Steve Russell

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.

Then there’s the good old Indian Health Service. Wouldn’t it be great if that meant health services provided to Indians by Indians, meaning no disrespect to white folks working off their school loans?

If we agree it’s no fun depending on Uncle Sam, we need to think about how to, pardon the word, progress.

Nearly three-fourths of the white and Asian doctoral recipients had at least one parent with a college degree. For the rest of us, it’s roughly half. I come from the half with no college in the family.

Was I just lucky? I don’t think so. My grandparents read to me from the time I first have memories. There were always books in the house and I got a library card the day I could find the library. We often didn’t have a lot of food, we never owned a car, and we didn’t have a television until I was in the fourth grade, but if I said of something that I “needed it for school,” they would somehow provide it.

They taught me about the Trail of Tears but they also taught me about Will Rogers. Somehow, it escaped my notice that Rogers did not finish high school, because what I took away was that he was smart and funny and Cherokee and white people admired his wit as much as Indians did. I was exposed to plenty of opinions about the intellectual inferiority of Indians, but those opinions did not come from within my family.

Now that I’ve had a teaching career, how did that hold up? Did I find my Indian students or other minorities mentioned here to be less bright than my white students? No. Period, full stop, no. No. Our kids are just as smart as other kids.

As a group, minorities did appear less certain of their own abilities, excepting Asians, who attacked their studies as if the hounds of Hell were nipping at their heels. I think those hounds were mom and dad. We are more ambivalent than those Asian “tiger” parents.

I can’t have a conversation about Indians in higher education among folks back home or on the reservations I’ve visited without hearing about the kids not coming back. What can I say to that when I didn’t come back? Education does open young people to temptations that would not otherwise exist for them.

To be young is to experience temptation, with or without higher education.

When you have no money, there are all kinds of temptations to get some outside the law and very much outside of tribal traditions. Do you know any traditional meth cookers?

A kid who gets a doctorate in anything is at risk of leaving because he or she has somewhere to go. What kind of cultural preservation is it that depends on lack of opportunity?

The vast majority of our kids, we all know, land somewhere between criminality and graduate degrees. They live out ordinary lives in ordinary jobs. They do no worse than their parents and no better.

Unless we as peoples are satisfied in a condition of dependence, that has to change. Leaving is not an issue if we have nowhere to go. Supporting our relatives is not an issue unless we have a means to make our own way in the globalized economy.

I go back to my data entry problem and, yes, it’s a problem, but it’s a high-quality problem. You don’t have to pay income taxes if you have no income. Choosing among opportunities off the rez or staying to create opportunities on the rez is a problem, but it’s a high-quality problem. Who do you know who lives with no problems at all?

We need to teach our kids not to fear those high-quality problems, and the primary way to banish that fear from their lives is to banish it from our own.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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Be Smarter About Education! The Ph.D Crisis in Indian Country

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