alaska and among African American children in government schools here in the lower 48.

Regarding Black students, discipline and accountability are severely lacking in many urban classrooms, making any sort of learning a herculean task.  Despite having black teachers and principals for decades in many inner-city schools, test scores and the overall scholastic performance remain abysmal.

Even so-called successful programs from the 1960s such as Head Start, has turned out to be a success “only” for the adults who work in the various venues.  According to a preponderance of longitudinal studies measuring the effectiveness of Head Start in improving academic performance, the results are not worth mentioning.  Also, if you consider the billions of public dollars funneled to the program over the last half century, the money could have been better spent, by giving the money directly to parents, to be used at the parochial and other private preschool of their choosing.

Drill and Know Something!

What do the following statements have in common?

  1. Drill and kill is systemic byproduct of rote learning.
  2. Insistence upon strict academic standards for blacks and other designated oppressed minorities is a form of cultural imperialism.
  3. If all I have is a hammer, everything is a nail.

Answer! They are part of the educational dogma propagated over the past half century in Teacher Education Programs, by Freirean and Foucauldian academics, most the individuals who control the body politics in the U.S. Department education, and of course the Teachers Unions.

All the above epigrams at first glance sound reasonable. But for many minority students trapped in inner city public schools, these often-repeated bromides have proven disastrous and are a direct contributor to failure and academic stasis so prevalent in inner city government schools.

From the implementation of such teaching methods as: Afrocentric learning, gender and race neutral instruction, whole language learning, differentiated learning instruction, the writing and reading across the curriculum movement, self-esteem advocacy,[2] the ruminations of the authentic assessment cabal, to the Ebonics outbreak of the early 1990.  A host of failed but very expensive educational fads and experimentations on black children has largely gone unchallenged.  In most cases, the provocateurs of these questionable pedagogical models, (mostly oblivious Paulo Freire devotees) just go on to propose some other half back curriculum which sounds good in theory.

Schools of Education supported by the Department of Education and the teacher unions all suffer from this scourge of our baby-boomer generation which cavalierly replaced older pedagogic and curriculum models that worked, with that which “sounds good”.

For example, a cursory review of peer review education literature is replete with direr warnings about rote learning. Supposedly, rote learning and memorization doesn’t teach the students how to critically think.  The drill and kill mantra is omnipresent on the lips of progressive educators. However, neuroscience as well as many cognition experts who study how the brain works and how we really learn, postulate that the discipline, learning patience, and cognitive enhancement of memory via rote learning provides the best pathway to critical thinking skills.  In short, you cannot think critically nor advance problem solve, if you have no material or rote knowledge to build from.

Despite what the educational establishment has brainwashed far too many of teachers into believing; that rote learning or so-called drill and kill is a zero-sum game. Many cognitive functions, neural plasticity and learning malleability correlate extremely well with rote learning.  Which in turn is the primary conduit for developing real cognitive abilities in all students.

Simply stated, you need to “drill to know something”. The old French nuns understood that to study anything effectively, students must learn to be both bored and excited at same time. Learning anything takes discipline, memorization and repetition.  A triad that is anathema in most current instructional models that shun the pedagogy of the accountable.

A pedagogy of the accountable is less of an instructional model, than it is a way of thought and action. It is a philosophy or a manner of thinking which makes the individual responsible for his or her achievements, despite injustices real or imagined.  If you are Black, Native American, or Latino, you will not be allowed to use the excuse that some test, standard or otherwise was culturally biased. That you can’t learn because of some form of discrimination or racial discordance. And guess what? And listen very closely.  The only people that the tests discriminate against are individuals that don’t know the answers. It is the point of testing and other academic challenges to discriminate in order to make us better.

The pedagogy of the accountable recognizes that there has been unfair treatment for many minorities, but this shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to exempt disadvantaged students from doing their best. The French nuns of St. Mary and the Sisters of St Joseph who had to knock some sense into my head in the 1950 and early 60s understood this.

To interject, I was probably one the world’s worst students during my grade school years. (Please excuse the hyperbole!) My classmates designated me the class idiot.  I struggled in every possible subject or academic task.  But the good sisters never gave up on me despite my painfully slow cognitive development.   My fellow classmates would’ve easily voted me the least likely to succeed.

But the strictness and no excuse accountability that was the pedagogic milieu of my early school years, was the impetus which later help me earned three masters and later become a University Library Director.

