Indigenous Calendar January, 2017: ... and the Pursuit of Education

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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"How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?" asks Dorothy in one of my favorite films, The Wizard of Oz. Her childish question belies the scarecrow's rhetorical reply: "Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?" If the film were re-made today, the scarecrow's rhetoric could be a reference to many events from 2016.

"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is one of the most significant phrases from one of the historically most important documents ever written: the United States Declaration of Independence. It was written to proclaim people taking power into their own hands when faced with oppression.

One form of power derives from the position of authority. Many years ago I was visiting a school in a small Hmong village in northern Vietnam. This Viet teacher's power derived from her authoritarian position over her students — granted partly by her ability to speak Vietnamese, which her students did not. (Vietnam's public education policy requires that all students be "taught" in Vietnamese.) For these Hmong schoolchildren, that day, the pursuit of education was not possible. Despite their oppression, they did not take power into their own hands.

The original Declaration of Independence was written in a style of handwriting known as calligraphy. Calligraphy had come to the US, via Europe, from Arabia. It had been used there for hundreds of years to handwrite copies of the Qur'an. In 1776 the indigenous inhabitants of the thirteen colonies that declared their independence were pre-literate and the literacy rate among European colonists was low. Still, there is no evidence that the Declaration was actually written with the intent to convert anyone to Islam.

Just over a year ago, at a high school in of the thirteen colonies, Virginia, a geography teacher wanted to expose her students to calligraphy. She chose, as course material, a verse taken from the Qur'an. Some of the students' parents thought that she was trying to convert her students to Islam. The entire county's public schools were closed for a day due to the parental protest. Had the pursuit of the parent's education been possible, they would have known that the teacher's pursuit of their children's education was made possible partly by a document written using calligraphy. Instead, that day, the pursuit of education was not possible.

At the time I wrote: "The school board strategically chose not to use a calligraphic font on its web site to display the Arabic numerals needed to announce the closure. If it had, we should assume that those same parents would have seen through the veneer of mathematical indoctrination, since it would not have been calligraphy, it would have been the language of mathematics." This was, of course, sarcasm, expressing my opinion that nobody could be so uneducated to view the use of Arabic numerals as representing anything but numbers.

Then May, 2016 came; my opinion was proven wrong. Guido Menzio, an economist, was scheduled to fly to Syracuse, New York. In preparation for a lecture, he was scribbling mathematical equations. The passenger sitting next to him became suspicious of this and reported his behavior. The flight was delayed for two hours while his scribbling was investigated as a potential threat to the safety of the flight. For this passenger, that day, the pursuit of education was not possible.

Seventy-eight years after the scarecrow first revealed it to us, the world still has many people without brains who do an awful lot of talking. Just like on that day in northern Vietnam, the pursuit of education was often not possible in 2016.

The Hmong people once had a home; today they are losing it due, largely, to their lack of opportunity to pursue education. Mr. Trump has promised to do a lot of things beginning twenty days from today. One of those should, perhaps, be to make an amendment to the Declaration of Independence. Not to make the pursuit of education an unalienable right, but to make it an unalienable requirement.

The Hmong are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.

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