Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum - Discussion Papers

Why is it necessary for all teachers and students in Alberta to be required to work with Aboriginal perspectives?

These days people seek knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is of the past; wisdom is of the future.

Vernon Cooper, Lumbee Elder

A 19th century English philosopher named Herbert Spencer asked an enduring question that has influenced the field of education for decades: What knowledge is of most worth? Spencer‘s question has helped guide curriculum development and associated initiatives for many years since he first posed it. Teachers and curriculum planners answer this question daily when they make program decisions specifying what it is that young people need to know.

Schooling is set up to convey the knowledge and develop the young in ways that a society considers important. This often involves consideration of the significance of particular people, events, and knowledges from the past. This seems like common sense. Until recently, most curricula have been based on the common sense assumption that knowledge derived from European history, culture, and discovery was of most worth. European philosophers insisted that human immaturity could be overcome if we all adhered to universal principles of scientific reason and rationality. Such evaluations undoubtedly grew out of the tremendous upheaval that occurred in Europe as a result of the processes of colonialism. The flood of information about new people in new lands coupled with the wealth and new products generated, required new ways of making sense to justify it all. Education today is still struggling to come to terms with the legacies of these processes.

Such struggles can be seen in current (re)considerations of curriculum. Picking out what knowledge is important is no longer a simple matter of looking backwards and employing the proper intellectual habits; it is also about looking forwards, and talking about whose or which knowledge is to be valued and deemed worthy of consideration. This imperative implies an ethical responsibility to work for balance in our relationships with those usually considered outside of our own identifiable group. This ethical call holds that the past occurs simultaneously in the present and influences how we conceptualize the future. It requires that we see ourselves related to, and implicated in, the lives of others. In this sense, then, curriculum is no longer a Eurocentric monologue, but has instead become a complex dialogue on our shared reality that traverses and influences all subject areas and disciplines.

If we accept the basic tenet that Aboriginal peoples in Canada are historically and culturally distinct members of our society, then we need to think carefully about how they will participate in this dialogue. Until recently, Aboriginal peoples and their communities have been isolated and excluded from these deliberations. In curricular terms, Aboriginal content was assumed to only be relevant for Aboriginal students. Attempts at the inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives have usually meant that an outdated cultural study of Aboriginal people is offered as a possibility in social studies classrooms if there is time and enough people are still interested. This 'tipis and costumes‘ approach has been tried for many years, but often leaves teachers and young people with the unfortunate impression that the Indians have not done much since the buffalo were killed off. It also perpetuates the widespread assumption that Aboriginal peoples and their societies are unable to adjust to present circumstances, comprehend 'civilization,‘ and conform to new ways of living.

In contrast, many Aboriginal people understand that while the fundamental principles of traditional knowledge do remain fixed, they also provide the framework within which new experiences and situations are understood and given meaning. This encourages a successful balance of tradition and innovation. What is needed in Canada is a political, social, and educational movement that recognizes Aboriginal wisdom traditions as viable and sustainable ways of knowing that can help us better understand what it means to live together on this land. Consciousness of traditional teachings can help us interrogate and contest Eurocentric philosophical traditions that shape the common sense thinking that dominates current social, political, and economic discussions. Sharing such wisdom with young people in schools is an urgent pedagogical move because the current societal emphasis on consumerism offers only the possibility for a dispirited identity based on material possessions and unquenchable purchasing desire. An education that teaches young people to view the world wholistically and live differently can expand and enhance understandings of what it means to be human.

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Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum (Social Studies) – Discussion Papers Developed by the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium and ATEP Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, University of Alberta as a result of a grant to support implementation from Alberta Education