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Native Pathways to Education
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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



Judith Kleinfeld
Institute of Social and Economic Research
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: Reproduced by permission of the author from Human Organization 34:269-74, 1975.)

The Ethnocentric Teacher has been tried and convicted for causing severe damage to Indian children. As many anthropologists have testified, these teachers with their disapproval of Indian parents’ “permissiveness,” their shock at adolescents’ “promiscuity,” and their scorn for children who are noncompetitive,” undermine Indian students’ sense of worth. Viewing their educational mission as “imprinting the American ideal” on Indian students, these ethnocentric teachers find themselves confronted with class after class of silent, resistant students who “just do not want to conform to the American way.”1

The ethnocentric teacher can still be found in the cross-cultural classroom. However, my own research2 on the effects of different teaching styles with Indian and Eskimo students suggests that he or she is becoming a rarer specimen. By and large these are older teachers who were socialized in the “cultural deprivation” traditions of ten or 50 years ago. At that time, the theoretical paradigm which the teachers learned in professional training was that minority group children did badly in school because deficits in their home background resulted in inferior intellectual, language, and social skills. According to this theory, the schools could produce school success for minority group children by providing in the classroom the educational experiences that the home had not provided. This “cultural deprivation” paradigm dominated educational research and led to numerous program efforts in the “compensatory education” framework.

A dramatic change, however, has occurred in educational programs for minority groups. The pejorative appellation, “culturally deprived,” has given way, thankfully, to the term “culturally different.” Cultural heritage programs have replaced compensatory education programs, and a new type of teacher is emerging in the cross-cultural classroom. In his orientation to Indian students, he could be named the “cultural relativist.”

This teacher poses perhaps a more insidious danger to Indian students than the ethnocentric teacher because in some ways he embodies reforms long recommended in Indian education. He tends to be young and has entered Indian education from partly altruistic motives. He is usually well traveled and well educated. He has read and been strongly influenced by the anthropological literature on culture and education. Indeed, this research is often his primary source of knowledge about Indian students. As one said:

Having had no previous experience working with Eskimos or Indians, and a notice of my position that was so short there was no time for preparation, I was completely new to this situation. I was well aware of the difficulties this could make and I came with an intense desire to do my best and make a success at working with Native students. As soon as possible after being notified of my position, I began studying Native culture and reading everything I could to make myself informed relative to working with them.

This teacher has great admiration for Indian culture, at least in its aboriginal form, and is eager to learn more about it from his students. In his classes, he tries to introduce as much culturally relevant material as he can find. Disapproving of past educational pressures toward acculturation, he urges his own Indian students to retain their culture. This teacher is acutely aware of his own cultural biases and wary of imposing any of his own values on Indian students. Yet, the cultural relativist often finds himself confronted with Indian students as silent and unresponsive to his teaching as they are in the classes of his opposite, the ethnocentric teacher.

A close examination of teacher-student interaction in the cultural relativist’s classroom suggests a few of the bases for Indian students’ unresponsiveness. These teachers’ emphasis on differences between Indians and Whites often creates unease among Indian students and reinforces their fears of being peculiar and strange. While the following dialogue was stimulated by my research, which involved videotaping of classrooms, it provides an example only somewhat more extreme than usual of messages frequently transmitted in the cultural relativist’s classroom.

The cameraman joked with the students as he panned the room, “OK, say cheese.” To this, the teacher added nervously: “You are assimilated into Whiteman’s culture. You know you are supposed to smile when he says cheese.” The students giggled apprehensively. “Why is he taking a picture of this class?” There was no further response except more nervous giggling. “Do you think if this were a White class he’d be here?” the teacher asked.

The cultural relativist celebrates Indian culture, but the culture celebrated is too often a romanticized version of aboriginal life with which contemporary Indian students actually have had little association. Indeed, some of these presentations, where, for example, the teacher expounds at length on the technological virtues of a bone fishhook, embarrass Indian students. While overtly praising Indian culture, this teacher’s subtler messages are often patronizing and demeaning:

The teacher was reading Indian poetry (written in pidgin English with many grammatical errors) to the class. “Now this poem shows many of the things we’ve talked about,” the teacher summed up. “We’ve commented on how most of the Native people aren’t aggressive, nowhere nearly as much as White people. The idea of a competition and bragging and boasting are alien to them, and so we think of them as very quiet and shy and insecure.”

