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Jennings WagonerProblems In Education System Go Back To Efforts To Assimilate Native Americans, According To New Book

Dec. 21, 1999 -- Tensions in today's public education can be traced to the country's beginnings when European colonists began educating Native Americans for "cultural extinction," say the authors of a new edition of the history of American schooling.

Authors Wayne J. Urban, Regents' Professor at Georgia State University, and Jennings L. Wagoner Jr., professor of the history of education at the University of Virginia, believe the symptoms of divisive conflicts in today's education system have been evident since those earliest settlers began trying to convert Native Americans to European ways of thinking and behaving.

In the new edition of "American Education, A History," published by McGraw Hill, Urban and Wagoner describe Native American encounters with imposed forms of education from the days of the early settlers into the late 20th century. "Through various types of school experiences, including reservation day and boarding schools, off-reservation boarding schools, tribal schools and eventually local public schools, American Indian children and their families have been continually torn between two opposing cultural orientations," said Wagoner. "Examining the tensions between the ‘teachers' and ‘the taught' emphasizes the cultural conflicts that are inherent in our education process."

The book traces the dominant currents and counter-currents in American education from precolonial times through President Clinton's administration, showing the problems of delivering education in a pluralistic society.

It presents each major development in American education and describes key people and their aspirations, placing their actions within the context of national events of each period.

While the Native American experience forms a small part of the book, the tensions highlighted in that slice of history run throughout the authors' analysis of American education. They note that Americans from the country's beginning have placed great faith in education making people moral as well as literate. Education, they say, has long been viewed as a means of assimilating immigrants, controlling and civilizing young people, and producing good citizens and efficient workers.

"Continuing disagreements over the balancing of education's goals and persistent conflicts over the best means of reaching those goals underscore not only the uneven history of American schooling, but also bring into focus tensions that have been in the forefront of efforts to shape the social and cultural content of the nation," said Wagoner.

"The complex history of public schools shows that, from their inception, they have served a multitude of purposes and agendas. What seems clear is that the public school, if it is to survive in the 21st century, cannot become captive to any single special-interest group," Wagoner said.

The book ends on a somber note as the authors view the prospects for American education.

"Public schools are facing mounting pressures accompanied by an undermining of historic faith and support. Perhaps to put it crudely, it may be that the system must be destroyed in order to save it," said Wagoner. "Or to frame it more hopefully, it may be that the very idea of ‘public education' must undergo a process of redefinition as a system and concept."

For more information, Jennings Wagoner can be reached at (804) 924-0808, office; (804) 296-8560, home; or via Wayne Urban is at (404) 651-2582, office, or (404)377-8602, home; or via

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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