In Navajo country, tolerating ignorance in the name of `culture'

June 28, 2007|By THOMAS SOWELL

Among the interesting people my wife and I encountered during some recent vacation travel were a small group of adolescent boys from a Navajo reservation. They were being led on a bicycle tour by a couple of white men, one of whom was apparently their teacher on the reservation.

The Navajo youngsters were bright and cheerful lads, so I was surprised when someone asked them in what state Pittsburgh was located and none of them knew. Then they were offered a clue that it was in the same state as Philadelphia, but they didn't know where Philadelphia was either.

These Navajo boys seemed too bright not to have learned such things if they had been taught the basics. They also seemed too positive to be the kinds of kids who refused to learn.

The most likely explanation was that they were being taught other things, things considered "relevant" to their life and culture on the reservation.

These youngsters are not just members of the tribe on the reservation. They are also citizens of the United States of America, and they have a right to be anywhere in this country, from Florida to Alaska.

Whether they want to stay on the reservation when they are grown or to take advantage of the many opportunities in the wider world is a decision that should be theirs when they reach adulthood.

But those opportunities will be gone, for all practical purposes, if their education does not equip them with the knowledge that is needed to bring their natural abilities to the point where they are capable of doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places.

One of the men who was with these boys expressed great respect for the Navajo culture. A culture is a tool for serving the many practical purposes of life, from making a living to curing diseases. As a tool, it has to change with the ever-changing tasks that confront every culture as time goes on. No culture can stand still.

Among the Navajo heroes of World War II were men who served in the American armed forces in the Pacific and broadcast secret military messages in the Navajo language, which the Japanese were unable to translate. This required the Navajo code-talkers to come up with new words for things like battleships and airplanes, which had never been part of traditional Navajo culture.

Some of these men were too old to be in the military, or too young, but they volunteered to serve anyway. This was an era when people from every background considered themselves Americans and wanted to help defend this country.

We can only hope that there are many more such people now, ready to serve both their country and their people, and that they will see to it that those promising young Navajo boys end up knowing all they need to know.

Unfortunately, in this age of "multiculturalism," there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to be frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits.

Worse yet, too many multiculturalists want many groups to cling to their historic grievances.

But among the many ways that various groups around the world have advanced from poverty to prosperity, nursing historic grievances does not have a promising track record - except for those who make a career out of keeping grievances alive.

The youngsters we saw deserve better than that.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is info@creators.com.

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