The fact that Indian students in this type of teacher’s class often turn out to be indeed quiet, shy, and insecure raises the question of what effects the teacher’s stereotyped cultural role expectations may be having on Indian students. Teacher expectations can be powerful determinants of student behavior (Rosenthal, 1966; Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968). The cultural relativist teacher may well be socializing Indian students into stereotypes-albeit in the teacher’s view positive ones-that his readings in Indian culture and model personality have led him to expect.

Another serious problem is that Indian students’ instruction suffers because these teachers often use students to advance their own anthropological interests. Assignments too often consist of asking the Indian student merely to describe his home village or his feelings about school or city life. When such students reach college their professors have pointed out, “The kids have a lot of experience writing about their feelings. Their essays are very touching. But they have had no practice in analysis and synthesis.”

Always cognizant of Indian students’ different background, these teachers tend to place them in a special category where they are exempt from academic and other standards applicable to other students. In mixed classrooms, White students resent the easier assignments, tests, and grading system used exclusively for the Indians. They often take it upon themselves to redress the inequity by a little reverse social discrimination of their own. Moreover, not only does the cultural relativist’s special treatment arouse animosity in White peers; but overly individualized treatment gives Indian students no sense of meaningful standards toward which to direct their efforts.

After class, an Indian girl came up to the teacher and told her that she had been sick and had missed the last test. “What should I study for it?” she asked. “Don’t worry,” the teacher replied, “I’ll make up a special test for you and you’ll do well on it.” “But I don’t know what to study,” the girl persisted. “Don’t worry,” repeated the teacher, “I’ll make it special for you. You’ll do well.”

The cultural relativist teachers tend to view any deviant behavior of an Indian or Eskimo student as an expression of his culture which they should be very hesitant about trying to change. Believing their own values to be “culturally biased,” the teachers have no notion of what standards, if any, they should apply to Indian students. The absurd lengths to which this viewpoint leads and the harm that can be done children in the process is illustrated in the following teacher’s analysis of an Eskimo child’s behavior in her classroom:

A family has just moved to town from a village where everything is shared. There is no emphasis placed on ownership. Everything is community property. The child enrolls in the urban elementary school. Possessions of others begin to disappear from desks, lockers, teachers’ desks, etc. Library books are seldom returned-they are passed on to others in the family and to friends. Items belonging to the peer group are found in the child’s desk. Her peers complain loudly that “she is a thief-she steals.” The child has difficulty comprehending this. Socially, the child is now an outcast, and from then on, when one of her peers misplaces something, the Native child is immediately blamed, whether or not she has taken the item.

Oblivious to the fact that the other Eskimo children in her class were not expressing their traditional sharing values in quite this way, the teacher doubted that she should try to “change the child’s culture” and “get her into the mainstream of White society” by discouraging her from stealing.

These teachers’ concern about cultural differences results in a pervasive anxiety and uncertainty in dealing with students. Their approach is inevitably hesitant, tentative, worried. Such anxious handling in turn increases the Indian students’ nervousness in the classroom. As Erickson (1959:13) has pointed out, more important to the development of a healthy personality in children than a few isolated negative acts is the ability of adults to “represent to the child a deep, almost somatic conviction that there is meaning to what they are doing.” These teachers may avoid at least overtly destructive actions toward Indian children. But, disturbed over the legitimacy of their teaching, the cultural relativist teachers cannot transmit to Indian students an underlying sense of meaning or of purpose in what they are teaching. Because they themselves lack confidence, these teachers cannot give Indian students confidence that they are learning things of value which will enable them to become competent adults.

Cultural relativist teachers often view Indian students as cultural abstractions. They see Indian students more as pasteboard representations of aboriginal culture than as children and adolescents, concerned in many ways with the common problems of living and growing up-finding friends, dealing with sexual impulses, looking attractive. Thus, the teachers make little attempt to identify or to empathize, to understand their Indian students’ problems through recalling similar problems of their own. It is as if the teachers had decided that “You are Indian and I am White, and there is nothing about us that is alike.” Indeed, in some instances these teachers made progress in developing the rapport essential to successful teaching when they finally said in exasperation, “I don’t go along with this culture business. He acts just like my kid brother!”

