School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Will The Birds Fly Free?: Education as Colonialism

By Christina Torres — November 12, 2017 4 min read
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I am sitting in my car, and I’m weeping.

While one could argue that, as a naturally emotional person, this is not an uncommon occurrence, tonight I am crying hard. Nothing has happened, except I just saw a play with a girlfriend that has hit me in the gut and made me ask the terrifying question that every educator asks themselves at some point: Am I actually helping my students?

It’s always a difficult question to ask yourself. Sometimes, it stems from a rough day in the classroom where your students were running around and you question if your lesson made a difference. Sometimes, it’s after getting some difficult feedback or assessment scores, where you wonder where the work you thought you did as a class went.

This, however, came from a much deeper place though. Tonight, I was faced with the troubling reminder that education, as a system, has historically been a tool of oppression and colonialism. The ramifications of that history live on in today’s system and, as an educator, I am in some ways a cog in that machine.

And there’s no easy way to say it: that sucks.

It is the exact dilemma that the play, Wild Birds by Eric Anderson, performed phenomenally at the amazing Kumu Kahua theater, forces every audience member to consider about education. It’s a play that I don’t just think every teacher on O’ahu should see, but something I wish every teacher in the U.S. could watch.

The play is a historical drama based on real-life missionaries Amos and Juliette Cooke, who end up teaching not the local children as they planned, but the children of Ali’i, or Royal Chiefs. As the play progresses, the students push back on the Cooke’s rigid, Christian education by reminding them that they have their own ways and rules. Eventually, though, colonialistic education would strip them of their language, culture, and history, caging them in a society they did not ask for. While Amos doubles down on his strict ways, Juliette asks him the question all teachers should ask themselves from time to time: have we taught our students anything at all? The question after that is, if we have, did we teach them the right things?

It’s a difficult question, especially given the complex, colonial history of Hawai’i. Personally, as someone who now teaches at one of the best private schools in the nation, it’s particularly hard to wonder if the work I am doing is actually serving the good of my students or simply furthering the reach of the colonial mindsets that created these systems in the first place. Are the structures and supports I give students so they can “succeed” in American society actually just bars I am adding to their cage?

The thing is, while Hawai’i’s history easily shows us the marks of colonialism on a people, we cannot forget that education has been used this way in our nation for centuries. It would be easy to try and say Hawai’i’s history is different and “other,” but what happened here mirrors, in many ways, the way education has been used not just against Native peoples, but communities of color as a means to strip them of language, dialects, culture, beliefs, and values.

I don’t have any answers. Like I said, before writing this entry, I sat in my car for about five minutes sobbing, wondering whether I was fulfilling any meaningful purpose as a teacher (then I bought ice cream).

Beyond these difficult questions, there’s something else I am trying to take away. At the end of the play, the two missionaries, Amos and Juliette Cooke, are at odds with one another. While Amos doubles down, Juliette pushes him to find compassion and question himself. She is, in many ways, changed by the children, telling him that she dreams of them, that even if they are not their flesh and blood, they are theirs now. In the moving final scene, Mrs. Cooke exchanges hā with her students and sings with them in 'Ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian). Their voices eventually die out—some, in tragedy, without question—and she continues to sing on, clearly changed by her experience with them.

The scene is nuanced and, as my friend pointed out, is not there to make us feel good. The students, and the history of Hawai’i itself, were inevitably affected by their time at the school and while they may have gained some things, they lost other aspects of their culture.

Still, she is at least willing to learn from them and carry their stories instead of imposing her own. That was and is not enough. Mrs. Cooke’s voice should not be the one carrying on their legacy or their stories. Ultimately, we should be asking what had to happen so that we may dismantle the cage and the birds can fly free to sing for themselves. It means making space and providing the tools for students to carry those stories, not us.

The desire to love, listen to, find compassion and advocate for our students, though, is perhaps a good place to start.

Image via Kumu Kahua Theater

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.