Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, justification and the rationality of belief. We will discuss Western epistemology, or Western knowledge, as what we think of as “normal truth” or “common sense.” It can be seen in our language, thinking and real life. The system of education in the U.S. is built on Western epistemology and it trains us to become productive subjects for the capitalist economy.
After a number of revolutions in the Americas, the language was a deceptive but needed decision to connect many languages through one official one. In South America, Simon Bolivar chose Spanish as the main spoken language among thousands of native tongues. On the other hand, in the United States, (men of European descent) chose for everybody and solidified the language through a constitution that excluded women, native people and Africans. That was the beginning of U.S. imperialism. Santiago Rivas, a 17-year-old graduate of the Boston Public Schools, said, “I prefer math as a language over that of these Europeans.”
The colonization of settlers led not only to a genocide of native tribes and African people, but also set the stage for the brainwashing of future generations. Settlers set up boarding schools and public schools around the country that stripped language and culture from Africans and indigenous peoples, with the purpose of “separating the savage to save the human.”
Today, schools only teach us European languages, not indigenous languages or African languages because these are not popular in our reality. Rivas took two years of Spanish in high school, but learned just basic stuff and thought the material was not useful in real life. Students are not being taught in school to feel proud of being African or of indigenous descent, because we are copies of the white man’s culture. Not beliefs, not culture, not past, we are just the now.
Western epistemology erased cultures and languages. It is one main cause of many non-Western cultural genocides. The language structure that we use now is composed by Western epistemology. One example is when somebody uses the terms “America” or “American,” and people interpret it as something or someone from the United States. However, using this term contributes to Western epistemology. The reality is that America is the name of the large land that holds 36 countries. Anyone born in one of those territories can be named American. We do not realize it, because we have been taught for many generations that America is the U.S. and that American is the white man born in the U.S.
Similarly, the different definitions of “black” include: the darkest color, sadness, evil, wicked, dishonor. This is how the white man taught everybody to use it. If you look at the definition of “white” you see the opposite. Even though we know this dirty vocabulary is wrong, our minds naturally use it. This is how Western epistemology is present in our lives as the invisible natural truth. This is the kind of knowledge that we receive from our parents when we are children. They think that it is normal and even good, because they were also taught like that. This is how we come to possess colonized minds.
Since we were children, our parents and guardians raised us to be good people, or to be “civilized” people. But the question here is: What does it mean to be “civilized?”
Those who held control in past times “educated” others, forcing those of different cultures to become “civilized.” In other words, their “education” aimed to eliminate other cultures, beliefs and languages to transform them into copies of the white man. Boarding schools were the epicenter for colonizers to civilize the “savages.”
Primary and secondary education is very important to form kids’ identities. Schools and parents make decisions for students, and often, students don’t start to make their own decisions until after they finish high school. Schools teach conformity in a way that prevents students from judging what they learn, because it is the only thing that they are exposed to. We think that all schools teach “truth.”
One of the biggest everyday struggles for teachers is balancing the requirements of what they have to do and what they know they should be doing. Ms. Castillejo, a Charlestown High School history and English teacher, said, “You see a classroom full of 20 kids and you can only present one thing at a time, so how do you decide what should be present? It is a political decision. What you choose to put in front of the kids honors maybe five in the class, and the other 15 are lost or not honored or ignored.”
The history department gives the curriculum to the teachers, but in Castillejo’s school, the institution permits it to be more flexible. However, she said, “There are certain set things that you need to explain to the students, but that is very white-central still, very Euro-central still, and very male-central. So how are you honoring any of the kids that are in front on you when the curriculum that you’re supposed to be following… looks like one of your students, if you’re lucky?” Charlestown High School is an institution where the majority of students are students of color; there is just a small percentage of white students, even though the school is located in a mostly white neighborhood.
In many schools, kids whose educational background focused on minority perspectives are more likely to fail. In the U.S., students’ first contact with history and language is almost all about what the white man has done. Then, kids adopt the attitudes and beliefs of their superiors (parents and teachers) because it is the “truth.”
Those who do not do well at school are considered losers and they won't be recognized as valuable to the system. This education structure is a tool to subjugate students. Students are encouraged to follow the “normal” path of life, but in actuality, this means kids can only follow one path: be a good student, get into college (if you can), then make your own decisions and find your own place in this society in order to survive. But the question is, what is after survival?
Rivas’ perspective about the education system is that the curriculum was too slow for him. When he was in 8th grade, his peers took pre-algebra classes but Rivas was learning geometry and advanced algebra by himself. He said, “I am a bad student with good grades.”
Those students that refuse to do what they are told in school, such as homework and tests, are pushed back by the system, and they are treated as “trouble kids” or “lost kids.” They receive bad grades, are suspended, and become less valuable to the institution than their peers that follow the orders. This is the nature of many teenagers’ questions: What is our purpose here? Why should we go to school? And why should we follow the rules?
Teachers also have their own opinions. “I see students in class who really understand something, and we put a test in front of them, whether it is a state test or one of my own, and they shut down completely,” Castillejosaid. “And a kid who can talk years and years about what he is really passionate about and not have it show in a test is really frustrating for them, and I guess that I'm also frustrated because I know that they learned something… It is a rough experience.”
Castillejo believes that much of standardized testing does not prepare students at all for college and beyond. “When you get to college, you do not write the way that you write in the MCAS. As a teacher, I need to teach that stupid formula that is against everything that I learned as good writer.”
No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing and the school-to-prison pipeline are outcomes of Western epistemology. These are forms that control students’ decisions and successes. If students obey these systems, they become a part of the capitalist economy.
It is true that capitalism permits us to advance into a “modern” society, but is it fair to dehumanize ourselves in order to advance our capitalist economy? Is it fair that we prefer a commodity economy over our natural environment? The purpose of education is to create in a person the ability to look at him(her)self and make his(her) own decisions. But does America’s mediocre educational system really help us experience different perspectives or find ourselves? Is it fair that people know that we are on stolen land, that people have been dehumanized, and we do not do a thing about it? It is not fair seeing our kids grow up without a cultural past and without identities. It is hard to see generation after generation chained in the now, trapped by distractions that denied them of knowing the history of their ancestors. Do you think that it is fair that our reality is full of ignorant distractions that deny our cultures? Do you really trust what you know? And who really are you?