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24 April 2008

Education for Virtue

My evening history class ends at 10:00pm. After the short drive home, I need to read for a few minutes before I can fall asleep. Last night, I read from Plato's Laws. In this ancient text (perhaps 350 B.C.), Plato discusses the nature of virtue and the purpose of education.

Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion. But there is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what we ought to love. Call this "education," and I, at any rate, think you would be giving it its proper name.
Plato, Laws, 653b-c

This passage immediately reminded me of a text that I had planned to review in preparation for my upcoming lecture next week regarding the development of Indian boarding schools in the late-nineteenth century. The language in Plato appears to be reflected in a speech given by Thomas Jefferson Morgan when he was Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1889-1893). Morgan's speech is called "Plea for the Papoose"; he attempts to imagine the needs and interests of Native American Indian babies, and to speak for them.

Early in "Plea for the Papoose," Morgan speaks out against the racial ideology of his day with a statement that all children have the same possibilities for personal growth, limited only by culture, not some inherent racial defect (as some argued).

All human babies inherit human natures, and the development of these inherent powers is a matter of culture, subject to the conditions of environment. The pretty, innocent papoose has in itself the potency of a painted savage, prowling like a beast of prey, or the possibilities of a sweet and gentle womanhood or a noble and useful manhood.
Morgan, "Plea for the Papoose," in Americanizing the American Indians, edited by Francis Paul Prucha, 242.


Planning "Rescue"

Later in the speech, Morgan presents a plan for rescuing Indian children from what he portrays as the debilitating effects of Indian culture. Some critics have used the term legally sanctioned kidnapping to describe the policies that he advocated—the development of federal Indian boarding schools was a central component. In this section, his language echoes Plato's Laws.

If they grow up on Indian reservations removed from civilization, without advantages of any kind, surrounded by barbarians, trained from childhood to love the unlovely and to rejoice in the unclean; associating all their highest ideals of manhood and womanhood with fathers who are degraded and mothers who are debased, their ideas of human life will, of necessity, be deformed, their characters be warped, and their lives distorted. They can no more avoid this than the leopard can change his spots or the Ethiopian his skin. The only possible way in which they can be saved from the awful doom that hangs over them is for the strong arm of the Nation to reach out, take them in their infancy and place them in its fostering schools; surrounding them with an atmosphere of civilization, maturing them in all that is good, and developing them into men and women instead of allowing them to grow up as barbarians and savages.
Morgan, in Prucha, 243.

From our vantage point more than a century later, it is easy to judge Morgan's language as racist. Such judgment, however, anticipates questions regarding how commonsense notions in our day will be judged by our descendants a century from now. Some of those that did not share Morgan's views believed that Indian children were incapable of education. He stood against these contemporaries as an advocate for Indian equality. He was part of a group of Christian reformers who sought to render United States laws and policies more humanizing than they had been.


Full citations
Plato. The Laws. Translated by Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin Books, 1970.
Prucha, Francis Paul, editor. Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian" 1880-1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978 [1973].

5 comments:

Brad said...

LOVE your blog! You can count me as a subscriber!

ecarson said...

"development of Indian boarding schools in the late-nineteenth century"

This is very interesting; I am doing some work on blacks in boarding schools as well as day schools. I was amazed at how much is in the literature (JSTOR) about this topic; however, the same is not true of blacks in boarding schools; I have a few thoughts as to why, but I am curious to hear what you think.

James Stripes said...

Edward, I'm not certain why there's so little regarding blacks in boarding schools, but it should be clear how central boarding schools have been to the experiences of Native American Indians under colonialism. I think there needs to be a lot more comparative study of the experiences of racial minorities, as the convergences and divergences illuminate much. The same Euro-Americans drift through Indian and African American histories.

R. H. Pratt, who founded the federal Indian school at Carlisle, commanded a unit of Buffalo Soldiers in the West earlier in his career.

General Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and a founder of Howard University also shared a vision of assimilation for reservation Indians (and all Indians relocating to the reservation), which led to his embarrassment during the Nez Perce War of 1877.

ecarson said...

Thanks James! Much help here.

Erik Carter said...

Just to add a quick note to what James mentioned about Pratt. The school work of Pratt intially involved both African American and American Indian students, you might check into Industrial schools.

One book for sure is by Donal Lindsey:

Lindsey, Donal F. Indians at Hampton Institute, 1877-1923. Urbana: University of Illinois Press 1995.

I can't remember exactly, but it might also be mentioned by Richard Henry Pratt:

Pratt, Richard henry. Battlefield and Classroom: Four decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press [1987]. 1964.

I'll re-check to be sure.

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