In short, the new breed of teacher emerging in the cross-cultural classroom is as “racist” (in the dictionary definition of the word) as the older type. Both the ethnocentric teacher and the cultural relativist teacher assume that social traits and capacities are determined by race, that races differ radically from one another, and that one race is superior. But, while the ethnocentric teacher views such racial differences as deficiencies to be corrected, the cultural relativist views them as assets to be cultivated. Implicit in his view is the tired theme of the “noble savage” who, in the Indian context is defined by superior cooperativeness, equalitarianism, and concern for others. Positive racial stereotypes, in short, have replaced negative ones. How has this reversal come about? Why is the cultural relativist replacing the ethnocentric teacher in the classroom?

There are many different causes and many different levels of explanation. The change to this new type of teacher has resulted from the general change in the climate of ideas in the 1960s when the old melting pot and equal treatment ideology gave way to the rise of ethnic consciousness and the linkage of economic and political power to ethnic group status. The failure of the compensatory education approach and the search for new educational directions are also important to this change.

The most direct source of the attitudes that spawn the cultural relativist teaching style, however, are the concepts of anthropology which professors present to teachers in university training and in anthropology and education publications. While the portrait drawn here is the “ideal type,” these teachers quite often uphold numerous avant-garde educational notions they have come across in their professional socializations, a potpourri unified by little more than academic fashion.

Anthropologists may be surprised, indeed flattered, by the deadly seriousness with which teachers seem to apply their ideas in the classroom. But exactly what ideas are they applying? It is not the case, as Keynes has said, that men’s minds are ruled by the ideas of “some academic scribbler of a few years back” (1935:383). Rather, as a later scholar noted, men’s minds are ruled by the vulgarization of these ideas. It is vulgarized concepts of anthropology that teachers are applying in their classrooms.

One of these concepts is the notion that traditional cultural attitudes and values influence Indian students’ current behavior. Teachers commit the logical fallacy of equating the proposition, “traditional culture is expressed in Indian students’ current behavior,” with the proposition, “Indian students’ current behavior is an expression of traditional culture.” The fallacy is the same in kind as reasoning that because all redheads are human beings, then all human beings are redheads. The first proposition is true but the second false because both redheads and traditionally based current behavior are subsets of a larger class. Teachers slip into this fallacy both because of the emphasis placed on traditional culture in anthropology and education courses and because of the primacy given in the discipline of anthropology to traditional culture as the key explanatory variable.

The second anthropological concept causing problems in the classroom arises out of the cultural relativist school of thought that cultural differences should be understood in context and respected. While cultural relativism has been an important corrective to the ethnocentrism of the past, teachers often vulgarize this viewpoint to mean that no standards they hold can be applied to Indian children. This misinterpretation occurs, first, because teachers are unaware of the arguments anthropologists have advanced against extreme versions of the cultural relativist position. Second, teachers are unaware that in many important areas cultural values and standards are held in common. As a discipline, anthropology emphasizes differences between cultures because such differences provide explanations, enable tests of theories, and are interesting. But emphasis on interesting cultural differences draws attention away from the many areas of agreement across cultures. When the disciplinary emphasis on cultural differences is combined with the ideology of cultural relativism, teachers see serious ethical problems in applying their own standards to Indian children even where in actuality no difference in standards exists.

What could anthropologists do about such problems? One useful approach might be to deal directly with these issues in courses and publications directed toward teachers. When I have brought up these concerns in my own courses, teachers have been greatly relieved at the notion that there are areas of cultural similarity which legitimize making certain academic demands on Indian students. Upon applying this viewpoint in their classrooms, teachers have reported favorable results:

When it became apparent that the four Natives would dutifully bring the body to class, warm the seat, but leave the brain outside the window or somewhere else, I decided to use some thoughts presented in the course on understanding the Native. Particularly, I began to concentrate on the statement that Natives are no different from other students (note this teacher’s vulgarization of the idea I had presented in class, that there are areas of similarity and areas of difference), that demands must be made upon them, that they should not be treated as exceptional. Instead of using the don’t-ruffle-the-feathers, he-is-a-Native theory, I began to insist on written work from them. The results are rewarding . . . Janet has returned to her old smiling self.

Another possibility for avoiding the cultural relativist teacher problem is to place more emphasis on the “situational” approach to cultural differences being used in the areas of cross-cultural cognition and language (Cole and Scribner, 1974; Phillips, 1972). The situational approach emphasizes not cultural differences in themselves but rather the specific situational factors that lead to specific types of cultural response. Why, for example, are Indian students talkative in certain situations, like the playground, but silent in other situations, like the classroom? What types of situations encourage or impede verbal communication by Indian children? Teachers could use this type of information to structure their classroom situations in positive ways.

