In the state of Tamil Nadu, India, lies a small village of less than a thousand people: Perumbai. Children from Perumbai participated in the 10th grade exams, a test taken by a state of nearly 100 million people. With the odds against them, the children of Perumbai managed to come in second place of the entire state, topping millions of other children in Tamil Nadu. What sets the children of Perumbai apart from the rest of the state? They don’t follow the western standard that the British have implemented in India and have instead learned through the ancient Indian Vedic style of education: a pedagogy based off of listening, questioning and memorizing.
Dating back to pre-western colonization, the ancient Indian style of education is absolutely unheard of in modern society. Instead of following the western K-12 system, children enter school at the age of 3 and are taught to learn Sanskrit, the ancient primary language of Hinduism.
By age 5, they are taught French because linguistic experts agree that learning one of the romance languages gives you access to learning all of the romance languages, such as Italian or Spanish.
By age 6, they are taught English and their mother tongue. With nearly two billion fluent English speakers in the world, the children of Perumbai are able to communicate to them before they are out of first grade.
By age 7, the children are able to read, write and speak four languages. Learning multiple languages is beneficial for your cognitive development and is proven to make you smarter than those who don’t.
This was the ancient Vedic way of education. It existed through India’s Golden Age in the fourth and sixth century, where they made large achievements in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. But because of Western colonialism, this pedagogy was destroyed after lasting for thousands of years.
When western colonialism thrived in the 18th century, nearly everything from eastern culture had either changed or was destroyed. That included the ancient Indian education system as well as systems from other eastern countries. White men came to destroy the cultures of Black and Brown people, forcing them to adapt. A concept that isn’t far off from our modern society.
Surendra Subramani, senior instructor and diversity coordinator at the College of Education, is an expert on colonialism and its impact on systems of education.
“If you don’t understand colonization, you don’t understand America,” Subramani said. “Every field of study is basically put forth by how the West looks at the world. If we study somebody else, we don’t study from their perspective, we study from how the west has viewed them.”
Not only did colonialism change the culture, it essentially erased the history of the old world. When we learn about discoveries, we learn that White men did them, regardless of whether they actually discovered it. When we learn about the founding fathers of subjects such as literature or philosophy, we learn about the White men who did them, but there is evidence that these discoveries existed before them — they were just erased through colonialism.
For example, we think of Galileo when we think about the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the moon revolves around the Earth. We don’t think about Aryabhata, a 6th century Indian astronomer who recorded this same discovery.
When we think of literature, we believe that Shakespeare was king of the subject and influenced all of literature. We don’t talk about the Tale of Genji, the first novel ever written in 11th century Japan, predating Sheakespeare by 500 years.
Of course, colonialism is also the reason why those students in Perumbai are learning English and French. While these Indian students are practicing and absorbing languages and acculturating themselves to the West, the West is actively closing off students to different languages and cultural contexts.
For example, French and Japanese were cut almost entirely from the curriculum. The University of Oregon is dealing with the same issue: Romance Languages are expected to get a huge cut next year. When schools face budget cuts, languages are among the lowest priority.
Not to say that I am ungrateful for the education I was given, but understanding that the world is bigger than the west is key to understanding the world at large. This is especially important to people of color or people who aren’t White Americans. When people of color feel their roots in their education, they are more likely to participate and succeed.
A study from Johns Hopkins University shows that low-income Black students are 29 percent more likely to graduate if they have at least one Black teacher in grade school. For very low-income Black students, the chances of dropping out fell 39 percent if they have one Black teacher in third-fifth grade.
In Oregon, 36.6 percent of K-12 students were culturally or linguistically diverse, but only 10.2 percent of teachers were culturally or linguistically diverse. There is an obvious gap here that could be detrimental to diverse students. In 2014, Oregon saw a 52 percent graduation rate of non-native English speakers and a 54 percent graduation rate of Native American students.
“The best defense for a country is a highly educated populace,” Subramani said. “But when that becomes out of reach for everybody, the American dream becomes the American nightmare.”
What Oregon needs to do is to invest in diverse students trying to become teachers. In the past 30 years, Oregon has increased its minority population from 6 percent to 22 percent and it’s only getting bigger. The state needs to offer opportunities to diverse students because the opportunities have always been limited. Offer scholarships, state funding and investment to people of color. It’s time to invest in diversity.
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