Be Smarter About Education! The Ph.D Crisis in Indian Country
This was to be a weekend of data entry for my income taxes. TurboTax wants to triple what they charge to file Schedules C and D, and I have to either pay up or enter a lot of stuff for myself the first year that any of the programs will do for you in subsequent years. I got interrupted when a big envelope showed up at my door.
From the return address, I quickly figured out what was inside and was ripping it open like my five-year-old twin grandkids did their birthday presents last week: Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2012.
I opened the booklet inside to distribution by “race and ethnicity” and started reading.
African-Americans have increased their Ph.D.s 87 percent in the past 20 years, which sounds great until you see they are now getting 6.3 percent of the degrees awarded, 2,079, while representing 13.1 percent of the US population.
Hispanics have doubled their numbers of Ph.D.s in the past 20 years, which sounds all right until you see they are now getting 6.5 percent of the degrees awarded, 2,141, while representing 16.9 percent of the U.S. population.
Then came the sentence in the report that told me what I didn’t want to hear: “The number of American Indian or Alaska Native doctorate recipients fell to its lowest point of the past 20 years.” In numbers, that’s 102 doctorates or well under one-half of one percent awarded to a group representing (allegedly) 1.2 percent of the population.
I confess this hurt more back when I was in the business of producing Ph.D.s, because it felt like a personal failure to look under every rock for potential Indian candidates. But it still hurts enough that I take on the job of convincing others that this is bad news to hear that while other minorities are making too little progress, we are making none.
The whole idea of “progress” is problematic to public opinion in great chunks of Indian country. You can’t entertain “progress” without value judgments about where you are right now and where you are going and those value judgments, the argument goes, contain a profound disrespect for “tradition” and are a symptom of “assimilation,” the death of a culture. Others of us think that assimilation is the life of a culture because it’s not a one-way street.
When two cultures interact, neither remains the same. To think that one must totally disappear is to apprehend the disappearing one as profoundly inferior. The Indian fighters, of course, seldom verbalize our inferiority as a reason for our academic underperformance. They let the numbers speak for themselves.
If we address the dismal numbers, we either blame the racists or we point to the numbers with pride, as evidence of successful resistance to the colonial enterprise that challenges us to assimilate or die.
Many of my white students were greatly concerned with this thing called “globalization,” which means to them that their competition is not their neighbors but other kids halfway around the world that are multilingual, just as smart, and way hungrier.
Indians, of course, shall never go hungry, and the commods shall arrive as long as the rivers shall run. Would it be tacky to point out that the rivers are drying up, and the solutions to that problem are going to require advanced education in many fields, not the least of which is political science?
Right now, there’s a woman in my tribe coming out of an environmental science Ph.D. program. She serves on the tribal council and is running for chief. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that, but I am sure what the knowledge represented by that Ph.D. means. It means that she’ll be better fixed to do a good job if she wins and she’ll have plenty of opportunities to do important things for the tribe if she loses.
In my field, sometimes people will get snarky with a college student in the family, asking, “Does the world really need another lawyer?” Actually, Indian communities are hardly over lawyered, but that’s not the point. That degree is evidence that you know a lot of stuff that is going to come in handy for you and yours if you never set foot in a courthouse.
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