As currently applied in anthropology, however, the situational perspective still suffers from the defect of too exclusive a focus on traditional cultural patterns as the sole basis of responses to different situations. Recognizing that Indian students’ responses to a situation stem from other factors as well might be a more useful approach to the solution of Indian students’ actual classroom problems. An example of this kind of overfocusing on traditional culture as the key explanatory variable came up in my own fieldwork. I was accompanying a home-school coordinator who was counseling an 18-year-old Eskimo student who wanted to move out of his boarding home. The young man was upset about the strange behavior of his Eskimo boarding home mother, whom the home-school counselor knew quite well. The boarding home mother had recently migrated to a socially disorganized, White-dominated regional town from a relatively stable, traditional village. According to the student, the woman was always nervous and upset and scolded him and her husband for no reason. She didn’t take care of the house and was always buying things she didn’t need. While I was pondering the sociocultural consequences of migration, the home-school counselor placed her hand on the student’s knee and said, “Oscar, have you ever heard of menopause?” As Harry Stack Sullivan has pointed out, “We are all more human than anything else.”

While these kinds of correctives may help, I have begun to think there may be a more fundamental problem in applying concepts of anthropology in the classroom. This problem may lie in the inadequacies of the concepts themselves, in the general focus on cultural differences as the explanation for minority group children’s problems in school. Dissatisfaction with these concepts is becoming increasingly evident in anthropology and education. As Lanni and Storey (1973: x-xi) point out:

School children who are “culturally different” on the other hand, are not in every case best understood as alien, as being so different as to be more remnants of obscure tribal histories than as American citizens, or as mysteries only an anthropologist can fathom.

Anthropologists are searching for new ways of analyzing educational situations which do not necessarily involve the concept of cultural differences. Gearing’s (1973) effort to develop a general theory of cultural transmission is an example of such an attempt.

The present state of affairs in anthropology and education may be an instance of Kuhn’s (1962) notion of the failure of a scientific “paradigm.” The paradigm refers to the underlying set of assumptions and concepts that define the research problem, the conceptual tools which may be used to solve it, and the acceptable standards of solution. Kuhn suggests that a crisis occurs in a scientific community when the paradigm that has guided past research is found inadequate. Such a crisis is signaled by a sense of dissatisfaction in the scientific community and by different attempts to come up with a fundamental reconceptualization that opens up and changes the field.

Perhaps the field of anthropology and education needs a new analytic paradigm, a paradigm that generates fresh problems, different methods, and useful solutions to the educational problems of minority group children. Until such a paradigm emerges, however, anthropologists should be aware of the harm done children by vulgarized versions of the old one. Theories about cultural differences may merely be replacing theories about cultural deprivation as an excuse for teaching failure.


  1. This quotation, as well as other teacher statements quoted in this paper, was written by teachers in an in-service training course in Alaska. Teachers were asked to describe a problem in their classrooms involving Indian or Eskimo students, their methods of solving it, and the results.
  2. This research, from which some data have been drawn from the present paper, is report in J. S. Kleinfeld (1975). The methodology consisted primarily of observation and interviews of approximately 40 teachers of academic subjects in two all-Native boarding schools and five integrated urban high schools during the 1970-71 school year. The major criteria of teaching effectiveness were (11 whether Indian and Eskimo students verbally participated in class, and 121 the cognitive level of their verbal comments. The rationale for the choice of this measure and a description of supplementary experiments designed to test propositions developed in this research may be found in the SCHOOL REVIEW article.


Cole, M., and S. Scribner Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction. New York: John Wiley. 1974.
Erickson, E. “Identity and the life cycle,” Psychological Issues. 1:50-100, 1959.
Gearing. F. “Where we are and where we might go: Steps towards a general theory of cultural transmission,” Council on Anthropology and Education Newsletter, 4:
1-9, 1973.
Ianni, F., and E. Storey. Cultural Relevance and Educational Issues. Boston: Little. Brown, 1973.
Keynes, J. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1935.
Kleinfeld, J. “Effective Teachers of Indian and Eskimo Students,” School Review, in press, 1975.
Kuhn. T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Phillips, S. “Participant Structures and Communicative Competence: Warm Springs Children in Community and Classroom,” in Functions of Language in Classroom, C. Cazden, V. John, and D. Hymes, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Rosenthal, R. Experimenter Effects in Behavioral Research. New York: AppletonCentury-Crofts. 1966.
Rosenthal, R. and L. Jacobson. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.




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Last modified October 7, 2008