The instructional ontology underpinning the pedagogy of the accountable was the recognition that you as a student, no matter whether you are black or a Yupik.  You have an extraordinary opportunity to succeed. Without sugar coating the other side of the equation, the opportunity to succeed also carries with it the chance to fail. It may sound harsh to your average liberal progressive, but the so-called disadvantage students whom we teach must get the message loud and clear that the disadvantages you may have suffered, excuses you from very little.

To think otherwise is at best counterproductive to your growth as a person, and will only prolong the achievement limbo in which many black and other minority students seem to reside.   All excuses must be left behind. That is the only true accountability.

In street terms, many black students need to be kicked in their ass and told in no uncertain terms that you will not use racism as an excuse. You are not a helpless minority suffering from a pedagogy of the oppressed.  And of course, you can learn anything just a well as other students.  The bigotry of low expectations must be challenged.

To cite one of my favorite dead white guys, Thomas Aquinas, this ignorantia affectata  or cultivated ignorance must be nip in the bud.

Black parents must aggressively seek and lobby for educational options such as charter schools, school vouchers and other vocational options for their children. Which by the way organizations such as NAN, NAACP, Teacher Unions, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic Party torpedo at every opportunity.   These impediments to helping minority students succeed, whether they are Yupik Eskimos, Cheyenne and Crow Indians or Black kids have to be confronted.[3]

With a laser sharp focus, Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education appointed by President Donald Trump, understands the need to explore other avenues to help all children learn.  The opposition to her appointment by Congressional Democrats had little or nothing to do with that fact that she doesn’t have the vaulted government or public school experience.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the reasons why the NEA and others find Ms. DeVos, persona non-grata, is that she is a strong proponent of school vouchers, charter schools and other education choices that don’t bode well for them. Millions of tax dollars that now flow unabated to the teachers’ unions would be lost, along with the corresponding power and influence they exert on liberal democrat politicians, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the NAACP.

Ms. DeVos understands this monopolist behavior by the Educational establishment is driven by the reality that schools, especially in the inner city, are presently run on behalf of the teachers and not the students   Many in the upper echelon of the teachers Unions view the public school primarily as a jobs program for adults, with our children’s education a tertiary concern at best.

In my earlier years as a foreign film watching, Aquarius wine drinking, granola eating, all things Foucauldian pseudo-intellectual, I was always impressed with the banter from my fellow leftist brethren. This was especially so when they utter the secular doxology, which said, “ if all I have is a hammer, everything is a nail.”   Wow!  What insight, I thought at the time.

The Achille’s heal in this pithy faith statement is that when it was applied to education, and the development and implementation of instructional models to help minority students, it seldom worked. Contrary to the difference theorist lobby, who never met a culturally sensitive, non-misogynist, race and gender neutral pedagogic model they didn’t like. There are some basic core principles of instruction, that are and will always be hammer like.

Whether we’re teaching a recalcitrant black child back in an urban setting of the 1950s, or Yupik children in a small Alaska village. To prepare them for life as it is, and not as we want it to be, in order to fit some dopey utopian vision of confronting systemic cultural imperialism in western educational models.  We need to assist upon some stark and hard instructional practices as illustrated in the above narrative.

In retrospect, those old French nuns were committing the unpardonable sin in the minds of progressive educators and difference theory advocates. They treated students the same!  Instead of experimenting with the usual menagerie of half-backed, sounds good, multiculturally sensitive teaching methods, thrust on unsuspecting minorities and their parents for decades. The glib but intellectual vacant “hammer and nail” maxim never worked in theory nor practice.  The real results of students educated in these progressive liberal minutiae is that they learned to be stridden, self-satisfied illiterates with disdain and antipathy for the very culture that has provided them with the most freedom of opportunity than anywhere else.

As our president would say, sad, very sad!


[1] See, Eskimo School on the Andreafsky: A Study of Effective Bicultural Education

[2] See, I can’t spell cat, but my self-esteem is high.  America.  July 12, 1997.

[3] Besides his work with Yupik Eskimo in bush Alaska, the author has worked with Cheyenne and Crow Native Americans in Montana.

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One thought on “Yupiks, Black kids, and Old French Nuns: A Pedagogy of the Accountable

  1. Amy says:

    Great commentary, unfortunately, the writer needs to employ better proof-readers (contains many punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure errors).

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